Unravelling the Antichrist: The Welcome Provocation of Shushma Malik’s The Nero-Antichrist
By Sarah E. Rollens (Rhodes College)
Review of Shushma Malik, The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Often unbeknownst to non-specialists, Roman Empire Nero is crucially important for Christian apocalyptic ideas. Christian apocalypticism, both modern and ancient, derives in large measure from the book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse of John), the last book in the New Testament. While Revelation speaks in fantastical language about divine punishments and rewards that God will mete out at the end of days, critical scholars of the New Testament interpret this fantasy as an allegory about what was going on in the author’s setting (that is, the first century of the Common Era in the Roman Empire). Nero is not named explicitly in the text, but scholars believe numerous symbols point obliquely to him as a kind of villainous spectre lurking behind the text. In order to account for this, it is supposed that Revelation was written during a time when some Christians held a particularly negative attitude about the Roman Empire in general, and about Nero specifically, perhaps because of his associations with tyranny, violence, sexual depravity, and persecution of Christians. As Christian imagination blossomed over the centuries, commentators revisited Revelation and began to posit a robust antichrist myth linking Nero with one of the archvillains of Christianity. This linkage produces the so-called Nero-Antichrist figure that occupies The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm.
In this short but captivating new book, Shushma Malik tackles the long-standing association between the emperor Nero and the antichrist in the Christian tradition. Trained in Roman history, Malik has written a sophisticated (though admittedly not comprehensive) reception history of Nero’s legacy, with special attention to the tendency among Christian thinkers to depict him as more and more evil and depraved over time, eventually rendering him as an agent of Satan. As someone trained in the study of religion, particularly the history and development of early Christianity, I was delighted to see someone outside of my own field taking on this topic. While I am not sure biblical scholars will be persuaded by her efforts to dissociate certain imagery in the Bible (especially the beast of Revelation 13 and its “mark” of 666 [616 in some ancient manuscripts]) from Nero, they should nevertheless read this book and study its arguments carefully in order to glimpse what this debate looks like from the vantage point of Classics.
Why Nero, though? After all, many Roman emperors have fantastical and outrageous stories associated with them, and many have similarly captivated scholars and readers for centuries. “What separates the story of Nero from those of other emperors,” Malik suggests, “is its afterlife” (1). The emperor has the “potential to transform” (1) to meet the needs of the cultural producers who co-opt his legacy in different times and places. But why Nero now? To be sure, Nero is experiencing a bit of a renaissance at the moment. In the academic world, there have been several recent monographs and anthologies that have focused on Nero and the political and cultural dynamics of his reign. Outside of academia, the British Museum has recently featured a special exhibit on Nero entitled “Nero: The Man Behind the Myth.” Thus, the time seems ripe for thinking about the persistence of his legacy. In addition, while biblical scholars continue to take for granted that Nero is one of the main targets of the political critique in Revelation, their conversations are regularly insular and only infrequently involve scholars of Classics or History. Malik wants, therefore, to “balance the dialogue” and help Classics in particular “re-appropriate the Nero-Antichrist paradigm and add to the discussion” (9).
The main argument of this book is that the association between the Christian antichrist and the Roman emperor Nero is a product of late antique theologians and is not actually reflected in the New Testament texts themselves. This view stands to undermine one of the pillars of historical-critical work on Revelation that was mentioned above: that the apocalypse uses coded language in specific critique of Emperor Nero. Scholars of early Christianity have easily—perhaps too easily—posited Nero behind some of the ciphers in this text on the assumption that Nero was widely known to be a maniacal ruler who persecuted Christians. But this understanding of Nero, Malik wants to show in this book, was not the only one out there. It was “just one version of the emperor that survived into later times” (15). Put differently, the Nero-Antichrist paradigm was merely a “phase of the reception of biblical texts in late antiquity and not programmed into the texts themselves” (17).
Nero in the Minds of Ancient Authors
In our disciplinary silos, scholars of early Christianity have often held that Nero is the obvious referent behind much of Revelation, and we have appealed to a rather predictable repertoire of arguments through the years to make our cases. In Malik’s view, our methodology has often progressed by assuming that Nero is symbolised in the biblical texts, then excavating the texts for proof. To begin to challenge this, she first examines the evidence we have for perceptions of Nero in the first century. It turns out that the portrait of Nero as a morally corrupt megalomaniac is only partially supported. Among Roman writers, for instance, Nero was regularly associated with the inauguration of peace throughout the empire, and the early years of his reign were often discussed in positive—even grand—terms. Malik moves beyond elite literature and peruses graffiti to get at more first-century perceptions; in graffiti, she likewise finds largely positive portrayals of Nero, albeit with a touch of satire.
Somewhat differently, material evidence often lets us catch sight of how Nero wanted to portray himself. On coins, for example, he appears as a singer, actor, or a military leader. His architectural feats, moreover, also offer some information about his reception among the people of Rome. The building projects that he was most known for in Rome—the Domus Aurea and the colossal statue—are often assumed to have elicited critique and disgust from ordinary people due to their opulence, but Malik questions such a conclusion. The Domus, she suggests, likely appeared open and inviting to the public, while the colossus, though staggering in size, was a rather ordinary, even expected, depiction of the emperor as “larger-than-life” (32). In short, in and around Rome, Nero’s name likely had positive associations, and his legacy was reflected in inspiring architecture and public works.
Outside of Rome, attitudes toward the emperor and his family tended to be slightly different, as is evident in the propensity to treat the living emperor as a god in the provinces, whereas such practice was usually avoided in Rome itself. Malik continues to identify relatively positive depictions of Nero in the provinces. In the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, for instance, Nero’s likeness appeared in military garb and was styled in a way that highlighted his descent from Augustus. The Sebasteion’s Nero was idealised as “a young emperor, directly descended from the divine Augustus, full of potential and power” (37). Nero also seems to have been regarded as a kind of messianic figure (like many Roman emperors), liberating cities and bringing peace throughout the far-flung empire.
This discussion raises important questions about what knowledge people in diverse parts of the empire would have had about imperial rulers and their politics. Residents of Rome itself, Malik argues, would have likely known about some of the sensationalised, scandalous gossip associated with Nero, but outside Rome, inhabitants may have only been familiar with official imperial propaganda and political rumours that were directly relevant to their region. The most important takeaway from considering these varied depictions of Nero is that there were numerous representations circulating in the first century. The immoral, scandal-plagued Nero that often comes to mind for us only captures one of these representations.
The project then turns to biblical references to the antichrist to see whether or not Nero matches their descriptions. Malik begins with the book of Daniel, which may seem like a strange place to start, written as it was over 200 years before Nero’s reign. Yet she includes it both because its imagery informs Revelation and also because early Christian commentators claimed that Daniel prophesied Nero just as Revelation did. As Malik rightly points out (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), “chronology would dictate that the authors of Daniel could not have encountered Nero in the sixth or second century BC” (53). After Daniel, she turns to 1–2 John, which are the only books in the New Testament that actually use the technical term antichrist (Greek: αντίχριστος). The antichrists of 1–2 John, as is well known, are figures of deception, but the letters are exceptionally vague in describing their referents. This portion of the discussion is brief: one wishes she would have spent longer on these two letters, if only to illustrate more how the term antichrist is used to label other Christ-believers who hold differing views from the author. In addition, non-specialist readers are often under the impression that the antichrist is comprehensively described in the New Testament, while in reality, it is mentioned a mere four times in 1–2 John. I fear this important observation gets lost in Malik’s discussion.
The analysis then considers 2 Thessalonians (and briefly, Mark 13). Second Thessalonians has bequeathed us the infamous “Man of Lawlessness” who will be destroyed by Christ at the end times. This figure, Malik argues, picks up on “iniquity, hubris, and deception” (57) motifs that Daniel had highlighted when describing the warring kings of the North and South. Late antique Christians regularly identified the Man of Lawlessness with Nero, which allowed them to expand the suite of characteristics associated with Nero beyond those found in Roman histories. For instance, John Chrysostom connected the Man of Lawlessness with Nero on the basis that the figure exalts himself against God, but Malik rightly notes, “this type of religious hubris is not explicit in accounts of Nero’s reign” (58). The assumption that Nero was symbolised in 2 Thessalonians was only furthered by the supposition that Paul, rumoured to have been killed by Nero, penned the letter himself (modern scholars still debate whether he was the actual author of this letter or not). Yet, in keeping with her wider thesis that the biblical texts themselves do not unambiguously refer to Nero and that such connections are late antique inventions, Malik questions the obviousness of the identification of the Man of Lawlessness with Nero: not only is the former described with rather vague, conventional literary tropes, but also, other candidates, such as Caligula, Titus, and Vespasian, would make just as much sense as referents. After 2 Thessalonians, Mark 13 is brought in very briefly, primarily for its links with imagery in Daniel.
We finally arrive at Revelation, which, to be honest, is probably why most New Testament scholars would seek out this book. I do not think I am exaggerating in claiming that nearly all New Testament textbooks that adopt a historical-critical approach claim that Nero is hidden behind some of the fantastical symbols in Revelation; however, they often (rightly) avoid terminology of “antichrist,” since that word, as we have seen, is only present in 1–2 John. For Malik, the identification of Nero behind Revelation is not so cut and dry. She surveys three motifs in Revelation 13 that are regularly connected to Nero (the beast with the mortal wound on one of its many heads, the number 666, and the seven kings timeline) and finds all of them to be weak, or at least ambiguous, connections. The so-called “mark of the beast” (i.e., 666/616) is usually treated as the lynchpin of the argument, for it results from calculating the numerical value of Nero’s name and title in Hebrew. Yet, as Malik observes, this number has been able to fit numerous perpetrators throughout history, which itself should cause us to be sceptical of its certain connection with Nero: “[A]ny association between Nero and the Antichrist cannot be viewed as fixed based on the evidence of a number that can as easily refer to another name as it can to Nero” (71). Furthermore, Malik argues that Revelation’s author (conventionally known as John of Patmos) could have made all of these connections with Nero more explicit, had he truly intended them: “[H]ad John wanted his beast to be interpreted only or primarily as Nero on the merit of persecutions, he could have referred to the first Christian martyrs when contextualizing the beast as a king in Revelation 17, or made his allegorical references clearer by setting the war in Rome” (67). What’s more, “if John wanted his audience to understand Nero as his first beast, he could (following Maccabees) have named him explicitly, or (following Daniel) have given true place names and precise contextual information” (78). As it stands, she concludes, the imagery is open: “no feature or trait [within Revelation’s imagery] is unique[…]. John’s apocalypse is successful precisely because the attributes can be assigned and re-assigned, over and over again” (78). None of the New Testament authors, she ultimately surmises, intended to symbolise Nero in any of their texts. Locating Nero behind them only seems obvious to us because we have been steeped in the interpretive frameworks of late antique theologians.
This is the chapter that will throw most scholars of early Christianity for a loop, for they are routinely used to interpreting the first beast in Revelation 13 and its mark (666/616) as signifiers of Nero. Malik’s dismissal of the 666/616 motif will no doubt seem a bit too hasty for many. In addition, many scholars of early Christianity will likely register some confusion about taking all of these biblical texts seriously as witnessing to the antichrist trope. In Biblical Studies, few scholars writing about the New Testament evidence for the antichrist would discuss Daniel, 2 Thessalonians, Mark 13, or really even Revelation—except to note that Revelation does not actually contain references to the antichrist and that its imagery only later gets conflated with antichrist lore.
Mythmaking with Nero in Late Antiquity
After arguing that New Testament authors did not have Nero in mind for their writings, Malik then shifts to the intellectual work that explicitly links the “bad Nero” from the Roman historiographical tradition with the antichrist figure in early Christian texts. Here she examines the Sibylline Oracles and Ascension of Isaiah as venues where Nero’s connection to the antichrist comes into clearest relief. In accordance with the broader argument of the book, she maintains that there is more reason to think that the antichrist figures of these texts presupposed Nero than there is to think that biblical texts did.
The Sibylline Oracles feature the antichrist prominently as a bringer of destruction and war, though the figure is not explicitly connected to Nero. Uniquely, the Oracles explore the human life of the antichrist before he unleashes his eschatological chaos. Thus, the text is one of the first to describe the antichrist’s earthly existence prior to his future eschatological role. Despite not linking the antichrist with Nero explicitly, the Oracles use “recognizable anecdotes” (92) from Nero’s life to describe the human life of the antichrist. For instance, the Oracles’ antichrist engages in murder, destruction, and matricide, and gravitates toward athleticism and theatre; perhaps his most eyebrow-raising exploit is his forging of the canal through the isthmus at Corinth. With such incredibly specific details, this figure is indubitably recalling some of the infamous stories from the Nero cycle. The text, furthermore, deploys gematria in order to implicate Nero elsewhere. In short, the Sibylline Oracles are one of the first texts to unambiguously fashion the historical Nero as the eschatological antichrist.
Cited less frequently than the Oracles but similarly linking the antichrist with Nero is the Ascension of Isaiah. This text features an antichrist figure (this time known as Beliar) who is a lawless king, persecutor, and deceiver whom Christ will conquer at the end times. Like the Sibylline Oracles, the Ascension does not mention Nero by name, but it mobilises motifs of matricide and persecution that also seem clearly drawn from legends about Nero. In short, in order to flesh out their ideas about a diabolical antichrist, both the Oracles and Ascension “took advantage of a Nero portrayed as the archetypal bad emperor in the historiographical tradition” (100).
It is in this post-biblical period, Malik argues, that Nero becomes singularly and stereotypically aligned with the embodiment of imperial cruelty, whereas earlier, this portrait had only been one among many. To achieve these stereotypes, the most influential depictions often ham-handedly juxtaposed him with idealised figures of virtue. Among Christian authors, for example, Nero is often depicted as an anti-type of Paul. Whereas Paul is exemplary of Christian morality in writings of Chrysostom and others, Nero becomes the embodiment of evil itself. In this way, Nero was used to better understand what it meant to be a perfect Christian. Malik makes a stronger argument, in my view, that Christian writers regularly portrayed Nero as an anti-type of Augustus. Nero, she proposes, was “a standard used to demonstrate the extent to which the principate had degenerated from the time of its first emperor” (109). These depictions fit well with Roman writers, such as Suetonius, Tacitus, and Seneca, who have also tended to discuss Nero in (negative) comparison with other emperors. The imperial anti-type thus lines up well with the Christian eschatological anti-type. Indeed, the repeated unpleasant historiographical traditions about Nero (his extreme cruelty, sexual depravity, violence, and the like) were used to confirm that Nero had the disposition to be the antichrist. In this way, Malik reveals how late antique Christians were developing their ideas about the antichrist and using traditions about Nero to fuel their theological myth-making. These writers drew liberally upon biblical texts, apocryphal texts, and Roman historiographical texts in order to fashion these myths about Nero as the antichrist.
The Modern Revival of Nero
The final substantive portion of the book moves quickly forward to the nineteenth century to discern the reception of Nero among European authors. There are obviously many neglected centuries here, but recall that Malik never claims that her book is a comprehensive reception history. The nineteenth century seems to attract her attention for its self-conscious fascination with the past: the Victorian period was already witnessing a revival of classical literature and a preoccupation with the ancient Mediterranean. Malik deftly shows how the spectre of Rome was revived in all manner of contemporary conversations, from political debates and class warfare to internecine Catholic controversies and the anxieties about the close of the century. Malik spotlights three authors (Ernst Renan, Frederic Farrar, and Oscar Wilde) to illustrate the afterlives of the Nero-Antichrist paradigm in this era, and just as in times past, the antichrist was a screen onto which a variety of cultural anxieties could be cast.
Malik makes much of the religious identities of these authors and how they affect their treatment of the antichrist. Renan, for instance, a committed Catholic, fixated on Nero in a way that separated him from Rome, so as to protect the origins of the Catholic Church:
Renan aims to expose Neronian traits as typical of the Antichrist and then use them to liberate Rome from any complicity in Nero’s actions because it is the homeland of Catholicism….[he] needed to disassociate Nero from the city by portraying him as not only anti-Christian but also anti-Roman, thus creating a Rome which could propagate generations of Roman Catholics entirely free from the taint of Nero. (149)
Renan thus made Nero out to be practically inhuman, the enemy of both Christians and Rome.
Farrar opted to portray Nero in a fictional account, Darkness and Dawn, which offered an exaggeratedly dualistic world in which the Nero-Antichrist was irredeemable. For Farrar, moreover, Nero was important for how he shaped the context in which Christianity emerged. “Nero was depicted throughout [Darkness and Dawn],” Malik explains, “as the ultimate paradigm of evil; not only was he not Christian, but he repeatedly acted against Christianity itself” (162). Though he was Liberal Evangelical and not Catholic, Farrar had rather ecumenical goals: by “equating the early persecution of the Christians by the pagans to the nineteenth-century Protestant attacks on Catholics, Farrar directly condemned the papal-Antichrist rhetoric” (163) of his day.
Wilde, who held a personal fascination with Nero, imagined him experiencing the decadent outlets that he himself sought. Nero represented a figure of non-normative sexuality who was not restrained by convention—for Wilde, he was thus worth emulating. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only work to mention Nero, was, accordingly, “a celebration of decadence” (178), and his Nero was a sinner, albeit one who could be redeemed. What’s more, Nero was a site for Wilde to wrestle with his own feelings toward Christianity (he had experience with both Protestant and Catholic traditions). He simultaneously wanted to both experience and atone for things considered to be sinful, and his infatuation with Nero let him work out both impulses: he could allow the decadence to unfold, while still holding out for future redemption.
Malik’s epilogue offers no conclusion; rather, it further extends the reception history into the twentieth century, focusing briefly on plays and films. She tentatively suggests that modern audiences seem less familiar with the Nero-Antichrist paradigm than previous generations. In many ways, the torch may have passed to other figures of depravity, a point we’ll return to momentarily.
I won’t mince words: I thought this book should have been twice as long. Assessing the New Testament’s possible ciphers for Nero is, in my humble opinion, a book-length project on its own, though it only occupies about a third of one chapter here. Yet despite its relatively short length, The Nero-Antichrist provides much fodder for discussion and analysis. Above all, the interdisciplinary nature of this study is extraordinary, and, quite frankly, something that many of us ensconced in our areas of expertise are rarely brave enough to do. Malik moves enthusiastically through nineteenth-century biblical scholarship (both historical-critical and theological), early and late antique Christian writing, Roman historiography, and nineteenth-century European literature. No doubt some experts in these areas will quibble with the book’s sometimes cursory treatment of topics that deserve much more space (as I admittedly have with some of the New Testament discussions—we always want there to be more on the topics we love!), but this is always the case in studies of this sort. It remains a legitimate and admirable task to cast such a wide net in order to call into question long-entrenched paradigms.
In my view, a few things need to be disentangled in order to evaluate the thesis of this book. Above all, we need to note that most contemporary biblical scholars would not agree that the antichrist is referred to in Revelation, Mark 13, 2 Thessalonians, or the book of Daniel. For most of us who approach the New Testament with a critical eye, the only textual evidence for the antichrist comes in 1–2 John, and it refers to something entirely different than the beasts of Revelation (or Daniel) or the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians. It is only later Christian theologians who impose the idea of the antichrist on all of these figures. Thus, the position that Malik is arguing against in the first half of the book (that Nero as the Antichrist lies behind all of these biblical imaginaries) is not a position that critical biblical scholars hold in the first place; this view, rather, is propaganda of the early church. That being said, most scholars of early Christianity do tend to agree that the book of Revelation presupposes Nero in its veiled political critique (just not with language of the antichrist).
Upon finishing a book, a useful exercise is always to ask what, if anything, one will think differently about having read it. My answers sometimes accord with what the authors intended, though not necessarily. I will, for one, no longer take for granted that Nero was always and everywhere thought of as an odious villain by people in the Roman Empire. Malik has persuasively proven that there were different dimensions to his legacy and that some were even in tension with one another. For another, this book has encouraged me to think in a more nuanced fashion about regional experiences of empire: it raises excellent questions about how ordinary people experienced imperial power and what they knew about imperial politics and rumours. This, in turn, elicits a whole host of questions about the avalanche of “anti-empire” studies in our field (that is, studies that assume that early Christian writers were vocal critics of the Roman Empire and/or that they were singularly oppressed by its operations). At the very least, many of these studies would likely benefit from far more nuance on this subject, taking into consideration the kind of questions Malik asks about the movement and survival of knowledge throughout the empire.
What’s more, this book stands to have interesting consequences for the study of ancient apocalypticism. Many New Testament scholars have routinely taken for granted that Nero is the villain of the most well-known early Christian apocalypse. While they might not be convinced by Malik’s dismissal of the ciphers in Revelation, they will appreciate how the analysis contextualises the early Christian and late antique interests in Nero by situating them within a long era of fascination. Nero, she cogently argues, helped late antique theologians think through, develop, and expand their apocalyptic imaginaries. Given the range of perspectives on Nero that they had available to them, moreover, it seems that they ignored as many stories about Nero as they incorporated. In a very real way, we can also say that Roman historians, with their manifold characterisations of Nero that evidently piqued the interest of Christian writers, had an influence on the apocalyptic mentalities that the modern world has inherited.
I was also left thinking differently about the legacy of Nero in our own time. Oddly, though Nero’s troubled reputation thrived through the nineteenth century, it is much more muted in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Is there something different, I wonder, about our particular cultural contours that would lead to Nero’s scandalous stories getting less cultural traction now? Perhaps they just haven’t found the right audience. Or perhaps Caligula’s legacy has overshadowed Nero’s, at least in popular culture, stemming from the impact of the 1979 erotic drama film bearing his name. Curiously, both Nero and Caligula still have some currency, though, which we realise when we observe that both were mobilised in recent political conversations in the United States to reflect on aspects of Donald Trump’s regime. These mobilisations could easily be added onto Malik’s study to illustrate the continued preoccupation with Nero. Her study thus reveals a constantly transforming legacy that has enthralled onlookers for centuries. The “complicated nature of Nero’s popularity” (172) will likely continue to evolve in response to new cultural interests and anxieties.
Sarah E. Rollens
R.A. Webb Associate Professor of Religious Studies
NB: I had the opportunity to read this book with a cross-disciplinary reading group in Fall/Autumn 2021. The reading group was organised by me and Robyn Faith Walsh and was sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, the Redescribing Christian Origins seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions. I am grateful for the support from those organisations, as well as for the thoughtful discussions that participants engaged in. While my interlocutors were immensely helpful as discussion partners, all views in the above review are my own.
 John F. Drinkwater, Nero: Emperor and Court. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019; Maria Wyke, The Novel of Neronian Rome and its Multimedial Transformations: Sienkiewicz’s “Quo Vadis”. Classical Presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021; Eric Moormann, Nerone, Roma e la Domus Aurea. Conferenze, 33. Rome: Arbor Sapientiae, 2020; Joseph J. Walsh, The Great Fire of Rome: Life and Death in the Ancient City. Witness to Ancient History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
 The exhibit ran from 27 May–24 October 2021: https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/nero-man-behind-myth.
 Another camp of scholars argues that Diocletian is a more likely candidate than Nero.
 The practice of calculating the numerical value of a name based on the numerical value of each letter is known as gematria.
 Trump was called “Orange Caligula” by numerous liberal commentators, while several memes circulated that compared his inaction during the coronavirus pandemic to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. Several “think-pieces” exploited these similarities as well: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/01/donald-trump-has-fascinating-parallels-with-caligula-says-historian; https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/09/trump-coronavirus-nero-qanon/.