Return to Martyrdom
"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" (Roman History, LXII.18.2). Tacitus goes on to relate that innumerable buildings and temples were lost, including ancient shrines, the spoils of earlier victories, "the glories of Greek art, and yet again the primitive and uncorrupted memorials of literary 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, Natural History, 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, 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, Ecclesiastical History, II.25.5-8; Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, XXXVI).
It therefore is not surprising that Nero was perceived by Christians as a persecutor of their faith. For Eusebius, he was "the first that persecuted this doctrine" (II.25.4); for Tertullian, "the first emperor who dyed his sword in Christian blood, when our religion was but just arising at Rome" (Apology, V); for Sulpicius Severus, "he who first began a persecution" of Christians (Chronicle, II.28).
After Nero's suicide in AD 68, there was a widespread belief, especially in the eastern provinces, that he was not dead and somehow would return (Suetonius, LVII; Tacitus, Histories II.8; Dio, LXVI.19.3). Suetonius (XL) relates how court astrologers had predicted Nero's fall but that he would have power in the East. And, indeed, at least three false claimants did present themselves as Nero redivivus (resurrected). The first, who sang and played the cithara or lyre and whose face was similar to that of the dead emperor, appeared the next year but, after persuading some to recognize him, was captured and executed (Tacitus, II.8). Sometime during the reign of Titus (AD 79-81) there was another impostor who appeared in Asia and also sang to the accompaniment of the lyre and looked like Nero but he, too, 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 hardly could be persuaded to give him up (Suetonius, LVII), 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 of 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 perceives 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" (Instructions, 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 he committed suicide. Even if Nero did kill himself with a sword, it was believed that the wound had healed and that he would recover, as foretold in Revelation, and return at the end of the world to work the mystery of iniquity (Chronicle, 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 On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 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" (The City of God, XX.19.3).
In the apocalyptic Revelation of John, Nero is the second beast who, through miracles and the threat of death, compels the worship of the first beast. Moreover, the second beast marks everyone with its own mark, without which "no man might buy or sell" (13:17). "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). The riddle seems to have been forgotten almost as soon as it was written and not solved until 1835, seemingly because the number was assumed to be in Greek or Latin—and not Aramaic. And, to be sure, it is intriguing that 666 encodes the name of Nero in Hebrew when Revelation, itself, was written in Greek.
In ancient Greek and Hebrew, letters also represented numerals (as 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 isopsephia by the Greeks and gematria by the Jews (which, in cabalistic practice, has been used to interpret Hebrew scripture). Suetonius relates an example of isopsephia when he records that graffiti appeared in both Greek and Latin lampooning Nero after he had his own mother killed: "A calculation new. Nero his mother slew" (Life of Nero, XXXIX.2). In Greek, both Nero (Neron) and "killed his own mother" have the same numerical value (1005).
If the Greek spelling of Nero Caesar (Neron Kaisar) is transliterated into Hebrew (nrwn qsr), the numerical equivalent is 666—although it should be remembered that this number was not represented as a figure but as letters of the alphabet or written in full. The "number of the beast" was not expressed as "666" (indeed, discrete Arabic numerals would not be invented for another five hundred years) but by the phrase hexakosioi hexekonta hex or the numerical values of the Greek letters themselves, chi (600), xi (60), and stigma (6).
But what is curious is not so much that 666 can be decoded to signify Nero but that the name is encoded in this particular number, especially since it could have been represented as readily in other ways. It only is when the words are transliterated from Greek into Hebrew and then calculated 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 being transliterated in "Neron" (nrwn instead of nrw) but not in "Caesar" (qsr instead of qysr), although these forms do appear in the Talmud and a contemporary Aramaic scroll from Qumran.
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, proclaimed his divinity on coins as the "Savior and Benefactor of the World," and was the first emperor to persecute Christians—signifies the Antichrist. Indeed, the procurator of Judea (c. AD 60) refers to Nero as "my lord" (kyrios), the same title applied to Jesus (Acts 25:26).
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). If "Neron Caesar" is correct, it may be that the Latin was transcribed incorrectly, perhaps because the copyist realized that this transliteration did not equate to 666 and so omitted the letter, which changed the sum to 616. Still, each digit of 666 is one less than seven, the perfect number, and such mathematical play may have tended to establish 666, rather than 616.
Regardless of the number, Nero is the only name that can account for both 666 and 616, which is the most compelling argument that he, and not some other person, such as Caligula or 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, "for it is the number of a man." That other personages can be considered is a quirk of letter numeration. While it is a simple matter to determine the value of a word or phrase by adding the numerical equivalent of its letters, it is impossible to reverse the process with certitude. The number alone is not sufficient to determine the corresponding word; for that, there needs to be additional information.
Writing a century later, Irenaeus is the first church father to comment on the number of the beast, although he did not know what the number actually encoded and warns against "making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved" (Against Heresies, V.30.3). He understood John's vision to have occurred "almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign," a tradition repeated by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (III.18.3) and by the church fathers—which is to say sometime before AD 96, when the emperor was assassinated and just a few years before John himself died of old age, having been banished to the island of Patmos, where Revelation was written.
For Irenaeus, the name of the Beast "possesses the number six hundred and sixty-six, since he 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) which, he says, came in the six hundredth year of Noah. By analogy, too, the golden image set up by Nebuchadnezzar (who cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace) was sixty cubits high and six cubits wide (cf. Daniel 3:1ff). This "being the state of 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).
Nero, too, was the sixth emperor, counting from Julius Caesar (as did Suetonius, for example, and Josephus, cf. Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.2.2, where Tiberius is identified as the third). "And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come" (Revelation 17:10). The sixth (and last) of the Julio-Claudian emperors, it is Nero who "is" but who has been "wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed" (13:3).
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 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, On the Embassy to Gaius, 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 a 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, XXX-XLII).
This small papyrus fragment (P115), 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.
There are four ancient codices written in uncial script that preserve the Bible in Greek: Codex Sinaiticus (British Library), Codex Vaticanus (Vatican Library), Codex Alexandrinus (British Library), and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (National Library of France), the latter which also has the number of the Beast as hexakosiai deka hex (616). Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus record 666. Codex Vaticanus does not include Revelation.
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.
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