Historical Grinches – Roman Emperors
As we saw yesterday, Herod the Great tried to cancel Christmas by cancelling Jesus! How rude. Ultimately, as powerful and dreadful as Herod was, he was actually just a junior partner in a rundown outpost of the Roman Empire. The Romans would continue to be a problem for Jesus all of his life. They would also continue to be a danger to Christianity for centuries to come.
In 64 AD, Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus may or may not have set the fire which gutted the city of Rome. People speculate that he set the fire to make room for a civic improvement project he had planned and subsequently executed. As emperor, while he might have taken some silent blame behind people’s hands, he had a convenient collection of fall guys to blame it on. Early Christians were considered enemies of the state because their religious beliefs prohibited them from participating in standard Roman rites of emperor worship and other pagan practices. Some of the charges the Romans enjoyed piling on the Christians were unlawful assembly (which they equated to rioting even though the Christians were simply meeting quietly at night for church), refusing to honor the image of the emperor (both of these were equated with High Treason), dissenting from state gods, followers of magic prohibited by law and being confessors of a religion prohibited by law.
When you’ve got a pile of laws to throw at a group, bad things are likely to happen. When you’ve got a fire that destroyed a lot of the capital city, bad things are definitely going to happen and happen they did. Emperor Nero pointed the finger at the Christians and began centuries of persecution. He was the first Roman emperor to condemn early Christians to be eaten by wild beasts.
The practice, known as Damnatio ad bestias, was first practiced in the 2nd Century BC but became a form of entertainment in the Coliseum along with the gladitorial games. At first, Christians were wrapped in furs and thrown to the dogs but it eventually progressed to a full-fledged form of entertainment. Christians were tied to posts and savaged by panthers, lions and whatever other carnivorous beasts were on hand.
There were few among the Romans who had much pity for the Christians in this time period. The Christians were considered traitors and were blamed for any bad things that happened to the empire. The policy continued for centuries with occasional flare-ups during the reigns of Domitian, Trajan and even Marcus Aurelius. It wasn’t until Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 AD and with him went the empire. Christianity, and therefore Christmas was now free to continue.