Today is the feast day of the First Martyrs of Rome. Orate pro nobis.
This feast, first mentioned in the Jerome Martyrology (6th century) was extended to the universal Church in the reform of the General Calendar in 1969. In the Tridentine Calendar there were so many feasts of Roman martyrs about whom there was little historical information that it was decided to incorporate them all under one general feast.
In July of 64 A.D., a large fire broke out in Rome, destroying nearly half of the city. The fire initially was blamed on the Emperor, who is said to have wanted to enlarge his palace. Nero quickly blamed the Christians, who he accused of “hatred of the human race”. As a result, public outcry was minimal when Nero ordered thousands to be put to death— some were covered with the skins of animals and thrown to wild dogs to be torn apart; others were crucified and at sunset were covered in oil and used as human torches to light the path of the Emperor’s chariot. Saints Peter and Paul were among those martyred. Needless to say, eventually the good people of Rome took offense to Nero’s rampant persecution of Christians, and following a revolt by the military, he took his own life in 68 A.D.
The Roman historian Tacitus tells the story of the first Martyrs of Rome:
“Yet no human effort, no princely largess nor offerings to the gods could make that infamous rumor disappear that Nero had somehow ordered the fire. Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations. The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated. Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle and performed a Circus game, in the habit of a charioteer mixing with the plebs or driving about the racecourse. Even though they were clearly guilty and merited being made the most recent example of the consequences of crime, people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man.” (Tacitus, Annales, 15:44)
Image: Title: Nero’s torches, artist: Henryk Siemiradski, circa 1876 (3)