The appearance of three False Neros in the two decades after the emperor’s death in 68 was not the only ‘afterlife’ that Nero had. He became increasingly associated with a legend that he was not dead, no matter how long-lived that made him, and was waiting to return to reclaim his throne. This legend that saw him connected to some of the more prominent beliefs in the burgeoning faith of Christianity.
Similarly, it is not at all clear how much influence the three False Neros might have had on the development of that legend – did they influence its creation? Were they influenced by it? Or do both the impostors and the legend share the same influence? Might it be possible to see the evolution of this legend through a variety of sources?
The first/second century Greek philosopher and historian Dio Chrysostom also wrote on the phenomenon of people believing that Nero was still alive long after his death.
“…for so far as the rest of his subjects were concerned, there was nothing to prevent his continuing to be Emperor for all time, seeing that even now everybody wishes he were still alive. And the great majority do believe that he is, although in a certain sense he has died not once but often along with those who had been firmly convinced that he was still alive” (Dio Chrysostom, On Beauty 21.10).
There is not much information in this discourse of Dio with which to associate this comment with any specific False Nero. Could he be linking this yearning for the rule of Nero to the growing dislike of Domitian in some circles, which would limit it to the third impostor in 88/89? (Jones (1978), 135 dates it to 88 rather than the previous date of Trajan’s reign) Dio may instead be commenting generally on the atmosphere that spawned these impostors, which could encompass one, two or all three of them.
The pervasion of this atmosphere cannot be easily dismissed, and whether it bore or was born by the repeated ‘re-appearances’ of Nero in the second half of the first century, it seems to have had a significant impact on various religious texts, specifically in Nero’s seeming incorporation into eschatological literature and association with Judaeo-Christian portents of renewal and doom through the Nero Redivivius legend.
Several variations of the legend exist, playing on both hope and fear of Nero’s return. Suetonius would have it that Nero’s connection to such religious texts happened even before his death with astrologers predicting Nero’s downfall but also promising him “the rule of the East, when he was cast off, a few expressly naming the sovereignty of Jerusalem” (Suetonius, Nero 40.2).
The earliest written version The Jewish Sibylline Oracles saw Nero in exile, a great criminal king who had fled to the Parthians only to soon return at the head of a vast army to destroy Rome and the world (Sibylline Oracles IV.119-124, 138-139, V.137-152, 362f.; Collins (1974), 80-87) It also refers to Nero as a “purple dragon” (I.88) and a “great beast” (V.157).
By the time certain parts of the Sibylline Oracles were written, Nero would have been well over 100 years old so while they do not speak of him being reborn or revived, the leap is not far to make.
Aspects of that leap may be seen in sections of the Bible. It could be that the False Neros influenced the mentioning of false Christs and false prophets in Mark 13:21-22, but it is in the Book of Revelation where the real inferences towards Nero may appear.
The idea that Nero might return to reclaim his throne at the head of an army from across the Euphrates, possibly used by or taken from the False Neros, may have inspired the author of the Book of Revelation, who writes of the Beast being wounded in a similar fashion to Nero’s fatal injury, only for that wound to heal miraculously, which would also been similar to Nero if he had indeed survived the somewhat self-inflicted wound (Revelation 13:3; Minear (1953), 93-101).
Attempts to portray Nero in such Beastly fashion are also seen in the seeming encoding of his name as a cryptogram in the ‘Number of the Beast.’ As it might be expected, it does require some literary gymnastics and assigning numbers to certain Greco-Hebrew letters and sounds, such as n=50, r=200, w=6, q=100 and s=60, but ‘Nero Caesar’ renders the number 666… (Sanders (1918), 95-99; Klauck (2001), 690)
Perhaps then some in the late first century thought that Nero was to be Christ’s antagonist? Or could the author be using Nero as something of a cipher for Domitian? Such veiled criticism of Nero as the Beast or a harbinger of doom may well have been to protect the author and anyone found reading it.
These criticisms were also the next step in joining the Nero Redivivius legend to the Antichrist. While this connection does not seem to appear directly in these early religious texts, it was established by the third century. He was certainly connected to the Beast in the Ascension of Isaiah, an anonymous work comprised of sections from various points in the first to third century and perhaps compiled later again. Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-14 presents Nero as “a lawless king, the slayer of his mother,” a Christian persecutor, and the personification of Beliar, the Hebrew Devil, to ultimately be slain by Christ in the final battle.
The mid-third century Christian poet, Commodianus, presents the revived Nero as something of a lieutenant of the Antichrist to “be raised up from hell” to rule part of the world (Commodianus, Instructions 41).
Not all Christians shared the popular belief that Nero was the Antichrist, his precursor or lieutenant. In his On the Deaths of the Persecutors, the early fourth century convert, Lactantius, belittles the idea that Nero would return (Lactantius, DMP II.7), although in the process of doing so, he acknowledges that such a belief was still around at the time when the Roman Empire was on the cusp of Christianisation.
Even a century later, when the empire had been Christianised, St. Augustine felt the need to address Nero Redivivius in the section of the City of God which dealt with II Thessalonians 2:7. And as with Lactantius, Augustine ridicules the inferences others have made regarding Nero’s proposed reviving (as well as the attempts to have ‘Nero as the Antichrist’ appear in the writings of St. Paul), but demonstrating that these ideas were still prominent enough to need to be debunked at the turn of the fifth century (Augustine, City of God 19.3.2).
This is further seen in the early fifth century writings of Sulpicius Severus, who calls Nero, “the basest of all men, and even of wild beasts…who will yet appear immediately before the coming of Antichrist” (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, II.28-29), following Revelation in that Nero’s ‘fatal’ wound will have healed for him to be able to be a precursor to the Antichrist (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, II.29).
It is possible to see the development of the Nero Redivivius myth through Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Sibylline Oracles, Revelation and later sources, although the links are not always clear or strong and there is also considerable opposition to Nero Redivivius‘ influence on Revelation (Klauck (2001), 690 nn.28-29 lists many dissenting voices).
Collins, J.J. The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. Missoula (1974)
Jones, C.P. The Roman World of Dio Chrysostom. Cambridge (1978)
Klauck, H-J. ‘Do They Never Come Back? “Nero Redivivus” and the Apocalypse of John,’ The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63 (2001), 683-698
Kreitzer, L. ‘Hadrian and the Nero Redivivus Myth,’ ZNW 79 (1988), 92-115
Minear, P.S. ‘The Wounded Beast,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953), 93-101
Sanders, H. A. ‘The Number of the Beast in Revelation,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 37 (1918), 95-99
Van Henten, J.W. ‘Nero Redivivius Demolished: The Coherence of the Nero Traditions in the Sibylline Oracles,’ JSP 21 (2000), 3-17