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are the best adapted to the genius of an enraged people, it was gravely reported, and firmly believed, that Nero, enjoying the calamity which he had occasioned, amused himself with singing to his lyre the destruction of ancient Troy.8 To divert a suspicion which the power of despotism was unable to suppress, the emperor resolved to substitute in his own place some fictitious criminals. Cruel pu- With this view (continues Tacitus) he inflicted the £TMj^ent most exquisite tortures on those men, who, under Christians the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already cendianes branded with deserved infamy. They derived of the my. their name an£i origin j-rom Christ, who, in the
reign of Tiberius, had suffered death, by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate.h For awhile this dire superstition was checked; but it again burst forth, and not only spread itself over Judea, the first seat of this mischievous sect, but was even introduced into Rome, the common asylum which receives and protects whatever is impure, whatever is atrocious. The confessions of those who were seized discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were all convicted, not so much for the crime of setting Jire to the city, as for their hatred of human kind.1 They died in torments, and their torments were imbittered by insult and derision. Some were nailed on crosses; others sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the darkness of the night. The gardens of Nero were destined for the melancholy spectacle, which was accompanied with a horse race, and honoured with the presence of the emperor, who mingled with the populace in the dress and attitude of a charioteer. The guilt of the Christians deserved indeed the most exemplary punishment: but the public abhorrence was changed into commiseration, from the opinion that those unhappy wretches were sacrificed not so much to the public welfare, as to the cruelty of a jealous tyrant* Those who survey with a curious eye the revolutions of mankind may observe, that the gardens and circus of Nero on the Vatican, which were polluted with the blood of the first Christians, have been rendered still more famous, by the triumph and by the abuse of the persecuted religion. On the same spot,1 a temple, which far surpasses the ancient glories of the Capitol, has been since erected by the Christian pontiffs; who, deriving their claim of universal dominion from a humble fisherman of Galilee, have succeeded to the throne of the Caesars, given laws to the barbarian conquerors of Rome, and extended their spiritual jurisdiction from the coast of the Baltic to the shores of the Pacific ocean.
I We may observe, that the rumour is mentioned by Tacitus with a very becoming distrust and hesitation, whilst it is greedily transcribed by Suetonius, and solemnly confirmed by Dion.
k This testimony is alone sufficient to expose the anachronism of the Jews, who place the birth of Christ near a century sooner. (Basnage, Histoire dee J uifs, lib. 5. c. 14, 15.) We may learn from Josephus (Antiquitat. 18. 3.) that the procure- tonhip of Pilate corresponded with the last ten years of Tiberius, A.D. 87—37. As to the particular time of the death of Christ, a very early tradition fixed it to the 25th of March, A. D. 29, under the consulship of the two Gemini. (TertuIIian »dv. JuiiCos, c. 8.) This date, which is adopted by Pagi, cardinal Norris, and I .'-• Clerc, seems at least as probable as the vulgar era, which is placed (I know not frttft what conjectures) four years later.
1 Odio humani generis convicti. These words may either signify the hatred of mankind towards the Christians, or the hatred of the Christians towards mankind. I have preferred the latter sense, as the most agreeable to the style of Tacitus, and to the popular error, of which a precept of the gospel (see Luke riv. 26.) had been, perhaps, the innocent occasion. My interpretation is justified by the authority of Lipsius; of the Italian, the French, and the English translators of Tacitus ; of Mo?ln im, (p. 102.) of Le Clerc, (Historia Ecclesiast. p. 427.) of Dr. Lardner, (Testimonies), vol. 1. p. 345.) and of the bishop of Gloucester. (Divine Legation, vol. 3. p. 38.) But as the word cmvicti does not unite very happily with the rest of the sentence, James Gronovius has preferred the reading of conjunct)', which is authorized by the valuable MS. of Florence.
But it would be improper to dismiss this account of Nero's persecution, till we have made some observations, that may serve to remove the difficulties with which it is perplexed, and to throw some light on the subsequent history of the church.
I. The most sceptical criticism is obliged to respect the truth of this extraordinary fact, and the integrity of this celebrated passage of Tacitus. The former is conRemarks nrmed by ^e diligent and accurate Suetonius, on the who mentions the punishment which Nero inflicted on the Christians, a sect of men who had
k Tacit. Annal. 15. 44. 'Nardina Roma Antica, p. 487. Donatou de Roma Antiqui, lib. 3. p. 449.
embraced a new and criminal superstition.1" The «ecution latter may be proved by the consent of the most Christians ancient manuscripts; by the inimitable character 3 of the style of Tacitus; by his reputation, which guarded his text from the interpolations of pious fraud; and by the purport of his narration, which accused the first Christians of the most atrocious crimes, without insinuating that they possessed any miraculous or even magical powers above the rest of mankind." 2. Notwithstanding it is probable that Tacitus was born some years before the fire of Rome,0 he could derive only from reading and conversation the knowledge of an event which happened during his infancy. Before he gave himself to the public, he calmly waited tillhis genius had attained its full maturity; and he was more than forty years of age, when a grateful regard for the memory of the virtuous Agricola extorted from him the most early of those historical compositions which will delight and instruct the most distant posterity. After making a trial of his strength in the life of Agricola and the description of Germany, he conceived, and at length executed, a most arduous work — the history of Rome, in thirty books, from the fall of Nero to the accession of Nerva. The administration of Nerva introduced an age of justice and pros
Rt Sueton. in Neione, c. 16. The epithet of malefica, which some sagacious commentators have translated magical, is considered by the more rational Mosheim as only synonymous to the tiitiabilis of Tacitus.
11 The passage concerning Jesus Christ, which was inserted into the text of Josephus, between the time of Origen and that of Eusebius, may furnish an example of no vulgar forgery. The accomplishment of the prophecies, the virtues, miracles, and resurrection, of Jesus, are distinctly related. Josephus acknowledges that he was the Messiah, and hesitates whether he should call him a man. If any doubt can still remain concerning this celebrated passage, the reader may examine the pointed objections of Le Fevre, (Havercamp. Joseph, torn. 2. p. 267 — 873.) the laboured answers of Daubuz, (p. 187 — 232.) and the masterly reply (Bibliotheque Ancienne et Moderne, torn. 7. p. 237 — 288.) of an anonymous critic, whom I believe to have been the learned Abb£ de Longuerue.
0 See the lives of Tacitus by Lipsius and the Abbe de la Bleterie, Dictionnaire de Bayle a 1'article Taeite, and Fahricius, Biblioth. Latin, torn. 2. p. 386. edit. Ernest.
perity, which Tacitus had destined for the occupation of his old age," but when he took a nearer view of his subject, judging, perhaps, that it was a more honourable or a less invidious office, to record the vices of past tyrants, than to celebrate the virtues of a reigning monarch, he chose rather to relate, under the form of annals, the actions of the four immediate successors of Augustus. To collect, to dispose, and to adorn, a series of fourscore years, in an immortal work, every sentence of which is pregnant with the deepest observations and the most lively images, was an undertaking sufficient to exercise the genius of Tacitus himself during the greatest part of his life. In the last years of the reign of Trajan, whilst the victorious monarch extended the power of Rome beyond its ancient limits, the historian was describing, in the second and fourth books of his annals, the tyranny of Tiberius ;q and the emperor Hadrian must have succeeded to the throne, before Tacitus, in the regular prosecution of his work, could relate the fire of the capital, and the cruelty of Nero towards the unfortunate Christians. At the distance of sixty years, it was the duty of the annalist to adopt the narratives of contemporaries; but it was natural for the philosopher to indulge himself in the description of the origin, the progress, and the character, of the new sect, not so much according to the knowledge or prejudices of the age of Nero, as according to those of the time of Hadrian. 3. Tacitus very frequently trusts to the curiosity or reflection of his readers to supply those intermediate circumstances and ideas, which, in his extreme conciseness, he has thought proper to suppress. We may, therefore, presume to imagine some probable cause which could direct the cruelty of Nero against the Christians of Rome, whose obscurity, as well as innocence, should have shielded them from his indignation, and even from his notice. The Jews, who were numerous in the capital, and oppressed in their own country, were a much fitter object for the suspicions of the emperor and of the people: nor did it seem unlikely that a vanquished nation, who already discovered their abhorrence of the Roman yoke, might have recourse to the most atrocious means of gratifying their implacable revenge. But the Jews possessed very powerful advocates in the palace, and even in the heart, of the tyrant; his wife and mistress, the beautiful PopptEa, and a favourite player of the race of Abraham, who had already employed their intercession in behalf of the obnoxious people/ In their room it was necessary to offer some other victims; and it might easily be suggested that, although the genuine followers of Moses were innocent of the fire of Rome, there had arisen among them a new and pernicious sect of Galileans, which was capable of the most horrid crimes. Under the appellation of Galilceans, two distinctions of men were confounded, the most opposite to each other in their manners and principles; the disciples who had embraced the faith of Jesus of Nazareth,' and the zealots who had followed the standard of Judas the Gaulonite.' The former were the friends, the latter were the enemies, of human kind; and the only resemblance between them consisted in the same inflexible constancy, which, in the defence of their cause, rendered them insensible of death and tortures. The followers of Judas, who impelled their countrymen into rebellion, were soon buried under the ruins of Jerusalem; whilst those of Jesus, known by the more cele
P Principatom Divi Nenrae, et imperium Trajani, uberiorem securiorcmque materiam benectuti seposni. Tacit. Hist. 1.
i Sec Tacit. Anual. 2. 61. 4. 4.
- The player's name was Alitums. Through the same channel, Josephus (de Vita sua, c. 3.) about two years before, had obtained the pardon and release of some Jewish priests who were prisoners at Rome.
* The learned Dr. Lardner (Jewish and Heathen Testimonies, vol. 2. p. 102, 103.) has proved that the name of Galilaeans, was a very ancient, and perhaps the primitive, appellation of the Christians.
1 Joseph. Antiquitat. 18. 1, 2. Tillemont, Ruine des Juifs, p. 742. The sons of Judas were crucified in the time of Claudius. His grandson, Eleazar, after Jerusalem was taken, defended a strong fortress with nine hundred and sixty of his most desperate followers. When the battering ram had made a breach, they tumed their own swords against their wives, their children, and at length against their own breasts. They died to the last man.