It is universally recognized that Peter suffered martyrdom in Rome during Nero's time. The traditional date is 67, a date common to Peter and Paul. But while even most scholars accept this date for Paul, research—especially in recent times—tends to pre-date Peter's martyrdom to the year 64 (the year of the fire in Rome and of the first great persecution campaign against the Christians).

On the basis of these studies, including that of the epigraphologist and archeologist Margherita Guarducci, the most likely period in which the Prince of Apostles was martyred in the Vatican has been established. And she became the first to establish the day and the month as well, in an essay published in 1968.

The following text is a summary of her in-depth research taken from: "La data del martirio di san Pietro", in La Parola del passato: Rivista di studi antichi, No. 267, Naples 1968 (The Date of Peter's Martyrdom, in Words from the Past. Antiquity Studies Review).


Margherita Guarducci

The most authoritative text informing us of Peter's martyrdom in Rome is the first letter of Saint Clement the Roman to the Corinthians, generally dated at about 96 AD. In its turn, Clement's letter cannot be read apart from one famed passage of Tacitus' <Annales> (XV, 38-45), in which the historian speaks of the famous fire that flared in Rome on the night of July 18-19, 64 and of its consequences. A comparison of these two testimonies seems to show that Peter was martyred during the anti-Christian persecution campaign unleashed by Nero after the fire and that the place of his martyrdom was the Vatican's <horti.> The information Tacitus provides is undoubtedly very authoritative because the author of the Annales was writing not long after the events and he was able to quote eyewitnesses as well as from first-hand documents, such as the <Acta senatus> and the <Acta diurna>—respectively the minutes of Senate sessions and the official diaries of the Roman State.

According to Tacitus, then, the Christians whom he—as others do—describes as a "considerable multitude" (<multitudo ingens>), were condemned to death not so much for causing the fire but because they were guilty of "hatred towards the human race" (<odium human>) generic). This was a serious charge because, the identification of the human race with the empire itself meant that anyone so charged was considered an enemy of the empire. The execution of the condemned, according to Tacitus' information, took place during grandiose circus spectacles (<circense ludicrum>), for which Nero made available his own circus in the Vatican that was the principal adornment of his <horti.> It is true, too, that the Vatican circus would have been a natural choice since, after the fire, it was the only area left in Rome for the kind of spectacle Nero desired. In fact, the Circus Maximus—the usual venue for Rome's <circensia ludrica>—could not be used because of fire damage.

Tacitus goes on to add an interesting detail: Nero himself honored the Vatican spectacles with his presence, mixing with the crowd disguised as a chariot driver and racing around the circus track. The spectacles lasted for several days. The question now was establishing exactly when they were held.

October 64

Tacitus has no hesitation in establishing the year 64 for these events. If we look at the series of events the historian lists as having happened between the fire of Rome (July 18-19) and the end of the year, we can establish that the Vatican spectacles took place in the first half of October. Nor is it difficult to prove that between the end of 64 and Nero's death on June 9, 68 there are no other periods in which there was anti-Christian persecution of the type that Tacitus and Clement describe. It is also useful to note that the period between the end of September 66 and the beginning of 68 can be excluded without doubt since that was the period of Nero's travels in Greece.

But, confirming the dating proposed for the circus spectacles and, therefore, for Peter's martyrdom, are two other important, anonymous, texts in Greek contained in a papyrus conserved in Vienna today. They are the <Apocalypse of Peter> and the <Ascension of Isaiah.> I believe that these texts (belonging to the so-called "apocalyptic literature", a very common category between the end of the first century and the first half of the second which used prophetic and symbolic language to interpret historical events of the time) are so well informed on the history of the Neronian period that they must have been written not long after events in 64 (not after the year 80, perhaps). I also believe that they are the fruit of the same Judeo-Christian environment. After addressing Nero's infamies, the authors of the two texts announce his punishment as imminent. According to the author of the <Apocalypse>, it would be none other than Peter's martyrdom that would mark the beginning of the emperor's end. This statement is echoed in the <Ascension> text which affirms that Nero's kingdom would last for "three years, seven months and 27 days" after the apostle's death. If we calculate three years, seven months and 27 days from Nero's death (June 9, 68), we arrive at the year 64 and October 13 to be precise: this date falls perfectly within the period in which, according to the Tacitus passage, we have set the unleashing of Nero's persecutions.

On Nero's dies imperii

The date calculated chronologically three years, seven months and 27 days after Nero's death is confirmed by another decisive point. October 13 was not just any ordinary day. It was the anniversary of Nero's ascent to the throne, his <dies imperii>. Moreover October 13, 64 was the tenth anniversary of his reign (<decennalia>, October 13, 54/October 13, 64).

The <dies imperii> was an important date in the Romans' official calendar at the time of the empire. Numerous sources certify that between the first and fourth centuries, it was celebrated more or less solemnly with sacrifices, feasts, contests and donations to the public by the emperor. Regular features of these festivities were sacrifices and exhibitions of bloodletting according to the ancient belief that bloodshed was to the advantage of the living. In fact, it has been pointed out that in Rome the most important feasts concerning the person of the emperor—birthdays (<dies natalis>) for example, and anniversaries of his ascent to the throne—often coincided with exhibitions of bloodletting, gladiator fights, displays of the condemned (<venationes>). It has also been noted that it was on the occasion of these anniversaries that Jews and Christians would often be sacrificed. Thus for example, Jews of Alexandria were sacrificed on Caligula's <dies natalis>. Saint Polycarp's martyrdom coincides with the <dies imperii>of Antoninus Pius and that of the Christians of Lyons with the <dies imperii> of Marcus Aurelius. It is highly likely, then, that the Emperor Nero, who loved manifestations to be as spectacular as possible, would have promoted cruel spectacles for his <decennalia> (a feast when, in the person of the emperor made a god, the majesty of the Roman Empire was exalted). It is highly likely that he would have organized the execution of Christians who were already condemned on charges of being enemies of the empire.

From a study of this whole series of testimonies, we can draw two significant conclusions. Firstly the hypothesis, founded on Tacitus' testimony that Nero's persecution in which Peter also suffered martyrdom happened in October 64, is confirmed. Secondly, it appears extremely likely that we must set the date of the martyrdom of the Prince of the Apostles at October 13 that year.

Summary, The tradition's foundations

Why the date of Peter's martyrdom was established as the year 67.

The traditional date of Peter's martyrdom is the year 67. This is in contrast with information that Peter was martyred during the great wave of persecution under Nero which can only have happened in the year 64.

The traditional dating, however, rests on the oldest known testimonies of chroniclers and ecclesiastical historians. Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived between the third and fourth centuries, for example, is the author of a <Chronicon>, a type of universal chronology of the major events in civilian and ecclesiastical history. He sets Peter's arrival in Rome in the year 42 and his martyrdom at 67. Peter's sojourn in Rome has been calculated to have lasted for 25 years. This calculation could be based on one of the oldest known ecclesiastical chronologies written by Hippolytus. He presents the two figures who are generally believed to have succeeded Peter—Linus and Cletus (or Anacletus)—as having governed the Church with the apostle and not after his death. Hippolytus attributes a 12-year episcopate to both. If we add the two periods plus the year when Peter first arrived in Rome we can calculate that he was in Rome for 25 years.

The <Liber Pontificalis,> a collation of data on the first pontiffs which has come down to us in its sixth century edition, substantially accepts Hippolytus' version and deduces the following general chronology: "(Petrus) martyrio cum Paulo coronatur, post Passionem Domini anno XXXVIII" (Peter was crowned with martyrdom, together with Paul, in the 38th year after the Lord's Passion). This would set the martyrdom in the year 67, given that Jesus died and rose again at about the year 30 in the general view.

Saint Jerome, too, in his <De viris illustribus> of 392, sustains that Peter and Paul were martyred together. His source is the same tradition used by the <Liber Pontificalis>: "Et hic (Paulus) ergo decimo quarto anno Neronis eodem die quo Petrus, Romae pro Christo capite truncatur... anno post Passionem Domini trigesimo septimo" (Paul, then, was decapitated in Rome' on the same day as Peter was martyred, in the 14th year of Nero's reign, the 37th after the Lord's Passion). Although Jerome reports the 37th instead of the 38th year <post Passionem Domini,> he is also assuming the year 67 to have been the date of the two apostles' martyrdom on the basis of the 14th year of Nero's reign.

This article was taken from the No. 3, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.

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