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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Nero

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The future Emperor Nero received at birth, 15th December, 37, the names Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father was Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul, a.d. 32), on the mother’s side grandnephew of the Emperor Augustus, and his mother was Iulia Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus (died a.d. 59) and great-granddaughter of Augustus. Both were persons of ungovernable temper and immoral character, and from the first their son had little chance of leading a noble life. Gnaeus died in the year 40 when his son was barely three years old, and Agrippina, possessed by limitless ambition, schemed soon after for a second marriage, with no less a person than the reigning Claudius himself (Emperor a.d. 41-54; see under Claudius), in spite of the fact that he was her uncle. Agrippina became the fourth wife of Claudius in a.d. 49, such marriages having been legalized by the Senate (Tac. Ann. xii. 5-6). She procured the recall of the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca and made him instructor of her son. At the same time he was betrothed to Claudius’ daughter Octavia. In the year 50 Claudius adopted Domitius, who thus became Tiberius Claudius Drusus Germanicus Caesar (according to another view, Lucius Claudius Nero). Next year the young man assumed the dress of manhood and was given the consulship. At the same time Afranius Burrus, his military instructor, was made prefect of the praetorian guards. In a.d. 53 the marriage with Octavia took place. Claudius’ own son Britannicus (born 12th Feb. 41), who had been steadily pushed further and further into the background, happened to have to leave Rome through illness in the year 54. This gave Agrippina her opportunity, and with the help of two professional poisoners Claudius was put to death on 13th October. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or, as he is later called, Imperator Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was saluted Imperator by the soldiers, and their acclamation was ratified by the Senate. Among his private relationships during his reign may be mentioned his passion for his Greek mistress Acte, his marriage in a.d. 62 with Poppaea Sabina, wife of M. Saluius Otho (one of his successors in the Empire), and the banishment and murder of his first wife Octavia at her instance. In a.d. 63 a daughter was born to Nero and Poppaea, but the child died shortly afterwards. His marriage with the male Pythagoras took place in a.d. 64, and in 65 the death of Poppaea. In 55 Nero had Britannicus poisoned and in 59 his mother was put to death by his order. She had committed every sin for his advancement, but had become intolerable. Nero died by his own hand or that of a slave on 9th June, 68, leaving no descendant behind him. With him the Caesarian race, weakened by intermarriage, debauchery, and madness, came to an end.

A brief summary of the chief events of Nero’s reign may now be given. It has become customary to repeat that his first five years were a model period of government. There was some difficulty in holding this view, considering what the historians have to tell us. But J. G. C. Anderson and F. Haverfield have recently pointed out (see under Literature) that this opinion, put into the mouth of the Emperor Trajan by the late compiler Aurelius Victor (Liber de Caesaribus, ch. 5), does not refer to the first five years, does not perhaps refer to any specific five years, but if it does, refers rather to the last five years, and in any case touches only Nero’s building operations. His reign is best divided into two periods-the first from 54 to 62, when the State was under the joint administration of Seneca and Burrus, and the second from 62 to 68, when it was under the Emperor’s sole rule. Neither period was undistinguished for good, and indeed the machinery of government was so perfected by Augustus that the mad behaviour of an Emperor scandalized only the inhabitants of Rome, and had no effect on the provinces, in which the real life of the Roman Empire lay. The administration of Seneca and Burrus led to the strengthening of the power of the Senate. It also led to the overthrow of Agrippina’s influence, which had been most powerful at the first. Nero’s policy seems at first to have been one of laissez faire. He was very young and fond of pleasure, and gratified his tastes to the full. The historians are occupied with details of his doings, and tell us little about Italian or Roman affairs.

In the year 58 the Emperor proposed to establish ‘free trade.’ The object of this proposal was to relieve the people and to get rid of a method of taxation attended with much injustice. The producers and capitalists, on whom extra burdens would thus have been imposed, were able to strangle the scheme at birth. The Imperial purse, depleted through extravagance, was replenished by confiscation. About 61 or 62 began the depreciation of the gold and silver coinage, from which Rome never completely recovered. Nero also deprived the Senate of the right to issue copper coinage. This was a serious blow, as the exchange value of the copper always exceeded the value of the metal, and the Senate could thus coin credit-money to any amount. On 19th July, a.d. 64, the great fire in Rome broke out; it lasted for a week, and destroyed an immense area of property. The occasion was used to build broader streets and finer buildings. The reign of Nero is conspicuous for the lives of prominent Stoics, particularly Paetus Thrasea, men of courage and virtue among the noblest the world has ever seen. They stood for the old republican regime, and were particularly in evidence in the Senate. These, as well as rich men in no way connected with them, were victims of a policy of wholesale murder associated with the last six years or so of Nero’s reign. It was not surprising that, while the generality of the Senate were paralyzed with terror, a powerful conspiracy should have arisen against the maniac on the throne. The leader chosen was C. Calpurnius Piso, and the plot had been brewing since 62. In 65 all the arrangements were complete, but at the eleventh hour the Emperor was informed, and Piso, Seneca the philosopher, Lucan, the author of the rhetorical epic De Bello Civili (often, but wrongly, called Pharsalia), and others, met their death. Nero’s own fall was the result of the revolt of C. Iulius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugudunensis, with whom Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, allied himself. Vindex was defeated by Verginius Rufus, governor of Southern Germany, but Galba became Emperor.

External affairs during Nero’s reign bulk more largely than internal. Two provinces were added to the Roman Empire-Pontus Polemoniacus in Northern Asia Minor, by the gift of Polemo, and the Alpes Cottiae, on the death of Cottius (Suet. Nero, 18). But it was in the extreme east on the one hand, and the extreme west on the other, that the most important events took place-in Armenia and in Britain. Britain had been made a province in 43, but pacification was impossible without hard and exhausting warfare. Real progress was made under the governorship of Suetonius Paulinus, who in 61 captured Mona (Anglesey). There followed a great rising of the Iceni (under Boudicca) and the Trinouantes. Camalodunum (Colchester), the Roman colonia, was burnt, and Londinium and Verulamium (St. Albans) were captured by the insurgents. A great slaughter of the Romans and their allies was followed by the victory of Paulinus and the suicide of Boudicca.

The Eastern campaigns of Nero’s reign are imperishably connected with Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, one of the greatest generals of the Roman Empire. There had been for some time a struggle between the Romans and the Parthians, their hereditary enemies, for the possession of Armenia. Rival pretenders to the throne of that country were supported, one by Rome, the other by Parthia. When Nero came to the throne, a Parthian prince, Tiridates, was ruling over Armenia. Corbulo’s troops at first were insufficient and many of them were unfit for service. Much time was lost in training them and in parleying with Tiridates. Artaxata was captured in 58. The surrender of Tigranocerta resulted in the defeat of Tiridates and the establishment of a new king in 60, but circumstances led to an arrangement with Parthia by which Tiridates was permitted to return in the next year. This arrangement was not ratified by the home government, and Armenia had to be conquered again. The new governor of Cappadocia, Lucius Caesennius Paetus, proved incompetent, and his army had to capitulate. Corbulo declined to interfere. Paetus was recalled, and Corbulo undertook the government of Cappadocia. The result was that Tiridates had to go to Rome and receive his crown from Nero as a suppliant (a.d. 66). Corbulo’s success throughout seems to have been due in part to his skilful subordinate, Vettius Bolanus (Statius, Siluae, v. ii. 31-47), but it did not prevent his suicide by Nero’s command in Greece (a.d. 67). The severe discipline and hardship of these Oriental campaigns provide a contrast to the Imperial excesses at Rome. The spread of Christianity to Western Europe presents another.

The latter part of St. Paul’s missionary activity coincides with Nero’s reign. It was to Nero’s tribunal that St. Paul appealed (Acts 25:11); it was also among the slaves and freedmen of his household that he found many of his fellow-Christians in Rome (Philippians 4:22; cf. Romans 16). It was on a capital charge that St. Paul had been arraigned, and in such cases a Roman citizen could appeal from the court of a procurator to the Emperor himself. There are inconsistencies in the Acts narrative (cf. Mommsen’s article mentioned below, pp. 92, 93 = p. 443) of the preliminaries, but we need have no doubt that St. Paul did as a matter of fact appear before the Emperor in Rome. Whether acquittal or condemnation was the result, and whether in the former case St. Paul had to stand a second trial, which resulted in condemnation, are questions which lie outside the scope of the present article. Whatever be the truth in this matter, there is a consensus of opinion that Nero was the first Emperor to persecute the Christians. The Church always believed this (cf. Ambrosiaster, writing in Rome about 375, in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 : ‘mysterium iniquitatis a Nerone cceptum est, qui zelo idolorum et apostolos interfecit,’ etc.), and, according to a very early interpretation of the number of the Best in the Apocalypse (13:18), Neron Ḳesar is there referred to (confirmed by a Western variant, 616, which means the Latin form Nero, as against the Greek form Neron, 666-616 being = 50, represented in Greek by v [n]). The narrative of Tacitus (Ann. xv. 44) connects the evil treatment of the Christians with the great fire of the year 64. The Emperor’s behaviour on that occasion was in many ways to be commended, but the story that he sat on the roof of his palace playing the harp during the conflagration (add Augustine, Sermons, ccxcvi. 7, to the authorities usually quoted) makes the narrative of the horrible death of the Christians, condemned for incendiarism, quite credible. The first Christians met their death in Rome as scapegoats, not because it was illegal to be a Christian. That stage is later; how much later is debated.

Some summing up of Nero’s character may be attempted, though it seems hardly fair to judge a man who was only thirty-one at his death, and was undoubtedly afflicted with madness. There is perhaps less good that can be said of him than of any other Roman Emperor. That he was prodigal and licentious to an astounding degree cannot be denied. All the savings of the Emperor Claudius were dispersed by his wastefulness, as were those of Tiberius by his successor Gains (Caligula). It may also be truly said that he had no conception of the Imperial dignity. He had much of the mountebank about him, and his musical and other performances on the public stage made him ridiculous. He was childish enough to enter into poetic rivalry with his subject Lucan. Though lazy by contrast with his class in governmental duty, he might have attained some eminence in the arts, and in these only, under other circumstances.

Literature.-The chief ancient authorities are Tacitus, Ab Excessu Diui Augusti, bks. xiii.-xvi.; Suetonius, Life of Nero. The best modern book is B. W. Henderson, The Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero, London, 1903 (particularly good on Corbulo’s campaigns); J. B. Bury, A History of the Roman Empire, do., 1893, chs. xvi., xvii., xviii. On the quinquennium Neronis, see the epoch-making article ‘Trajan on the Quinquennium Neronis,’ by J. G. C. Anderson (with note by F. Haverfield), in JRS [Note: RS Journal of Roman Studies.] i. [1911] 173-179. On the Neronian household, see J. B. Lightfoot’s excursus in the Epistle to the Philippians 4, London, 1878; on St. Paul’s legal position under Nero, see Mommsen’s article ‘Die Rechtsverhältnisse des Apostels Paulus,’ in ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft.] ii. [1901] 81-96=Gesammelte Schriften, iii. [Berlin, 1907] 431-446; on Nero as persecutor of Christians, cf. C. F. Arnold, Die Neronische Christenverfolgung, Leipzig, 1888; W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire3, London, 1894, ch. xi.; E. G. Hardy, Studies in Roman History, do., 1906, ch. iv.; on Nero and Lucan, W. B. Anderson, in Queen’s Quarterly, xiv. [1906-07] 196-214.

A. Souter.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nero'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/n/nero.html. 1906-1918.


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the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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