Romans 13:1-7—Nero and the issue of submission to evil rulers (part 1).
Did Paul intend for Christians to submit to all rulers in all systems of government in all circumstances? Even to an Adolf Hitler? It is well understood that Nero was the Emperor when Paul wrote these words and it is also well known that Nero was a tyrant. What is not well known is that Nero was not yet the tyrant he was to become.
This message focuses on the historical setting, and my next message will address whether that setting has any relevance to the teaching of Paul in this chapter and also to Peter’s command to honor the Emperor, who was Nero.
The youthful Nero
Nero became Emperor in A.D. 54 when he was only 17 years old. The young ruler welcomed the advice of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who taught him that the chief virtue of a ruler is compassion. Another positive influence was Afranius Burrus, a capable administrator who was commander of the Emperor’s household guard. The first five or so years of Nero’s reign were peaceful and prosperous under his wise leadership, such that the Emperor Trajan looked back on those years as the best in the Empire. Note these impressive highlights:
De Villiers, J. L. (1998). The political situation in the Graeco-Roman world in the period 332 BC to AD. In A. B. du Toit (Ed.), The New Testament Milieu (Vol. 2). Halfway House: Orion Publishers.
Not everything was rosy, however, as Rome was beset by political intrigue and assassinations, and Nero was dominated by his power-hungry mother Agrippina. After having her killed in 59, he also killed his first wife Octavia in 62. Although there was no official persecution of Christians, they were considered a Jewish sect and were caught up in Rome’s longstanding efforts to put down Jewish rebellion. Christians suffered along with Jews in this crisis. The Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome in 49, as Luke notes in Acts 18:2, but by 57 many had been able to return.
The reign of terror
In A.D. 62, Nero’s advisor Burrus died. Now 25, Nero turned to his dark side. He engaged in sexual licentiousness, committed public brutality, and demanded public adulation as a god. He squandered the wealth of the Empire on his personal interests—art, theater, music, and lavish trips—and lost interest in the responsibilities of governing. Generals and senators who opposed him were executed. He pacified the public with free food.
Nero also regarded himself the savior of the world and taught a doctrine of salvation that eliminated the distinction between good and evil. (We see that Nero has quite a few disciples still today!)
On July 19, 64, a fire broke out at the Circus Maximus in Rome, and for five days the fire spread with strong winds and destroyed a sizable area of the city. Nero then set about using the burned-out area to build for himself a grand palace. To counter criticism, he blamed the fire on Christians and ordered the execution of many in October 64. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the atrocities:
This most severe persecution was temporary and localized, but it was the beginning of two centuries of persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Both Paul and Peter were martyred within a few years of the fire; we know from the historical record they died during Nero’s reign. In A.D. 65 Seneca was forced to commit suicide. Nero himself committed suicide in A.D. 68.
The 14 years of Nero’s rule form the backdrop to the writing of Paul’s and Peter’s epistles, and Nero is the “Emperor” Luke writes about in Acts 25-28. In my next message, I will consider whether this historical backdrop should influence our interpretation of apostolic teaching on government.