When I originally wrote this post back in 2016, I never thought that it would become my most popular work. At that time I simply wanted to share what I learned during my 2015 visit to Rome, that Christians weren’t put to death in the Colosseum, as we grew up to think, but rather at another location, the Circus of Nero. In that original post I gave a short history on that circus, and where it was located.
Since the publication of that article I’ve discovered so much more, not only about the circus, but also the person its name for, the Roman Emperor Nero, and why he persecuted Christians. These new discoveries inspired me to revisit my original work, but not just to do an update, but give it a complete rewrite.
With this NEW article I go much deeper into the histories of: Emperor Nero, what led to the Christian persecutions, and how the Colosseum became the incorrect location of those persecutions. I’ve also added greater detail on where the Circus of Nero actually stood, and what’s there today.
Beside this rewrite, I’ve also written a follow-up post entitled, Was Saint Peter Ever in Rome. I wrote this in response to the comments I received from my first article, stating that the Apostle Peter was never in that city. I think you’ll enjoy my historical detective work on that subject.
This article was rewritten on January 26, 2021 and updated on February 4, 2021
What We Thought Happened There, Really Didn’t
Like most people, I just assumed that Christians had been thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. I mean, that’s what we saw in the movies. So it came as a big surprise when I learned that what we thought happened there really didn’t.
The reason the Colosseum wasn’t the place where Christians were martyred, was because the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum’s true name, wasn’t built until 80 AD, sixteen years after the Christian persecutions.
In my post, The Magnificent Colosseum of Rome, I promised to reveal the real location, and as promised, here is the story of the Circus of Nero, where St. Peter was martyred.
Our story begins with the perpetrator of those persecutions, the Emperor Nero, one of history’s most hated men.
The Emperor Nero (37 AD – 68 AD)
The Emperor Nero, one of history’s greatest bad guys, began his reign after the death of his adoptive father, the Emperor Claudius, in 54 AD. Even Claudius’s death is linked to Nero through his mother Agrippina the Younger, Claudius’s wife. Early accounts have suggested that Agrippina poisoned her husband, so that her son Nero could take the throne. However, now some scholars are rethinking what really may have caused the death of Emperor Claudius. Some now consider that it could have been from old age or his poor life style. Whatever the real reason for Claudius’s death, Nero ascended to the throne of Rome at barely seventeen years of age.
Even if Nero wasn’t responsible for the death of Claudius in any way, he still had plenty of blood on his hands. Ancient accounts have Nero murdering his mother Agrippina, his first wife Octavia, and possibly his second wife Poppaea Sabina. But Nero is most remembered for the great fire that almost destroyed Rome, and his greatest atrocity, the murderous persecution of the Christians of Rome.
The Great Fire of Rome
Historians point to the great fire of Rome in 64 AD as the catalyst that began Nero’s Christian persecutions.
Beginning on the evening of July 18, 64 AD, Rome experienced one of the greatest fires in history. It’s believed that the fire first started in the slum area near the Palatine Hill. Fueled by the wooden buildings in that part of the city, and fanned by the high summer winds, the blaze quickly spread. The fire raged for over six days, engulfing and wiping out three of the city’s central districts. When it finally died out, in its wake it left hundreds of Roman citizens’ dead and thousands more left homeless.
After his death Nero’s enemies, including those Roman emperors who followed, concocted a story blaming Nero for setting the fire. They accused him of starting the fire as a way to clear the area to build his lavish palace the Domus Aurea (the Golden House). They further accused Nero of then pinning the fire on the Christians, using them as his scapegoat. This story has been perpetuated down through the centuries, including in books and movies, such as the 1951 epic Quo Vadis.
Today, most historians doubt that it was Nero who started the fire. They point to the fact that the emperor was 35 miles away in Antium (today’s Anzio) when it broke out. They also state that Nero rushed back to the city to help organize relief efforts. Antony Barrett, the author of Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty, says, “The case against Nero (starting the fire) is very flimsy.” It’s now accepted by most, that this great fire was most likely caused by an accident in what was a very crowded tinderbox part of the city.
However, even though, historically, there’s little proof that neither Nero nor the Christians caused the fire, the citizens of Rome still needed someone, or someone’s, to blame.
Nero’s Persecution of the Christians
Shortly after the fire, Nero came under enormous political and public pressure to find someone or someone’s to blame. For Nero, the Christians in Rome provided him the perfect victims. Beginning in the second and third centuries, Christian church writings began claiming that Nero murdered Christians because they refused to worship him as God. But most historians today agree that it wasn’t as much about their religious beliefs, as it was politically easy for Nero to blame them for that terrible fire.
In the later part of 64 AD, Nero began arresting Christians for the fire. The punishment for such crimes was by public execution. The type of punishment given to the Christians is told by the 1st century Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 – 118 AD). In his work the Annals, Tacitus tells that Nero executed the Christians by: being torn apart by wild dogs and animals, crucifixion, or hung on poles, covered in tar and then set on fire as human torches. It’s Tacitus’s account that was later picked up by early Christian writers, and then passed down as a common belief. However, it should be noted that Tacitus was only eight years old at the time of the persecutions, and was later a critic of Nero.
There is another, and more contemporary, view of Nero, the fire and his Christian persecutions. John Drinkwater, emeritus professor of Roman History at the University of Nottingham, and the author of Nero: Emperor and Court, has a less sinister opinion of the emperor. He believes that Nero was the subject of a smear campaign started by the Flavian emperors that followed. It was the Flavians who began the story of Nero starting the great fire and then committing the horrific murdering of Christians to cover up his deed. Drinkwater does concede that Nero did persecute Christians; and by Roman law, it most likely was by setting them on fire, which fit the crime for which they were accused.
Whether the martyring was as Tacitus wrote or more as Drinkwater suspects, it was still conducted in a public area. The problem was in finding a public space large enough to hold the hundreds of executions.
The Amphitheaters in Rome, 64 AD
In ancient Rome the most logical public venue that would be large enough to hold mass executions would have been an amphitheater. As I stated earlier, the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum), the largest amphitheater ever built in Rome, wouldn’t be constructed for another sixteen years. So, were there any other amphitheaters in Rome in 64 AD?
Ancient records name two at that time: the Amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus and the Amphitheater of Nero. Some accounts say that both of these structures were destroyed in that great fire. However, some historians believe that the Amphitheater of Nero had survived. Even if that was the case, there are a couple of reasons why the Christian persecutions didn’t happen there.
Records describe the Amphitheater of Nero as being a modestly sized wooden structure. Most likely this amphitheater was large enough for small gladiatorial battles, but not mass executions. In addition, of all the events reported having taken place in that amphitheater, none mention Christians having been executed there.
If neither of these two amphitheaters were the site of Nero’s Christian persecutions, then what other facility in Rome could it have possibly been. Again the historian Tacitus gives us a hint to that location in the Annals, where he writes how Nero watched the executions, “…mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot.” Tacitus’s account of how Nero was dressed and that he stood in a chariot says a lot about were the persecutions may have really taken place.
Nero had a passion for chariot racing, and his favorite race course was his Circus of Nero.
The Circus of Nero
The Circus of Nero was one of six circuses located in ancient Rome, the others being: the Circus Flaminius, Circus Maxentius, Circus Maximus, Circus Varianus, and the Circus Agonalis.
Roman circuses were built specifically for horse and chariot racing. Their design was a long oblong structure with an earthen track. The circuses racecourse was divided down the middle by a long wall known as a spina. This spina created two tracks, which ran along each of its sides. Each end of the spina was left open, providing for the starting gate and a turning point for the racers. The audiences that attended these races sat on ascending rows along the length and ends of the track. To get an idea on how these circuses may have looked, think of the chariot race in the movie Ben-Hur.
Construction on the Circus of Nero began in about 40 AD by the Emperor Caligula. Because it was begun by that emperor, it’s also sometimes referred to as the Circus of Caligula. Caligula hadn’t finished with its construction before his assassination in 41 AD, so its completion was ether done by the Emperor Claudius, Nero’s predecessor, or by Nero himself.
The Circus of Nero was an impressive building at 530 feet long and 295 feet wide. There was also another striking object in the circus. The Roman’s often decorated these spina with ornate statues, columns and obelisks, and Nero’s had the most spectacular obelisk of them all.
In 37 AD, Caligula brought from Egypt an 84 foot tall, 326 ton, red granite obelisk. This obelisk was placed at the very center of its spina. This is the largest non-inscribed obelisk ever to be taken from Egypt. If you’d like to know what this wonder looked like, you can still see it today. It’s in every photo of Saint Peters Square, and is all that remains of the Circus of Nero.
Where was the Circus of Nero Located?
Ancient writings tell that the Emperor Caligula used the land owned by his mother, Agrippina the Elder, to build his circus. This property was located on, here’s the surprise, the Ager Vaticanus or Vatican Hill. Yes, the place where Christians were first persecuted and martyred, and perhaps Saints Peter and Paul as well, had sat at the very center of the Catholic Church, Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica.
What Happened to the Circus of Nero?
Records show that by the middle of the 2nd century the Circus of Nero had been abandon. Many scholars believe that the memory of the atrocities that had taken place there may have contributed to its abandonment.
The circus remained in ruins until around 326 AD, when the Roman emperor Constantine built the first basilica to Saint Peter (Old St. Peter’s Basilica) on the site. Running parallel on the north side of the circus was believed to be the ancient Roman road the Via Cornelia. Along this road, on the opposite side from the circus, was a line of Roman tombs. Having tombs along their roads was a common practice for the Romans. It was in one of these tombs tradition has that Saint Peter was placed after he was martyred in the circus.
Emperor Constantine wanted the apse of his basilica to be placed directly over this supposed tomb of Saint Peter. To accomplish this he covered over the line of tombs and built his basilica along the north side of the ruined circus. His architects even incorporated some of the circus’s north buildings into the church. The Old Saint Peter’s Basilica stood for over a thousand years, but by the 16th century it had fallen into a grave state of disrepair.
Pope Julius II decided that instead of repairing the old basilica, he’d tear it down and build a larger and grander church to the saint. Construction of the new Saint Peter’s began in 1506. To accommodate the new and much larger building they not only needed to demolish the old basilica, but also level what remained of the Circus of Nero. However, there was one object from the old circus that needed special care.
The circus’s obelisk, which had sat at the center of its spina, hadn’t been moved during the construction of the old basilica because of its size and weight. It remained standing at its original location, just outside the old basilica’s south wall, until the late 1500s. Between 1585 and 1586, Pope Sixtus V undertook the task of moving it to its present location on Saint Peters Square.
It took over 900 men, 140 horses and 44 winches to accomplish the move. If you take the Vatican tour of the necropolis, the guides will point out a marker near the sacristy; this was the spot in the circus were the obelisk had stood.
Where Would the Circus of Nero Have Been Today?
The Circus of Nero is long gone, its site now occupied by the magnificent Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Square), and the buildings of the Vatican. But I’m one of those who want to visualize were these ancient structures actually stood. We can do this by using Saint Peter’s and the buildings around it as reference points.
To start we’ll begin on the eastern side of Saint Peter’s Square, where the Via della Conciliazione enters it. In that general location was the eastern end of the circus; it was here where the circus’s starting gates, or its turn, would have been. From this point the circus would have extended west, across the plaza and through the left side of Saint Peter’s, all the way back to the Palace of the Tribunal, that’s behind the Basilica.
To get an idea of how wide the circus was, we’ll turn to the Egyptian obelisk at the center of Saint Peter’s square. The obelisk sits very close to where the north side of the circus would have been. Now look left, to the southern curved Colonnato de Bernini. Here would have been the circus’s south side. All this area, between the obelisk and the curved colonnade, would have been inside the circus proper.
The central spina, the wall that divided the track down the middle, would have started at the front south corner of the basilica; from there it would have run westerly, along the outside of Saint Peter’s south wall, and ended at the far side of the Piazz Santo Stefano, again behind the Basilica.
The Vatican’s Palazzo del Tribunale e uffici Gendarmeria, the Piazza Santa Marta, the Sacristy, and Teutonic Cemetery all sit at where the circus’s south track would have been. The Aula Delle Unienze Pontifice Paolo VI, also known as the Hall of the Pontifical Audiences, is generally where the south side of the circus would have stood.
So, if the actual location of the Christian persecutions was the Circus of Nero, then how did it become confused with the Colosseum? For this we look to Pope Benedict XIV.
Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758)
The legend of the Colosseum as being the location for the Christian persecutions began around 1749; almost seventeen hundred years after those events had taken place. This legend began from a decree made by Catholic Pope Benedict XIV. In his decree Benedict names the Colosseum as the location where early Christians were martyred. However, there is absolutely no historical evidence, then or now, that any Christians were ever killed in the Colosseum because of their faith. Even without evidence this legend has been passed down through the centuries.
In fact, today there’s a large cross mounted in the Colosseum, where the Emperor’s box once stood, to remember events that never happened there. The most logical assumption why Benedict chose the Colosseum could have been because of its history of bloody gladiator battles. It’s very possible that Pope Benedict didn’t realize that the true location of where those atrocities had taken place was actually buried right beneath his own basilica.
So, now that we know where Christians were really martyred, was one of them Saint Peter? To explore a few theories on that subject, check out my follow-up post: Was Saint Peter Ever in Rome?
To learn more about what to see at the Vatican check out this article, “9 Reasons to Visit the Vatican.”
“5 Roman Colosseum Facts That Are Probably False.” Walks, Walks, 10 Dec. 2015, http://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/art-culture/roman-colosseum-facts.
“Amphitheater of Statilius Taurus .” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Aug. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amphitheater_of_Statilius_Taurus.
“the amphitheatre in rome at the time of nero.” Roman History Books and More, Roman History Books and More, 17 Mar. 2007, romanhistorybooks.typepad.com/roman_history_books_and_m/2007/03/the_amphitheatr.html.
The Conversation. “Mythbusting Ancient Rome- throwing Christians to the lions .” The Conversation, Friends of the Conversation, 21 Nov. 2016, theconversation.com/mythbusting-ancient-rome-throwing-christians-to-the-lions-67365.
Dowson, Thomas. “AMIDST THE CROWDS IN ST PETER’S SQUARE, STANDS ANCIENT EGYPT.” ARCHAEOLOGY TRAVEL, Archaeology Travel, archaeology-travel.com/street/vatican-obelisk-in-st-peters-square/. Nov. 2020.
EyeWitness to History.com. “Nero Persecutes The Christians, 64 A.D.” EyeWitness to History.com, EyeWitness to Hostory.com, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/christtian.htm. Aug. 2020.
Finelli, Sean. “19 Astonishing Facts About St. Peter’s Basilica In Rome.” THE ROMAN Guy, The Roman Guy, 14 Dec. 2020, theromanguy.com/Italy-travel-blog/st-peters-facts-and-history/.
History of Circus. “Circus of Nero- The Ancient Circus Buildings.” History of Circus, History of Circus , http://www.historyofcircus.com/circus-origin/circus-of-nero/. Dec. 2020.
Levine, Joshua. “YOU DON’T KNOW NERO.” Smithsonian , Oct. 2020, pp. 24+.
Lunn-Rockliffe, Dr. Sophie. “Christianity and the Roman Empire.” BBC- History, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/anicant/romans/christiantyromanempire_article_01.shtml.
“Nero.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero. Nov. 2020.
“Old Saint Peter’s Basilica.” Britannica, Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Old-Saint-Peters-Basilica. Sept. 2020.
Sightseeing Tours Italy. “The Circus of Nero.” Sightseeing Tours Italy, Sightseeing Tours of Italy, http://www.vaticancitytours.it/blog/the-circus-of-nero. Oct. 2020.
Potter, Bill. “Noro’s Persecutions Begin A.D. 64.” LANDMARK Events, Landmark Events, landmarkevents.org/neros-persecutions-begin-a-d-64/. July 2020.
“St. Peter’s Basilica .” Britannica, Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Saint-Peters-Basilica. Sept. 2020.
St. Peters Basilica.Info. “The Obelisk.” St. Peters Basilica.Inf, St. Peters Basilica , stpetersbasilica.info/Exterior/Obelisk/Obelisk.htm. Sept. 2020.
St Peters Basilica. Info. “Map of The Vatican Necropolis-Scavi.” St Peters Basilica, nfo, St Peters Basilica, stpetersbasilica.info/Necropolis/Scavi-map.htm. Oct. 2020.
St. Peters Basilica. Info. “Vatican Grottoes below St. Peter’s.” St Peters Basilica.Info, St. Peters Basilica , stpetersbasilica.info/grottoes.htm. Sept. 2020.
University of Chicago . “Pagan and Christian Rome.” Penelope, University of Chicago, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/_Texts/Lanciani/LANPAC/3*.htmi#sec16/. June 2020.
University of Chicago . “The Topography of St. Peter’s Basilica.” Penelope, University of Chicago , penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/Vatican/S.Peter/Lanciani_plan.html. Sept. 2020.
Wasson, Donald L. “Tacitus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia Foundation, http://www.ancient.eu/tacitus/. Aug. 2020.
Wikipedia. “Circus of Nero.” ROUTE YOU, Wikipedia , http://www.routeyou.com/en-va/view/48107319/circus-of-neero. Nov. 2020.
Wikipedia. “Circus of Nero.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , Nov. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circus_of_Nero.
Wikipedia. “Pope Benedict XIV.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , 13 Jan. 2021, en.m.wikidedia.org/wiki/Pope_Benedict_XIV.