Why was Nero the essence of evil for the early Christians?The conviction that the Messiah would return when evil was triumphant goes back to the Jewish Book of Baruch which was begun soon after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC.
The Book of Revelation, which has been dated somewhere between 64 AD and 95 AD, picks up the thread. It makes the famous claim that the coded name of the Antichrist is 666, which can mean Nero Caesar in Hebrew. Modern scholarship ("666" in Semiotica 77, 1989, pages 369-392) confirms this important identification.
The belief that Nero was the Antichrist was still current in the 5th century when St. Augustine writes, "Some suppose that Nero will rise again as Antichrist. Others think that he is not dead ... and that he still lives on as a legendary figure, of the same age at which he died, and will be restored to his Kingdom."
Jewish zealots hated the Romans ever since Marc Anthony, Nero's great-grandfather, conquered Palestine in 63 BC. If Rome's emperors were all candidates, what was so special about Nero to make him worthy of being selected as the devil incarnate?
The answer appears to be his popularity in the street all over the empire. More than popularity. Worship.
Nero didn't just patronize the arts, music in particular. He fiercely promoted them to a mass audience. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, he built a huge arts and entertainment center, the Golden House, in the middle of the burnt out city. Much to the horror of his aristocratic contemporaries, who believed he was dragging the imperial dignity through the dirt, he not only composed hit songs and operas but performed them in public. He organized festivals, open to all Romans, that glorified the senses.
The early Christians preached a life of sackcloth, ashes and martyrdom to the same demographic profile - working people, slaves, poor immigrants. Christianity's ascetic gospel was in direct competition with Nero's artistic gospel. This new sect had a secret weapon: the fanatical conviction that the end of the world was at hand, that all those who were seduced by Nero's message would be burnt by holy fire while martyrs who resisted the seductive Beast would feast forever in Paradise. It was a powerful message that prevailed.
It was not until 1,500 years later that Nero made his comeback, not as the Antichrist but as the Renaissance. Echoes of martyrdom and its promise of Paradise have also come back to haunt us: the ideology of fundamentalist Islam.