July 18th 64 CE a fire started in Rome. It spread quickly in the summer wind. By the time it was out, most of the city was destroyed and a lot of people were killed or injured. It was one of history’s major city-fire tragedies. They controlled it at first by the total demolition of buildings creating fire breaks. But it started again in an infamous district of brothels, witnesses reported it was deliberately set in those places. Urban renewal? Pyromancy?
The list cities destroyed by horrible and deadly fires (some deliberate, some accidental) includes Jerusalem, Constantinople, Hangzhou, Munich, Amsterdam, Moscow, New York, New Orleans, Copenhagen, Detroit, Atlanta, Dublin, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Chicago, among others. The world was slow to learn how to prevent and control urban fires and quick to learn how to use them in war. Rome’s was probably both accidental and deliberate.
Shocked survivors in Rome wanted someone to blame. And that’s where it gets interesting to us.
Nero was Ceasar at the time. His enemies blamed him for the fire. He didn’t set it. He didn’t order it spread. He had plans to expand the palace, but not to where the fire was. Some say he did nothing but play his lute and sing; the truth is that he may have stood watching the horror and sung the song from the Iliad of Troy’s destruction as an expression of grief. After the fire, Nero also set up refugee camps and provided cheap food to the people. His enemies blamed Nero, saying he wanted to build a new city named after himself.
We’ll never know the whole story, nor how many casualties there were. But we do know that Nero deflected blame by saying members of a cult of Jews who refused to say Caesar is Lord were responsible.
They were called The Way. They would only say Jesus is Lord. Some said they were cannibals with secret rituals where they ate Jesus’ body and drank his blood. Many of the stories told of Christian martyrs are total fictions from later times; either sadomasochistic pornography or consonant with the Christian mind-set that they’re always being persecuted. However, after the fire of Rome, it’s well documented that Christians were wrapped in bloody animal skins and fed to hungry lions, burned alive, or tortured for sport in public displays to distract the rabble from the fire and provide a common enemy. Hurting humans feel better when we see someone hurting even more.
Some Christians stood up and took it, refusing to recant; heroes of the faith so to speak. Others decided to go “underground” with their Jewish friends and families. There was no persecution of Jews, so they simply blended back into the Roman Synagogue. That’s probably what I would have done, too. They became Hebrews in Rome. Someone who knew them, but was away from Rome, wrote them a letter to remind them that there are dangers in that strategy, too;