During the misrule of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68), Paul wrote that everyone should be “subject” to governing authorities because they “have been instituted by God” for our good (Romans 13). Did Paul know how corrupt Emperor Nero had become? Ancient historian Suetonius gives details.
Raised in privilege and given every educational opportunity, Nero became emperor at age 17. It soon became apparent he was more interested in fame than in the wellbeing of his subjects. “His dominant characteristics were his thirst for popularity and his jealousy,” writes Suetonius.
This “insolent, lustful . . . greedy” and cruel man became show-off-in-chief. When competing in music, athletics, or oratory, he “won” every contest. To gain approval he lowered taxes and gave the people of Rome forty gold pieces each. The “best” at everything, he bragged that “no previous sovereign had ever realized the extent of his power.”
The emperor used public office to enrich himself, profiteering in grain, which was overpriced to his personal advantage. During a food shortage in Rome he hired ships to bring sand from Egypt for his wrestling team. He sang and played lyre in public performances during which no one was allowed to leave the theatre. Rumors circulated that women gave birth at his concerts rather than risking offense by leaving at the onset of labor.
A philanderer and sexual predator, Nero neutered and married a 12-year old boy in addition to having a succession of wives. He blamed others for his problems, and launched the first Roman persecution of Christians—whom he accused of arson. Pandemic struck Rome during his misrule, and “in a single autumn 30,000 deaths” resulted.
Nothing pleased Nero more than having his reputation associated with great building projects. He built an enormous “Golden House” palace at Rome featuring a 120-foot statue of himself. Using 6000 Jewish prisoners of war, he tried and failed to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece. He changed the month of April to “Neroneus” and proposed that Rome be called “Neropolis.”
Sycophants and enablers surrounded Nero, but eventually public opinion turned. When the Roman Senate declared him a “public enemy” to be flogged to death, Nero fled to the edge of Rome where he committed suicide.
Early Christians who accepted letters of Peter and Paul presumably went as far as they could in good conscience to be obedient subjects. The government is “God’s servant for your good,” Paul declared while Nero reigned (Romans 13). “Fear God. Honor the emperor,” said Peter (1 Peter).
A generation later another Christian leader, in the book of Revelation, described the Roman government as a “beast” which God would hurl into a lake of fire. Rome had become the harlot city “Babylon.” Christians should “come out of her . . . so that you do not take part in her sins.”
Corrupt rulers may take erratic and desperate measures as popularity fades, but in the end they will fall. Christians living in representative democracies perhaps have a different level of responsibility than those living under totalitarian regimes such as ancient Rome. But in every generation followers of the Lamb must decide whether a ruler is God’s servant or something beastly we cannot support.
**************************©2020 J. Nelson Kraybill
For more on Christians living under first-century Roman rule, see my book Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Baker, 2010).
Most content of this blog entry comes from the book The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (born AD 70). Modern historians sometimes suspect Suetonius of being politically motivated in his ferocious retrospective of Nero. Regardless of whether all salacious details are accurate, it’s clear Nero was a vain and inept ruler.
Come with me to Bible lands! At this point no one knows what travel will be possible in the next year or two. But when COVID-19 subsides, I would love to have you join me on a pilgrimage. In 2021:
“Bread for the Journey” (Egypt and Jordan, April 9-21, 2021) See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2021-egypt/
“Journey of Hope” (Jordan, Israel and Palestine, September 12-23, 2021) See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2021-jordan-israel-palestine/