Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. His books provide a contemporary history of the Roman Empire beginning with the death of Caesar Augustus in AD 14 and ending with the death of emperor Domitian in AD 96.
His work Annals is important to many Christian scholars, as Tacitus provides an account of the persecution of early Christians by Nero, in which he seemingly confirms some of the events recorded in the gospels.
The final work of Tacitus was Ab excessu divi Augusti, dubbed Annals, written circa AD 117. It is a collection of sixteen books covering the history of Roman emperors starting at the death of Caesar Augustus (AD 14) and ending with the death of Nero (AD 68). The books cover the reigns of Caesars Tiberius (AD 14-37), Caligula (37-41), Claudius (41-54), and Nero (54-68). The focus is mainly on Tiberius and Nero, as some of the books have not been found.
Book 15 of Annals provides this account of the persecution of Christians (Annals, 15.44):
- Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty (i.e., Crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. 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.
In this passage, Tacitus is making reference to a fire that burned a large portion of Rome in AD 64. In an attempt to quell the rumor that he had started it, Nero blamed the fire on Christians dissidents, and subsequently arrested, tortured, and executed Christians en masse (though it was clearly Tacitus' opinion that Nero simply disliked Christians; the fire was just an excuse).
To modern Christians this passage is important because, in their opinion:
- Tacitus provides a non-canonical, contemporary account confirming the historicity of Christ.
- He confirms the story of Christ's crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate.