Book Reviews

A Companion to the Neronian Age

Emma Buckley, Martin Dinter Hoboken, NJ 2013

Nero ruled the Roman empire during AD 54–68. In this period, Paul wrote the majority of his letters, the church underwent its first major persecution after Nero blamed Christians for a fire that ravished Rome, and Peter and Paul were probably martyred. The emperor to whom Paul appealed was Nero (Acts 25:11), and Luke records Festus calling Nero κύριος (“lord”) (v. 26). Nero became so infamous among Christians that he likely stands behind much of the symbolic beast imagery in the book of Revelation.

This Companion to the Neronian Age includes an introduction, twenty-five chapters in four parts, and an epilogue. Part 1 focuses on the person of Nero and his biographers. Elaine Fantham’s article, “The Performing Prince” (pp. 17–28), opens part 1 and presents Nero as having a more troubled upbringing compared with other Roman princes to this time (pp. 18–19). Most of the article, however, considers his artistic pursuits, such as singing and poetry (pp. 20–28), and much of the volume is dedicated to this aspect of the emperor’s reign. Given the bias of extant sources, it is impossible to know “whether his natural vocal talents or his dedicated training achieved actual artistic success” (p. 27).

Part 2 focuses on various aspects of the empire during Nero’s time, including how the empire functioned, his household, religion, and philosophy. Myles Lavan’s article, “The Empire in the Age of Nero,” overviews how the Roman empire was run from the time of Augustus and especially during the reign of Nero (pp. 65–82). Darja Šterbenc Erker contributed the article on religion (pp. 118–33). In contrast to the portrayals of Nero in many ancient sources, under his reign, religious practices were performed as usual (p. 118). Much of the article deals with imperial cults during this period (pp. 119–26). There is nothing extreme in this aspect of the Roman religious experience during Nero’s reign.

Part 3 is the largest section in the book. Thirteen of the book’s twenty-five articles are found here and cover literature, art, and architecture. Nero’s reign can be considered a great period for these cultural areas (see the introduction, pp. 1–14). Most of the articles are devoted to specific authors such as Seneca, Lucian, Petronius, and Persius.

Part 4 discusses how Nero has been received in later history. Harry O. Maier’s contribution, “Nero in Jewish and Christian Tradition from the First Century to the Reformation” (pp. 385–404), will probably be the article of most interest to Bible students. First, Maier discusses the Jewish (and to a lesser extent Christian) tradition (e.g., Sibylline Oracles) in which Nero has not died but escaped to Parthia to return in the future to Rome in order to punish his enemies (p. 386). The Jews and probably Christians were not alone in this belief. Roman historians and a biographer record three people who claimed to be Nero after his death (see Tacitus, Histories 2.8.1; Cassius Dio, 64.9.3 [Greek numbering]; 66.19.3 [Greek numbering]; Suetonius, Nero 57.2).

Next, Maier turns to Nero in early Christian tradition, including Revelation and some later Christian noncanonical literature (pp. 388–91). Maier sees “a fully developed Jewish version of the Nero legend” in the beast imagery of Revelation. He is probably correct. Given Nero’s horrible persecution of the Roman church in the mid-sixties and the pervading rumors of his potential return, it is likely that early readers would interpret this imagery as Neronian. This does not contradict a futurist view of the book. Nero was dead. He was not returning. However, if John wanted to communicate how horrible the future beast would be, appealing to imagery associated with the monstrous reputation of Nero would be a highly emotional and effective way to make his point. Nero himself is not returning but someone who persecutes the church in unimaginable ways will come (see Tacitus’s description in Annals 15.44). This would be like using Hitler imagery to describe a ruler today. The remainder of the article traces the presence of Nero from the Medieval period to the Reformation (pp. 394–400). One thing can be said of Nero, albeit always negative, the emperor has a rich and fanciful literary history.

Finally, Miriam Griffin, the author of a major biography of the emperor (Nero: The End of a Dynasty [Yale, 1984]), concludes the volume with an epilogue titled “Nachwort: Nero from Zero to Hero” (pp. 467–80). She discusses the recent trend to rehabilitate Nero and analyzes the reasons behind this. In the end, after considering the main sources, she cautions against this approach, saying, “Perhaps even we should be aware of promoting Nero from zero to hero!” (p. 480). This is a fitting final sentence for this volume. Certainly Nero did some positive things. In fact, his early reign (during which Romans was probably written), may be considered some of the best years of the first century. However, murder of one’s mother, persecuting Christians in horrific manner to shift blame away from himself, and other atrocities cannot simply be wiped away. No ruler, no matter what he or she has done, can remove the stains of such actions from his or her resumé.

Each article ends with a “further reading” section and its own bibliography (“references”). The volume concludes with a brief index (pp. 481–86). Other volumes in this series have more back matter than this.

This volume will be of mixed value for Bible students interested in the important Neronian years of the New Testament period. For the specialist in the Roman context of the New Testament during these years, the emphasis on literature and art will expose the more subtle themes and currents of the period. This can provide important nuances to interpretation of the New Testament writings of this period. However, with the exception of the articles by Lavan, Šterbenc Erker, and Maier, most Bible students will find little direct help for New Testament interpretation. This is not a criticism of this fine volume. It serves its purpose well. For the needs of the Bible student, more attention to Nero’s relationship to the church would have been welcomed. For those who have little knowledge of this important emperor, Miriam Griffin’s biography, mentioned above, provides a good introduction.

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