The First Martyrs of the Roman Church

Gregory DiPippo

On the liturgical calendar of the Novus Ordo, the feast of Ss Peter and Paul is followed by that of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, “whose number and names are known only to God.” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints.) Before 1970, this group had never been honored with their own feast, but were noted in an entry in the Martyrology on June 24th.

“Romae commemoratio sanctorum plurimorum Martyrum, qui a Nerone Imperatore, ut a se incensae Urbis odium averteret, calumniose accusati, diverso mortis genere jussi sunt saevissime interfici. … Erant hi omnes Apostolorum discipuli, et primitiae Martyrum, quas Romana Ecclesia, fertilis ager Martyrum, ante Apostolorum necem transmisit ad Dominum.

At Rome, the commemoration of very many holy martyrs, who were falsely accused by the emperor Nero, so that he might turn away from himself the hatred incurred by burning the city, and ordered to be most savagely killed by various manners of death. … These were all disciples of the Apostles, and the first fruits of the martyrs, whom the Roman Church, a fertile field of martyrs, sent to the Lord before the killing of the Apostles.”

The deaths of these Saints, like those of the Apostles themselves, is closely connected to the great fire which broke out in Rome in July of 64 AD. It began near the Circus Maximus, and raged uncontrolledly for almost a week. It had been almost halted by the demolition of a great many buildings, when it broke out again in the gardens of a man named Tigellinus, and continued for three days more. This person, a wealthy landowner, had become head of the praetorian guards two years earlier, and was a partner of Nero in his many vices and cruelties. The fact that the fire broke out again on his land contributed to the generally held suspicion that it had been set deliberately, so that Nero might “seek the glory of founding a new city, and calling it by his own name.” (Tacitus, Annals 15, 40) Tacitus also reports that people were seen throwing torches into houses, claiming that they were acting under orders. When it was finally all over, ten of the city’s fourteen districts were in ruins.

(A visually evocative but completely fanciful representation of The Burning of Rome, 1785, by the French painter Hubert Robert (1733-1808). The Pantheon was not yet built in 64 AD, and stands much further from both the Colosseum in the background, also not yet built, and the Tiber in the foreground. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

This was far from the first or last major fire in the crowded city full of wooden buildings, although it was certainly one of the worst. It may well have begun accidentally, but the belief that it was deliberate was widespread enough that Nero felt compelled to take action. Therefore, as stated above, the Christians of Rome were accused of setting the fire, as recorded in this particularly famous of Tacitus.

abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiablilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt. et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi atque, ubi defecisset dies, in usum nocturni luminis urerentur. hortos suos ei spectaculo Nero obtulerat, et circense ludicrum edebat, habitu aurigae permixtus plebi vel curriculo insistens. unde quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos miseratio oriebatur, tamquam non utilitate publica, sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur.

To get rid of the rumor (that the fire had been deliberately set) Nero brought in, as if they were guilty of it, those whom the people called Christians, men hated for their crimes, and inflicted on them the most exquisite tortures. The author of that name was one “Christus”, who was killed during the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and a most dangerous superstition, having been repressed for a moment, broke out again not only in Judaea, the source of the evil, but also in the city, whither all atrocious and dreadful things flow from everywhere and are celebrated. Accordingly, first those who pled guilty (i.e. to being Christians) were arrested; then, on their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of the fire as of hatred of the human race. And mockeries were added to their death, so that, being covered on their backs with the skins of wild animals, they might perish, being torn at by dogs, or, being fixed to crosses, were set on fire so that when the daylight failed, they might be used as illumination for the night. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and gave forth a circus show, mingling with the people dressed as a charioteer, or standing on the chariot. For this, there arose a sense of compassion even for criminals who deserved extreme punishment, since it was not for the public good that they were being destroyed, but to satisfy one man’s cruelty. (Annals 15, 45)

(The Torches of Nero, 1876, by the Polish painter Henryk Siemiradski (1843-1902). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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