Nero’s attitude to religion and cults was very open, too open for many. He came from a firm grounding in ancient Roman polytheism, after all, the Julio-Claudian dynasty to which he belonged through his mother Agrippina had fashioned descent from Mars
themselves. Unfortunately his father’s side had no such lineage. He also had an active curiosity for other, more exotic eastern systems of thought and religion, such as the cults of Cybele
and of Mithras
. This put him in direct contrast with various parties around him:
- The Patricians did not like the degree of power he was drawing onto himself nor the orientalising cultural shift. For example the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis was alive but had connotations of foreign corruption because of its connection with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt
- The Christians, Jews and other monotheists who would not accept his divine authority, nor that of the traditional gods.
Nowadays, we can see similar dynamics of ideological clash in places like Afghanistan, where radicalised monotheism and more liberal systems cannot easily dialogue.
This provides the hing that understanding Nero’s attitude to religion and cults is a tough but very rewarding piece of detective work: It goes hand-in-hand with understanding Nero’s personality and ambitions, fragmentary information and the possibility of a significant quantity of fantastical hype!3 lenses which confuse the understanding of Nero’s attitudes:
- Fake news to pump up the volume on scandal? Much of what has been recorded of him was by those who disapproved or had something to lose from Nero’s stance, such as the Patrician class and the later Christians.
- Reinterpretations of customs and cults which are foreign to the writer
- Mental health issues? Given the environment and family history, and how Nero murdered his power-hungry mother Agrippina, it would be surprising if he didn’t have some mental health problems to deal with.
- Shifting moral standards? Imagine reading some of the accusations today in the 21st Century or what we might have considered reading it 1-200 years ago.
As a practical experiment it is interesting to use the 3 lenses to read and consider a few of the scandals surrounding Nero. For example:
- during his tour of Greece Nero is said to have married a young eunuch called Sporus who looked very much like his late wife Poppaea.
- Sporus was duly decked out as a woman, whilst in yet another case Nero acted out the bridal part.
- An event where Nero apparently dressed as an animal giving in to lustful impulse.
Whilst on the one hand Nero’s own character lent itself to bizarre extremes we can also recognize numerous connotations of religious initiations of various sorts. It would not be difficult for these to be later passed down to us with a note of scandal, in very much in the same way that the Roman pagans might have described a Christian Eucharist as a cannibalistic event.
Magic and Mysticism was very common in ancient Rome and it was also perfectly normal for the ruling class to drive propaganda creating an image of Emperor gods of Rome linking itself to divine there are striking examples such as Emperor Augustus’ mausoleum which are clear evidence of such practices being a part of imperial action, after all, in times of great distress the Romans had the tradition of consulting the sibylline books . So it is not difficult to imagine that Nero’s eunuch marriage may be linked to the cult of Cybele, whilst acting out the bridal part in a marriage was likely linked to the cult of the war goddess Bellona. The beast act was likely linked to initiatory practices in the cult of Mithras which has already been described above drew inspiration from observation of the stars (including the discovery of precession of the equinoxes) and was at that time spreading into Rome from the orient: it had various curious similarities with Christianity.
Nero’s Christian persecution
The Roman authorities had a generally very open attitude to foreign religions and indeed we should note that, during the reign of Nero, St. Paul’s first trial was celebrated with the subsequent release and freedom to go about their task of spreading the word of Christ in Rome which at the time was not considered as a threat but simply one amongst various Jewish factions.
The big change in attitude to the Christians came at about the same time as the authoritarian change in Nero’s ruling style
– round about 62-63AD, at which point his tutor Seneca withdrew from public office and shortly before the great disaster of the burning of Rome in 64AD
Nero’s sudden persecution of the Christians was largely driven by his desire to respond to the increasing public displeasure for the Christian sect. Before that disastrous event the hatred of Christians was founded around their evidently different lifestyle to that of other Romans who soon accuse them of incest (given they call each other brother and sister) and of cannibalism (bread = body of Christ).
It was only later that the need for a scapegoat in Rome’s burning added to the brutality with which they were hunted down, trialed with weakly conducted trials and executed with a ferocity which surprised even the non Christians. Perhaps most incriminating was their open refusal to pay homage to the emperor’s divinity and those of the traditional Roman state, which clearly market the Christians as traitors and as such liable to torture and execution – such as covering them in animal skins and throwing them to ferocious dogs or setting them alight as human torches. It is of course likely that the accounts of such tortures are to a degree exaggerated and more likely in keeping with those which would have been customarily been meted out to other criminals but nevertheless they are a sign of what was to come in later centuries.
Some incidental details suggest that Nero likely dabbled in various “mystery religions” of oriental origin, including Mithraism which had a number of similarities with Christianity and which Christianity eventually (and violently) destroyed. An example of this is the starry cloak that Nero is described as wearing during the triumphal parade he awarded himself after his Greek tour. Another piece of circumstantial evidence is a fresco with a mithraic theme (slaying of the bull) found in the remains of Nero’s first palace, the domus Transitoria which was later rebuilt into the domus aurea.
It is interesting conjecture that Christian antipathy for Nero may have also been driven by his open support to a major rival religion and his desire to make Rome it’s centre, hence making himself both blasphemous and rival in their eyes.
There is no doubt that Neronian propaganda was openly portraying the emperor as an Apollo or sun-god with the radiate crown and/or quadriga. Examples include the back of his dupondius coin (radiate crown), his colossal bronze statue (radiate crown), on statues of the emperor and even the image painted onto the sails covering the theatre of Marcellus in event of the arrival of king Tiridates from Parthia (Syria).
This was clearly in contrast to the Christian faith which was conceptually closely aligned to the sun deity (eg see frescos in the catacombs of Christ-sun god riding the quadriga) yet a direct antagonist of other “pagan” religions which saw their epicenter in Rome itself and particularly those where Nero the emperor, a living person, might have taken a central role as a living deity.
There are numerous coincidental elements which like loose pieces of a jigsaw suggest Nero was an open supporter of the sun-god cult and that he intended to make his new city, “Neronia” its centre.
- The sun god’s festival was on the 25th of December, the Mithraic festival was (possibly) also on the 25th.
- Nero’s colossal status as Sun-God Apollo.
- Mithraic symbolism regularly shows Mithras dining side by side with Sol
- Tiridates, Parthian representative and king of Armenian is supposed to have been a Zoroastrian priest and likely instrumental in the development of Mithraism (a sort of Romanisation of the Zoroastrian cult) – his close relationship with Nero is well attested, not only by his journey to Rome in 66AD together with his Magi’s to be crowned by Nero whom he referred to as “sun-god/Mithras” but also in his subsequent pleas on Nero’s behalf once the emperor had fallen into disfavor and committed suicide.
- The Zoroastrian religion included a priestly caste called the Magi’s, who had the ability to read the meaning of the stars in the heavens: ring any bells? Certainly it gives the idea that (perhaps) the concept of the three magi’s following the star and paying tribute to Christ is a symbolic means of suggesting that Christianity was picking up the Zoroastrian baton – acquiring legitimacy as the only true religion. Not a statement you would need to make unless you had particular regard for the Zoroastrians (and Mithraic) religions which you would then do your utmost to annihilate.
- Nero led his triumphal return from Greece to the temple of Apollo rather than that of Jupiter. Apollo was directly associated with the sun deity – a similar example is given by Emperor Constantine who first followed Apollo-Sol Invictus and later shifted his following to that of Christ.