NERO, TITUS CLAUDIUS, Roman emperor from 54 to 68.
From the point of view of the history of Christianity, Nero is important for the ferocious persecution that he unleashed in the late summer of A.D. 64 against the Christians in Rome. The account given by Tacitus (The Annals 15.44), writing some fifty years after the event but recalling vivid memories of the time, indicates that Nero, finding himself suspected of causing the destructive fire that on 19 July 64 destroyed two entire quarters of the city of Rome, fixed on the Christians as welcome scapegoats.
Large numbers of suspected Christians were rounded up. Those who confessed to being Christians were cruelly done to death “in the Circus of Gaius and Nero on the Vatican” (Pliny the Elder’s location; Naturalis historia 36.74). Church tradition includes Peter and Paul among the victims.
Nero committed suicide in June 68, and the persecution did not spread outside Rome. However, the horrific nature of the deed imprinted itself on Christian tradition. Nero became associated with Antichrist. A legend also grew up among the populace as a whole that he would return with armies from Parthia to regain the empire. Among Christians in the third and later centuries, the two ideas were combined.
In the savage persecution under VALERIAN, that emperor may have become identified with Nero in the mind of Dionysius of Alexandria and Egyptian Christians. The “seventh year of Valerian” (A.D. 259), bringing persecution to its climax, paralleled the then proverbial “seventh year of the divine Nero” (A.D. 60), which presaged the onset of the Neronian years of tyranny. The association Nero-Antichrist did not die out with the end of the persecution, but for a long time continued to find its place in Coptic mythology.
- Beaujeu, J. “L’Incendie de Rome en 64 et les chrétiens.” Latomus 19 (1960):47ff.
- Sordi, M. Il cristianesimo e Roma, pp. 79-94, 291-95. Bologna, 1965.
- . “Dionisio di Alessandria e le vicende della persecuzione di Valeriano in Egitto.” Paradoxos politeia. Studi patristici in onore di Giuseppe Lazzati, pp. 288-95. Milan, 1979.