The sickening crackle of flames attracted the attention of residents near the Circus Maximus in Rome July 18, 64. Trumpets sounded the alarm, but winds whipped the fire into an inferno that spread across the Eternal City, roaring unchecked for a week. Thousands died, and hundreds of thousands became homeless. Rumors circulated that the fire had been started by the emperor himself—26-year-old Nero.

Nero had become emperor ten years before, and almost from the beginning, the teenage emperor had gorged himself with eroticism. He arranged the murders of his mother, wives, rivals, and enemies. At the same time, he won praise for his artistic and athletic pursuits. He began thinking himself a god, though he was actually “a degenerate with swollen paunch, weak and slender limbs, fat face, blotched skin, curly yellow hair, and dull gray eyes.”

The arson rumors began because Nero had been wanting to raze and rebuild large portions of Rome, planning to rename the city for himself. A fire, people assumed, was just what the emperor had ordered. To divert blame, Nero pointed a finger at Christians. Tacitus wrote that the followers of Christ “were put to death with exquisite cruelty, and to their sufferings Nero added mockery and derision. Some were covered with skins of wild beasts, left to be devoured by dogs; others were nailed to crosses; numbers of them were burned alive; many, covered with inflammable matter, were set on fire to serve as torches during the night.” Peter and Paul, according to tradition, were among the martyrs.

But what of the young emperor himself? Four years later he died, too, trembling and terrified in a cold cellar four miles from Rome while hiding from his own army. Trying repeatedly to commit suicide, he faltered and failed until a friend helped him plunge a dagger into his throat.

But within a short time the church in Rome was stronger than ever, and St. Peter’s Cathedral stands today on the very spot where Christians were tortured in Nero’s Circus.

You have faith in God, whose power will protect you until the last day. Then he will save you, just as he has always planned to do. … Your faith will be like gold that has been tested in a fire. (1 Peter 1:5,7a)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). July 18.

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