2022-02-28

Hadrian as Nero Redivivus

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by Neil Godfrey

Key points in this post:

  • Both Nero and Hadrian waged war with the Jews.
  • Both Nero and Hadrian had a special devotion to enriching and reviving the culture of the Greek world
  • Nero pursued the cultic-religious worship of his own person, Hadrian that of Antinous (and more to be covered in upcoming posts)
  • The travel coins minted by Hadrian mirror the Corinthian local coinage reflecting Nero’s visit there.
  • The rule of Hadrian witnessed a flourishing of Jewish apocalyptic writings, including the identification of Hadrian with Nero redivivus.
Hadrian brought the Temple of Olympian Zeus to completion after it had languished for 600 years. He had four more-than-life-size statues of himself at its entrance and was worshipped along with Zeus. Hadrian also displayed here a giant serpent from India.

–o–

The Nero redivivus myth is a standard interpretative feature in most commentaries on Revelation. Virtually every major commentary on Revelation mentions the myth . . .  Kreitzer (1988)

But there is little agreement on exactly how Revelation fits with the history of the Roman empire. Kreitzer lists four scenarios to demonstrate those difficulties:

Rev 11:8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

Scenario one:

  • The five fallen emperors are Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian
  • The “one who is” (at time of writing), Titus
  • Domitian is the one “to appear” (foreseen by the author) as Nero redivivus.

Scenario two (omitting those who reigned for very short times):

  • The five fallen emperors are Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus.
  • The “one who is”, Domitian
  • The seventh and eighth are yet to come

Scenario three:

  • The five fallen emperors are the Julio-Claudians (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero)
  • The “one who is” is then Galba
  • The one to come and to reign but a short time is then Otho — to be followed by Nero’s return

Scenario four is proposed by the same person who actually proposed scenario three above:

(The author) was writing in the early second century, a refugee, from a later wave of persecutions, and using the events of 64 to 69 in Rome as a cloak for his views of his own times. … To the author of Revelation the cheap and nasty legend of the risen Nero would seem the perfect legend for the anti-Christ, ever opposed to the truly and gloriously Risen Lord of his own faith. (John Bishop, Nero: The Man and Legend, p. 174)

The Nero myth was itself a variable quantity. It is as Kreitzer observes

The fact that ancient Jewish and Christian authors were able to find new and creative means of applying the Nero redivivus mythology to their own situations is particularly interesting. (1988, 95)

Indeed. And as we shall see, the emperor Hadrian who crushed the second Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kochba was also identified as the “Nero returned”.

Before we take on the details, let’s get some context.

Origin and Development of the Nero Redivivus Myth

We might say that there are three conditions necessary for a belief in someone’s return:

1.) A widespread popular affection for the figure by people who regarded the deceased as their benefactor or defender

2.) A general feeling that the figure concerned died leaving his work incomplete

3.) Mysterious or suspicious circumstances surrounding the figure’s death. 

(And we might thank M. P. Charlesworth for helping us out with that list.)

All three conditions apply to Nero. But as time went on and Nero didn’t return the hopes took a new twist: Nero was going to come back from the dead and return! As history and reality faded, myth took their place.

Non-Jews had hoped for Nero’s return. Jews, on the other hand, not so much. The idea of his return was good fodder for end-time prophecies such as those in the Sibylline Oracles, however. The Jewish oracles accordingly turned Nero into an end-time enemy of God.

How are these oracles dated? They refer to the destruction of the Jewish temple (70CE); they also refer to Hadrian in favourable terms so we presume that they were written before his war against Judea.

One set of these oracles (book 5) has been dated between 70 and 132 CE.

The oracles identify Nero by the following descriptions:

  • He initiated the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem
  • He murdered his mother Agrippina
  • He claimed to be God
  • He loved the Greeks and those in the “east” (including Parthia) and they all loved him.
  • He cut through the isthmus of Corinth to create a canal joining two seas

Sibylline oracles identified Nero by means of known historical facts about him. And he was depicted there as an evil ruler. So where does Hadrian enter the story?

Hadrian as Nero redivivus

Curiously, Hadrian, though presented in a favourable light, is surrounded by descriptions of the unpleasant Nero. Not only is Hadrian nested within portrayals of Nero, but he also shares some of Nero’s historical identifiers. Given that the author here believes Hadrian is on the side of good and Nero on that of evil, we cannot imagine that Hadrian was understood to be Nero redivivus.

But the oracle was fearful. What of the future?

After all, Nero had brought savage punishment upon the Jews; so had the Flavians (Vespasian and Titus) who succeeded him. The oracle laments the existence of all these rulers. Then came the aged Nerva followed by Trajan. The oracle does not totally condemn those rulers: they had not caused trouble. And Hadrian, at least for now, seemed benign enough, but the past record of emperors still cast its shadow of traumatic memories. So the oracle wrote of Hadrian (5:46-50),

After him another will reign,
a silver-headed man. He will have the name of a sea.
He will also be a most excellent man and he will consider everything.
And in your time, most excellent, outstanding, dark-haired one,
and in the days of your descendants, all these days will come to pass.

Hadrian might be a fine man, but when he dies the end-of-time calamity will come — that was the message.

Still, why was Hadrian associated with Nero at all in these oracles?

Larry Kreitzer has an explanation:

It seems clear that Hadrian consciously adopted many of Nero’s benevolent policies toward the Eastern half of the Empire, deliberately modelling himself on his predecessor in this regard.

One of the important secondary sources of evidence for Hadrian’s preoccupation with the Emperor Nero is the numismatic evidence of the Imperial Roman mints. The fact that Hadrian borrowed some of Nero’s coin types for his official imperial mint issues, and used them as a means of popular propaganda, is indisputable. (1989, 69)

I’ll return to the numismatic evidence soon. For now, though, let’s look into K’s first point about Hadrian consciously adopting Nero’s policies:

Hadrian loved all things Greek and loved spending time there. He was responsible, it appears, for establishing a new prestigious organization of all cities in the east that could trace some Greek lineage in their origins, the Panhellenion. He restored temples and other cultural icons there, adding a great library and gymnasium and re-establishing the Olympic Games. In all of this, Hadrian was a reminder of the days of Nero.

Nero was famous or infamous for his construction of a 120-foot high statue of himself at the entrance of his Domus Aurea. Statues of that scale were normally reserved for the gods so it appeared to many that Nero saw himself as a god. Hadrian is reported to have re-erected that colossus of Nero and spread throughout the empire places of worship of his deified favourite, the young boy Antinous who had drowned in Egypt. When I post in some depth on how specific verses in Revelation align with the actions of Hadrian I’ll elaborate further but till then let’s just note that there is good evidence that Hadrian went beyond his predecessors of merely sharing temples with the gods: he even identified himself with Jupiter/Zeus. (See the illustration above where I point out that Hadrian added larger-than-life statues of himself at the temple of Zeus.)

A more explicit association with Nero is found in the coins Hadrian minted.

Coins were a major means of imperial propaganda. And Hadrian imitated Nero’s style. In honour of Nero’s visit, the city of Corinth issued an “Adventus Augusti” coin, the coming of the emperor: “Adventus” is the Latin equivalent of a Greek word known to all students of the New Testament: παρουσία / parousia / c.f. the coming of Christ. It refers to the momentous arrival of the king or ruler.

Like Nero, Hadrian had a special soft spot for the Greeks and (again like Nero) spent a good amount of his time with them in the east. Hadrian travelled far more than Nero, though, and his coins advertised the same message:

Between the years of 134 and 138 CE a vast number of sestertii were produced by the Imperial mint, including a number bearing the reverse inscription Adventus Augusti along with representations of many of the places that Hadrian had visited in his travels. Harold Mattingly has commented on the subject:

On his return from his last foreign journey… Hadrian decided to tell Rome and the world what he had hoped, planned and accomplished. The sudden burst of interest in the Roman mint can only be explained by the personal intervention of the Emperor. It was now to be made clear to every Roman that the Empire was no mere system of parts, each member sharing in the common life and contributing something to its maintenance, each enjoying the personal interest and care of the Emperor.

(1989, 76)

The term “parousia of Jesus”, the phrase “the second advent (or coming)” appears for the first time in the writings of Justin not long after the Bar Kochba war. (See chs 14 and 52 of Dialogue with Trypho.)

And the Bar Kochba war, of course, drew an even more distinctive parallel between Nero and Hadrian. Both emperors were responsible for the destruction of Jewish hopes. Hadrian had even planned to erect a temple to Jupiter/Zeus on the site of the Jerusalem temple. This expectation may have been what initiated the war, although another later note suggests the conflict started over Hadrian planning to end the practice of circumcision.

One interesting detail in the coinage is that whereas most other peoples who were granted “Adventus Augusti” coinage were shown in their native dress or with provincial insignia, the Judean was assigned Greco-Roman dress. The Judean was a woman in the act of sacrificing before the emperor. Two naked children, one of them timidly in hiding, are with her.

Other Jewish apocalyptic writings emerged in Hadrian’s time, too — the final forms of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch are dated to this same period.

Kreitzer assumes that Revelation was written much earlier than Hadrian but . . .

But that is not to deny that the Apocalypse of John was reinterpreted by Christians living in Asia Minor a generation later as referring to a subsequent setting and fastening upon a different historical figure, for it seems clear that the Apocalypse became a subject of some discussion among Christians around the very time of Hadrian’s repression of the Second Jewish revolt. The best example of this is Justin Martyr himself, who specifically mentions that his Dialogue with Trypho is written either while the war with Hadrian was still raging, or immediately after it was concluded (see 1.3; 9.3). In one place Justin goes so far as to describe Jerusalem as already destroyed by the Roman forces (103.3). In fact Justin Martyr also goes on to describe the heavenly Jerusalem, which shall replace that earthly one now destroyed, and appeals to the Apocalypse of John 20 as proof of God’s promise to this effect (80.3-81.3). In short, we see the ’coming’ of Jesus Christ contrasted with the ’coming’ of Hadrian (and his armies) to Jerusalem. (1989, 81f)

So the time of Hadrian was good for the apocalyptic imagination.

Kreitzer concludes that for all of the above, it seems well-nigh impossible to date Revelation to the time of Hadrian:

This is not to suggest that the Apocalypse of John should itself be dated as late as Hadrian’s reign. The difficulties such a suggestion raises seem to me insurmountable, and are, in the end, unnecessary given the very nature of apocalyptic mythology itself. Apocalyptic mythology is continually in need of being re-interpretated in fresh settings and circumstances (we noted above how this occurs in the Sibylline Oracles with regard to the Nero Redivivus myth); this is natural and understandable. Thus, I see no reason for not accepting the traditional date of circa 90 CE for the Apocalypse of John. (1989, 81)

Yet, as another scholar who does dare to date the Apocalypse to the time of Hadrian, K does not inform us what he thinks those “insurmountable difficulties” are.

Next post in this series I’ll examine some of the specific observations and proposals of Thomas Witulski.

Here is the key Sybilline oracle identifying Hadrian with Nero (copied from K’s 1988 article).

8:50-64 (Hadrian)

But when, luxurious one, you have had fifteen kings
who enslaved the world from east to west,
there will be a gray-haired prince with the name of a nearby sea,[the Adriatic]
inspecting the world with polluted foot, giving gifts.
Having abundant gold, he will also gather more
silver from his enemies and strip and undo them.
He will participate in all the mysteries of magic shrines.[Hadrian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries]
He will display a child as god, and undo all objects of reverence.
From the beginning he will open the mysteries of error to all.
Then will be a woeful time, because “the woeful” himself will perish.
One day the people will say, “Your great power, ο city, will fall,”
knowing that the fated evil day is immediately at hand.
Then fathers and infant children will mourn together,
regarding your most piteous fate.
Mournful, they will raise dirges by the banks of Tiber.

8:70b-72 (Nero Redivivus)

So that when the blazing
matricidal exile returns from the ends of the earth
he will give these things to all and award great wealth to Asia.

8:131-138 (Hadrian)

Then the sixth generation of Latin kings[Hadrian was the 6th emperor after Nero, omitting the brief reigns of 69CE]
will complete its last life and abandon scepters.
Another king of the same race will reign
who will rule the whole earth and gain sway over dominions.
He will rule by the counsels of the great God without contamination,
his children and the race of his unshaken children.
For thus it is prophesied, in the cyclic course of time,
whenever there will have been fifteen kings of Egypt.

8:139 -159 (Nero Redivivus)

Then when comes the time of the Phoenix, of the fifth period …
he will come to ravage the race of peoples, undistinguished tribes,
the nation of the Hebrews. Then Ares will take Ares captive.
He himself will destroy the overbearing threat of the Romans.

(Bolded highlighting in all the quotations above is my own.)


Kreitzer, Larry. “Hadrian and the Nero Redivivus Myth.” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 79, no. 1–2 (1988): 92–115. https://doi.org/10.1515/zntw.1988.79.1-2.92.

———. “Sibylline Oracles 8, the Roman Imperial Adventus Coinage of Hadrian and the Apocalypse of John.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2, no. 4 (April 1989): 69–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/095182078900200405.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Hadrian as Nero Redivivus”

    1. I actually let the cat out of the bag in a post on 22nd Feb. But will be offering more explanation in a future post. I had expected to be making much faster progress on these posts but I keep getting waylaid by citations taking me to distant books and articles, usually in German, through chains of citations as I go. For example, Witulski cited Bauckham on a detail about the 666 discussion, and Bauckham cited several more, and one of those, Dornseiff, happened to contain so much more of fascination detailed evidence for various alphabet-number games and mysteries prevalent among various groups (Greco-Roman, popular, elite, Mesopotamian, gnostic, Jewish…) — it takes me a while to try to put it all in perspective after OCR’ing old text, translating it and trying to absorb it all.

      1. Bar Kochba and Eleazar, huh? A king and a High Priest? The Messianic duo, but a dead one. Would the author not have seen Bar Kochba as a false Messiah?

        1. You will have to wait for the upcoming post. 😉 — but no, Revelation is written with Jewish hopes for a Jewish revival, as we shall see. And the evidence for Bar Kochba’s “messianic” pretensions are very thin and very late, as I think I may have posted in the past.

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