There are no known detailed records of persecutions of Christians dating from the 1st century in the annals of Rome aside from those attributed to Nero. Tacitus wrote his History of Rome 50 years beyond Nero’s reign, and his is the sole complete historical source from near to that time. He recorded from Octavian through Nero and included Nero’s persecutions. He mentions that he had access to the records, or that the information had been directly told him by witnesses – but he was not an eyewitness to the events. He also records nothing that might be identified as a persecution at any other point in the first century. Furthermore, though living and writing during the reign of Domitian and Trajan, he does not mention any persecutions by those emperors or during their reigns. To be more than fair, Tacitus (and many others) may not have understood what Christianity was — as he first called it a superstition, which was a common designation then, and something that was typically stated about any religion other than the Roman Pantheon or Emperor worship. Listed are incidents and reports on the treatment of certain individuals and groups, again only during the reign of Nero. But with that noted, it is so easy for us to imagine that the emperors who followed Nero would have used the same tools to rid the population of “atheists.” That single thought may explain the start of many of the theories that have cropped up throughout time.
As I understand it, of the histories of Cassius Dio, only five partial volumes covering BC 65 through 68 AD have survived. He also was not a witness to many of the events he recorded. Quotes of his historical writings related to periods beyond these mentioned are found in later external sources and can only be attributed through others. However, in both his and the histories of Suetonius (a contemporary chronicler of Rome), there is just one case both mentioned. That case was the trial of Flavius Clemens and Domitilla, man and wife, charged as “atheists” under Domitian hand. Unfortunately, the recorders nowhere stated that they were Christians. Some historians assumed they were Christians (Lightfoot and Gibbon among them). Yet there is no mention of any religion in the accounts. The couple was charged and convicted. Clemens was executed and Domitilla banished. Upheld upon this fragile thread, they were later accounted as martyrs; and were the only ones mentioned by name under the direct hand and intervention of Domitian. This is precisely as noted – the only specific case with any historical evidence behind it from the reign of Domitian. Facts are funny little things.
There is a mention of general persecutions by Eusebius during Domitian’s reign, yet only within the city of Rome; and in this, he was compared to Nero. No details were given, and Eusebius wrote long after the events as he was a patron of Constantine. There is a record of audience and charges being presented before Domitian in the Fragment of Hegesippus with a similar outcome. The unnamed individuals may have been Jews or some other religion other than Christians; and this record may also be referring to Flavius Clemens and wife Domitilla. Again, no religion was named. Yet that does not disallow speculation that there were probably others or more names. However, there is no existing documentation of any kind.
There are letters from magistrates to emperors (such as the well-known letters of Pliny the Younger to Trajan) dating from just beyond the reign of Domitian; and there are the incidental remarks of some of the other historians and a few uncollaborated witness accounts. But these are records also with scant detail. It is useful to note that Eusebius lists exactly 9 bishops and 92 other martyrs in his List, which encompassed the first century to the first quarter of the fourth. Friends, the math is simple. As noted: Gibbon suggested that the number who suffered at the hands of the later Bishops and Inquisitors of Rome (notably those under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella), were greater than the total number who forfeited their lives under all the emperors of Rome from Nero through Constantine.
The suggested events, at best, have no contemporaneous surviving records. There is no hard evidence that any incidents occurred. It is important to read the histories and not to depend on quotations from much later sources or theorists. I state that again about these notes as well. You should do the research for yourself, if this bears any importance for you. It is not until the reign of Trajan (who, as noted, followed Nerva and Domitian in 98 AD), and during the reigns of the emperors leading into first quarter of the second century where you find records of persecutions and executions of Christians.
In conclusion, nothing substantive was recorded of early persecutions excepting to those attributed to Nero. The contemporary records were very limited, and there are no other existing written sources for at least another century. Yet some have stated that there were more than a few, and many hundreds if not thousands of souls who lost their lives during these times. None of that can be substantiated or verified. The fact is – there are no facts available to stand a theory upon. There is nothing to date to validate these statements.
What is being questioned is whether there was a sanctioned and progressive program against the early Christians. There certainly had been against the Jews in Jerusalem. But the evidence does not exist to allow extending that list over to the Christians. So, I suggest that the persecutions of the end of first century were not progressive, organized, or long lived, and that they stayed that way well to the end of the first quarter of the second century. There may have been moves against small segments of the Christian population in various places which were politically inspired. But nothing was ever recorded, and there is no record of any official policy found anywhere in the records of the Roman Empire.
J. B. Lightfoot expressed that the laws discouraging the following of any religion against the state religion had always been in place in Rome:
“The law was there, if any one were disposed to call it into action. But for long period of time it lay dormant. Only now and then the panic of a populace, or the bigotry of a magistrate, or the malice of some influential personage, awoke it into activity. Sometimes it was enforced against one or two individuals, sometimes against collective numbers. But, as a rule, there was no disposition to deal hardly with the Christians, who were for the most part peaceful and industrious citizens. In this respect Christianity was on the same footing with other prohibited religions…The good emperors, as a rule, were not more friendly to Christianity than the bad.
…The Roman religion was essentially political. The deification of the dead emperor, the worship of the genius of the living emperor, were the direct logical result of this political system. An arbitrary, unscrupulous prince might disregard this system; a patriotic Roman could not. Hence the tragic fact that the persecutions of Trajan and M. Aurelius were amongst the severest on record in the early church. On the other hand, the Christians had almost as much to hope, as to fear, from the unscrupulousness of a bad emperor. If the caprice of a Nero persecuted them, the caprice of a Commodus not only spared but favored them.”
Lightfoot J. B. The Apostolic Fathers, Part Two, Volume One. Grand Rapids; Baker Book House. 1981 reprint of the 1890 edition. 17.
Considering these points, arguments and sources, it seems to me that the book or Revelation was composed and published a few years prior to the end of Nero’s reign rather than later in Domitian’s or beyond. It is clear that there was no general sanctioned persecution of Christians by the early Romans or their emperors. There was no persecution of Christians at all under Domitian (or from anyone preceding him), that would allow painting him as any worse a tyrant than the rest. There are no historical records available to base the modern theories upon. There were specific persecutions by some local governments, or limited issues from magistrates and leaders. Yet there is nothing of the sort that some teachers, historians and latter-day theorists have proclaimed; and there is no written record from those times validating any version.
It should not be overlooked that many of the emperors of Rome were egoists. Domitian had one of his consuls executed for jokingly hailing another consul as emperor. Many of the emperors were practitioners of ambivalent moral and sexual behaviors which were common to the Roman society too. At least one was considered insane. Most were connivers, murderers or sanctioned the same activities. Concerning character, citizens might be imprisoned or executed on a whim, or stripped of their citizenship and turned over to the Circus or later to the Coliseum. A crime as simple as not paying homage to the Roman gods was an easy way to rid communities of unwanted neighbors, disliked minor officials, or persons that were viewed as atheists or more accurately just simply outsiders.
With this noted, I must suggest the New Testament and the records of the historians such as these introduced indicate that an early date more adequately displayed prophecies projecting toward the widening scale of persecutions than one at the end of, or beyond the end of the First Century AD. Indeed Trajan, some of the Antonines and Severans, all seemed to be indiscriminate in their selection of those considered as atheists against Rome, and all reigned at or beyond the end of the first century to the last quarter of the Third Century.
The persecutions during the reign of Nero fill up the early signs of coming trials for Christians. As identified: if the death of the two best known Apostles was not a good enough reason to view the persecution of Nero as a great period of tribulation, it would be difficult to suggest what might. You should know that the God of Heaven and Earth takes the persecution of any of His “children” seriously. It does not take a huge body count to get His attention.
If the book had been written in 96 AD many of the events and deeds would have been out in plain sight, and the Christians would not have benefitted from a warning after the fact.