As I was visiting one church, a guest pastor decided to make an illustration using an event he describes as taking place under the reign of Nero. This event involved the murder of 40 soldiers who were all Christians.
The story is that there were 40 acclaimed warriors. They were told to renounce Christianity (after Nero began the persecution of Christians), but they instead chose punishment. They are sent into a lake to freeze. Their songs and their resolve enticed a guard to join their ranks. In the morning, they are all alive.
Now this was news to me, I had never heard such a story. If it existed it would be very interesting, as all our current evidence points to Nero’s persecution being local and not specifically persecuting Christians for being Christians. An event where Nero kills 40 soldiers for the crime of being Christian would rewrite history. As Bart Ehrman (who is not a Christian) points out:
A. The first emperor to be involved with persecutions was Nero (c. 64 A.D.), who used Christians as scapegoats for the fire in Rome that he evidently started himself.
1. It is important to note, however, that in this case, Christians were condemned for arson, not for being Christian.
2. Moreover, this persecution was localized to Rome. It may, however, have set a precedent for later civil authorities.
It would be major to discover that Nero performed this other persecution.
After some searching for the source of this story I came to two conclusions. 1. Christians generally do not like to source stories (throughout sermons and blog posts). 2. Christians generally have a very bad understanding of early Christian history.
I finally did find the information for which I was seeking.
It turns out that this story was actually attributed to Emperor Licinius Centurion Sempronius (Licinius for short). This took place around 320AD whereas Nero (a co-temporary of Paul) reigned from 54-68AD. The difference is huge, enough to rewrite all of Church history. Imagine a story about terrorists blowing up the Twin Towers but in 1730 AD. Not a small mistake.
Thus it was that they were sentenced to spend the night under the open sky. The lake, round about which the populous town lies and in which the Saints contested, was covered with ice and had become, as it were, solid land fit for chariot driving…
When they had heard the command (in this, consider the invincible courage of the Martyrs), with joy each one cast off even his undermost tunic, and all hastened to encounter death from the cold…
Such consolations did they afford one another, and, each encouraging the others as if they were keeping guard at the hour of battle, they spent the night courageously bearing things present, rejoicing in the things looked for, and deriding the enemy…
As the Martyrs were in the midst of their contest and the guard was keeping watch over events… Throwing off his raiment, he joined himself to the naked ones, crying out in unison with the Saints: “I am a Christian.” The bystanders were astonished at the unexpectedness of his conversion, and as he gave himself to complete their number…
Due to the St Basil detailing this at a memorial service for these martyrs, we can most likely conclude that this did, in fact, happen and long before St. Basil began preaching. This did not, however, happen until Christianity was fairly well progressed. Christianity was then being actively suppressed due to the mere fact that it was a powerful and subversive religion. It was only shortly after this martyrdom that Constantine would declare Christianity as the new state religion.
It makes for a good story, but not one from the reign of Nero.
HT: stevekray88 and Scott Bratt for helping me make this article better.