Eusebius (263-339 ACE), Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter XXV
The persecution under Nero, in which Paul and Peter were honored with martyrdom in the cause of religion at Rome.
But Nero now having the government firmly established under him, and henceforth plunging into nefarious projects, began to take up arms against that very religion which acknowledged the one Supreme God. To describe, indeed, the greatness of this man’s sickness, is not compatible with our present object; and as there are many that have given his history in the most accurate narratives, every one may, at his pleasure, in these contemplate the grossness of his extraordinary madness. Under the influence of this, he did not proceed to destroy so many thousands with any calculation, but with such indiscriminate murder as not even to refrain from his nearest and dearest friends. His own mother and wife, with may others that were his near relatives, he killed like strangers and enemies, with various kinds of death. And, indeed, in addition to all his other crimes, this too was yet wanting to complete the catalogue, that he was the first emperors that displayed himself as an enemy of piety towards the Deity.This fact is recorded by the Roman Tertullian, in language like the following: “Examine you records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. Such is the man of whom we boast, as the leader in our punishment. For he that knows who he was, may know also that there could scarcely be anything but what was great and good, condemned by Nero”. Thus Nero publicly announcing himself as the chief enemy of God, was led on in his fury to slaughter the apostles. Paul is therefore said to have been beheaded at Rome, and Peter to have been crucified under him. And this account is confirmed by the fact, that the name of Peter and Paul still remain in the cemeteries of that city even to this day.
Tradition places Peter’s crucifixion and burial at the arena upon which the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica now stand. This was across the Tiber River, thus out-side the walls of Rome, as burials in Roman tradition were placed outside the city. Paul was executed south of Rome and buried where his basilica was later erected.
What stands out to me from Eusebius’s account of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom is that Emperor Nero did not set out specifically to prosecute Christians nor try to destroy their leadership. Rather, Nero was mostly concerned with consolidating his power and destroying anyone, including family members, whom I viewed at threatening his position. Hmmmm, sound like any president-elect we might soon encounter in power? Leaving, that question aside, the Christians in Rome, along with Peter and Paul, happen to be in Nero’s way.
As to the fresco, it is full of possible imagery. We see Paul in the center of the picture, with a man drawing a sword and a statue to his left, other men motioning from his right, and a woman with a child on her knee below him, and those putti angels above him holding a halo and palm branch.
Interestingly, only one figure, in the background appears to be a Roman soldier. The executioner who draws the sword to behead Paul is not dressed in Roman armor. The other men to Paul’s right are not soldiers and their faces appear stern. Are they the Jewish leaders? Eusebius’s account does not mention any betrayal of Paul by the Jewish leaders, but might this hark back to Jesus’ betrayal by the Jewish leaders?
I cannot tell clearly what the statue depicts. I appears to be a half nude, male figure seated, hold a staff, and having some time of animal skin draped over his lap. I expect a statue in Rome to be of a god or Roman leader. This looks more like the image of John the Baptist. However, a shadowy figure stands at the base of this statue. This he has a lion skin over his head (notice the paws crossing on his chest) and carries a club. This is definitely Hercules, again a link between Roman deities and Jesus.
As to the woman, do we see a Madonna with Child, or a mother trying to protect her first-born son from be massacred by King Heroes troops? Both images relate to the sacrifice of someone innocent. To accentuate the image of sacrifice, nearly hidden behind Paul is a sacrificial altar with the glow of flames and smoke subtly rising at his left hip. One of the handles to this altar appears to be a mask of tragedy.
The story of Judaism and Christianity can be characterized by the desire of God to be connected to people. So much of that story has tragic themes: the expulsion from Eden, the Flood, the failures of the Judges and Kings of Israel, the calling of the prophets, Jesus’s life and death, the destruction of the temple and diaspora of the Jewish people, the martyrdom of the saints.
The triumph of tragedy, though, is that life leads to death, and death leads to life. If only seen from the short view of one life lost, we are left with that tragic mask on the altar. If seen as a sequence of lives, that centuries later are narrated in a series of frescos, and discovered by those who look up and contemplate, that death may lead to a better realization of life.