Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56-120) wrote two secular historical works describing the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and Gabba, Otho, Vespasian, and Vitellius (Annals and Histories).
He was the son-in-law of Agricola, the Roman General responsible for Roman expansion throughout Europe, especially northern Britain. He was not a Christian by any means, but a patriotic Roman with a family heritage tied to its conquests.
In the following excerpt, Tacitus mentions Jesus (referred to as Christus) and details the persecution of early Christians. I have abbreviated some of the excerpt (ellipsis), given contextual explanation (brackets), and added emphasis (bolded text). The information in his writings is fascinating, but I found the following to be shareable.
“…The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods [because of the burning of Rome], and recourse was had to the Sibylline books… But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition [of resurrection], thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
These are some of the last words written by one of the greatest men who ever lived. He wrote them while in prison, waiting to die for his faith. He has just spoken of people he trusted who had deserted him. He is lacking even the bare essentials. A man, knowing how difficult his life was, had done additional great harm to him. No wonder he would open this window into his suffering soul and let us all look inside. Despite all this, he was not bitter.
Have you ever felt mistreated, even felt like people were actively against you? Or perhaps felt like people you count on abandoned or neglected you when you needed them? Maybe you have suffered for your faith. It is tempting to become bitter, even to lash out against the church and God.Paul is a great example of how to think when you feel unsupported and deserted by those you count on. After making that statement in 2 Timothy 4:16, he says some other things that can help us when we feel, at least in a small way, the way Paul felt.
Focus On The Lord. He could see how the Lord had helped through his darkest hours in the past (17). But, as importantly, he had confidence that the Lord would help him through future trials (18). Despite his unfair treatment, he could still say, “To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” When people hurt and disappoint you, look higher!
Find Your Higher Purpose. Incredibly, Paul could sift through these sorrows and see God at work to accomplish His will. He’s suffering, but he can see a greater good. He says that he endured these hurts “…so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear.” Can you look for what God, who doesn’t cause suffering, can do to bring good even out of those times? We’re prone to feel sorry for ourselves when God may be showing us and others His power through these situations to save souls and help lives.
Forgive. Paul doesn’t hold a grudge. Concerning those who let him down and even hurt him, he could say, “May it not be counted against them” (16). Doesn’t that sound like a Savior who asked God to forgive His tormentors? What a mindset! We can nurse perceived offenses, but how much better to be magnanimous toward those who we feel failed us in our hour of trial?
If you’ve never felt unsupported and deserted, you probably will at some future time. The temptation will be great to let it become a spiritual problem for you. Why not remember Paul’s response when he was in his deepest valley? It’s the way up to the spiritual mountaintop.
AD 30—Tiberius, who became cruel and mad, was the Roman Emperor when the church was established. Under his reign, right around the time of Pentecost, Rome was filled with terror after the murder of his once trusted advisor turned traitor, Sejanus (tribunesandtriumphs.org). Sanderson Beck comments that he was “preoccupied with sexual and sadistic perversions” the last several years of his life (he is believed to have been murdered)(san.beck.org). Jerusalem was directly governed by Rome. Acts, though probably written in the 60s, begins its historical chronicle around AD 30.
Acts 2:41—“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.”
Acts 4:4—“But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”
Acts 5:14—“And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number.”
Acts 6:7—“The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”
See also Acts 12:24 and Acts 19:20,
AD 62-63—Nero, described as licentious, cruel, tyrannical, murderous, criminal, arson, vain, perverse (tribunesandtriumphs.org) and, by historian Donald Wesson as a “cross-dressing exhibitionist” (ancient.eu), spearheaded the first organized persecution of Christians (N.S. Gill, ancienthistory.about.com). Tacitus says he blamed the Christians for his own burning of Rome. Many are the accounts of the cruel ways Nero put them to death (eyewitnesstohistory.com). Eusebius reports that Nero put both Paul and Peter to death (Church History, Book 2, Ch. 25). Before his death, Paul would report of such rapid growth throughout Nero’s reign. Peter’s outlook could not have been brighter.
Colossians 1:23—“if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.”
1 Peter 1:3—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
AD 90s—Domitian, best remembered as “the evil emperor who murdered thousands of Christians” (tribunesandtriumphs.org), reigned when John wrote his epistles and the book of Revelation. He was notorious for his cruelty and detachment from reality. John writes Revelation in large part to steady the Christians to withstand the onslaught of persecution caused by Domitian. His message to the Christians during the reign of Domitian was consistent:
1 John 4:4—“You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”
1 John 5:4—“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Revelation 1:6-7—“He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen.”
How bad did things look, from an earthly perspective, during the reigns of evil rulers like Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian? The thing is, the early Christians did not look at things from an earthly perspective. As those trying to walk in the footsteps of New Testament Christians, will we imitate their faith and that perspective?