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Who was Nero?

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Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in December of AD 37, Nero became the fifth emperor of Rome. Nero, along with Rome’s first four emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius—made up what is called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great uncle Claudius to become his successor, and upon Claudius’s death in AD 54 Nero became the youngest emperor at age 16. His reign lasted nearly fourteen years, until AD 68 when he committed suicide at the age of 30.

Nero took the throne approximately two decades after Christ was crucified. Although still in its infancy, Christianity was spreading rapidly during this time. In fact, approximately fourteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven books were written in whole or in part during Nero’s emperorship. Also during Nero’s reign the apostle Paul was confined to house arrest in Rome (AD 60—63), where he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Nero was the “Caesar” to whom Paul appealed for justice during his trial in Caesarea (Acts 25:10–12).

The early years of Nero’s rule were marked by an enhancement of the cultural life of the Roman Empire. Thanks to the guidance of his advisers, namely the Praetorian Prefect Burrus and the famous Roman philosopher Seneca, Rome maintained a stable government during his early years. Nero loved the arts and was an accomplished singer and musician. He also enjoyed athletic competitions and took part in many chariot races, even winning a race in the Olympic Games at Greece.

Nero’s legacy, however, is not a pleasant one. Although his regime began with mildness and idealism, it ended with cruelty and tyranny. He began murdering anyone who became an obstacle to him; his victims include his own wife and mother as well as his step-brother Britannicus—Emperor Claudius’s biological son. In July of 64, the Great Fire of Rome broke out and lasted for six days. Of Rome’s fourteen districts, only three escaped damage from the fire. Some historians believe Nero may have been responsible for the fire, although his involvement is not clear. What is clear is that Nero deflected the focus from himself by blaming the fire on the Christians, many of whom he tortured and killed. The historian Tacitus describes these atrocities: “Covered with the skins of beasts, [Christians] were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.” Nero’s use of Christians as human torches to light his evening garden parties is well documented. Ultimately, it is the brutality inflicted on the early Christians for which Nero is best remembered.

The end of Nero’s reign was filled with strife. Tension among Roman leaders ultimately became so great that the Praetorian Guard transferred their loyalty from Nero to Galba, leading the Senate to declare Nero a public enemy. Nero was forced to flee Rome, and he later took his own life. Having no heir to succeed him, Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero’s death was followed by a brief period of civil war, which was then followed by the rise and fall of four emperors in a single year, a chaotic period of Roman history known as “The Year of the Four Emperors.”

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This page last updated: October 25, 2022