Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived in the first century. He was born in 56 or 58 and died in 118. He was an orator and a lawyer who served in the Roman Senate, and he appears to have had some sort of political role in the province of Germania. He is known to us as one of the historians of first-century Rome. In his books, the Annals and the Histories, he tells the story of first-century Rome, starting with the death of Augustus Caesar in AD 14 and ending with Domitian’s death in 96. Through the lens of the emperors, Tacitus looks at the various events of the first century. His history takes on another layer of importance because it coincides with the time of Christ’s earthly life and with the writing of the New Testament and the early church.
Much of Tacitus’ work is lost, but the parts that remain are fascinating. One of the books that remains from the Annals is book 15, which tells the story of Nero’s reign from 62 to 65. This was a very important time, coinciding with Paul’s imprisonment and, as church tradition tells us, Nero’s oversight of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul.
In this period, there was another very important event: the burning of Rome in 64. As Tacitus tells it, Nero himself was thought to be responsible for the fire. He had a desire to rebuild the city, and, if he could simply burn away some of the city’s undesirable areas, it would be easier for him to rebuild. But the fire grew out of control and ended up destroying much of the city. This caused the people of Rome to turn on him.
Tacitus tells us:
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 origins, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.
At this point in the Annals, Tacitus reveals what he thinks about Rome: “Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”
Accordingly, an arrest was made of all who pled 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 nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt to serve as 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 chariot. 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.
In this selection from the Annals, we can observe a number of things. We see one of the first references outside of the New Testament to Christ, wherein His life is dated relative to Pontius Pilate and reference is made to His death by crucifixion. We also see the attitude of the Romans toward Christians and the intense, cruel persecution they faced at the hands of Nero.