Return to Martyrdom

Nero as the Antichrist

"During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made....Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition."

Suetonius, Nero (XVI.2)

The fire that began in the shops at the Circus Maximus on the night of July 18, AD 64 raged for nine days, burning itself out on the sixth and then suspiciously flaring up again on the estate of Tigellinus, Nero's praetorian prefect (Tacitus, Annals, XV.40-41; Suetonius, Life of Nero, XXXVIII). Nearly two-thirds of Rome burned, says Dio, "and countless persons perished" (LXII.18.2). Tacitus relates that innumerable buildings and temples were lost, including ancient shrines, the spoils of earlier victories, Greek masterpieces, and the records of Rome's own genius; in short, adds Suetonius, "every other interesting or memorable survival from the olden days went up in flames."

Although many of the populace believed that Nero intentionally had started the fire (Dio LXII.17.18.3; Pliny XVII.1), he himself blamed the Christians. Because of their supposed hatred of mankind, he had them thrown to dogs, nailed to crosses in his gardens, and burned alive (the traditional punishment for arson) to serve as living torches in the night (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44; this passage also contains the earliest non-Christian reference to the crucifixion). Probably taking place in the Vatican gardens, where Nero had his private racetrack, the emperor strolled among the crowd in the guise of a charioteer. It also was to Nero that Paul had appealed from the tribunal at Caesarea (Acts 25:10ff) and in whose reign Peter and Paul traditionally were thought to have been executed at Rome (e.g., Eusebius, II.25.5-8; "he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion," II.25.3).

After Nero's suicide in AD 68, there was a widespread belief in the eastern provinces, no doubt encouraged by the obscure circumstances of his death, that he was not dead at all but still was alive and somehow would return (Suetonius, LVII; Tacitus, Histories II.8; Dio, LXVI.19.3). Indeed, writes Dio Chrysostom, "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" (Discourses, XXI.10). Suetonius, too, relates how court astrologers had predicted Nero's fall but that he would have power in the East (XL.2).

At least three false claimants did present themselves as Nero redivivus (resurrected). The first appeared in AD 69, the year after Nero died. His face was similar to that of the dead emperor, and he sang and played the cithara, a type of lyre. But, after persuading some to recognize him, he was captured and executed (Tacitus, II.8). Another pretender appeared in Asia a decade later, sometime during the reign of Titus (AD 79-81). He, too, had a resemblance to Nero and sang to the accompaniment of the lyre. Seeking refuge with the Parthians, this "False Nero" later was exposed (Dio, LXVI.19.3). Twenty years after Nero's death, during the reign of Domitian, there was a third pretender. Supported by the Parthians, who surrendered him only with great reluctance (Suetonius, LVII.2), the matter almost came to war (Tacitus, I.2). Such fidelity no doubt can be attributed to the magnificent reception (and restoration of Armenia) that Tiridates, the brother of the Parthian king, had received from Nero in AD 66 (Dio, LXII.1ff).

As popular belief in Nero's actual return began to fade, he no longer was regarded as an historic figure but an eschatological one. The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah dates to the end of the first century AD and is one of the apocalyptic pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. In an interpolation, the so-called Testament of Hezekiah, Isaiah prophesies the end of the world, when Beliar (Belial) the Antichrist will manifest himself as the incarnation of the dead Nero.

"And after it [the world] has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of the world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand. This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish....And he will do everything he wishes in the world; he will act and speak like the Beloved, and will say, 'I am the Lord, and before me there was no one.' And all men in the world will believe in him" (IV.1-8).

Beliar will perform miracles and seduce the followers of Christ until, at the Second Coming, "the Lord will come with his angels and with the hosts of the saints from the seventh heaven, and will drag Beliar, and his hosts also, into Gehenna [the figurative equivalent for hell]."

Nero also possesses the attributes of the Antichrist in the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic verses attributed to the prophecies of the ancient Sibyl, who identifies herself as a native of Babylon (III.786; also Lactatius, Divine Institutes, I.6) and a daughter (or daughter-in-law) of Noah (III.808ff). In Oracle V, which dates to the late first or early second century AD, Nero has become a resurrected and demonic power symbolic of Rome, itself. "One who has fifty as an initial [the Hebrew letter "N"] will be commander, a terrible snake [the serpent or dragon], breathing out grievous war....But even when he disappears he will be destructive. Then he will return declaring himself equal to God" (V.28ff). Here, Nero is manifested as the Antichrist, "that man of sin [lawlessness]...who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God...shewing himself that he is God" (II Thessalonians, II.3-4).

The Sibyl presents Nero both as king of Rome (Oracle V, 138ff) and the means of God's retribution in destroying it (365). A matricide and megalomaniac, who presumed to cut through the isthmus of Corinth and was perceived as responsible for the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70, Nero "will come from the ends of the earth" (363) as a champion of the East and an instrument of God's punishment. He will overthrow tyrants and "raise up those who were crouched in fear" (370) before falling in a final battle against the West. Then there will be peace and "no longer will anyone fight with swords or iron or with weapons at all" (382ff). In this expectation, as in Oracle IV (119ff, 1137ff) and Oracle VIII (70ff, 153ff), one can perceive the hope raised by the False Neros among the oppressed provinces of the East.

The Christian poet Commodian (fl AD 260) also writes of the Antichrist, when Nero will return from hell.

"Then, doubtless, the world shall be finished when he shall appear. He himself shall divide the globe into three ruling powers, when, moreover, Nero shall be raised up from hell, Elias shall first come to seal the beloved ones; at which things the region of Africa and the northern nation, the whole earth on all sides, for seven years shall tremble. But Elias shall occupy the half of the time, Nero shall occupy half. Then the whore Babylon, being reduced to ashes, its embers shall thence advance to Jerusalem; and the Latin conqueror shall then say, I am Christ, whom ye always pray to; and, indeed, the original ones who were deceived combine to praise him. He does many wonders, since his is the false prophet" (Instructiones, XLI).

Writing late in the fourth century AD, Sulpicius Severus recounts the reign of Nero in his ecclesiastical history. As he was the first to persecute the Christians, so perhaps he will be the last; many believe that he will come before the Antichrist. Too, given that his body never was found, there are doubts whether Nero committed suicide. Even if he did kill himself with a sword, it was believed that the wound had healed and that he will recover, as foretold in Revelation, and return at the end of the world to work the mystery of iniquity (Chronica, II.28-29).

But not all Christians shared the popular belief that Nero was the Antichrist or his precursor. Lactantius was a converted pagan who was tutor in Latin to one of the sons of Constantine. In the early fourth century, he wrote De Mortibus Persecutorum, which recounts the fearful deaths of those who had persecuted the Christians. The death of Nero, however, frustrated this account in that some thought he had not died at all.

"and therefore the tyrant, bereaved of authority, and precipitated from the height of empire, suddenly disappeared, and even the burial-place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be seen. This has led some persons of extravagant imagination to suppose that, having been conveyed to a distant region, he is still reserved alive; and to him they apply the Sibylline verses concerning 'The fugitive, who slew his own mother, being to come from the uttermost boundaries of the earth;' as if he who was the first should also be the last persecutor, and thus prove the forerunner of Antichrist! But we ought not to believe those who, affirming that the two prophets Enoch and Elias have been translated into some remote place that they might attend our Lord when He shall come to judgment, also fancy that Nero is to appear hereafter as the forerunner of the devil, when he shall come to lay waste the earth and overthrow mankind" (II.7ff).

The same embarrassment is evident a century later, when Augustine comments on II Thessalonians 2:7.

"Some think that the Apostle Paul referred to the Roman empire, and that he was unwilling to use language more explicit, lest he should incur the calumnious charge of wishing ill to the empire which it was hoped would be eternal; so that in saying, 'For the mystery of iniquity doth already work,' he alluded to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist. And hence some suppose that he shall rise again and be Antichrist. Others, again, suppose that he is not even dead, but that he was concealed that he might be supposed to have been killed, and that he now lives in concealment in the vigor of that same age which he had reached when he was believed to have perished, and will live until he is revealed in his own time and restored to his kingdom. But I wonder that men can be so audacious in their conjectures" (De Civitate Dei, XX.19.3).

In the apocalyptic Revelation of John, a beast risen from the sea (13:1) is at war with the saints (13:7), its seven heads, one of which has been wounded but wondrously healed (13:3), representing seven kings (17:10), of which the sixth still "is."

"Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six" (13:18). This riddle as to the identity of the beast seems to have been forgotten almost as soon as it was written and not solved until 1831 (when the answer first was proposed), seemingly because the mysterious number was assumed to be Greek or Latin—and not a Hebraic one.

In both ancient Greek and Hebrew, letters also represented numerals (as they do in Latin), their values assigned according to the order of the alphabet, alpha and aelph, for example, having the numerical value of 1. By adding these values, words could be represented as the sum of their numbers. This literation of numbers and numeration of letters was known as isopsephism by the Greeks and gematria by the Jews (which, in cabalistic practice, has been used to interpret Hebrew scripture). If the Greek letters of Nero Caesar (Neron Kaisar) are transliterated into Hebrew (nrwn qsr), the numerical of these Hebrew letters equals 666. One should appreciate, by the way, that there were no numbers in Greek or Hebrew and that the "the number of the beast" was not presented as a figure but as letters of the alphabet or written in full. That is to say, it was not expressed as "666" (indeed, discrete Arabic numerals would not be invented for another five hundred years) but as the numerical values of the three letters representing 600, 60, and 6.

What is curious is not so much that 666 can be decoded to signify Nero but that the name of the emperor is encoded in this particular number, especially since it could have been represented more readily in other ways. If "Nero" is retained in Greek, for example, the numeration would be 955 or, if "Neron," 1005; in Hebrew, then 256 or 306, respectively. It only is when the Greek letters are transliterated into Hebrew that the numeration adds up to 666 (nrwn qsr, 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200). Even so, this is an alternate spelling, a letter in "Neron" being transliterated (nrwn instead of nrw) but not in "Caesar" (qsr instead of qysr), although these forms do appear in both the Talmud and a contemporary Aramaic scroll from Qumran. It is intriguing, therefore, that 666 encodes the name of Nero in Hebrew when Revelation, itself, was written in Greek.

For Watt, the significance of 666 is that its expression in Latin is the sequential Roman numerals DCLXVI, which parallels but is the antithesis of the "Alpha and Omega" that John uses to characterize both Christ (22:13) and God (1:8, 21:6). As the Deity represents the beginning and end, so the Antichrist is a reversal of the first and last, D (500) preceding I (1). To phrase this another way, 666 (or rather DCLXVI) signifies the Antichrist because that number signifies Nero, and Nero—who was a matricide, the first emperor to persecute the Christians, and proclaimed his divinity as the "Savior and Benefactor of the World"—signifies the Antichrist. Indeed, in Acts 25:26, the Roman procurator of Judea refers to Nero as "my lord" (kyrios), the same title applied to Jesus.

If the Latin (rather than the Greek) spelling "Nero Caesar" is transliterated into Hebrew (nrw qsr), the final "n" in Neron being omitted (and its corresponding value of 50), the name computes as 616, which is the number indicated in the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament (the fragment illustrated below). It may be that the Latin was transcribed incorrectly, perhaps because the copyist realized that the transliteration did not equate to 666 ("Neron Caesar") and so omitted the letter, which changed the sum to 616. Or he may have done so deliberately to make its decipherment easier.

Still, each digit of 666 is one less than seven, the perfect number (of which John was particularly fond, having used it fifty-seven times in Revelation), and such mathematical play may have tended to establish 666, rather than 616, as "the number of the beast." Regardless, Nero is the only name that can account for both 666 and its variant 616, which is the most compelling argument that he, and not some other emperor such as Domitian was intended. Too, for the number to have any significance for a reader of the first century AD, it would have to refer to a contemporary historical figure.

Writing in the second century AD, Irenaeus was the first church father to comment on the number of the beast, although he apparently was ignorant of what it actually encoded. Indeed, he was bewildered that some thought the number to be 616. The Antichrist "sums up in his own person all the commixture of wickedness which took place previous to the deluge....and also sums up every error of devised idols since the flood" (V.29.2). The flood came in the six hundredth year of Noah and the golden image set up by Nebuchadnezzar (who Shadrach, Meshach, and Bednego refused to worship) was sixty cubits high and six cubits wide (Daniel 3:1ff). This being the case and "this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies....I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number [L] in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one" (V.30.1).

Irenaeus thought that John's vision had occurred "almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign" (Adversus Haereses, V.30.3), a tradition repeated by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, III.18.3) and the church fatherswhich is to say sometime before AD 96, when the emperor was assassinated and just a few years before John himself died of old age. Rather, his presumed banishment to Patmos (where Revelation was written) seems to have occurred almost thirty years earlier, toward the end of Nero's reign and before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, which John otherwise presumably would have mentioned.

"And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains [one recalls the seven hills of Rome], on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come" (Revelation 17:9-10). Nero is the sixth emperor, the one who "is." Suetonius, for example, established the precedent in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which begins with Julius Caesar, and Josephus identified Tiberius as the third emperor (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.2.2).

It is Nero, too, who was "wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast" (13:3)Nero redivivus, "the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed" (13:12).

John even specifies that the power given to the beast was "to continue forty and two months" (13:5). Rome was set ablaze on the night of July 18-19, AD 64 and Nero died on June 9, AD 68three years, ten months, and twenty-two days later. How closely the Neronian persecution of Christians approximates John's three years and six months depends, of course, on when it began and ended. If the persecution continued until the death of Nero himself, it would have had to begun almost five months after the fire, sometime in early December, which does seems late. Of course, it could have begun sooner, closer to the fire that provoked it, and ended some months before Nero's death, as he became increasingly preoccupied with the rebellion of Vindex, a provincial governor of Gaul, and his support of Galba, governor of Spain, as emperor (Dio, LXIII.22.1ff).

A preterist interpretation of Revelation has been accepted here (at least as it relates to the number of the beast), which interprets the eschatology described by John as having already occurred and in the past (from the Latin praeter). That is, it is presumed to have been written for an audience of the first century, its allegories intelligible to them, and before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The dating of Revelation is a contentious topic, however, and there are equally cogent arguments that it was written, as Irenaeus contended, thirty years later—"towards the end of Domitian's reign" in AD 96.

The notion of the Antichrist first finds expression in Daniel, where at the end time "the king of the north" (11:40) shall appear, defeating some nations and sparing others, persecuting the saints and putting many to death. In the Jewish Temple shall be placed "the abomination that maketh desolate" (11:31), and he shall "magnify himself above every god" (11:36). The figure here is that of Antiochus VI (Epiphanes), the king of Syria who captured Jerusalem in 167 BC and desecrated the Temple by offering the sacrifice of a pig on an altar to Zeus ("the abomination of desolation," I Maccabees, 1:54). In seeking to Hellenize the Jews, Antiochus forbade their religious practices and commanded that copies of the Law be burned, all of which is related in the apocrypha of I Maccabees (1:10ff) and by Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (XII.5.4).

Attributes of the Antichrist also have been applied to Pompey the Great, who profaned the Temple by entering the Holy of Hollies after his conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC and is called "the dragon" in the pseudepigraphic Psalms of Solomon (2:29), another epithet applied to the Antichrist (as it was to Nero in the Sibylline Oracle V).

Caligula, too, recalls the Abomination of Desolation, when, at the apocalypse, the Antichrist will be enthroned in the Temple. When, in AD 40, it was reported that Jews had demolished a statue of Caligula erected in his honor, he ordered that his image, "a colossal statue gilt all over" (Philo, CCIII), be placed in the Temple, itself, to be enforced by Petronius, the governor of Syria. There were plaintive supplications that the command be revoked, and Petronius asked that it be annulled, while delaying as much as possible the completion of the statue. The artists were admonished "to take plenty of time, so as to make their work perfect, since things which are done in a hurry are very often inferior, but things which are done with great pains and skill require a length of time" (CCXLVI). Agrippa, too, at an sumptuous banquet for the emperor, intervened and managed to have Caligula rescind the order. When the letter of Petronius arrived, Caligula, incensed at the presumption of the governor, ordered his suicide. The command was not received, however, before news of Caligula's own death (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.8; War of the Jews, II.10; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXX-XLII).

This small papyrus fragment (P.Oxy. LXVI 4499), which is dated to the late third or early fourth century, is from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri at Oxford University. Totaling 616, the numbers chi (600), iota (10), and stigma (6) are visible in the third line. Although no longer used, stigma then was the sixth letter in the Greek alphabet.  

The obverse of the aureus above declares Nero to be CAESAR AUGUSTUS and dates from about AD 54-68. It is from the Classical Numismatic Group. Other portraits are in marble.

References: Nero (2003) by Edward Champlin; The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1983-1985) by J. H. Charlesworth; "The Antichrist, Beliar, and Neronic Myth, and Their Ultimate Fusion in Early Christian Literature" (1920) by R. H. Charles, in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John; The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 [Commodian, Lactantius] (1885-1896) edited by the Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II [Augustine] (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; "666" (1989) by W. C. Watt, Semiotica, 77, 369-392; "The False Neros" (1937) by Albert Earl Pappano, The Classical Journal, 32, 385-392; Dio Chrysostom: Discourses (1939) translated by J. W. Cohoon (Loeb Classical Library).

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