This year  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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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.