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Did Early Christian Texts Influence the Modern View of Nero?

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Did Early Christian Texts Influence the Historical View of Nero?

With the lack of contemporary historical records for the principate of Nero, and the lacunae of the histories made after his death, a complete historical view of Nero's reign is impossible to pinpoint. The amount of conflicting bias presented from ancient sources is both noted by modern scholars and the sources themselves. This left a sizeable gap in Roman history to be filled. As Christianity became more widespread starting in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, traditional Christian views of Nero, caused by his notorious persecution of early Christians and the fact that most historical records became written by Christian or Christian taught scholars , began to fill in that gap by accepting the more negative and sensational view of his principate as fact.

The principally accepted ancient texts that chronicle Nero's emperorship were written by Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Tacitus and Suetonius' accounts, in the Annals and The Lives of Twelve Caesars respectively, were both written over 50 years after Nero's death. Dio's was written over 150 years after Nero's death. The validity of each of their accounts, in respect to Nero, can be challenged by examining their own respective backgrounds, completeness, and reliance on older, more sensationalized lost texts. Tacitus, who joined the senate after Nero's death, admits to being indebted to many of Nero's former rivals and even gives a preamble warning to readers of this fact in the opening lines of his other Roman historical account, History. Tacitus' accounts in the Annals is also incomplete after the year 66 AD and, though we know some of the missing texts summaries through its use as a source for other ancient texts, it's complete detail of the end of Nero's life is unknown. Dio's record of Nero's reign in books 61-63 of Roman History is even more incomplete and only fragments remain. The portions we do have of History were compiled, abridged, and possibly altered by John Xiphilinus, an 11th century Christian monk. Suetonius' work is the most complete and detailed ancient source we have on Nero but scholars have noted his emphasis on the sordid and sensational aspects of nearly all the Caesarian rulers he profiled. These three primary texts also conflict on many details of Nero's reign, such as his whereabouts during the Great Fire of Rome during 64 AD and the deaths of Claudius and Agrippina . These three incidents are integral parts of the current and accepted view of Nero's reign as corrupt and villainous. One of the common themes they all share, however, is condemnation of Nero's principate and his incompetence as emperor.

While not nearly as common, or accepted, as the Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus texts, some ancient sources paint Nero as a different historical character. Dio Chrystosom, Lucan, and Seneca the Elder all speak of Nero and his emperorship at various points as successful and revered. However, like the aforementioned accepted texts, the validity of these comments comes under question because of the author's respective biases. Lucan was a contemporary and friend of Nero who fell out of favor with the emperor and was part of Gaeus Calpunius Piso's conspiracy to kill Nero in 65 AD. For this treason he was forced to commit suicide by opening a vein and bleeding to death, but not before incriminating his mother, among others, in hope of a pardon. The story of this is actually found in Tacitus' Annals . Seneca the Elder's scattered and overtly positive writings must be questioned because of his principle role in the education of Nero, as well as his service as an advisor to the emperor during the early parts of his reign . Dio Chrystosom writes of distaste for Nero by the senate , but also of the common Romans reverence for their leader after his death . He goes into detail of the common belief at the time of Nero's impending rise from death to come back and lead Rome once again . In fact Tacitus mentions an impersonator of Nero after his death in Parthia who the Parthinians refused to give to Rome because of their hope of him once again leading the Empire . This ancient urban legend could be the source of later Christian writings of Nero coming back from the dead as the Anti-Christ. The rest of Dio Chrystosom's texts on Nero are incomplete however, and are filled with contradictions of accepted historical fact. All of these texts, however, do make mention of Nero's popularity in the Eastern provinces and the imperial cults that began worshiping him there.

Christian texts, on the other hand, show a much more consistent tone of negativity towards Nero. This is almost certainly because of his persecution of Christians that is well documented in nearly every text written about Nero. The most famous of these being Tacitus' story of Nero burning Christians alive as light sources for his gardens after the sun went down . Suetonius details the persecution of Christians in nearly as bold and colorful details but does so while praising Nero for it as a justified action against a rebellious uprising . Suetonius and Cassius Dio pin the blame for the fire on Nero himself



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