Tacitus' Account of Nero's Persecution of Christians. Annals 15.44.2-8
Text and Discussion
This passage is often cited by Christian scholars as an early witness by a Roman historian to the presence of the Christian movement, as evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus, and as evidence for the persecution of Christians by the Romans (see E. Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, pp. 70f). It is a text, therefore, that requires careful and critical examination.
On July, 19th, 64 CE, a fire started in Rome and burned for nine days, finally destroying or damaging almost three-quarters of the city, including numerous public buildings. Rumors spread that the fire had been planned by Nero. And according to Tacitus, to put an end to such rumors, Nero creatred a diversion by torturing and executing Christians.
|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 extra-ordinary tortures those hated for their abominations by the common people called Christians. The originator of this name (was) Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontinus 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, Annales, 15, 44)
|"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 crimnals who deserved extreme and examplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man's cruelty, that they were being punished."|
Paul Keresztes, "Rome and the Christian Church, I. From Nero to Sereri," ANRW 2.23.1, 247-315; L. H. Canfield, The Early Persecutions of the Christians (New York, 1913); H. Fuchs, "Tacitus über die Christen," VC 4 (1950), 65-93; E.T. Klette, Die Christenkatastrophe unter Nero nach ihrem Quellen inbes nach Tac. Ann. XV, 44 von neuem untersucht (Tübingen, 1907); Charles Saumagne, "Tacite et Saint Paul," Revue historique 232 (1964), 67-110; "Les incendiaires de Rome et les lois pémales des romains," Revue historique 227 (1962), 337-360.
According to Keresztes (251ff), it is "generally agreed" that what the Christians were actually accused of here was not arson, but "hatred of the human race" - although it is somewhat unclear what this would have included. Keresztes suggests that for Tacitus it would have included "the flagitia, the abominations, that were associated with the Christian name." (252). But we have no evidence for such an association at the time of Nero, or even the time of Tacitus. What "abominations" are in view here?
Keresztes explains that "there should be no serious doubt that this quite abstract idea of odium, 'hatred,' without concrete proof of crimes, could be subject to juridical condemnation to death in view of the indubitable fact that the Christians were 'tried' by the cognito process of one of the highest magistrates of Rome, very likely the perfectus urbi." (252) But precisely this "indubitable fact" is in question here, i.e., the claim that "without proof of specific crimes" Christians were condemned to death by "one of the highest magistrates of Rome."
According to Keresztes, the trial of the Christians in Tacitus' story "may be illustrated by the trial of Christ by the governor of Judea about thirty years earlier. The charges against Christ did not fall under any particular Roman law, but were allegations of some particular undesirable actions on which Pontius Pilate was asked to judge... Just as we still do not know the basis of Pilate's condemnation of Christ, we do not know the basis for the condemnation of Tacitus' Christians. Both Christ and the Christians of Rome may have been condemned by the judges for any one or any number of the allegations of 'undesirable' acts against them..." (253) This takes for granted, of course, that the account of Jesus' trail before Pilate is historical. We have to do here with legends in which the absence of specific accusations reflects the Christian view that the martyrs always were wrongly--one could even say illegally--put to death.
Keresztes observes that what Tacitus' text actually seems to say is that Christians were convicted not "on account" of their hatred for the human race, but expressly "of hatred for the human race," and that this "sounds absurd even in the context of the undoubtedly arbitrary cognito extra ordinem." (254) Taking advantage of a textual variant, and a favorable alternative meaning for odium humani generis, Keresztes constructs a rather complicated argument for a "more natural meaning that could well be that of Tacitus." (254f). Keresztes recognizes, however, that this varient reading "could well be the result of an effort to 'correct' Tacitus by giving it a more banal meaning," and that his proposal has not found overwhelming support among scholars, who propose other ways of making sense out of the text. All such attempts to render what Tacitus says less "absurd" or less "objectional," however, are really attempts to preserve the authenticity of a legendary account, which from a historical perspective must have involved specific crimes and specific charges.
In conclusion, Keresztes asks, "What then brought them to be persecuted as Christians some time between the fire of 64 A.D. and 68 A.D.?," and observes that "on the basis of ancient Christian sources (e.g., 1 Clem 5; 6), ... modern writers --i.e., Allard , Canfield , Klette , Bacchus , and Frend )-- feel certain that the Christians were finally persecuted as a result of Jewish intrigues." "According to this thinking, the Christians were persecuted... as undesirable elements of society and as Christians. The situation may have been brought about by the enemies of Christianity [Jews?], through some legislation, as is suggested by solid Christian tradition. This may be corroborated by 'St. Peter's First Letter' (esp. ch. 4) where the Christian name certainly appears to be a capital crime for which it was desirable to suffer just as it was, by contrast, undesirable to suffer for crimes against the common law." (257) When all else fails, blame the Jews. In any case, one can not appeal here to writings such as Clement and 2 Peter since the assumption that Christians were persecuted by Nero has often been used to date these writings (Like Frend, Keresztes seems to think that 2 Peter had these events directly in view). In fact, however, both Clement and 2 Peter refelect a much later situation.
The text is full of difficulties, and there are not a few textual variations in the mss tradition (e.g., "Christianos" or "Chrestianos" or even "Christianus"? - "Christus" or "Chrestos"?) -- which at least reflects the fact that this text has been worked over.
It is not even clear what Tacitus means to say - e.g., whether he implies that the charge of setting the fires brought against Christians was false; whether some Christians were arrested because they set fires and others because of their general "hatred for humankind"; what those persons arrested "confessed" to -- arson or being Christians? -- or whether they were executed by crucifixion or immolation, or some one way and some in another.
But the real question concerns the historical reliability of this information -- i.e., whether we have to do here with a later Christian insertion. When I consider a question such as this, the first question to ask is whether it conceivable or perhaps even probable that later Christians might have modified ancient historical sources; and the answer to this question certainly must be yes! Then, with regard to this particular source, I note that 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 Christian apologists). So there were certainly opporunities to modify what Tacitus originally wrote.
Furthermore, it is highly remarkable that no other ancient source associates Christians with the burning of Rome until Sulpicius Serverus (Sacred History, 2.29), in the fifth century (c. 408). The dramatic and fantastic description of the tortures suffered by the scapegoats resembles the executions portrayed in legendary Acts of Christian Martyrs. And John Meir (who regards this text as early evidence for pagan recognition of a historical Jesus) tellingly observes (without perceiving its significance): "There is a great historical irony in this text of Tacitus; it is the only time in ancient pagan literature that Pontius Pilate is mentioned by name -- as a way of specifying who Christ is. Pilate's fate in the Christian creeds is already foreshadowed in a pagan historian," -- which could easily indicate Christian apologetic intervention. For all these reasons, therefore, one must at least conclude that this text is too problematical to serve as historical evidence for anything. I myself, however, regard it as probable that we have to do here with a later Christian elaboration.
One might ask whether those passages in Christian or Roman writings before Severus are ones in which we would expect to find a reference to Christians being associated with the burning of Rome, and yet we do not? Well, Tertullian tells his readers, "Consult your sources; you will find there that Nero was the first who assailed with the sword the Christian sect" (Apol 5); but he makes no mention of Christians setting Rome on fire. If Tertullian had read Tacitus (which seems very probable), we would have to assume this information was probably not yet present. 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. Origin has little to say about any persecutions. And although Eusebius knows the tradition of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul under Nero (HE 2.25) and even conceives the persecution of Christians under Nero -- "the first of the emperors who showed himself to be the enemy of the divine religion" -- as a kind of salvation-historical turning point in Christian history, he nevertheless makes no reference to the "multitude" of believers who supposedly suffered martyrdom under Nero at the time of the burning of Rome. The silence in early Christian sources concerning this event is deafening.
It is often objected that "no matter what the textual or historical difficulties, no Christian would ever have written such phrases as 'pernicious superstition' or 'the home of the disease' or 'loathed for their vice' " -- that "such a Christian would have let such things stand if he was redacting the passage," and that "there is not a hint of Christian theology or tendentiousness in the entire chapter." This is the most common argument against the possibility of a Christian interpolation here. However, the reference to Christ having been "crucified under Pontius Pilate" is certainly a "hint of Christian theology." As a historicization of the Christian myth it has the same significance here as it does in the Apostles Creed (c. 340). The reference to Christianity as a "pernicious superstition" characterized by "hatred for all humankind" could be verisimilitude, reflecting what Christian apologists later attributed to pagans and what someone thought Tacitus also might have said. The apologetic nuance of even these remarks, however, is the qualification "which was checked for the moment, only to break out once more" -- i.e., the idea that persecution of Christians is of little avail (cf. Acts 5:33-39). We might also ask how many Christians were present in Rome in Nero's time -- enough to constitute an "immense multitude"? The legends concerning persecutions of Christians in early times greatly exaggerate the actual events. (See the careful discussion by Robin Lane Fox in his book Pagans and Christians, 419ff). And the interpolation in Tacitus reflects this tendency.
Even Frend (162) calls attention to the fact that this passage replicates language and motifs from Livy's account of the Bacchanal conspiracy - as something that Tacitus "may have had in mind," since Tacitus describes the persecution of Christians by Nero "in almost identicle terms." Two things are particuarly remarkable here. One is the reference to the "immense multitude" (multitudo ingens) that was convicted, a theme also found in Livy's account, but probably not appropriate for Christians in Rome in 60 CE. And the other is that in both cases the charge involved with setting fires.
Since I have now spent so much time pondering this text, however, I might speculate a bit regarding its possible redactional composition. To begin with, it is not obvious here that Christians or anyone else were charged with setting the fire. The most probable meaning rather is that Nero created a "diversion" (the phrase subdidit reos is vague) in the form of a "spectacle" or "circus" - by "subjecting to the most extra-ordinary tortures those persons hated for their abominations by the common people..." -- i.e., persons later referred to as "criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment" (presumably for various crimes). And this may have been the original content of Tacitus' account, the purpose of which--reflecting his negative opinion of Nero--was to depict Nero in an ugly way: so we are told "... it was not as it seemed for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."
The confusing reference, however, to people being arrested because they "confessed" has the appearance of a Christian motif, as well as the idea that "based on their information," an immense multitude was convicted, which resembles what we read in Pliny and Christian Martyr Acts. So the Christian elaboration may include at least the identification of the despised people as "Christians" (christianos appellabat), the reference to Christ as the founder of the movement, his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, and the revival of the movement in Judea and even in Rome, as well as the references to people confessing to be Christians and then ratting on their Christian brothers, and their being put to death because of their "hatred for the human race.".
It is difficult to determine what else might be Christian elaboration. The description of the tortures suffered by the crimnals resembles what we find in Christian martyr legends. And the reference to "mockery" of those condemed to death and execution by crucifixion could be Christian motifs (cf. Mark 15:29-32; Mt 27:39-44; Lk 23:35-38). But the portrayal of Nero in the gardens driving his chariot may be original. And the conclusion could also be original: "Hence, even for crimnals who deserved extreme and examplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man's cruelty, that they were being punished."
Notice that the interpolated material constitutes a solid block:
|"called Christians. The originator of this name (was) Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontinus 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."|
And when this material is removed the text still makes perfect sense.
|"Therefore, to put an end to the rumor Nero created a diversion and subjected to the most extra-ordinary tortures those hated for their abominations by the common people. 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 crimnals who deserved extreme and examplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man's cruelty, that they were being punished."|
One should finally recognize that, as Keresztes correctly observes, the portrayal of Christians being persecuted here suffers from the same ambiguities and difficulties as the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels. To be executed in such a way, the Christians would have been brought to trial before a Roman magistrate, where witnesses would be heard and charges evaluated. But as Keresztes observes, "Just as we still do not know the basis of Pilate's condemnation of Christ, we do not know the basis for the condemnation of Tacitus' Christians (ANRW 2.23.1, 253). Keresztes argues that we have to do here an cognito extra ordinem, and that in such cases the "quite abstract idea of odium, 'hatred,' without concrete proof of crimes" was probably sufficient to warrant condemnation to death. But this is unlikely. Keresztes simply assumes what must have been the case in order to make sense of what the Gospels and Tacitus relate when these sources are read uncritically. The entire story makes better sense, however, if Tacitus' original account related the execution of criminals who had already been convicted of serious crimes.