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The Emperor Nero and the Fire of Rome (AD 64)

Unknown author

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God... for authorities are ministers of God..." (Romans 13:1,6). At the time Paul wrote this, Nero was the emperor, making this an exhortation that became increasingly difficult to follow as this man ruled the empire.

Life as a child

On December 15, AD 37, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born in Antium, Italy in the court of Emperor Caligula. His father was the grandnephew of Augustus, the first Roman emperor and his mother was a great-granddaughter. His father died naturally when Lucius was twelve and his mother, Agrippina the younger, married her uncle, Emperor Claudius. In AD 50, she convinced Claudius into adopting Lucius, renaming him Nero Claudius. In AD 53 Nero became Claudius' son-in-law by marrying his daughter Octavia. Agrippina had succeeded in manipulating her son, now sixteen years old, into the position of heir to the throne when Claudius died.

Life as the emperor

Agrippina, driven by the ambition to become the controlling agent of the empire, poisoned her husband with mushrooms at a public feast in AD 54. She quickly secured the throne for Nero and had him order all political opponents killed. She shared his throne, his place on coins and assumed the title of Augusta.

Nero had two advisors: Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus who took care of all military and administrative affairs, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, his personal advisor for public relations. Seneca was numbered among the most outstanding Stoic philosophers and writers in the empire and had a heavy influence on Nero as his tutor and later, as his advisor. Stoicism is very empirical in its epistemology and basically states, "if it feels good, do it because this is the essence of truth". Nero's lifestyle exuded this experience-orientation in that for his first eight years as emperor, he cared nothing about politics but indulged in every form of pleasure. He also prided himself as a poet, singer, musician, actor, athlete and charioteer.

The first five years of Nero's reign were pronounced "golden" as his advisors had things running fairly smoothly. Even then, however, Nero would let nothing get in his way. One year after entering office, he had Britannicus, his brother, secretly poisoned and buried. In AD 54 Nero increased King Agrippa's kingdom in Syria. As a mark of gratitude for this imperial bounty, Agrippa renamed his capital Neronias. In AD 59 Nero became tired of his mother's interference in his private and public life and had her murdered. In AD 60 Boadicea in Britain rebelled but Nero brought peace back to the province. This was just a symptom of a storm brewing on the horizon that would eventually overtake Nero like a thief in the night.

The year AD 62 was the pivotal point in Nero's career. Burrus, the chief administrator of the empire, died and Seneca retired under pressure (Nero attempted to compel him to commit suicide but when his efforts failed he had him put to death on suspicion of treason in AD 65). Nero had his wife murdered and married his long-time mistress, Poppaea Sabina, who he stole from her husband sometime earlier. She was reputed to be a "God-fearer" and persuaded Nero to grant a request of a temple delegation from Jerusalem. Festus, governor of Judea and King Agrippa objected to a wall constructed to block their view of temple proceedings and wanted it demolished. The Jews kept their wall. Also around this time the Apostle Paul arrived in Rome to appeal his case before Nero. It was possibly because of Paul's defence that the Christian movement became recognised as separate from Judaism around this time.

Nero's own religious beliefs were consistent with his character. Nero, who at first refused to allow the dedication of a temple in his honour at public expense, later deified himself, embossing his features on the Sun God. The cult of Serapis, expelled from Rome by Augustus for flagrant immorality, was recognised by the state under Nero and established in every province. He also consulted astrologers in all major decisions.

The great fire of Rome

Some time after midnight on 19 July, AD 64, the night after the full moon, a fire broke out at the north-east end of the Circus Maximus in Rome, adjoining the Palatine and Caelian hills. The shops, which stood in colonnade around the outer face of the Circus were full of combustible material which provided fodder for the flames. The conflagration, securing a hold there and fanned by the wind, raged throughout the city for five days. When at last it was stamped out, a fresh outbreak started on the estate of Tiegellinus. Of the fourteen districts into which the city was divided, only four were spared; three were completely destroyed and the remaining seven received severe damage. The imperial palace itself, on the Palestine hill, was burned out.

Nero was at Antium (Anzio) on the Tyrrhenian coast when the fire started. He hastened back to Rome and threw himself vigorously into the organisation of relief. The Campus Martius, on the east bank of the Tiber, and the Imperial Gardens west of the river were thrown open to the homeless multitudes; temporary shelter was constructed for them and they were provided with grain at a greatly reduced rate. But Nero received little thanks for these measures. People were unwilling to believe that the fire was accidental, and many thought that Nero had arranged it in order to rebuild the city nearer to his heart's desire. A story spread that during the fire he had indulged his histrionic artistic abilities and sung of the burning of Troy. The popular rumour was that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned". Rumour also told how men, attempting to fight the fire, were prevented by threatening gangs, while others told of men who were seen actively encouraging the flames to spread, claiming that they had their orders. "Perhaps they had their orders", says Tacitus, "or perhaps they just wanted to loot unhindered".

The rebuilding of the city was energetically undertaken. Instead of the narrow, winding streets and irregular blocks of high tenements which were particularly vulnerable to fire, the broad streets and spacious buildings had to be of approved stonework and fireproof materials. Semi-detached buildings were forbidden, and every householder was required to have fire-fighting equipment readily accessible.

But the finger of suspicion continued to point to Nero. His new palace, "the Golden House", which replaced the one lost in the fire, was so luxurious and extensive - it stretched from the Palatine hill to the Esquline - that the songs of that day described Rome as being rebuilt on what was left over from the palace. Nero accordingly found it expedient to provide scapegoats. The Christians of Rome, by now a large community, were charged with instigating the fire. Why the Christians? First, they were designated "haters of the human race" and were disliked by all for their antisocial attitude. So much of the Roman way of life was bound up in what Christians regarded as immorality and idolatry that they would take no part in it. Jews, of course, were equally aloof. They were members of a distinct nation with their own ancestral religion, but the Gentile Christians of Rome had no such reason for being aloof. In Juvenal's words, they "belonged to the sewage of the Orontes which had discharged itself into the Tiber". Suetonius held that they were a "race of men given to a novel and baneful superstition". Tacitus describes them as "notorious for their depravity". Not only so, but popular Christian eschatology looked for the fiery dissolution of the current world-order, not on some remote, hypothetical "last day", but soon, at any time. When Rome, the capital of the world, caught fire and blazed from end to end, what wonder if some of the simpler should imagine that this was the expected day of the Lord, and welcomed it as such? Their own material possessions were consumed by the fire together with those of their neighbours, what matter, if the city of God, the kingdom of the saints, was to be erected on the ruins? If such sentiments were voiced during the fire, then even so, it proved very difficult to make the charge stick.

"First of all" says Tacitus, "those who confessed were arrested". Confessed to what? To being Christians, or to being incendiaries? It is conceivable that one or two of them, in an excess of zeal, were willing to give themselves up for having started the fire or helped it along. Whatever form their confession took, they were compelled to divulge their associates names, and in consequence a huge crowd was convicted, not so much for arson but for hatred of the human race. Their execution was an occasion for popular entertainment; Nero's gardens were thrown open for the occasion. According to Tacitus, some were crucified, some were sewn up in the skins of animals and hunted down by dogs, some were covered with pitch and set alight to serve as living torches when darkness fell. Thirty years later, Clement of Rome recalls how a great multitude of believers had to endure cruel sufferings, how Christian women were forced to act the parts of Dirce and the daughters of Danaus for the delight of the spectators. These atrocities went far to defeat their end; men began to feel that these wretched people, guilty as they were of being Christians and deserving the severest punishment, were nevertheless being sacrificed to glut the emperor's savage lust rather than in the public interest. This was not a universal persecution or a studied decision based on political or religious convictions, but rather it revealed the hideous whims of a madman.

To sidestep the blame for the fire, Nero gave aid to the homeless and the injured, levied a tax of relief and lowered grain prices for poor people. It was also believed that during the brief persecution of Christians afterward, Paul and Peter were executed. Eusebius, in summing up earlier writers and the consensus of tradition, says "They record that under Nero, Paul was beheaded at Rome itself, and Peter likewise was crucified and this record is accredited by the attachment, until this day of the names of Peter and Paul to the burial places there".

In AD 65 a conspiracy to make Gaius Calpurius Piso emperor was discovered. Nero, back in rare form, had the guilty killed but murdered many innocent as well. Other problems also came up which added to the list of grievances of the Romans. Having exhausted the imperial treasury by needless expenditures and poor management, Nero began to heavily tax all wealthy people. Fear swept the rich as Nero trumped up false charges and confiscated wealthy estates, murdering aristocracy and inviting the rich person to suicide, the State inheriting all their resources. Up until that time the Temple in Jerusalem had been making daily sacrifices on behalf of the emperors. This was terminated in the summer of AD 66 as an official renunciation of Nero's authority.

In AD 67 Nero went to Greece and won awards everywhere he went for his poetry and music, though he was only a mediocre writer and performer. The Romans hated his apparent fondness for Greek culture and were enraged when he pronounced freedom to Greece in gratitude for his words. Upon returning home in mid-68, his leaders in Gaul, Spain and Africa were in rebellion. Rome was in an uproar as the Praetorian Guard and Senate deserted him and were plotting against him. Nero saw no hope and committed suicide June 9 AD 68, ending the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

Nero's memory was officially execrated, an unenviable distinction that had befallen no previous emperor. The Christians used this as a propaganda weapon. When later emperors adopted a persecution policy, they were charged with following a Neronian precedent.

Not all of Nero's subjects had turned against him. In fact, some refused to believe the reports of his death and for years after, there was a succession of pretenders who claimed to be Nero, and received a measure of support in eastern provinces. There was also a belief that Nero would return from the dead and reoccupy Rome.

For further reading:

F.F. Bruce, New Testament History
Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome

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