Posted by: ken98 | November 25, 2009

Nero Fiddling, Masada, and the Christian Persecutions

Day 76 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.16, pp.520-530)

We continue in this chapter (Chapter 16) with a history of Christian persecutions by the empire.

Gibbon begins this section with a single page-long paragraph, a mellifluous paean of faith, proclaiming the inestimable riches and unapproachable excellence of Christianity and its author, Jesus. This marks the beginning of a wild see-sawing of arguments – first, a few paragraphs of righteously triumphant absolute blinkered orthodoxy, followed by page after page of cutting sarcasm regarding Christianity and the early church.

It makes for somewhat schizophrenic reading.

And oftentimes the doctrine-followed-by-skepticism schtik seems contrived to me – patently a sop offered to conservative churchgoers to soften the blow of devastating attacks to follow. This pattern happens more than once in this chapter.

Also there’s a little anti-Catholic (anti-Pope), and anti-semitism rearing their ugly heads in this section (and previous ones) – just instances of late 18th century English cultural values of the upper class showing up as expected.

The Story
Why were the Christians Hated?

  • Gibbon starts with a very eloquent exercise in praise of the excellence of Jesus and Christianity in general
  • He makes the point that the empire was built on paranoia: that all emperors from the very beginning have been very suspicious of voluntary associations, or secret societies of citizens, and that Christianity at times looked very much like a terrorist/political group to the empire
  • Christians also liked to point out (making it worse for themselves) that Christians acknowledged/served a much higher authority than a Roman magistrate (or emperor)
  • Christians also liked to warn of the impending end of the world, and all the horrible catastrophes of the Apocalypse to come – not exactly the most patriotic talk
  • It was also common knowledge that Christians ate babies, had midnight incestuous orgies, held secret meetings which included the drinking of blood, were insufferably proud, stubborn, and usually lower-class, and were the most wicked, depraved of human kind
  • Christians protested that their morals, laws, and books prohibited anything even approaching such inhuman conduct, but often hinted darkly that maybe Gnostics, or a heretical sect of Christianity might be doing some of those things (another case of making things worse for themselves)
  • Gibbon notes that a pagan judge would hardly be able to distinguish between two people/Christians arguing about the nature of the trinity and accusing the other of heresy and horrible crimes – so the vicious rumors would have seemed to have had some independent verification
  •  
    History of the Persecutions

  • Gibbon notes that the Roman empire had hardly any martyrs, or extensive periods of violent persecution in any form similar to that of Europe in the last 3 centuries (1500’s-1700’s) – Christians are far more violent and bloodthirsty towards each other than the pagan empire ever was towards the Christians
  •  
    Gibbons themes on Persecutions
     
    He notes 4 points about the persecutions (which go against popular historical conceptions)

  • 1. It was almost 2 centuries before they started (took a long time to start)
  • 2. Romans proceeded with caution and reluctance whenever they did prosecute Christians
  • 3. Romans were moderate in their punishments (notwithstanding the fantastic embellishments of monks writing martyr’s histories in centuries to come)
  • 4. The periods of persecution were very short, and were interspersed with very long periods of peace
  •  
    The History of the Persecutions

  • At first Christians were disregarded as a minor sect of the Jews
  • First recorded persecution is Nero (Nero blamed the great fire in Rome on the Christians and tortured and killed them after the fire was controlled as punishment)
  • Nero 'fiddles' while Rome burns - then persecutes the Christians - Gibbon senses something false in the whole story - the fiddling makes no sense, and the Christian persecution seems bizarre

    Nero 'fiddles' while Rome burns - then persecutes the Christians - Gibbon senses something false in the whole story - the fiddling makes no sense, and the Christian persecution seems bizarre


    The First Persecution
    Nero Fiddling While Rome Burned – and then Crucifying the Christians
    Gibbon rejects out of hand the idea of the fiddling, then goes on to confirm that both Tacitus and Seutonius record the persecutions as historical fact. Gibbon goes on to question the specific details Tacitus relates (he had to be writing all this 3 or 4 decades later, after the fact). Then he wonders why the Jewish population, rather than the “obscure and innocent” Christians were not implicated. There are strains of anti-semitism here and there in his text – here he speculates that perhaps the Jews were implicated, and that Poppaea (Nero’s mistress – and possibly a Hebrew (per the ancient Jewish historian Josephus) might have used her influence to push suspicion away from the Jews and implicate the GALILEANS (capitals are Gibbon’s). The same name could either have meant the radical, anti-Roman political jewish group headed by Judas in Palestine, or the very small group of Christians in Rome.

    A very roundabout way to say the Jews (once again) betrayed the Christians. A strange, and unlikely speculation about why Christians were Nero’s scapegoats.

    Masada, the Jewish stronghold taken by the Romans in the 70's (under Claudius) - the men killed their wives and children first then took their own lives just before the Romans breached the wall.  That ramp/road you see in the picture is the ACTUAL SIEGE RAMP built by the Romans to take the fortress almost 2000 years ago

    Masada, the Jewish stronghold taken by the Romans in the 70's (under Claudius) - the men killed their wives and children first then took their own lives just before the Romans breached the wall. That ramp/road you see in the picture is the ACTUAL SIEGE RAMP built by the Romans to take the fortress almost 2000 years ago

    Interestingly, Gibbon also describes in a footnote (DEF, v.1, ch.16, fn.42) Judas’ grandson Eleazar defending a mountaintop against Roman siege (during Claudius reign a few decades later) and dying to a man, after first killing their wives and sons and daughters. Odd to hear of Masada, being referenced as an unknown, strange historical interlude in a text from the later 1770’s

    Vatican city - Gibbon points out - raised on the ground of Nero's gardens and circuses - the site of the deaths of the first Christian persecution - he is sometimes embarrasingly anti-catholic

    Vatican city - Gibbon points out - raised on the ground of Nero's gardens and circuses - the site of the deaths of the first Christian persecution - he is sometimes embarrasingly anti-catholic

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