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CHAPTER VIII

DEATH OF ST. PETER AND ST. PAUL.

We do not know with certainty the names of any of the Christians who perished at Rome, in the horrible events of August, 64. The arrested persons had been lately converted and their names were scarcely known. Those holy women who had astonished the church by their constancy were not known by names. They had been styled in Roman history as “The Danaïdes and the Dirces.” Yet the images of the places remained lively and deep. The circus or naumachy, the two boundaries, the obelisk, and a turpentine tree which served as a rallying point for the reminiscences of the first Christian generations, became the fundamental elements of a whole ecclesiastical topography whose result was the consecration of the Vatican and the pointing out of that hill for a religious destiny of the first order. Although the affair had been special to the city of Rome and as it was necessary to appease the public opinion of the Romans, irritated by the fire, the atrocity ordered by Nero must have had some counterpart in the provinces and excited there a renewal of persecution. The churches of Asia Minor were heavily tried; the heathen population of these countries were prompt to fanaticism. There had been some imprisonments at Syrmna. Pergamos had a martyr who is known to us by the name of Antipas, who appears to have suffered near the temple of Esculapius, probably in a wooden theatre not far from the temple in connection with some festival. Pergamos was, with Cyzicus, the only town of Asia Minor which had a regular organization for gladiatorial shows. We know 92now that these plays were placed at Pergamos under the authority of the priests. Although there had been no formal edict forbidding the profession of Christianity, that profession was in reality against the law; hostis, hostis patriæ, hostis publicus, humani generis inimicus, hostis deorum atque hominum, such were the appellations written in the laws to designate those who put society in danger and against whom every man according to the expression of Tertullian became a soldier. The name alone of Christian was consequently a crime. As the most complete judgment was left to the judges for the estimation of such crimes, the life of every believer from that day was in the hands of magistrates of a horrible harshness and filled with cruel prejudices against them.

It is allowable without unlikelihood to connect with the event of which we have given an account the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul. A fate truly strange has decreed that the disappearance of these two extraordinary men should be enveloped in mystery. A certain thing is, that Peter died a martyr. Now it can scarcely be conceived that he had been a martyr elsewhere than at Rome, and at Rome the only historical incident known by which one could explain his death is the episode recorded by Tacitus. As to Paul, some solid reasons lead us also to believe that he died a martyr and died at Rome. It is therefore natural to connect his death likewise with the episode of July-August, 64. Thus was cemented by suffering the reconciliation of those two souls, the one so strong, the other so good; thus was established by legendary authority (that is to say, divine) this touching brotherhood of two men whose parties opposed each other, but who, we may believe, were superior to parties and always loved each other. The great legend of Peter and Paul parallel to that of Romulus and Remus founding by a sort of collaboration the grandeur of Rome—a legend which in a sense 93has had in the history of humanity nearly as much importance as that of Jesus—dates from the day which, according to tradition, saw them die together. Nero, without knowing it, was again in this the most efficacious agent in the creation of Christianity, he who placed the corner stone in the city of the Saints.

As to the nature of the death of the two Apostles, we know with certainty that Peter was crucified. According to ancient texts his wife was executed with him, and he saw her led to punishment. A story, accepted since the third century, says that, too humble to suffer like Jesus, he asked to be crucified with his head downwards. The characteristic feature of the butchery of 64 having been the search for odious rarities in the way of tortures, it is possible that Peter in fact had been offered to the crowd in this hideous attitude. Seneca mentions some cases where tyrants have been known to cause the heads of the crucified to be turned to the earth. Their Christian piety would have seen a mystic refinement in what was only a bazarre caprice of the executioners. Perhaps the passage in the fourth gospel: ‘Thou shalt stretch forth thine hands and another shall gird thee, and shall lead thee whither thou would’st not,” includes some allusion to a speciality in Peter’s suffering. Paul in his capacity as honestior had his head cut off. It is probable besides that there had been in regard to him a regular decision, and that he was not included in the summary condemnation of the victims of Nero’s fêtes. Timothy was, according to certain appearances, arrested with his master and kept in prison.

At the beginning of the 3rd century two monuments were already seen at Rome connected with the names of the Apostles Peter and Paul. One was situated at the foot of the Vatican hill: it was that of St. Peter; the other on the way to Ostia: it was that of St. Paul. They were called in oratorical style, “the trophies” of the Apostles. These were probably some cellæ or some 94memoriæ consecrated to the saints. Some such monuments existed before Constantine; we are entitled besides to suppose that these trophies were only known to the faithful; perhaps even they were nothing else than that Terebinth of the Vatican, with which the memory of Peter has been associated for ages, that Pine of the Salvian Waters, which was, according to certain traditions, the centre of the souvenirs relating to Paul. Much later these trophies became the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. About the middle of the 3rd century, in fact, there appeared two bodies which universal veneration held to be those of the Apostles, and which appeared to have come from the the catacombs of the Appian Way, where there had really been many Jewish Cemeteries. In the fourth century these corpses reposed in the neighbourhood of the “two trophies.” Above these “trophies” were then raised two basilicas of which one had become the present basilica of St. Peter and of which the other, St. Paul-beyond-the-Walls, have kept their essential forms until our day.

Did the “trophies” which the Christians venerated about the year 200 really mark the places where the two Apostles suffered? That may be. It is not unlikely that Paul at the end of his life resided in the outskirts which stretch beyond the Lavernal gate upon the way from Ostia. The shadow of Peter, upon the other hand always wanders in the Christian legend towards the foot of the Vatican, the gardens and the circus of Nero especially about the obelisk. This arises, it will be seen, from the fact that the circus spoken of preserved the souvenir of the martyrs of 64, with whom, failing precise indications, Christian tradition would connect Peter; we like better to believe, notwithstanding, that there was mixed with that some indication, and that the old place of the obelisk of the sacristy of St. Peter, marked at the present day by an inscription, points out somewhat nearly the spot where Peter on the cross satiated by his 95frightful agony the eyes of a populace greedy to behold him suffer. Were the bodies which since the third century had been surrounded by an uninterrupted tradition of respect, the very bodies of the two Apostles? We scarcely believe it. It is certain that attention in keeping up the memory of the tombs of the martyrs was very ancient in the church; but Rome was about 100 and 120 the theatre of an immense legendary work relating especially to the two Apostles, Peter and Paul; a work in which pious claims had a large part. It is scarcely believable that in the days which followed the horrible carnage in August, 64. they could have reclaimed the corpses of the sufferers. In the hideous mass of human flesh stoned, roasted, and trampled, which was that day drawn by hooks into the spoliarium, then thrown into the puticuli, it would have perhaps been difficult to recognize the identity of any of the martyrs. Often doubtless an authorization was obtained to withdraw from the hands of the executioners the remains of the condemned; but while supposing (which is very admissible) that some brethren had braved death to go and demand the precious relics, it is probable that instead of these being given to them they would have been themselves sent to add to the heap of corpses. During some days the mere name of Christian was a sentence of death. It is besides a secondary question. If the Vatican basilica does not really cover the tomb of the apostle Peter, it does not the less mark out for our remembrance one of the most really holy places of Christianity. The spot where the bad taste of the seventeenth century constructed a circus of theatrical architecture was a second Calvary, and even supposing that Peter had not been crucified there, there at least no doubt suffered the Danaïdes and the Dirces.

If, as we may be allowed to believe, John accompanied Peter to Rome, we can find a plausible foundation for the old tradition according to which John would have been plunged in the boiling oil, in the 96place where stood much later the Latin Gate. John appears to have suffered for the name of Jesus. We are led to believe that he was the witness, and up to a certain point the victim, of the bloody episode to which the Apocalypse owes its origin. The Apocalypse is to us the cry of horror from a witness who lived at Babylon, who had known the Beast, who had seen the bleeding bodies of his brother martyrs, who himself had felt the embrace of death. The unfortunate condemned who were used as living torches would be previously dipped in oil, or in an inflammable substance (not boiling, it is true). John was perhaps devoted to the same suffering as his brethren, and intended to illuminate the evening of the fête of the Faubourg of the Latin Way, a chance, a caprice had saved him. The Latin Way is indeed situated in the quarter in which the incidents of those terrible days passed. The southern part of Rome (the Capena gate, the Ostia road, the Appian Way, the Latin Way), forms the region around which appears to concentrate, in the time of Nero, the history of the budding church.

A jealous fate has willed that on so many points which greatly excite our curiosity, we should never escape from the penumbra where legend dwells. Let us repeat it once more; the questions relating to the death of the Apostles Peter and Paul present nothing but likely hypotheses. The death of Paul especially is wrapped in deep mystery. Certain expressions in the Apocalypse, composed at the end of 68 or the beginning of 69, would incline us to think that the author of this book believed Paul to be alive when he wrote. It is in no way impossible that the end of the great Apostle had been altogether unknown. In the career that certain texts attributed to him from the Western side, a shipwreck, a sickness, or some accident might carry him off. As he had not at that moment his brilliant crown of disciples around him the details of his death would remain 97unknown; later on, the legend would be filled up by taking account, on the one hand, the position of Roman citizenship which the Acts gives him, and on the other hand, the desire which the Christian conscience had to carry out a reconciliation between him and Peter. Certainly, an obscure death for the ardent Apostle has something in it which pleases us. We like to dream of Paul sceptical, shipwrecked, abandoned, betrayed by his friends, struck by the disenchantment of old age; it pleases us that the scales should fall a second time from his eyes, and our gentle incredulity would have its little revenge if the most dogmatic of men had died sad, despairing (let us rather say, tranquil) on some Spanish road or shore, saying thus to himself, Ego errovi! But this would be to give too much to conjecture. It is certain that the two apostles were dead in 70; they did not see the ruins of Jerusalem, which would have made such a deep impression on Paul. We admit, therefore, as probable in all that follows of this history, that the two champions of the Christian conception disappeared at Rome during the terrible storm of the year 64. James was dead a little more than two years before. Of “apostle-pillars” there remained, therefore, only John. Some other friends of Jesus, no doubt, lived still in Jerusalem, but forgotten, as if lost in the gloomy whirlwind in which Judea was to be plunged for many years.

We shall show in the following book how the church consummated a reconciliation between Peter and Paul which, perhaps, death had sketched. Success was the reward. Apparently inalienable, the Judeo-Christianity of Peter and the Hellenism of Paul were equally necessary to the success of the future work. Judeo-Christianity represented the conservative spirit, without which it possessed nothing substantial; Hellenism, advance and progress, without which nothing really exists. Life is the result of a conflict between opposing forces. People die as well from the absence of all revolutionary feeling as from excess of revolution.

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