3. THE FIRST PERSECUTION UNDER NERO
The first of these ten persecutions was stirred up by Nero Domitius, the sixth emperor before mentioned, about the year of our Lord threescore and seven. The tyrannous rage of which emperor was so fierce against the Christians, as Eusebius recordeth, that a man might then see cities lie full of men's bodies, the old there lying together with the young, and the dead bodies of women cast out naked, without all reverence of that sex, in the open streets, &c. Likewise Orosius, writing of the said Nero, saith, that he was the first which in Rome did raise up persecution against the Christians; and not only in Rome, but also through all the provinces thereof; thinking to abolish and to destroy the whole name of Christians in all places, &c. Whereunto accordeth moreover the testimony of Hierom upon Daniel, saying, that many there were of the Christians in those days, which, seeing the filthy abominations and intolerable cruelty of Nero, thought that he should be antichrist.
Illustration -- The Martyrdom of St. Peter
In this persecution, among many other saints, the blessed apostle Peter was condemned to death, and crucified, as some do write, at Rome; albeit other some, and not without cause, do doubt thereof; concerning whose life and history, because it is sufficiently described in the text of the Gospel, and in the Acts of the Apostles, I need not here to make any great repetition thereof. As touching the cause and maimer of his death, divers there be which make relation, as Hierom, Egesippus, Eusebius, Abdias, and others, although they do not all precisely agree in the time. The words of Hierom be these: Simon Peter, the son of Jona, of the province of Galilee, and of the town of Bethsaida, the brother of Andrew, &c., after he had been bishop of the church of Antioch, and had preached to the dispersion of them that believed, of the circumcision, in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, in the second year of Claudius the emperor, (which was the year of our Lord forty and four,) came to Rome to withstand Simon Magus, and there kept the priestly chair the space of five and twenty years, until the last year of the aforesaid Nero, which was the fourteenth year of his reign, of whom he was crucified, his head being down, and his feet upward; himself so requiring, because he was (he said) unworthy to be crucified after the same form and manner as the Lord was, &c. Egesippus prosecuting this matter something more at large, and Abdias also, (if any authority is to be given to his book, who following not only the sense, but also the very form of words of Egesippus in this history, seemeth to be extracted out of him, and of other authors,) saith, that Simon Magus being then a great man with Nero, and his president and keeper of his life, was required upon a time to be present at the raising up of a certain noble young man in Rome, of Nero's kindred, lately departed; whereas Peter also was desired to come to the re viving of the said personage. But when Magus, in the presence of Peter, could not do it, then Peter, calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus, did raise him up, and restored him to his mother; Whereby the estimation of Simon Magus began greatly to decay, and to be detested in Rome. Not long after the said Magus threatened the Romans that he would leave the city, and in their sight fly away from them into heaven. So the day being appointed, Magus taking his wings in the mount Capitolinus, began to fly in the air; but Peter, by the power of the Lord Jesus, brought him down with his wings headlong to the ground, by the which fall his legs and joints were broken, and he thereupon died. Then Nero, sorrowing for the death of him, sought matter against Peter to put him to death. Which, when the people perceived, they entreated Peter with much ado that he would fly the city. Peter, through their importunity at length persuaded, prepared himself to avoid. But coming to the gate, he saw the Lord Christ come to meet him, to whom he, worshipping, said, Lord, whither dost thou go? To whom he answered and said, I am come again to be crucified. By this Peter, perceiving his suffering to be understood, returned back into the city again, and so was he crucified in manner as is before declared. And this out of Egesippus.
Eusebius, moreover, writing of the death, not only of Peter, but also of his wife, affirmeth that Peter, seeing his wife going to her martyrdom, (belike as he was yet hanging upon the cross,) was greatly joyous and glad thereof, who, crying unto her with a loud voice, and calling her by her name, bade her remember the Lord Jesus. Such was then, (saith Eusebius,) the blessed bond of marriage among the saints of God. And thus much of Peter.
Paul the apostle, which before was called Saul, after his great travail and unspeakable labours in promoting the gospel of Christ, suffered also in this first persecution under Nero, and was beheaded.
Among his other manifold labours and travails in spreading the doctrine of Christ, he won Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, to the faith of Christ: whereupon he took his name, as some suppose, turned from Saulus to Paulus. After he had passed through divers places and countries in his laborious peregrinations, he took to him Barnabas, and went up to Jerusalem to Peter, James, and John, where he was ordained and sent out with Barnabas to preach unto the Gentiles.
And because it is in the Acts of the Apostles sufficiently comprehended, concerning the admirable conversion and conversation of this most worthy apostle, that which remaineth of the rest of his history, I will here add, how the said apostle Paul, Acts xxviii., the five and twentieth year after the passion of the Lord, in the second year of Nero, at what time Festus ruled in Jewry, was sent up in bonds to Rome, where he, remaining in his own lodgings two years together, disputed daily against the Jews, proving Christ to be come. And here is to be noted, that after his first answer or purgation there made at Rome, the emperor Nero, not yet fully confirmed in his empire, and yet not bursting out into those mischiefs which histories report of him, he was at that time by Nero discharged and dismissed to preach the gospel in the west parts, and about the coasts of Italy, as he himself writing unto Timothy afterward, in his second apprehension, in his Second Epistle, chap. iv. 16, 17, witnesseth: "At my first answer no man stood with rue, but all men forsook me. I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion." In which place, by the lion, he plainly meaneth Nero. And afterwards, likewise, he saith, I was delivered from the mouth of the lion, &c. And again, The Lord hath delivered me out from all evil works, and hath saved me unto his heavenly kingdom, &c.; speaking this, because he perceived then the time of his martyrdom to be near at hand. For in the same Epistle before, he saith, I am now offered up, and the time of my dissolution draweth on.
Thus, then, this worthy preacher and messenger of the Lord, in the fourteenth year of Nero, and the same day in which Peter was crucified, (although not in the same year, as some write, but in the next year following,) was beheaded at Rome for the testimony of Christ, and was buried in the way of Ostia, the seven and thirtieth year after the passion of the Lord. He wrote nine Epistles to seven churches: to the Romans, one; to the Corinthians, two; to the Galatians, one; to the Ephesians, one; to the Philippians, one; to the Colossians, one; to the Thessalonians, two. Moreover, he wrote to his disciples: to Timothy, two; to Titus, one; to Philemon, one; to the Hebrews, one.
As touching the time and order of the death and martyrdom of Saint Paul, as Eusebius, Hierom, Maximus, and other authors do but briefly pass it over; so Abdias, (if his book be of any substantial authority,) speaking more largely of the same, doth say, that after the crucifying of Peter, and the ruin of Simon Magus, Paul yet remaining in free custody, was dismissed and delivered at that time from martyrdom by God's permission, that all the Gentiles might be replenished with preaching of the gospel by him.
And the same Abdias proceeding in his story, declareth moreover, that as Paul was thus occupied at Rome, he was accused to the emperor, not only for teaching new doctrine, but also for stirring up sedition against the empire. For this he being called before Nero, and demanded to show the order and manner of his doctrine, there declared what his doctrine was: To teach all men peace and charity, how to love one another, how to prevent one another in honour; rich men not to be puffed up in pride, nor to put their trust in their treasures, but in the living God; mean men to be contented with food and raiment, and with their present state; poor men to rejoice in their poverty with hope; fathers to bring up their children in the fear of God; children to obey their parents; husbands to love their wives; wives to be subject to their husbands; citizens and subjects to give their tribute unto Cæsar, and to be subject to their magistrates; masters to be courteous, not churlish, to their servants; servants to deal faithfully with their masters: and this to be the sum of his teaching. Which his doctrine he received not of men, nor by men, but by Jesus Christ, and the Father of glory, which spake to him from heaven; the Lord Jesus saying to him, that he should go and preach his name, and that he would be with him, and would be the Spirit of life to all that believed in him, and that whatsoever he did or said he would justify it, &c. After that Paul had thus declared unto the emperor, shortly after sentence of death was pronounced against him, that he should be beheaded. Unto whose execution then Nero sent two of his esquires, Ferega and Parthemius, to bring him word of his death. They coming to Paul, instructing then the people, desired him to pray for them, that theymight believe. This done, the soldiers came and led him out of the city to the place of execution, where he, after his prayers made, gave his neck to the sword.