Rome Catches Fire

“And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:17 KJV).

ON THIS DAY, July 19, in the year AD 64, the city of Rome caught fire. Rome, the citadel of military might and the epicenter of the great Roman Empire, soon became engulfed in flames.

We are told this historic inferno began in shops close to Circus Maximus, the stadium where sporting events were held, and the scene where crowds were entertained by watching condemned Christians put to death. The fire raged for six days before it was finally brought under control; however, it quite soon burst into flames once more and was extinguished three days later, but not before two-thirds of the city was destroyed.

According to the historian Tacitus (AD 56-120) and some other reports, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire. Tacitus writes, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. ‘Christus,’ from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of firing the city, as for hatred against mankind.”*

While some modern historians have disputed that Nero blamed the Christians for starting the fire, it is understandable that Nero would have accused the Christians, for he had an intense hatred for Christ’s followers. He was responsible for putting to death upward of 3,500 believers.

In the aftermath of the fire, Tacitus reports that Nero’s wrath against Christians intensified. Their manner of death? “With the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”**

We salute these heroes of the Faith on this day.
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*Tacitus, “The Annals,” Book 15, Chapter 44; trans. from Latin by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, 1876.
**https://www.livius.org.

This vignette is taken from “On This Day in Church History: 365 Daily Vignettes” by Larry D. Smith and Ralph I. Tilley, to be released for publication later this summer.