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Oppression of the Jews and Christians by Domitian
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.
1. 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 confirmed by the
diligent and accurate Suetonius, who mentions the punishment
which Nero inflicted on the Christians, a sect of men who had
embraced a new and criminal superstition. 35 The latter may be
proved by the consent of the most ancient manuscripts; by the
inimitable character 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. 36
2. Notwithstanding it is probable that
Tacitus was born some years before the fire of Rome, 37 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 till his 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
more 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 propriety, which Tacitus
had destined for the occupation of his old age; 38 but when he
took a nearer view of his subject, judging, perhaps, that it was
a more honorable 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; 39 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 Poppaea, and a favorite player
of the race of Abraham, who had already employed their
intercession in behalf of the obnoxious people. 40 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 Galilaeans, which was capable of the most
horrid crimes. Under the appellation of Galilaeans, 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, 41 and the Zealots who
had followed the standard of Judas the Gaulonite. 42 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 celebrated name of Christians, diffused themselves
over the Roman empire. How natural was it for Tacitus, in the
time of Hadrian, to appropriate to the Christians the guilt and
the sufferings, * which he might, with far greater truth and
justice, have attributed to a sect whose odious memory was almost
4. Whatever opinion may be entertained of this
conjecture, (for it is no more than a conjecture,) it is evident
that the effect, as well as the cause, of Nero's persecution, was
confined to the walls of Rome, 43 ! that the religious tenets
of the Galilaeans or Christians, were never made a subject of
punishment, or even of inquiry; and that, as the idea of their
sufferings was for a long time connected with the idea of cruelty
and injustice, the moderation of succeeding princes inclined them
to spare a sect, oppressed by a tyrant, whose rage had been
usually directed against virtue and innocence.
Footnote 35: Sueton. in Nerone, 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
exitiabilis of Tacitus.
Footnote 36: 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. tom. ii. p.
267-273, the labored answers of Daubuz, (p. 187-232, and the
masterly reply (Bibliotheque Ancienne et Moderne, tom. vii. p.
237-288) of an anonymous critic, whom I believe to have been the
learned Abbe de Longuerue.
Footnote 37: See the lives of Tacitus by Lipsius and the Abbe de
la Bleterie, Dictionnaire de Bayle a l'article Particle Tacite,
and Fabricius, Biblioth. Latin tem. Latin. tom. ii. p. 386, edit.
Footnote 38: Principatum Divi Nervae, et imperium Trajani,
uberiorem, securioremque materiam senectuti seposui. Tacit.
Footnote 39: See Tacit. Annal. ii. 61, iv. 4.
Note: The perusal of this passage of Tacitus alone is
sufficient, as I have already said, to show that the Christian
sect was not so obscure as not already to have been repressed,
(repressa,) and that it did not pass for innocent in the eyes of
the Romans. - G.
Footnote 40: The player's name was Aliturus. Through the same
channel, Josephus, (de vita sua, c. 2,) about two years before,
had obtained the pardon and release of some Jewish priests, who
were prisoners at Rome.
Footnote 41: The learned Dr. Lardner (Jewish and Heathen
Testimonies, vol ii. p. 102, 103) has proved that the name of
Galilaeans was a very ancient, and perhaps the primitive
appellation of the Christians.
Footnote 42: Joseph. Antiquitat. xviii. 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 960 of his most desperate
followers. When the battering ram had made a breach, they turned
their swords against their wives their children, and at length
against their own breasts. They dies to the last man.
Footnote *: This conjecture is entirely devoid, not merely of
verisimilitude, but even of possibility. Tacitus could not be
deceived in appropriating to the Christians of Rome the guilt and
the sufferings which he might have attributed with far greater
truth to the followers of Judas the Gaulonite, for the latter
never went to Rome. Their revolt, their attempts, their
opinions, their wars, their punishment, had no other theatre but
Judaea (Basn. Hist. des. Juifs, t. i. p. 491.) Moreover the name
of Christians had long been given in Rome to the disciples of
Jesus; and Tacitus affirms too positively, refers too distinctly
to its etymology, to allow us to suspect any mistake on his part.
Footnote 43: See Dodwell. Paucitat. Mart. l. xiii. The Spanish
Inscription in Gruter. p. 238, No. 9, is a manifest and
acknowledged forgery contrived by that noted imposter. Cyriacus
of Ancona, to flatter the pride and prejudices of the Spaniards.
See Ferreras, Histoire D'Espagne, tom. i. p. 192.
It is somewhat remarkable that the flames of war consumed,
almost at the same time, the temple of Jerusalem
and the Capitol
of Rome; 44
and it appears no less singular, that the tribute
had destined to the former, should have been
converted by the power of an assaulting victor to restore and
adorn the splendor of the latter. 45
The emperors levied a
general capitation tax on the Jewish people; and although the sum
assessed on the head of each individual was inconsiderable, the
use for which it was designed, and the severity with which it was
exacted, were considered as an intolerable grievance. 46
the officers of the revenue extended their unjust claim to many
persons who were strangers to the blood or religion of the Jews,
it was impossible that the Christians, who had so often sheltered
themselves under the shade of the synagogue
, should now escape
this rapacious persecution
. Anxious as they were to avoid the
slightest infection of idolatry, their conscience
forbade them to
contribute to the honor of that daemon
who had assumed the
character of the Capitoline Jupiter. As a very numerous though
declining party among the Christians still adhered to the law of
, their efforts to dissemble their Jewish origin were
detected by the decisive test of circumcision; 47
nor were the
s at leisure to inquire into the difference of
their religious tenets. Among the Christians who were brought
before the tribunal
of the emperor, or, as it seems more
probable, before that of the procurator of Judaea
, two persons
are said to have appeared, distinguished by their extraction,
which was more truly noble than that of the greatest monarchs.
These were the grandsons of St. Jude
the apostle, who himself was
the brother of Jesus Christ. 48
Their natural pretensions to the
throne of David might perhaps attract the respect of the people,
and excite the jealousy of the governor; but the meanness of
their garb, and the simplicity of their answers, soon convinced
him that they were neither desirous nor capable of disturbing the
peace of the Roman empire. They frankly confessed their royal
origin, and their near relation to the Messiah
; but they
disclaimed any temporal views, and professed that his kingdom,
which they devoutly expected, was purely of a spiritual and
angelic nature. When they were examined concerning their fortune
and occupation, they showed their hands, hardened with daily
labor, and declared that they derived their whole subsistence
from the cultivation of a farm near the village of Cocaba
, of the
extent of about twenty-four English acres, 49
and of the value
of nine thousand drachms, or three hundred pounds sterling. The
grandsons of St. Jude
were dismissed with compassion and
Footnote 44: The Capitol was burnt during the civil war between
Vitellius and Vespasian, the 19th of December, A. D. 69. On the
10th of August, A. D. 70, the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed
by the hands of the Jews themselves, rather than by those of the
Footnote 45: The new Capitol was dedicated by Domitian. Sueton.
in Domitian. c. 5. Plutarch in Poplicola, tom. i. p. 230, edit.
Bryant. The gilding alone cost 12,000 talents (above two
millions and a half.) It was the opinion of Martial, (l. ix.
Epigram 3,) that if the emperor had called in his debts, Jupiter
himself, even though he had made a general auction of Olympus,
would have been unable to pay two shillings in the pound.
Footnote 46: With regard to the tribute, see Dion Cassius, l.
lxvi. p. 1082, with Reimarus's notes. Spanheim, de Usu
Numismatum, tom. ii. p. 571; and Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l.
vii. c. 2.
Footnote 47: Suetonius (in Domitian. c. 12) had seen an old man
of ninety publicly examined before the procurator's tribunal.
This is what Martial calls, Mentula tributis damnata.
Footnote 48: This appellation was at first understood in the
most obvious sense, and it was supposed, that the brothers of
Jesus were the lawful issue of Joseph and Mary. A devout respect
for the virginity of the mother of God suggested to the Gnostics,
and afterwards to the orthodox Greeks, the expedient of bestowing
a second wife on Joseph. The Latins (from the time of Jerome)
improved on that hint, asserted the perpetual celibacy of Joseph,
and justified by many similar examples the new interpretation
that Jude, as well as Simon and James, who were styled the
brothers of Jesus Christ, were only his first cousins. See
Tillemont, Mem. Ecclesiat. tom. i. part iii.: and Beausobre,
Hist. Critique du Manicheisme, l. ii. c. 2.
Footnote 49: Thirty-nine, squares of a hundred feet each, which,
if strictly computed, would scarcely amount to nine acres.
Footnote 50: Eusebius, iii. 20. The story is taken from
But although the obscurity of the house of David might
protect them from the suspicions of a tyrant, the present
greatness of his own family alarmed the pusillanimous temper of
, which could only be appeased by the blood of those
Romans whom he either feared, or hated, or esteemed. Of the two
sons of his uncle Flavius Sabinus, 51
the elder was soon
convicted of treasonable intentions, and the younger, who bore
the name of Flavius Clemens
, was indebted for his safety to his
want of courage and ability. 52
The emperor for a long time,
distinguished so harmless a kinsman by his favor and protection,
bestowed on him his own niece Domitilla, adopted the children of
that marriage to the hope of the succession, and invested their
father with the honors of the consulship.
Footnote 51: See the death and character of Sabinus in Tacitus,
(Hist. iii. 74 ) Sabinus was the elder brother, and, till the
accession of Vespasian, had been considered as the principal
support of the Flavium family
Footnote 52: Flavium Clementem patruelem suum contemptissimoe
inertice . . ex tenuissima suspicione interemit. Sueton. in
Domitian. c. 15.
But he had scarcely finished the term of his annual
magistracy, when, on a slight pretence, he was condemned and
executed; Domitilla was banished to a desolate island on the
coast of Campania
and sentences either of death or of
confiscation were pronounced against a great number of who were
involved in the same accusation. The guilt imputed to their
charge was that of Atheism
and Jewish manners; 54
association of ideas, which cannot with any propriety be applied
except to the Christians, as they were obscurely and imperfectly
viewed by the magistrate
s and by the writers of that period. On
the strength of so probable an interpretation, and too eagerly
admitting the suspicions of a tyrant as an evidence of their
honorable crime, the church
has placed both Clemens
among its first martyrs, and has branded the cruelty of Domitian
with the name of the second persecution
. But this persecution
(if it deserves that epithet) was of no long duration. A few
months after the death of Clemens
, and the banishment of
Domitilla, Stephen, a freedman belonging to the latter, who had
enjoyed the favor, but who had not surely embraced the faith, of
his mistress, *
assassinated the emperor in his palace. 55
memory of Domitian
was condemned by the senate; his acts were
rescinded; his exiles recalled; and under the gentle
administration of Nerva, while the innocent were restored to
their rank and fortunes, even the most guilty either obtained
pardon or escaped punishment. 56
Footnote 53: The Isle of Pandataria, according to Dion.
Bruttius Praesens (apud Euseb. iii. 18) banishes her to that of
Pontia, which was not far distant from the other. That
difference, and a mistake, either of Eusebius or of his
transcribers, have given occasion to suppose two Domitillas, the
wife and the niece of Clemens. See Tillemont, Memoires
Ecclesiastiques, tom. ii. p. 224.
Footnote 54: Dion. l. lxvii. p. 1112. If the Bruttius Praesens,
from whom it is probable that he collected this account, was the
correspondent of Pliny, (Epistol. vii. 3,) we may consider him as
a contemporary writer.
Footnote *: This is an uncandid sarcasm. There is nothing to
connect Stephen with the religion of Domitilla. He was a knave
detected in the malversation of money - interceptarum pecuniaram
reus. - M.
Footnote 55: Suet. in Domit. c. 17. Philostratus in Vit.
Apollon. l. viii.
Footnote 56: Dion. l. lxviii. p. 1118. Plin. Epistol. iv. 22.
To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
(NY : Knopf, 1993), v. 2, pp. 20 -26 .
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