30 June: Commemorating the Protomartyrs of Rome

Author: Fabrizio Bisconti

30 June: Commemorating the Protomartyrs of Rome

Fabrizio Bisconti

Human torches light the night

This year [2008] the event in honour of the Princes of the Apostles on 29 June acquired special significance because it coincided with the beginning of the Pauline Year. Thus it eclipsed the feast of the Protomartyrs on 30 June, the multitudo ingens,as Tacitus called them in a famous passage of his Annals. They suffered the most atrocious forms of torture following the measures Nero introduced for Christians who were accused of starting the fire that destroyed Rome in the summer of 64 AD.

Yet, until the year 62, Christians had been tolerated by the Roman Government. Indeed, they had even been viewed favourably since the Apostles' preaching was seen as a new force against the revolutionary and anti-Roman messianism that pervaded Judaea and the territories of the Judaic Diaspora.

After Stephen's trial, the only example of intolerance towards Christians can be considered the killing of James, the brother of John, when between 41 and 44 the local King Herod Agrippa I had been invested with power. Herod, according to the Acts of the Apostles (12:1-3) — encouraged by the fact that this execution pleased the Jews, had Peter arrested too.

Tradition claims that having been freed from prison, Peter made his first journey to Rome. The events in which Paul was involved in later years that appeared equivocal (Acts 21:38), were resolved by the declaration of innocence (26:32) or by more severe treatment such as the imprisonment and scourging of Paul and Silas in Corinth whereby the Roman authorities avoided a final sentence (18:12-18), or again by the proclamation of the innocence of Paul and his followers who in Ephesus had taken part in a riot against the local silversmiths (19:23-40).

Even more significant was the episode in which Sergius Paulus, Proconsul of Cyprus between 46 and 48, summoned Paul and Barnabas in order to hear their words. Thus he believed and had a lasting relationship with the Apostle to the Gentiles (13:12).

Horace's interpretation of a passage by Suetonius suggested that the Roman government adopted a particular stance with regard to Christians.

In the Life of Claudius, in fact, Suetonius recalls that "the prince expelled the Jews from Rome, in continuous turmoil because of the incitements of Christ (impulsore Chresto)"(Divus Claudius,25).

But those who caused these disturbances recognized in the Christ a homonym for the Saviour. Even in Nero's time no serious episodes of intolerance with regard to Christians were noted, and indeed, precisely under his imperial rule, the first trial of Paul ended felicitously: he was free to preach even in the praetorium and at the imperial residence.

In the same period, at the end of the 50s, there was a happy ending to the trial of the Roman noble woman Pomponia Graecina,accused of "foreign superstition" which can be identified precisely with Christianity; she was acquitted by the tribunal of her husband Plautius, a former consul renowned for a victory in Britain (Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 32).

Despite this climate of tranquillitas in regard to the Christian community to which Paul addressed his famous Letter, there was a sudden change in Nero's policy between the end of 62 and the beginning of 63. It culminated in Seneca's retirement from political life, Nero's repudiation of his wife Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and his second marriage with Poppea, the distancing of the Emperor from the Senate, the condemnation of the Roman ruling class, and the persecution of Christians.

For the latter episode, we must refer to Tacitus' account, as detailed as it is ferocious, which reconstructs the dynamics of the fire that set Rome ablaze in the night between the 18 and 19 July in the year 64. It was the largest and most devastating fire in the city's history, which can only be compared with that kindled by the Gauls in 390, when, however, the city was smaller.

"The fire began (Annales,XV, 38-40) on the edge of the valley of the Circus Maximus and the Palatine and the Caelium Hills.

"The fire started in the workshops filled with inflammable goods; from there, favoured by the wind, it blazed through the whole of the Circus, and neither the dwellings and temples or other buildings served to block it.

"From the flatter areas, the fire reached the hills, helped by the fact that the city consisted of narrow streets and irregular neighbourhoods.

"Terrified women shrieked, the elders were petrified, some tried to help invalids, attending to them as the flames enveloped them on all sides.... In the end, exhausted, they filled the streets and lay in the fields having lost all their possessions....

"Nor was it possible to stop the fire because some people were preventing it from being extinguished and lit other fires with torches and lamps....

"Nero, who was in Anzio, only returned to Rome when the fire approached his home, which extended from the Palatine to the gardens of Mecenate.

"His house was also in flames and he then sought to relieve the population by opening the Campus Martius and even his own gardens; moreover he had huts built for the refugees and had food brought in from Ostia.

"All these provisions were in vain. The rumour spread that while the city was burning the Emperor had entered his private theatre to sing of the burning of Troy, comparing it with the disaster that was taking place.

"Six days later, the fire seemed to have burned out... but it then flared up causing temples and porticos to collapse; it seemed that Nero sought the glory of founding a new city and giving it his own name".

Only four of the 14 districts into which Rome was divided, had been left intact; three had been burnt to the ground and in the other seven the remaining buildings were left in charred ruins.

The members of the new Christian religion were blamed for the disaster. Historians have long disputed the cause of the fire.

Suetonius, in fact, spoke on various occasions of the fire and of the measures taken against the Christians (Lives of the Caesars De vita Caesarum – Nero XXXVIII), but it is once again Tacitus who speaks explicitly in this regard: "Thus Nero, to suppress the rumours that were spreading, indicated as guilty, passing the most refined sentences on those who per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat. The origin of this name was Christ who, at the time of the Emperor Tiberius had been put to death at the orders of the procurator Pontius Pilate... the dire sect of fanatics spread even to Rome where vile criminality of every sort converged and prospered.

"Those who confessed were the first to be caught, then those who were accused by informers. Those sentenced to death were also mocked: they were torn to pieces by dogs, after being disguised as wild beasts, or they were crucified and set on fire at the end of the day, as torches to illumine the night.

"Nero kept his gardens for this spectacle, hiding among the crowd, dressed as a charioteer.... Thus a feeling of pity for the victims was born, for it was obvious that they had not been sacrificed for the public good but due to an individual's cruelty" (Annals, XV, 44, 2-5).

As can be deduced from the epilogue of this detailed account, the accusation that the Christians had started the fire succeeded in making an impression also on the pagans, but the Christian version of the events was not lacking; worthy of note is the one mentioned at the end of the first century by Clement of Rome in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth:

"It was through jealousy and wickedness that those who were the greats and just pillars (the Princes of the Apostles) suffered persecution and fought to the death. Let us remember the good Apostles: Peter who because of unjust jealousy suffered various types of punishment and, after facing martyrdom was admitted to the glory he deserved.

"Paul, also accused out of jealousy, thrown in prison seven times, banished, stoned, who became a herald of the Word in the East and in the West, receiving the noble reward for his faith....

"A great number of the elect joined these men. Suffering because of jealousy numerous forms of torture and torment, they were exemplary models for us. Some women were persecuted and underwent appalling torture".

Many of these executions took place, the sources say, precisely in Nero's Circus, located in the Vatican gardens and of which some parts have been found in relation to St Peter's Square and Basilica.

To commemorate that ferocious massacre on 30 June a solemn Eucharistic procession took place. It was organized by the Pontifical Academy Cultorum Martyrum, along the avenues of Vatican City, after Mass — at which this year Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, presided — in the Church of Santa Maria in Camposanto.

The commemoration, as evening fell, was meaningful as it recalled those terrible sacrifices in which the Protomartyrs became human torches to brighten the darkness of the night. It was as atrocious a sacrifice as it is symbolic, for those first witnesses of the faith, beside the pillars, Peter and Paul, illuminated the path to salvation and proposed anew the sacrifice of Christ.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 July 2008, page 6

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