Saints of the Day – Roman Martyrs under Nero

First Martyrs of RomeArticle

Died 64. On a summer’s day, July 19, in the reign of the Emperor Nero, the city of Rome caught fire. For six days the fire raged, from the foot of the Palatine Hill to the outer suburbs, and only by the demolition of property to create a gap in the path of the flames were four districts of the city preserved.

The mystery of the fire’s origin was never solved, but it was thought to be due to incendiarism. There was an ugly rumor that Nero himself had set fire to his own capital, and that slaves of the imperial household had been seen spreading the flames. Nero was at Antium when it occurred, and for three days, despite urgent messages, made no move and issued no instructions; only after this delay did he return to the capital, and from the Tower of Macaenas he surveyed the blazing city.

With a lyre in his hand and in a theatrical pose, he declaimed Homer’s account of the destruction of Troy, and it was this incident which gave rise to the legend that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Though it is unlikely that he caused the calamity, the suspicion was strengthened by his annexation, after the fire, of a considerable part of the desolated area for the erection of his ‘Golden House,’ a palace of immense size, with triple colonnades a mile long, where, he declared, ‘now at last he was housed like a human being.’

But the growth of the rumor spread by the outraged population who were homeless and without food, and also the fear of revolution, obliged him to take counter measures. The imperial gardens were thrown open as a refuge to the destitute, temporary buildings were improvised, welfare and food services were organized; and, to divert attention from himself, he turned upon the Christians and openly declared that they were responsible.

Then began the most ruthless persecution. He ranged against them not only him own bitter hostility but also the rage and hatred of the populace. Tacitus records the grim story: “They died in torments and their torments were embittered by insult and derision. Some were nailed on crosses, others sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and exposed to the fury of dogs, others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of night.” Rarely has the world known such a spectacle of horror as when the gardens of Nero blazed with this fiendish carnival.

How many suffered is beyond compute. We only know that through the deserted streets and among the smoldering ruins the Christians were hunted like rats and, when caught, became the victims of Nero’s insensate fury. They were nights of horror and days when no man could trust his neighbor. Whole families were rounded up and sent to death. In the pages of the martyrs there is an honored place for these unknown victims who suffered for the faith and in the patience of Christ, and left behind them an imperishable memory (Gill).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 June 2020. Web. 12 July 2020. <>