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Cornelius Tacitus

Cornelius Tacitus

I started with Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman historian, since I had just read his small yet powerful piece on Pontius Pilate and Christus (Christ)...

Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55 - 120 AD) was considered a great historian of ancient Rome. His masterpiece, Annals, is represented by a two-volume set (chapters 1-6, with one surviving manuscript; and chapters 11-16, known as Historiae, with 32 surviving manuscripts). 1

As background, on July 19, 64 AD, a fire started in Rome that burned for nine days, finally destroying nearly three-quarters of the city. According to Tacitus, rumors spread that the fire was planned by the wickedly unstable Emperor Nero himself. In response, Nero created a diversion by calling for the torture and execution of Christians.

    Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed. 2
From Cornelius Tacitus, probably the leading Roman historian of the period, there's no doubt that Christians existed in 64 AD. In addition, they faced "hideous persecution" for their belief in Christ, a true historical figure who was executed in Judaea during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilate.

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1 One credible translation of these two surviving chapter sets is available at MIT's website:
2 Tacitus, Annales, Historiae, Chapter 15, paragraph 44.

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