BMCR 2021.04.13

The Nero-Antichrist: founding and fashioning a paradigm

, The Nero-Antichrist: founding and fashioning a paradigm. Classics after antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xv, 228. ISBN 9781108491495 $99.99.


Shushma Malik takes on the question of why and how the emperor Nero has been the object of condemnation and fascination in the last two thousand years. She traces the rise and fall of the association of Nero with the Antichrist from late antiquity to the twentieth century. Although Malik leaves some intriguing elements of her argument unexplored, her book is an informative and enjoyable study of the reception of one of Roman history’s most compelling characters.

The Antichrist brings about the end of the world. In antiquity, Christian thinkers came to identify the world-destroying figures in Daniel and in New Testament texts as the Antichrist, who was sometimes interpreted as a historical person who would return in the future (16). Nero was an excellent candidate for the role of Antichrist, Malik argues, in part because of the “false Neros,” the two (or three) imposters who appeared on the scene in the twenty years after Nero’s death in 68 CE and claimed the emperor had never died at all. Christians seeking the historical identity of the Antichrist in scripture were also drawn to Nero because of his reputation for tyranny and criminality, and because of the execution of the Christians who were condemned for the Great Fire in Rome in 64 CE and executed the following year, during Nero’s reign. Yet as Malik discusses in Chapter 1, the evidence for responses to Nero in antiquity is far less uniformly negative than ancient writers and modern biblical scholarship tend to acknowledge. She contends that the association of Nero with the Antichrist did not originate in the first century, as many biblical scholars have concluded (8-9): instead, it emerged among late antique Christians and enjoyed renewed popularity among writers in the late-nineteenth century.

Chapter 2 focuses on the figure of the Antichrist in biblical texts and on how scholars have read Nero into these texts. Although the word “Antichrist” appears only in the Johannine epistles, in antiquity a number of “eschatological adversaries” (in Daniel, 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation) were eventually treated under this rubric (16). Modern biblical scholars, Malik argues, “start with the assumption that Nero is the biblical Antichrist and then use characteristics from both biblical books and accounts of Nero’s reign to ‘prove’ it” (25). Malik approaches this topic from a different direction: she asks whether biblical texts evoked the historical Nero for first-century readers, and she argues convincingly that they did not. The idea of Nero as a fearsome and cruel tyrant was not yet well-established in the first century CE, especially in the regions of the empire where New Testament accounts of the Antichrist originated. The most famous and vicious ancient literary accounts of Nero’s reign substantially postdate him, and Malik directs our attention toward the more appealing image of Nero that most inhabitants of the empire would have encountered in monuments and inscriptions. While first-century Christians in the eastern empire may have heard about the persecutions in Rome, Malik points out that accounts of Nero as perscutor of Christian martyrs largely date to the second century. She makes a compelling case that features of the Antichrist in New Testament texts could be read as allusions to many Roman emperors, not just to Nero specifically. She concludes that the idea of Nero as Antichrist would not have been generally legible to readers of biblical texts in the first century.

In Chapter 3, Malik turns to late antiquity, the period she identifies as the origin of the Nero-Antichrist paradigm. Responding to second-century martyr acts, millennialist writers (notably Victorinus of Pettau, Commodian, and the anonymous author of the Liber Genealogus) linked the emperor Nero and the execution of Christians after the Great Fire with the Antichrist and the apocalypse: “Nero became the brackets around a history and eschatology of Christan persecution” (89). The Sibylline Oracles and the Ascension of Isaiah, an apocalyptic Christian work pseudonymously identified with the prophet Isaiah, deployed features of Nero’s character and biography familiar from classical historiography to construct their portraits of the Antichrist. Late antique Christian writers and preachers, Malik argues, drew on Christian texts that made use of classical historiography, as well as on classical historiography directly, and read Nero back into the New Testament. If Nero appears as the anti-Augustus in the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, he becomes the anti-Paul as well as the Antichrist in late antique Christian works. Preachers could use stories of the tyrannical Nero and of the imposters who “returned” after the emperor’s death in order to communicate ideas about the Antichrist to a wide audience.

The Nero-Antichrist paradigm largely faded after the fifth century and returned again in fin de siècle historical and theological debates, which are the focus of Chapter 4. Malik emphasizes the prominence and variety of receptions of ancient Rome in both elite intellectual and popular culture of the period. Most relevant to the re-emergence of the Nero-Antichrist in this period is the association of the Neronian age with early Christianity, “the backdrop for the rise of (what would become) Catholicism” (141). Narratives of imperial Rome converged with controversies about the Roman Catholic Church, decadence, and decline in nineteenth-century Europe. Malik focuses on three writers from the period: Ernest Renan, Frederic William Farrar, and Oscar Wilde. Renan, a French historian and philosopher, building on the arguments of late antique Christian thinkers, identified Nero as the New Testament Antichrist: Rome for Renan is the center of Christianity, and Nero, rather than the pope, is the enemy of both Rome and Christianity. Farrar, theologian and Dean of Canterbury, was also the author of a historical novel, Darkness and Dawn, set in Neronian Rome, which presents Nero as an enemy of all Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) and treats Nero’s victims among the imperial family and court as proto-Christian martyrs. Wilde cut his hair in Neronian fashion and refered to his “Neronian hours” prior to his imprisonment (173), and Nero appears in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and in his letters. Malik argues that Wilde created a new Nero, not simply the Antichrist but the ultimate sinner who is still capable of redemption. While this chapter is replete with compelling material, it lacks a conclusion to clarify and solidify the connections between these writers and the social and intellectual currents that they represent. Chapter 5 follows Nero into films in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in which the Nero-Antichrist recedes and other versions of Nero take over.

The throughline of the narrative across the book is admirably clear, but more provocative points of contact between the widely different worlds treated in its pages emerged as I read. The first is how the Nero-Antichrist paradigm responds to Christian attitudes towards Jews in the periods that Malik discusses: just for example, she refers to late antique Christian debates about whehter the Antichrist must be a Jew (87) and notes accusations of anti-Semitism against Renan, a professor of Hebrew (148). The second is how Nero facilitates communication with popular audiences in very different contexts. What makes Nero both an attractive vehicle for transmitting Christian apocalyptic ideas beyond the literate elite in late antiquity and a figure for anti-Christian cruelty and the temptations of decadence in nineteenth-century popular fiction? More explicit and sustained attention to these connections between chapters would be welcome.

Malik’s account of the Nero-Antichrist paradigm advances scholarship that treats the reception of emperors in antiquity and that considers the emperors we know as products of reception, and she develops this work at the intersection of Classics and Biblical Studies.[1] While this book will be most accessible to scholarly readers, instructors for introductory courses on the Roman world should consult it: Malik presents ample material that will interest undergraduate students. The Nero-Antichrist is a contribution to the study of the endless potential to appropriate antiquity for our own purposes.


[1] Kristina Milnor, Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life, Oxford, 2005; Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, Staging Empire, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the ‘Octavia,Oxford, 2017; Nandini Pandey, The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome: Latin Poetic Responses to Early Imperial Iconography, Cambridge, 2018; Harriet Fertik, The Ruler’s House: Contesting Power and Privacy in Julio-Claudian Rome, Baltimore, 2019.