Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume I/Church History of Eusebius/Book II/Chapter 25
Chapter XXV.—The Persecution under Nero in which Paul and Peter were honored at Rome with Martyrdom in Behalf of Religion.
1. When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe.
2. To describe the greatness of his depravity does not lie within the plan of the present work. As there are many indeed that have recorded his history in most accurate narratives, every one may at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the man’s extraordinary madness, under the influence of which, after he had accomplished the destruction of so many myriads without any reason, he ran into such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very many others of his own family as he would private and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths.
3. But with all these things this particular in the catalogue of his crimes was still wanting, that he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion.
4. The Roman Tertullian is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows: “Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”
5. Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.
6. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid:
8. And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” I have quoted these things in order that the truth of the history might be still more confirmed.
- Tacitus (Ann. XIII.–XVI.), Suetonius (Nero), and Dion Cassius (LXI.–LXIII.).
- Nero’s mother, Agrippina the younger, daughter of Germanicus and of Agrippina the elder, was assassinated at Nero’s command in 60 a.d. in her villa on Lake Lucrine, after an unsuccessful attempt to drown her in a boat so constructed as to break to pieces while she was sailing in it on the lake. His younger brother Britannicus was poisoned by his order at a banquet in 55 a.d. His first wife Octavia was divorced in order that he might marry Poppæa, the wife of his friend Otho, and was afterward put to death. Poppæa herself died from the effects of a kick given her by Nero while she was with child.
- Tertullian, Apol. V.
- We learn from Tacitus, Ann. XV. 39, that Nero was suspected to be the author of the great Roman conflagration, which took place in 64 a.d. (Pliny, H. N. XVII. I, Suetonius, 38, and Dion Cassius, LXII. 18, state directly that he was the author of it), and that to avert this suspicion from himself he accused the Christians of the deed, and the terrible Neronian persecution which Tacitus describes so fully was the result. Gibbon, and in recent times especially Schiller (Geschichte der Römischen Kaiserzeit unter der Regierung des Nero, p. 584 sqq.), have maintained that Tacitus was mistaken in calling this a persecution of Christians, which was rather a persecution of the Jews as a whole. But we have no reason for impeaching Tacitus’ accuracy in this case, especially since we remember that the Jews enjoyed favor with Nero through his wife Poppæa. What is very significant, Josephus is entirely silent in regard to a persecution of his countrymen under Nero. We may assume as probable (with Ewald and Renan) that it was through the suggestion of the Jews that Nero’s attention was drawn to the Christians, and he was led to throw the guilt upon them, as a people whose habits would best give countenance to such a suspicion, and most easily excite the rage of the populace against them. This was not a persecution of the Christians in the strict sense, that is, it was not aimed against their religion as such; and yet it assumed such proportions and was attended with such horrors that it always lived in the memory of the Church as the first and one of the most awful of a long line of persecutions instituted against them by imperial Rome, and it revealed to them the essential conflict which existed between Rome as it then was and Christianity.
- The Greek translator of Tertullian’s Apology, whoever he may have been (certainly not Eusebius himself; see chap. 2, note 9, above), being ignorant of the Latin idiom cum maxime, has made very bad work of this sentence, and has utterly destroyed the sense of the original, which runs as follows: illic reperietis primum Neronem in hanc sectam cum maxime Romæ orientem Cæsariano gladio ferocisse (“There you will find that Nero was the first to assail with the imperial sword the Christian sect, which was then especially flourishing in Rome”). The Greek translation reads: ἐκεῖ εὑρήσετε πρῶτον Νερῶνα τοῦτο τὸ δόγμα, ἡνίκα μ€λιστα ἐν ῾Ρώμῃ τὴν ἀνατολὴν πᾶσαν ὑποτ€ξας ὠμὸς ἦν εἰς π€ντας, διώξοντα, in the rendering of which I have followed Crusè, who has reproduced the idea of the Greek translator with as much fidelity as the sentence will allow. The German translators, Stroth and Closs, render the sentence directly from the original Latin, and thus preserve the meaning of Tertullian, which is, of course, what the Greek translator intended to reproduce. I have not, however, felt at liberty in the present case to follow their example.
- This tradition, that Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome, is early and universal, and disputed by no counter-tradition and may be accepted as the one certain historical fact known about Paul outside of the New Testament accounts. Clement (Ad. Cor. chap. 5) is the first to mention the death of Paul, and seems to imply, though he does not directly state, that his death took place in Rome during the persecution of Nero. Caius (quoted below, §7), a writer of the first quarter of the third century, is another witness to his death in Rome, as is also Dionysius of Corinth (quoted below, §8) of the second century. Origen (quoted by Euseb. III. 1) states that he was martyred in Rome under Nero. Tertullian (at the end of the second century), in his De præscriptione Hær. chap. 36, is still more distinct, recording that Paul was beheaded in Rome. Eusebius and Jerome accept this tradition unhesitatingly, and we may do likewise. As a Roman citizen, we should expect him to meet death by the sword.
- The tradition that Peter suffered martyrdom in Rome is as old and as universal as that in regard to Paul, but owing to a great amount of falsehood which became mixed with the original tradition by the end of the second century the whole has been rejected as untrue by some modern critics, who go so far as to deny that Peter was ever at Rome. (See especially Lipsius’ Die Quellen der römischen Petrus-Sage, Kiel, 1872; a summary of his view is given by Jackson in the Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review, 1876, p. 265 sq. In Lipsius’ latest work upon this subject, Die Acta Pauli und Petri, 1887, he makes important concessions.) The tradition is, however, too strong to be set aside, and there is absolutely no trace of any conflicting tradition. We may therefore assume it as overwhelmingly probable that Peter was in Rome and suffered martyrdom there. His martyrdom is plainly referred to in John xxi. 10, though the place of it is not given. The first extra-biblical witness to it is Clement of Rome. He also leaves the place of the martyrdom unspecified (Ad Cor. 5), but he evidently assumes the place as well known, and indeed it is impossible that the early Church could have known of the death of Peter and Paul without knowing where they died, and there is in neither case a single opposing tradition. Ignatius (Ad Rom. chap. 4) connects Paul and Peter in an especial way with the Roman Church, which seems plainly to imply that Peter had been in Rome. Phlegon (supposed to be the Emperor Hadrian writing under the name of a favorite slave) is said by Origen (Contra Celsum, II. 14) to have confused Jesus and Peter in his Chronicles. This is very significant as implying that Peter must have been well known in Rome. Dionysius, quoted below, distinctly states that Peter labored in Rome, and Caius is a witness for it. So Irenæus, Clement, Tertullian, and later Fathers without a dissenting voice. The first to mention Peter’s death by crucifixion (unless John xxi. 18 be supposed to imply it) is Tertullian (De Præscrip. Hær. chap. 36), but he mentions it as a fact already known, and tradition since his time is so unanimous in regard to it that we may consider it in the highest degree probable. On the tradition reported by Origen, that Peter was crucified head downward, see below, Bk. III. chap. 1, where Origen is quoted by Eusebius.
- The history of Caius is veiled in obscurity. All that we know of him is that he was a very learned ecclesiastical writer, who at the beginning of the third century held a disputation with Proclus in Rome (cf. Bk. VI. chap. 20, below). The accounts of him given by Jerome, Theodoret, and Nicephorus are drawn from Eusebius and furnish us no new data. Photius, however (Bibl. XLVIII.), reports that Caius was said to have been a presbyter of the Roman Church during the episcopates of Victor and Zephyrinus, and to have been elected “Bishop of the Gentiles,” and hence he is commonly spoken of as a presbyter of the Roman Church, though the tradition rests certainly upon a very slender foundation, as Photius lived some six hundred years after Caius, and is the first to mention the fact. Photius also, although with hesitation, ascribes to Caius a work On the Cause of the Universe, and one called The Labyrinth, and another Against the Heresy of Artemon (see below, Bk. V. chap. 28, note 1). The first of these (and by some the last also), is now commonly ascribed to Hippolytus. Though the second may have been written by Caius it is no longer extant, and hence all that we have of his writings are the fragments of the Dialogue with Proclus preserved by Eusebius in this chapter and in Bk. III. chaps. 28, 31. The absence of any notice of the personal activity of so distinguished a writer has led some critics (e.g. Salmon in Smith and Wace, I. p. 386, who refers to Lightfoot, Journal of Philology, I. 98, as holding the same view) to assume the identity of Caius and Hippolytus, supposing that Hippolytus in the Dialogue with Proclus styled himself simply by his prænomen Caius and that thus as the book fell into the hands of strangers the tradition arose of a writer Caius who in reality never had a separate existence. This theory is ingenious, and in many respects plausible, and certainly cannot be disproved (owing chiefly to our lack of knowledge about Caius), and yet in the absence of any proof that Hippolytus actually bore the prænomen Caius it can be regarded as no more than a bare hypothesis. The two are distinguished by Eusebius and by all the writers who mention them. On Caius’ attitude toward the Apocalypse, see Bk. III. chap. 28, note 4; and on his opinion in regard to the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, see Bk. VI. chap. 20, and Bk. III. chap. 3, note 17. The fragments of Caius (including fragments from the Little Labyrinth, mentioned above) are given with annotations in Routh’s Rel. Sacræ, II. 125–158 and in translation (with the addition of the Muratorian Fragment, wrongly ascribed to Caius by its discoverer) in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, V. 599–604. See also the article of Salmon in Smith and Wace, of Harnack, in Herzog (2d ed.), and Schaff’s Ch. Hist. II. p. 775 sqq.
- ἐκκλησιαστικὸς ἀνἡρ.
- γεγονώς. Crusè translates “born”; but Eusebius cannot have meant that, for in Bk. VI. chap. 20 he tells us that Caius’ disputation with Proclus was held during the episcopate of Zephyrinus. He used γεγονώς, therefore, as to indicate that at that time he came into public notice, as we use the word “arose.”
- On Zephyrinus, see below, Bk. V. chap. 28, §7.
- This Proclus probably introduced Montanism into Rome at the beginning of the third century. According to Pseudo-Tertullian (Adv. omnes Hær. chap. 7) he was a leader of one division of the Montanists, the other division being composed of followers of Æschines. He is probably to be identified with the Proculus noster, classed by Tertullian, in Adv. Val. chap. 5, with Justin Martyr, Miltiades, and Irenæus as a successful opponent of heresy.
- The sect of the Montanists. Called the “Phrygian heresy,” from the fact that it took its rise in Phrygia. Upon Montanism, see below, Bk. IV. chap. 27, and especially Bk. V. chap. 16 sqq.
- The δὲ here makes it probable that Caius, in reply to certain claims of Proclus, was asserting over against him the ability of the Roman church to exhibit the true trophies of the greatest of all the apostles. And what these claims of Proclus were can perhaps be gathered from his words, quoted by Eusebius in Bk. III. chap. 31, §4, in which Philip and his daughters are said to have been buried in Hierapolis. That these two sentences were closely connected in the original is quite possible.
- According to an ancient tradition, Peter was crucified upon the hill of Janiculum, near the Vatican, where the Church of San Pietro in Montorio now stands, and the hole in which his cross stood is still shown to the trustful visitor. A more probable tradition makes the scene of execution the Vatican hill, where Nero’s circus was, and where the persecution took place. Baronius makes the whole ridge on the right bank of the Tiber one hill, and thus reconciles the two traditions. In the fourth century the remains of Peter were transferred from the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (where they are said to have been interred in 258 a.d.) to the Basilica of St. Peter, which occupied the sight of the present basilica on the Vatican.
- Paul was beheaded, according to tradition, on the Ostian way, at the spot now occupied by the Abbey of the Three Fountains. The fountains, which are said to have sprung up at the spots where Paul’s head struck the ground three times after the decapitation, are still shown, as also the pillar to which he is supposed to have been bound! In the fourth century, at the same time that Peter’s remains were transferred to the Vatican, Paul’s remains are said to have been buried in the Basilica of St. Paul, which occupied the site now marked by the church of San Paolo fuori le mura. There is nothing improbable in the traditions as to the spot where Paul and Peter met their death. They are as old as the second century; and while they cannot be accepted as indisputably true (since there is always a tendency to fix the deathplace of a great man even if it is not known), yet on the other hand if Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, it is hardly possible that the place of their death and burial could have been forgotten by the Roman church itself within a century and a half.
- Neither Paul nor Peter founded the Roman church in the strict sense, for there was a congregation of believers there even before Paul came to Rome, as his Epistle to the Romans shows, and Peter cannot have reached there until some time after Paul. It was, however, a very early fiction that Paul and Peter together founded the church in that city.
- On Dionysius of Corinth, see below, Bk. IV. chap. 23.
- Another quotation from this epistle is given in Bk. IV. chap. 23. The fragments are discussed by Routh, Rel. Sac. I. 179 sq.
- Whatever may be the truth of Dionysius’ report as to Peter’s martyrdom at Rome, he is almost certainly in error in speaking as he does of Peter’s work in Corinth. It is difficult, to be sure, to dispose of so direct and early a tradition, but it is still more difficult to accept it. The statement that Paul and Peter together planted the Corinthian church is certainly an error, as we know that it was Paul’s own church, founded by him alone. The so-called Cephas party, mentioned in 1 Cor. i., is perhaps easiest explained by the previous presence and activity of Peter in Corinth, but this is by no means necessary, and the absence of any reference to the fact in the two epistles of Paul renders it almost absolutely impossible. It is barely possible, though by no means probable, that Peter visited Corinth on his way to Rome (assuming the Roman journey) and that thus, although the church had already been founded many years, he became connected in tradition with its early days, and finally with its origination. But it is more probable that the tradition is wholly in error and arose, as Neander suggests, partly from the mention of Peter in 1 Cor. i., partly from the natural desire to ascribe the origin of this great apostolic church to the two leading apostles, to whom in like manner the founding of the Roman church was ascribed. It is significant that this tradition is recorded only by a Corinthian, who of course had every inducement to accept such a report, and to repeat it in comparing his own church with the central church of Christendom. We find no mention of the tradition in later writers, so far as I am aware.
- κατὰ τὸν αὐτὸν καιρόν. The κατὰ allows some margin in time and does not necessarily imply the same day. Dionysius is the first one to connect the deaths of Peter and Paul chronologically, but later it became quite the custom. One tradition put their deaths on the same day, one year apart (Augustine and Prudentius, e.g., are said to support this tradition). Jerome (de vir. ill. 1) is the first to state explicitly that they suffered on the same day. Eusebius in his Chron. (Armen.) puts their martyrdom in 67, Jerome in 68. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the death of Peter on the 29th and that of Paul on the 30th of June, but has no fixed tradition as to the year of the death of either of them.