« Nemesius, bp. of Emesa Nero, Claudius Caesar Nerva, Roman emperor »

Nero, Claudius Caesar

Nero (1), Claudius Caesar, emperor (Oct. 13, 54, to June 9, 68). For our purpose the interest of Nero's life centres in his persecution of the Christians. For his general history see Merivale, cc. lii.–lv. During his early reign Christianity was unmolested and seems to have spread rapidly at Rome. No doubt it received a great impetus from the preaching of St. Paul during the two years after his arrival, probably early in 61. But before long a terrible storm was to burst on the infant church. On the night of July 16, 64, a fire broke out in the valley between the Palatine and the Aventine. That part of the city was crowded with humble dwellings and shops full of inflammable contents. The lower parts of the city became a sea of flame. For six days the fire raged till it reached the foot of the Esquiline, where it was stopped by pulling down a number of houses. Soon after a second fire broke out in the gardens of Tigellinus near the Pincian, and raged for three days in the N. parts of the city. Though the loss of life was less in the second fire, the destruction of temples and public buildings was more serious. By the two fires three of the 14 regions were utterly destroyed, four escaped entirely, in the remaining seven but few houses were left standing. Nero was at Antium when the fire broke out, and did not return to Rome till it had almost reached the vast edifice he had constructed to connect his palace on the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline.

The horrible suspicion that Nero himself was the author of the fire gained strength. This is asserted as a positive fact by Suetonius (c. 38), Dion (lxii. 16), and Pliny the Elder (xvii. 1), the last being a contemporary, but Tacitus alludes to it only as a prevalent rumour. Whether well founded or not, and whether, supposing it true, the emperor's motive was to clear away the crooked, narrow streets of the old town in order to rebuild it on a new and regular plan, or whether it was a freak of madness, need not be discussed here. At any rate Nero found it necessary to divert from himself the rage of the people and put the blame upon the Christians.

The only author living near the time of the persecution who gives an account of it is Tacitus. After describing the origin of Christianity he proceeds: "First were arrested those who confessed, then on their information a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made more cruel by the mockery that accompanied them. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs; others perished on the cross or in the flames; and others again were burnt after sunset as torches to light up the darkness. Nero himself granted his gardens (on the Vatican) for the show, and gave an exhibition in the circus, and, dressed as a charioteer, mixed with the people or drove his chariot himself. Thus, guilty and deserving the severest punishment as they were, yet they were pitied, as they 748seemed to be put to death, not for the benefit of the state but to gratify the cruelty of an individual" (Ann. xv. 44). This narrative has been the subject of very various interpretations. Lightfoot (Phil. 24–27) considers that the Christians were at this time sufficiently numerous and conspicuous to attract the fury of the populace. The ambiguity of Tacitus leaves it doubtful whether those first arrested " confessed Christianity" or "confessed they were guilty of the burning." Schiller (Geschichte des röm. Kaiserreichs unter Nero, 435) argues that "fateri" in Tacitus is always used of the confession of a crime. According to his view, as many of the shops near the circus where the fire originated were occupied by Jews, suspicion would fall upon them, which would be strengthened by the fact that the Transtiberine, the Ghetto of that time, was one of the few quarters that had escaped the fire. At that time Jews and Christians lived in the same part of the town and in the same manner. Weiszäcker (Jahrbücher für Deutsche Theologie, xxi. 269, etc.) considers, with much probability, that Nero and his advisers having selected the Christians as the victims of the popular indignation, those first seized were conspicuous members and were charged as incendiaries, and from them the names of others were ascertained and these treated in the same way. Thus a vast number were arrested, so many that all could not have been guilty of arson. Why Nero selected the Christians must remain uncertain. The Jews, who at first sight would seem more likely scapegoats, as being more conspicuous and probably more unpopular, were strong enough to make Nero hesitate to attack them. A Jewish persecution in Rome might excite a dangerous revolt in Judea. The Christians, however, were conspicuous and numerous enough to furnish a plentiful supply of victims, but too few and weak to be formidable. From the allusions of St. Clement (Ep. to Cor. c. 6), a little more information can be obtained. Like Tacitus, he speaks of the vast multitude, and mentions that women underwent terrible and unholy tortures.

The persecution was probably confined to Rome. There is little evidence of it extending to the rest of the empire. The Acts of the saints mentioned by Tillemont (Mém. eccl. ii. 73–89) are all more or less fabulous, and even if authentic there seems little or no ground for placing them in the reign of Nero. The accounts in Acts of the journeys of St. Paul shew how easily an outbreak of popular fury might be excited by Jews or heathens, who, either on religious or private grounds, were hostile to the new doctrine, and how easily in such an outbreak a conspicuous Christian might be murdered without any state edict against Christianity, or without the public authorities interfering at all, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that, when Nero set the example of persecution, many provincial magistrates would take a harsher view than previously of the case of any Christian brought before them.

The question of the connexion between Nero and Antichrist was brought into prominence by M. Renan. The significance of the Neronian persecution lies in the fact that it was the first. Hitherto the attitude of state officials to Christianity had on the whole been favourable; at worst they treated it with contemptuous indifference. All this was now suddenly changed. The head of the state had made a ferocious attack on the infant church. Henceforth the two powers were in more or less violent antagonism till the struggle of 250 years was closed by the conversion of Constantine. Whatever the date of the Apocalypse, it can hardly be doubted that the Neronian persecution with .all its horrors was vividly present to the mind of the author. To have perished obscurely by his own hand seemed both to pagans and Christians too commonplace an end for a monster who for 14 years had filled such a place in the eyes and the minds of men. Few had witnessed his death, so that the notion easily arose that he was still alive, had taken refuge with the Parthians, and would reappear. Tacitus mentions (Hist. i. 2; ii. 8, 9) the appearance of two false Neros, and Suetonius (c. 56) alludes to another. In the days of his prosperity diviners had predicted his fall and that he would gain a new dominion in the East and Jerusalem and at last regain the empire (ib. c. 40).

According to the theory of M. Reuss (Hist. de la théol. chrétienne, i. 429–452), adopted by Renan, the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Galba, i.e. at the end of 68 or beginning of 69, when men's minds were agitated, especially in Asia Minor, by the appearance of a false Nero in the island of Cythnus (Tac. Hist. ii. 8). M. Reuss interprets the first six heads of the first beast as the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero, and Galba, of whom the first five were dead, while the sixth, Galba, was then reigning. As he was 73 years old his reign must soon terminate; a seventh was to follow and reign for a short time, after which one of the emperors supposed to be dead was to reappear as Antichrist. The first four emperors had not been hostile to the Christians, and none of them, except Caius, had died a violent death. Nero therefore alone answers the description. Finally M. Reuss interprets the number of the beast as the numerical value of the letters of the words Νέρων Καῖσαρ when written in Hebrew, and explains the existence of the ancient variant reading 616 by supposing it due to a Latin reader who had found the solution, but pronounced the name Nero and not Neron. Whether this theory be well founded or not, the opinion that Nero would return as Antichrist certainly continued for centuries. Commodianus, who probably wrote c. 250, alludes to it (xli. in Migne, Patr. Lat. v. 231), and even in the 5th cent. St. Augustine (de Civ. Dei, xx. 19, in ib. xli. 686) mentions that some then believed he would rise again and reappear as Antichrist, and that others thought he had never died, but would appear at the appointed time and recover his kingdom. Another view was that Nero would be the precursor of Antichrist (Lact. Mortes 2, Sulp. Sev. Dial. ii. 14 in Patr. Lat. vii. 197; xx. 211.)

[F.D.]

« Nemesius, bp. of Emesa Nero, Claudius Caesar Nerva, Roman emperor »





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