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The Nero Redivius Myth - the Beast with a Mortal Wound (Rev 13:3)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The beast with a mortal wound

In the description of the beast coming out of the sea, John included this description, “One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed” (Rev 13:3).

This is often linked to the description the beast and seven kings of Babylon, “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction ... also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and goes to destruction” (Rev 17:8-11).

These statements can seem rather mysterious and there have been many suggestions about their meaning, but it may be that John is referring to a myth about the emperor Nero that was widespread in the first century. In his early years Nero had been a good emperor, but around AD 60 he went mad and introduced crazy and unjust laws. As a result, he became hated and despised by the people of the empire. He eventually committed suicide in AD 68, bringing great rejoicing. However there was a widespread belief, especially in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire that he was not really dead, but had fled to the Parthians in the east, where he was raising an army to invade the empire and regain his throne. There were at least three impostors had claimed to be Nero, and one tried to persuade the Parthians to invade Rome.

This has become known as the ‘Nero Redivivus Myth’ meaning ‘Nero resurrected’, and is recorded by several Roman historians including Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio Cassius.

Suetonius 'The Twelve Caesars'

In his ‘The Twelve Caesars’, Suetonius relates how court astrologers had predicted Nero's fall but that he would have power in the east.

“At last, after nearly fourteen years of Nero’s misrule, the earth rid herself of him. The first move was made by the Gauls under Julius Vindex, the governor of one of their provinces.

Nero’s astrologers had told him that he would one day be removed from the throne, and were given the famous reply: ‘A simple craft will keep a man from want’. This referred doubtless to his lyre-playing which, although it might be only a pastime for the emperor, would have to support him if he were reduced to earning a livelihood. Some astrologers forecast that, if forced to leave Rome, he would find another throne in the east; one or two particularized that of Jerusalem. Others assured him that he would recoup all his losses, a prediction on which he based high hopes; for when he seemed to have lost the provinces of Britain and Armenia, but managed to regain them both, he assumed that the disasters foretold had already taken place. Then the oracle at Delphi warned him to beware the seventy-third year, and assuming that this referred to his own seventy-third year, not Galba’s, he looked forward cheerfully to a ripe old age and an unbroken run of good luck; so much so that when he lost some very valuable objects in a shipwreck, he hastened to tell his friends that the fish would fetch them back to him.” (Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Nero 40).

The first pretender

The first pretender was described by Tacitus in his ‘Histories’. This man sang and played the cithara or lyre and had a face which was similar to that of the dead emperor. He appeared in the year following Nero’s death (AD 69) during the brief reign of Vitellius, and after persuading some people to recognize him, he was captured and executed.

“About this time Achaia and Asia were upset by a false alarm. It was rumoured that Nero was on his way to them. There had been conflicting stories about his death, and so numbers of people imagined - and believed - that he was alive. I shall describe the adventures of the other claimants in their chronological context as my story develops. On this occasion the man concerned was a man from Pontus, or according to other accounts, a freedman from Italy. The circumstance that he was a harpist and singer by profession, when added to a facial resemblance, made the imposture all the more plausible. He was joined by some army deserters who had been roaming about in destitution until he bribed them to follow him by lavish promises.

With these men he embarked on board ship. A storm forced him to land on the island of Cythnus, where he recruited some troops returning from the east on leave, or had them murdered when they refused. He also robbed businessmen and armed the sturdiest of their slaves. A centurion named Sisenna, representing the army of Syria, happened to be bringing some symbolic ‘hands’ to the pretorians as a token of friendship. He was subjected to a variety of artful approaches, but finally slipped away from the island and fled in fear of his life. This caused a wave of panic, and many restless or discontented creatures rallied with eagerness to a famous name. The bubble reputation, daily increasing, was abruptly pricked by one of the chances of history”.

Galba had appointed Calpurnius Asprenas governor of the province of Galatia and Pamphylia. He had been given two triremes from the Ravenna fleet as escort, and with these he travelled east, putting in at the island of Cythnus. Here agents of the self-styled Nero invited the captains of the triremes to join him. Assuming a pathetic air, the fellow appealed to ‘the allegiance of his former soldiers’ and asked them to land him in Syria or Egypt. Half-convinced, or to trick him, the captains declared that they would have to talk to their crews, and would return when they had got them all into the right frame of mind. But in fact, in duty bound, they made a full report to Asprenas, at whose instance the ship was overwhelmed, and the man of mystery put to death. His body, which arrested attention by the eyes, hair and savage expression, was taken to Asia, and thence to Rome. (Tacitus Histories 2:8-9)

The second pretender

The historian Dio Cassius recorded that 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.

“In his (Titus) reign also the false Nero appeared, who was an Asiatic named Terentius Maximus. He resembled Nero both in appearance and in voice (for he too sang to the accompaniment of the lyre). He gained a few followers in Asia, and in his advance to the Euphrates attached a far greater number, and finally sought refuge with Artabanus, the Parthian leader, who, because of his anger against Titus, both received him and set about making preparations to restore him to Rome”. (Dio Cassus. Roman History 66:19.3)

The third pretender

Suetonius recorded that twenty years after Nero's death (AD 88), during the reign of Domitian, there was a third pretender. He was supported by the Parthians and only handed over to the Romans with great reluctance.

“Nero died at the age of thirty-one, on the anniversary of Octavia’s murder. In the widespread general rejoicing, citizens ran through the streets wearing caps of liberty. But there were people who used to lay spring and summer flowers on his grave for a long time, and had statues made of him, wearing his fringed toga, which they put up on the Rostra; they even continued to circulate his edits, pretending that he was still alive and would soon return to confound his enemies. What is more, King Vologaesus of Parthia, on sending ambassadors to ratify his alliance with Rome, particularly requested the Senate to honour Nero’s memory. In fact, twenty years later, when I was a young man, a mysterious individual came forward claiming to be Nero; and so magical was the sound of his name in the Parthians’ ears that they supported him to the best of their ability, and only handed him over with great reluctance.” (Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Nero 57).

In the introduction to his ‘Histories’, Tacitus describes a time of turmoil, including the appearance of a man among the Parthians claiming to be Nero, who almost caused war between Rome and Parthia.

“... and thanks to the activities of a charlatan masquerading as Nero, even Parthia was on the brink of declaring war.” (Tacitus Histories 1:2).

Back in AD 66, Nero had given Tiridates, the brother of the Parthian king a magnificent reception in Rome (Dio Cassius Histories 62.1-7). This may explain the Parthians’ faithfulness to Nero.

The memory of Nero

Describing the brief reign of Emperor Otho, Tacitus also referred to the popular memory of Nero.

“It was believed that he (Otho) even contemplated some ceremony in memory of Nero, in order to entice the mob. Indeed, some Romans did exhibit portraits of Nero, and on certain occasions the populace and the troops actually saluted the emperor as ‘Nero Otho’ as if this represented an additional ennoblement. Otho left the matter in the air, for he was afraid of saying ‘no’ or else ashamed to acknowledge the title." (Tacitus Histories 1:78)

Dio Chrysostom, the Greek philosopher and historian also wrote in his discourse ‘On Beauty’ about many people still believing that Nero was still alive.

“Indeed the truth about this has not come out even yet; for so far as the rest of his (Nero) subjects were concerned, there was nothing to prevent his continuing to be Emperor for all time, seeing that 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” (Discourse 21: On Beauty)

The earliest written record of this legend is in the Sibylline Oracles, where it is claimed that Nero did not really die, but fled to Parthia, where he will amass a large army and return to Rome and destroy and recapture it.

“A mighty king shall like a runaway slave
Flee over the Euphrates' stream unseen,
Unknown, who shall some time dare loathsome guilt
Of matricide, and many other things,
Having confidence in his most wicked hands”
(The Sibylline Oracles 4:155-159)

“Shall also come the fugitive of Rome
Bearing a great spear, having marched across
Euphrates with his many myriads”.
(The Sibylline Oracles 4:178-180)

The mighty king and fugitive of Rome is thought to refer to Nero, who murdered his mother and who was believed to have fled to the Parthians across the Euphrates, but who will return with a great army.

Nero as the future Antichrist

In later years, the legend was modified by many early Christian writers to the belief that Nero was the Antichrist.

Writing about the man of lawlessness in the second chapter of Thessalonians in his ‘City of God’, Augustine of Hippo says this alludes to Nero, who will return as a future Antichrist.

“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 vigour 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.” (Augustine. City of God 20.19.3)

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