REVELATION 13 (Part 4: Nero’s Beastly Character)
Adam Maarschalk: October 22 & 29, 2009
Scripture text for this study: Revelation 13:1-18
We have now reached the fourth post on Revelation 13. The first post looked at the first 10 verses in this chapter, showing that Nero fit the description of the first beast in the specific sense and that first-century Rome fit the description of this same beast in the general sense. In the second post, we were introduced to its main advocate, a second beast, and we considered four different views regarding the identity of this second beast. In the third post we examined the healing of the first beast’s mortal wound, the mark of the beast, and the fact of its identification with the famous “666″ symbol. In this post we will look more closely into the character of Nero and the atrocities he committed, and in doing so we will see that the term “beast” fits him well.
In the first post on chapter 13 we saw a number of details regarding Nero’s campaign of persecution from November 64 AD – June 68 AD (42 months). Some of these details will be quickly summarized here, as this contributes to our understanding of his beastly character. First, we are told by numerous early church writers (e.g. Eusebius, Lactantius, and Sulpicius Severus) that Nero was the first emperor to persecute the saints, with Clement of Rome (30-100 AD) saying that Nero targeted “a vast multitude of the elect…through many indignities and tortures.”
These tortures included being “wrapped in the hides of wild beasts…torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses to be set on fire, that when the darkness fell they might be burned to illuminate the night” (Tacitus, Annals 15:44); Nero’s vast garden was lit at night so he could provide raunchy entertainment of all kinds. Some believers were beheaded (Paul), others were crucified (Peter), while others were “thrown to the lions, exposed to the cold, drowned in rivers, thrown into cauldrons of boiling oil, daubed with pitch and burned for torchlights” (David S. Clark).
This persecution came about after Nero’s Jewish wife persuaded him to blame the Christians for the burning of 10 of Rome’s 14 city divisions. Legend has it that Nero “fiddled while Rome burned,” with some ancient historians affirming this account (Suetonius, Cassius Dio) and others (e.g. Tacitus) calling it into question. Clement of Alexandria [150-215 AD], Tertullian [160-220 AD], Augustine [354-430 AD], and Jerome [347-420 AD] are among the early church writers who stated their belief that Nero was the beast foretold in the book of Revelation, and Jerome even stated that there were “many” in his time who shared this view because of Nero’s “outstanding savagery and depravity.” The following information (in maroon-colored font) is taken from a term paper I wrote several months ago:
Richard Anthony (The Mark of the Beast, 2009) shares more details about Nero’s life and character, all of which is substantiated by Suetonius (in his book Nero) and other historians who lived during the first two centuries AD:
According to Suetonius, he [Nero] murdered his parents, wife, brother, aunt, and many others close to him and of high station in Rome. He was a torturer, a homosexual rapist, and a sodomite. He even married two young boys and paraded them around as his wives. One of the boys, whose name was Sporus, was castrated by Nero. He was truly bestial in his character, depravity, and actions. He devised a kind of game: covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound at stakes. He also initiated the war against the Jews which led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.
At one point, writes Kenneth Gentry (Before Jerusalem Fell, 2002), Nero divorced his first wife, Octavia, in order to marry Poppaea, his mistress. Poppaea then gave orders to have Octavia banished to an island, where in 62 AD she was beheaded. Three years later, when Poppaea was pregnant and ill, Nero kicked her to death. For entertainment, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, Nero “compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena.” The Roman historian Tacitus (55-117 AD) knew Nero as the one who “put to death so many innocent men,” and Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) called Nero “the destroyer of the human race” and “the poison of the world” (p. 52).
In Revelation 13:2 the beast is described as having a mouth “like a lion’s mouth.” It’s most revealing that the apostle Paul describes his deliverance from the emperor Nero as being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” (II Timothy 4:16-17). Also fitting is this quote from Apollonius of Tyana (15-98 AD), a Greek philosopher:
In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many, many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs. …And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mothers, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet.
[Source: A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster (1976), p. 235. This quote was taken from Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, Oxford Press, 1912, p. 38.]
Apollonius was not the only contemporary of Nero to refer to him as a “beast.” Josephus and Suetonius also did so, according to David Lowman, an author and a pastor in Colorado Springs. Lowman adds that Nero schemed with his mother to kill his father and half-brother, and then attempted at least seven times to kill his mother. He also “executed one of his two closest advisers and forced the other to commit suicide.” Regarding again Nero’s persecution of the saints, Lowman notes that Nero had some “drawn and quartered”; others tied to the tusks of elephants which then were made to charge each other; others disemboweled while alive; and still others “sawn in two with palm branches – a very long lasting and brutally painful penalty.” Lowman wrote the following concerning Nero’s “garden parties”:
The most horrific stories of Nero’s brutality involved the lighting of His garden parties. It was known that in order to light his three and four day garden parties he would have Christian impaled with large wooden posts, and while still alive, struggling for breath, would have them covered in flammable tar and oil and light them on fire. He would place the posts along the outskirts of the large palace garden and along the roads to light the way for his guests. Quite often the events listed above would be done in front of rather large audiences in the arena. he would end these events with tortuously long musical performances that attendees could not leave under the penalty of death, including the ruling Senators of Rome.
Under Nero, John was tarred and feathered, boiled in oil (yet he miraculously survived), and then exiled. This is according to the testimony of early church writers such as Tertullian and Jerome, as I wrote here.
The next and final post on Revelation 13 (Part 5 of 5) will feature a comparative chart showing 10 prophecies regarding the beast from the sea and their non-coincidental fulfillment by Nero and the Roman Empire which he led, represented, and personified.
All of our Revelation chapter-by-chapter studies, and any other posts related to the book of Revelation, can be found here.