Thieleman J. Van Braght, Martyrs Mirror

28. Ten Bloody Persecutions

Of the Ten Bloody Persecutions which the Christians Suffered under the Heathen Emperors of Rome; the First of which Began in the Reign of Nero, A. D. 66

The First Persecution of the Christians, under Nero, Anno 66

When the Jews were deprived of their power, by the heathen, and their time was past, in which they had persecuted and slain the saints of God, the Lord God nevertheless suffered His church to be visited by the refining fire of persecution, namely, through the power of the heathen; of whom the Emperor Nero was the first tyrant. Introduction to the Mirror of the Anabaptist Martyrs, printed Anno 1631. p. 35. col 2.

This Nero, according to the testimony of Emperor Trajan, governed the monarchy of Rome in so laudable a manner during the first five years of his reign, that never an emperor had greater praise than he; for then he was so tenderhearted, that when he was asked to sign the death warrant of a highwayman, he replied, “Oh, that I could not write I” signifying thereby his aversion to the killing of human beings. Trajan, in Tract. Also, Roomschen Adelacr, door D. P. Pers, printed Anno 1642, p. 100. in the life of Nero. Also, Suet, in Neron. cap. 10.

But after the first five years he became so full of hatred, murder, and blood shedding, that he seemed to delight in nothing more, than in killing, murdering, and fearfully torturing, not only malefactors, but even the saints of God who were praised even among their enemies for their God fearing walk and conversation.

I will not mention the cruelties and tyrannies he exercised against his own friends; how he had his beloved son Britannicus poisoned, and his own mother Agrippina cut open, to see the place where he had lain; how he had his faithful wife, Octavia, put to death with the sword, because she was barren; and Seneca, his faithful teacher, bled to death, and poisoned. We will only speak of the persecutions and unheard of cruelties he practiced on the beloved friends of God, namely, the true Christians. To this end we will begin thus:

Once, desiring to see the burning of Troy represented by its equal, he caused the city of Rome to be set of fire, and ascended a certain tower without, where he, beholding it, began to sing, “Troy is on fire,” etc. Suet. Idem. In Ner. Cap. 38. Rom. Adel. P.102. In the life of Nero.

After this was done he cast the blame on the Christians, saying that they had done it; for, when the Romans, very much agitated on account of the immeasurable damage and the dire calamities which had sprung from this conflagration, began to murmur greatly, he, in order to shield himself, and to wreak his prejudiced hatred upon the Christians, put the whole blame on them. Introduction to the Martyrs Mirror, p. 35, from Baron. Anno 66. num. 1.

For this reason there were proclaimed immediately, in the name of the Emperor, throughout the whole known world (then under the monarchy of the Romans), bloody decrees against the Christians, that they should everywhere be put to death. The contents of these decrees were as follows: “If any one confesses that he is a Christian, he shall be put to death, without further trial, as a convicted enemy of mankind.” Joh. Gysii Hist Mart. edit. 1657. fol. 6. col. 2.

Tertullian afterwards upbraided the Roman Senate, saying: “Read your own histories, and you will find, that Nero was the first who raged against this sect (so he calls the Christians), which then flourished the most in Rome.” Apol. Contra Gentes. cap. 5.

In another place he says: “Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising Christian faith at Rome.” Shortly after this decree of Nero, a violent and unmerciful persecution of the Christians manifested itself in all the countries which were under the Roman dominion; which persecution lasted until the Emperor’s death. The innocent Christians were accused not only of the burning of Rome, but also of every wickedness imaginable; that they might be tortured and put to death in the most awful manner. To this the Roman Tacitus (according to the translation of J. Gysius, and not that of Fenacolius) refers, saying: “Then, Nero, in order to avert this report from himself, caused those called Christians by the common people, to be accused and exceedingly tormented. The author of this name is Christ, who was publicly put to death under the reign of Tiberius, by Pontius Pilate, the governor. Those who confessed that they were Christians, were first apprehended, and afterwards by making it known themselves a great multitude were all condemned, not so much on account of the conflagration, as of the hatred in which they were held by mankind. The taking of their lives was accompanied with much mockery; they were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and then torn to pieces by dogs; or nailed on crosses; or placed at stakes and burned; serving also as torches for the spectators, when the day was over.”

Thus Tacitus, a Roman himself, has sufficiently confessed, in spite of himself, as J. Gysius writes, that the Christians were innocent of the burning of Rome, but that they notwithstanding had to suffer on account of their name. Who the great multitudes were, that perished in those awful persecutions, confessing the name of Christ even unto death, is not stated in the histories of the fathers; however, we shall content ourselves therewith, that God remembers them, and that their names are written in the Book of Life. Nevertheless, we meet with some, though but few, names of such who suffered in that persecution in the reign of Nero, and sealed the truth of Christ with their blood and death; of these we shall speak in the proper place.

Thieleman J. Van Braght (1625-1664) was an Anabaptist who is best known for writing a history of the Christian witness throughout the centuries entitled “The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660” (1660).

Thieleman J. Van Braght, Martyrs Mirror