Contemplating delicious frivolity, I tell my husband—who is depressed over landfills of excess clothing and its toxic incineration in a remote Chilean desert—that “we might as well fiddle while Rome burns.”
“Nero did not fiddle,” Andrew replies absently. He has a penchant for rescuing misunderstood villains; he rendered both Herod and Richard III human for me. This time, though, he is too late. My mind has already jumped to the meme Donald Trump shared two years ago. It showed him fiddling, and he liked the caption: “Nothing can stop what’s coming.”
The power-mad often share hobbies. And they do like to distract themselves from others’ suffering. “You sure about Nero?” I ask.
Nero may have sung, he says, or plucked a harp, but fiddles had yet to be invented.
Such a stickler. So what if it was a figure of speech, inserted later by someone cheerful about anachronism? For almost two thousand years, we have shuddered at the mention of Nero, thinking instantly of capricious torture, murder, and sexual degeneracy. There is plenty of smoke surrounding him, and we know there was a fire. That much bad press is seldom wrong. Even Hamlet, in his impetuous, pouty rage, warned himself, “Let not ever/The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.”
The young Dane’s fears were apposite: Nero’s most shocking crime was having his mother killed. Granted, it is widely believed that she killed her second husband, the emperor Claudius, to clear a path to power, then seduced Nero when he was just a boy, determined that she would rule through him. But dysfunction does not excuse matricide; nor does it excuse him for ordering his ex-wife’s death and (allegedly) kicking her pregnant replacement, Sabina, in the stomach, causing her death. And then having an unfortunate young man who resembled her castrated and making him a consort.
All those lurid true-crime stories originate with three Roman historians, the best known of them Suetonius, who was not a historian at all. He was a celebrity biographer in love with spectacle. Taking his accounts as factual is like writing a history of St. Louis and citing Jerry Berger, God rest his gossipy soul, in their footnotes.
Nero was loved by soldiers and commoners but deeply resented by the Roman aristocracy. The stories about Nero were recorded years after his death—by suicide, at the age of thirty, when the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy. By the time his life was written, politics was being adjusted to favor a different dynastic line.
Also, the “biographies” of Nero are laced with literary devices, plot points found in previous classics. Killing your pregnant wife is a trope for the ancients, an expression of the maximum evil. Contemporary scholars point out that Nero seems to have been deeply in love with Sabina, and he was desperate for an heir. Several scholarly accounts speak only of “unclear circumstances” around Sabina’s death—yet the same scholars report the castration of a young man (who might have been a young woman in no need of castration) as a matter of fact. The source cited? Suetonius.
“Anything you think you know about Nero is based on manipulation and lies that are two thousand years old,” a curator at the British Museum told Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker. Today, we spend hours talking about how history will judge a president we revile or one we hope to vindicate, but history is only as accurate as the humans who write it.
Nero might have welcomed the great fire of 64—it allowed him to appropriate more than two hundred acres of land in the center of Rome for his Golden House. Maybe he sang. But it is just as likely that he paced with a furrowed brow. Suetonius writes that many Romans believed he had the fire started for that purpose, and Tacitus describes him seizing Christians to be burned alive in the flames because he wanted to blame them for starting the fire. They blamed Nero—who was not even in Rome when the fire started.
The Christians were about as fond of Nero as the Roman aristocrats. Suetonius writes of Nero persecuting Christians because they were “given to a new and mischievous superstition.” A bishop who lived two hundred years after Nero blamed his persecution for the deaths of Peter and Paul, and two centuries later, it was accepted as fact that Nero killed them. Tertullian called Nero “the first emperor who dyed his sword in Christian blood, when our religion was but just arising at Rome.”
The passionate hatred suggests an answer to one of the many puzzles of Revelations. John wrote of the sign of the beast and added a riddle: “Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”
If you use gematria, the ancient practice of assigning numerical values to letters and reading meaning from their sums, the name Nero Caesar, translated from Greek to Hebrew, is 666.
Ah, but wait—one of the early Church fathers says the “666” was found in the most approved ancient copies, but not all of them. Manuscript evidence indicates an alternative number of 616.
And when you translate the Latin version of Nero Caesar into Hebrew, the numerical value is 616.
All this could be a numbers game, nothing more than carefully selected coincidences. But John also writes in Revelations 13 about no one being able to buy or sell without having the mark that bears the sign of the beast—and that mark could easily be one of the Roman coins that bore Nero’s name, or the imperial seal of the Roman Empire, required to engage in trade.
Chapter 13 also mentions that “he did great wonders, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all.” John remarks that one of the beast’s seven heads “had the wound by a sword, yet lived.” Given power by Satan himself, the beast then commanded the world’s worship. The wound could refer to Nero’s death—according to Suetonius, at least, he stabbed himself in the neck. And the healing? A fierce belief sprang up that Nero had been resurrected and would soon return to power. There were even imposters who pretended to be Nero Redivivdus (Nero Reborn).
So the Nero we revile could have been a kid with issues, thrust too soon into power and made ruthless, his reputation lost to resentful theologians and conspiracy theorists worthy of Q.
Or he could have been the Antichrist.
Why do I care? It seems an object lesson. We try to locate sources of evil every day, do all sorts of convoluted detective work, digging through both past and present. Sometimes we overthink it, grabbing at dropped clues, wanting our suspicions confirmed.
History is slippery business.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.