Nero’s Fire

Today is the Feast of the First Martyrs of Rome: Christians put to death under the Emperor Nero in the first great persecution in 64 AD. Also today, the Pope announced a new Prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, and the creation of a new Vatican office to evangelize the de-Christianized nations of the once-Christian West

By Robert Moynihan

“Ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos. et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus christianos appellabat. Auctor nominis eius christus. Tyberio imperitante per procuratorem pontium pilatum supplicio adfectus erat. repressaque in praesens exitiabilis 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 coniuncti sunt .,.

“Therefore, to put an end to the rumor, Nero created a diversion and subjected to the most extraordinary tortures those called Christians, hated for their abominations by the common people. The originator of this name (was) Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. Repressed for the time being, the deadly superstition broke out again not only in Judea, the original source of the evil, but also in the city (Rome), where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become popular. So an arrest was made of all who confessed; then on the basis of their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race.” -Tacitus’s Account of Nero’s Persecution of Christians, Annales, 15, 44.2-8 (Tacitus lived from c. AD 56-c. 120; he wrote the Annales after AD 100; he was not a Christian, and is regarded as one of Rome’s greatest historians)

June 30, Feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Today’s Feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome does not include the name of any martyr.

They are anonymous.

These unknown followers of Christ were executed by the Emperor Nero, who accused them of setting the fire which destroyed nearly all of Rome in July of 64 AD — 1,946 years ago — after the city burned for nine straight days that July.

Both the pagan historian Tacitus and St. Clement of Rome (the fourth Pope; his papacy was from about 92 to 99 AD) tell of a night of horror (August 15, 64 A.D.) when in the imperial parks Christians were put into animal skins and hunted, were brutally attacked, and were made into living torches to light the road for Nero’s chariot.

There was a considerable Jewish population in Rome in the first century, but the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in A.D. 49-50, perhaps due to controversy between Jews and Jewish Christians. (Suetonius, the Roman historian, says that the expulsion was due to disturbances in the city “caused by the certain Chrestus” [Christ].)

Claudius died in 54 AD. Since Paul’s Letter to the Romans was addressed to Christians in Rome in the late 50s, it is thought that Christians had returned to the city after Claudius’ death.

In July of A.D. 64, more than half of Rome was destroyed by fire. Rumor blamed the tragedy on Nero, who wanted to enlarge his palace.

But Tacitus tells us that he shifted the blame by accusing the Christians.

According to Tacitus, a “great multitude” of Christians were put to death because of their “hatred of the human race.”

Peter is thought to have been executed at this time.

Nero, threatened by an army revolt and condemned to death by the Senate, committed suicide in 68 AD at the age of 31.

What was the date of Peter’s death?

The brilliant Italian scholar Margherita Guarducci, who passed away several years ago, argued, compellingly, that it was precisely on October 13, 64 AD — the day of the final apparition at Fatima in 1917.

Guarducci, in a study on this question, wrote: “Tacitus has no hesitation in establishing the year 64 for these events. If we look at the series of events the historian lists as having happened between the fire of Rome (July 18-19) and the end of the year, we can establish that the Vatican spectacles took place in the first half of October. Nor is it difficult to prove that between the end of 64 and Nero’s death on June 9, 68, there are no other periods in which there was anti-Christian persecution of the type that Tacitus and Clement describe. It is also useful to note that the period between the end of September 66 and the beginning of 68 can be excluded without doubt since that was the period of Nero’s travels in Greece.”

She continues: “But, confirming the dating proposed for the circus spectacles and, therefore, for Peter’s martyrdom, are two other important, anonymous, texts in Greek contained in a papyrus conserved in Vienna today. They are the Apocalypse of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah. I believe that these texts (belonging to the so-called “apocalyptic literature,” a very common category between the end of the first century and the first half of the second which used prophetic and symbolic language to interpret historical events of the time) are so well informed on the history of the Neronian period that they must have been written not long after events in 64 (not after the year 80, perhaps). I also believe that they are the fruit of the same Judeo-Christian environment. After addressing Nero’s infamies, the authors of the two texts announce his punishment as imminent. According to the author of the Apocalypse, it would be none other than Peter’s martyrdom that would mark the beginning of the emperor’s end. This statement is echoed in the Ascension text which affirms that Nero’s kingdom would last for “three years, seven months and 27 days” after the apostle’s death.

She concludes: “If we calculate three years, seven months and 27 days from Nero’s death (June 9, 68), we arrive at the year 64 and October 13 to be precise: this date falls perfectly within the period in which, according to the Tacitus passage, we have set the unleashing of Nero’s persecutions.”

And she notes: “October 13 was not just any ordinary day. It was the anniversary of Nero’s ascent to the throne, his dies imperii. Moreover October 13, 64 was the 10th anniversary of his reign (decennalia), October 13, 54/October 13, 64)… It is highly likely, then, that the Emperor Nero, who loved manifestations to be as spectacular as possible, would have promoted cruel spectacles for his decennalia (a feast when, in the person of the emperor made a god, the majesty of the Roman Empire was exalted). It is highly likely that he would have organized the execution of Christians who were already condemned on charges of being enemies of the empire.”

So, it is quite likely that the precise date of Peter’s martrydom was October 13, 64 AD.

Studying the Passage from Tacitus

The passage of Tacitus, because it comes from a non-Christian source, is considered by most scholars to be one of earliest and most credible witnesses to the early presence of the Christian movement in Rome, and to the “historicity” of Jesus himself. It is a therefore an extremely important text.

Tacitus was a fierce critic of Nero, so some modern scholars have questioned the reliability of his account of this notorious Roman Emperor.

Tacitus writes, continuing the lines at the beginning above:

“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open the gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in a chariot. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being punished.”

The text is full of difficulties, and there are not a few textual variations in the manuscript tradition (e.g., “Christianos” or “Chrestianos” and “Christus” or “Chrestos“).

But the fundamental question is the historical reliability of this information — i.e., whether this was Tacitus’s actual writing, or a later Christian insertion (called an “interpolation”).

The idea of some is that, centuries after Tacitus, a Christian scribe, copying this manuscript, added some words in which Tacitus did not write.

The earliest manuscript we have for the Annales dates from the 11th century, and must therefore have been copied and recopied many times, by generations of Christian scribes.

And it is true that no other ancient source associates Christians with the burning of Rome until Sulpicius Serverus in the late 300s, 300 years after Tacitus.

Also, it does seem that the description of the tortures suffered by the Christians resembles the executions portrayed in the Acts of Christian Martyrs, which do seem to contain legendary material.

Moreover, this passage from Tacitus is the only time in all of ancient pagan literature that Pontius Pilate is mentioned by name as a way of specifying who Christ is. This, some scholars argue, could indicate Christian apologetic intervention — that the original text from Tacitus did not contain these words.

Now, Tertullian, 150 years later, around 200 AD, does write: “Consult your sources; you will find there that Nero was the first who assailed with the sword the Christian sect” (Apol 5). So it does seem certain that Tacitus is accurate and authentic in giving us the news that Nero persecuted the Christians int he 60s AD.

But Tertullian makes no mention of the accusation that the Christians had set Rome on fire.

Other ancient historians also refer to Nero’s persecution of Christians (Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Pliny the Elder).

But none of these associates the persecution of Christians with the burning of Rome.

Irenaeus makes no reference at all to a persecution under Nero.

This silence about the (false) charge that the Christians had set fire to the city in other early Christian sources has led some scholars to conclude that this text truly is a medieval Christian interpolation.

Still, in defense of authenticity, it has been argued that no Christian would ever have written that Christianity was seen as a “pernicious superstition” or “the home of the disease” or that Christians were “loathed for their vices.”

In any event, this much seems sure: many, many Christians were arrested and martyred under Emperor Nero in 64 AD. Owing to their executions during the reign of Nero, they are called the Neronian Martyrs. These early Christians were disciples of the Apostles, and they endured hideous tortures and horrible deaths. But the Church did not die.

The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.

A Canadian Cardinal in Rome: Cardinal Marc Ouellet Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops

Today, the Holy See announced a widely-rumored appointment, that of the Archbishop of Quebec, Marc Oullet (photo), Primate of the Church in Canada, as the head of the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican office which advises the Pope on candidates for the Catholic episcopate worldwide (except in mission countries, which are under the direction of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples).

He will succeed Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re whose resignation for reason of age the Holy Father accepted at the same time.

Oullet, whom I have known for many years, is a calm, quiet, simple, thoughtful, devout man, and his appointment should ensure that the Holy Father has careful and good advice on the choice of bishops for the Church in the coming years.

Oullet is a staunch defender of life, and served in Rome as a professor at the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family, then as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

New Office for Evangelization Created

Two days ago, on Monday, June 28, Pope Benedict formally announced the creation of the first new dicatery in the Roman Curia during his pontificate. (Previously he had decreased the number of offices, merging four dicasteries into two.)

The office will be called the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.

Pope Benedict announced the creation of a the new Council during the Vespers service marking the vigil of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. The place Pope Benedict chose to make the announcement, the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, is, of course, dedicated to the first great Christian missionary to the Gentiles, St. Paul.

Today, June 30, Benedict XVI appointed the sometimes controversial Italian Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella (photo), president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, to be president of the newly created Council.

The Sun Is Darkened: “The Eclipse of the Sense of God”

In his June 28 homily, Benedict said that the new Council would be “dedicated to the specific task of promoting a renewed evangelization in countries where the first proclamation of the faith already resounded, and where Churches are present of ancient foundation, but which are going through a progressive secularization of society and a sort of ‘eclipse of the sense of God,’ which constitutes a challenge to find the appropriate means to propose again the perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ.”

Today, the Vatican announced the appointment of Fisichella, 58, who has also been serving as rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, to lead the new dicastery.

Born in Codogno, Italy, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Rome in 1976, and an auxiliary bishop of Rome in 1998.

In 2008, he was named president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, at which time he was elevated to the dignity of archbishop. Fisichella will be succeeded in his former post by Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, who has been serving as the academy’s chancellor. The Spanish-born Carrasco de Paula is a member of Opus Dei, and has served as director of the Bioethics Institute of the University of the Sacred Heart in Rome.

Powers and Principalities in High Places…

By implication, the new Council will be attempting to evangelize nations, to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to nations, which have been “secularized,” that is, literally, “plunged into this saeculum (this age, this world).”

To put it another, blunter way, these once-baptized, once “Christian” nations are oriented no longer toward the Kingdom of God, but toward the “saeculum,” and toward the Prince who rules this age, who proposes the lust of the eyes and the pride of life instead of the sacrifice of the cross as the highest goal for men.

And so these nations are no longer Christian, no longer oriented toward and receiving their identity from their baptism and their literal “immersion” (their “ingrafting”) into the mystery of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ (think of France, the “eldest daughter” of the Church, or England, “Mary’s dowry”). They simply have forgotten that mystery, and that identity, and are no longer interested in it any more…

During his homily, Benedict spoke of how his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had urgently proclaimed a new evangelization for nations which had once received the Gospel.

Pope Benedict said he received this legacy upon his own election to the Chair of Peter.

He said he wanted to give the new Council the task of preaching and witnessing in countries with deep Christian roots yet now experiencing the “eclipse of God.”

The challenge, he said, is to find the appropriate means to revive faith in the Gospel of Christ.

We are, in fact, watching the Pope in real time unfold his plan to “restore all things in Christ” even in areas where the Church seems to have suffered losses and reverses due to many different reasons.

But in this effort as well, today as at the beginning, one truth holds: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

And of course, there can be “white martyrdom” — the sacrifice of one’s pleasure and ease for the sake of God and one’s neighbor, redemptive sacrifice of every type, which builds not only the Church, but civil society as well.

As this new effort commences, the love of Christ, and of his Kingdom, will spring from the sacrifices of those who have already heard the Good News.

“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

Note: Pilgrimage with special meetings inside the Vatican. We are now beginning to take preliminary requests for our Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 pilgrimages, which will include visits to Assisi, Norcia, Rome and the Vatican. If you would like information about these trips, please email us at:

Best-Seller: A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan about the “Old Mass” on CD

Unexpectedly, this little talk has become a minor “best-seller.”

We have now produced more than 2,000 of these CDs, and they are still running out every few days. Why?
Evidently, people really like this talk!

It is called: “The Motu Proprio: Why the Latin Mass? Why Now?”

In this talk, Dr. Moynihan gives a 2,000-year history of the Mass in 60 minutes which is clear and easy to understand. The talk covers questions like:

— Does the motu proprio overcome some of the liturgical confusion since Vatican II?
— Who was Annibale Bugnini?

— The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the liturgy?

Special note: Three years ago, we participated in a concert in Rome (on March 29, 2007) in which a Russian choir and orchestra, flying in from Moscow, performed a new version of The Passion According to St. Matthew composed a few months before by the young Russian Orthodox bishop (now Metropolitan and “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion Alfeyev).
That moving concert, in which one or two of the exhausted women singers fainted on stage and had to be carried off, was broadcast live worldwide via a Vatican Television Center feed by EWTN.
No DVD or CD was ever made of that concert — until a few days ago. After nearly three years, we have finally produced the DVD and CD of that historic concert, and they are now available for sale.
I believe the sound of this music, and the sight of the performance, especially during Holy Week, when we recall Christ’s Passion, will bring tears to your eyes.
The DVD and CD of this historic concert are now available on at website at the following link:
Other Gift Ideas:

Christmas Oratorio (Russian Concert) on DVD 

On December 17, 2007, a leading Russian orchestra performed an exceptional “world premiere” concert of Russian Christmas music at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Now you can order your copy of the concert on DVD, which includes English sub-titles.

The music is a completely new composition by a young Russian Orthodox Archbishop, Hilarion Alfeyev, 43. At the time, he was the Russian Orthodox bishop for all of central Europe, based in Vienna, Austria. He is now a Metropolitan and the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Makes a wonderful gift. Order one for yourself, one for a loved one and one for a friend… at three copies, the price is less! Click here to order
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