Christianity celebrates the weak triumphing over the strong. The Crucifixion of St Peter (detail), Caravaggio, 1601

April 10, 2020   7 mins

The women who came to tend the tomb in the garden had no doubt that their Lord was dead. They had personally arrayed his body in shining white vestments, and then, when all was ready, laid his physical remains to rest. Rejected as he had been by his own people, legally condemned as an enemy of Rome, brought to a squalid and ignominious end, his defeat had seemed total. What victory could there possibly be in the wake of such a death?

Yet then something miraculous happened. Spreading from east to west across the Mediterranean, travelling along the great network of roads and shipping lanes that constituted the arteries of the Roman Empire, news began to spread that this man whose mortal remains supposedly lay entombed in the grave had been seen alive. Most people, of course, scoffed at such reports — but there were some, small communities of believers, who did not. These, even as the decades passed, kept the faith: the conviction that their saviour would come again, that he would reign, in the words of a widely circulated prophecy, as “the king of Jerusalem”, that he would bring to groaning humanity a universal peace.

In the event, Nero did not come again. Despite the various imposters who appeared in the wake of his death in AD 68, and the fact that, centuries later, there were cities in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire that still honoured his memory, his fate was to be commemorated, not as a saviour, but as a monster. And so, in numerous ways, he was. His readiness to have members of his own family — mother, brother, wife — put to death ensured that when he himself died the dynasty of the Caesars perished with him.

His sex games were notorious. He was darkly rumoured to have set fire to Rome. By the time that Suetonius, half a century after his death, came to write his biography, the details of his life could be structured almost entirely as a catalogue of deviancies and crimes. “Insolence, an uninhibited sexual appetite, dissipation, greed, cruelty: these were the vices which, to begin with — because he gave expression to them only secretly and incrementally — might well have been chalked up as the excesses of youth, had it not been manifest to everyone even at the time that they were failings, not of age, but of character.”

Nero’s rule had become one protracted blasphemy against the customs of the Roman state. These, hallowed by the centuries, enabled the people of a city that had conquered most of the known world to feel a sense of communion still with the mos maiorum: the customs of their distant ancestors. To no class of society was this more important than the Senate, which still, despite the collapse of Rome’s venerable republican order and its replacement by the autocracy of the Caesars, cherished its time-honoured role as the guardians of tradition.

Augustus, the founder of the Caesars’ monarchy, had succeeded in securing it, paradoxically, by veiling the brute reality of his power. Other emperors too had made an effort to parade their respect for constitutional and moral proprieties. Nero, however, had found the pretensions of the Senate tedious. Over the course of his reign, his boredom with them had metastasised. Increasingly, he had sought to break free from the prescriptions of what he saw as a crabbed and superseded order by creating his own reality. The Senate, wounded and demoralised by a rising swell of executions, had appeared powerless to resist him. In the end, only a series of military uprisings across the empire had been sufficient to topple Nero, and back him into taking his own life. The hatred for him shown by writers such as Suetonius reflected the hatred of an elite that had found all its priorities, all its values, all its assumptions enduring sustained attack.

But the desperation on the part of many to believe that Nero was not truly dead, and that he would come again, reflected the fact that not everybody had loathed him. The readiness of people to put their faith in him as a supernatural saviour derived from the very aspects of his reign that had so offended the political elites. When Nero took to the stage, playing on the lyre or acting the parts of ancient heroes, he had been trampling on everything that Roman traditionalists held sacred. Those who made a show of their bodies before the public gaze, draping themselves in exotic costumes and speaking other people’s lines, were regarded by upstanding citizens as little better than whores.

But across the Greek world, and even in Rome itself, there were many who had found themselves enraptured by Nero’s command of fantasy and spectacle. To rule as a Caesar was to play a part. Sometimes, when Nero took to the stage, his mask had been painted to look like the hero he was playing, sometimes to look like himself. No one had been able to mistake the point that was being made. The events of Nero’s life, its many trials and tribulations, were as worthy a subject of drama as anything conjured up by the ancient tragedians. This was why, far from attempting to veil the murder of his mother, he had drawn attention to it as publicly as he possibly could by playing a famous matricide from Greek mythology. Nero had enabled his public to believe that heroes once again were treading the earth.

And not just heroes. As a literally colossal memorial to his reign, Nero had left behind in Rome a statue of that golden charioteer of the heavens, the Sun. There had been, though, in the contours of the god’s original face, more than a suggestion of a second famous charioteer. The Colossus, as the bronze had come to be known, “was designed to resemble the Emperor”. In other ways too, Nero had sought to offer to mortals the spectacle of a god become man. In the rumoured overthrow of his predecessor as emperor; in his rapes; in his mastery of metamorphosis, making humans into beasts and men into women, he had adopted the character not just of the Sun but of Zeus himself, the lord of the gods.

If many among the people loved him, then this was in part because Nero had offered them the chance to share in his conflation of the heavenly with the earthly. In the wake of the great fire that, in 64, had destroyed much of Rome, he had planted a park in the very centre of the city. The sprawling lawns, lakes and forests that surrounded what he termed his ‘Golden House’ had offered to the masses a feel of fresh breezes, a break from the monotony of smoke and brick, a hint of the pavilions of the immortals on Mount Olympus.

Senators, of course, had hated it. The loss of Rome’s familiar sights to countryside had borne witness precisely to what they had always found most disorienting about Nero: his ability to dissolve the boundaries of everything that they had previously taken for granted. So it was that they had accused him of starting the fire deliberately, as a way of clearing a space for his building plans; and so it was that Nero, looking to shift the blame, had fixed on convenient scapegoats. These culprits, even by Nero’s own taboo-busting standards, embodied everything that decent citizens had always most dreaded about moral upheaval: the adherents of a sinister cult whose motivation was nothing less than, in the words of a Roman historian, “their hatred for the norms of human society”.

‘Christians’, these deviants were called, after their founder, ‘Christus’, a criminal who had been crucified in Judaea some decades before, under a previous Caesar. Nero, ever fond of a spectacle, had displayed a vengefulness worthy of the Olympian gods. Some of the condemned, dressed in animal skins, had been torn to pieces by dogs. Others, lashed to crosses, had been smeared in pitch and used as torches to illumine the night. Nero, riding in his chariot, had mingled with the gawping crowds. Suetonius would include his persecution of the Christians in the list — a very short one — of the positives of his reign.

Among those put to death, so later tradition would record, was a man who in time would come to be viewed as the very keeper of the doors of heaven. In 1601, in a church that had originally been built on the site of the tomb where Nero’s two nurses and his first great love had buried him, a painting was installed that paid homage, not to the notorious Caesar, but to the outcast origins of the city’s Christian order.

The artist, a young man from Milan by the name of Caravaggio, had been commissioned to portray a crucifixion: not of Christ himself, but of his leading disciple. Peter, a fisherman who, according to the Gospels, had abandoned his boat and nets to follow Jesus, was said to have become the bishop of the very first Christians of Rome. Since his execution in the wake of the great fire, more than 200 men had held the bishopric: an office which brought with it a claim to primacy over the entire Church, and the honorary title of ‘Pappas’ or ‘Father’ — ‘Pope’.

Over the course of the 15 centuries and more that had followed Peter’s death, the authority of the popes had waxed and waned; but nevertheless, even though much diminished from its heyday, it remained in the lifetime of Caravaggio a formidable thing. The artist, however, knew better than to celebrate its pomp, its splendour, its wealth. The earthly greatness of the Papacy was turned — literally — on its head.

Peter, the story went, had demanded to be crucified upside down, so as not to share in the fate of his Lord; and Caravaggio, choosing as his theme the very moment when the heavy cross was levered upwards, portrayed the first pope as he had authentically been — as a peasant. No ancient artist would have thought to honour a Caesar by representing him as Caravaggio portrayed Peter: tortured, humiliated, stripped almost bare. And yet, in the city of Nero, it was a man broken to such a fate who was honoured as the keeper of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The utter strangeness of Easter does not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. As Nero well knew, the border between the heavenly and the earthly had always been viewed as permeable. Divinity in the Roman world, however, was understood to be for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and Caesars. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself; to have a person stabbed in the womb, or gelded and made to live forever as a member of the opposite sex, or smeared in pitch and set to serve as a human torch.

That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. Nero, charging the Christians with arson and hatred of humanity, seems not to have undertaken any detailed interrogation of their beliefs — but doubtless, had he done so, he would have been revolted and bewildered.

Radically though Nero had sought to demonstrate to the world that the divine might be interfused with the human, the Christians he had tortured to death believed in something infinitely more radical. There was but the one God, and His Son, by becoming mortal and dying the death of a slave, had redeemed all of humanity. Not as an emperor but as a victim he had come. The message was novel beyond the wildest dreams even of a Nero; and was destined to endure long after all his works, and the works of the Caesars, had crumbled into dust.

This Sunday, when billons of people around the globe celebrate the triumph over death of a man laid in a tomb in a garden, the triumph they celebrate will not be that of an emperor. “For God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX