Track 1 of our 6(66) Days of Nero. This song by the American blackened speed metal band Bewitcher is burning hot off the presses, part of their 2019 sophomore album Under the Witching Cross released earlier this year.
In the year 64 CE, the Roman emperor Nero was celebrating the tenth year of his reign as the last of the Julio-Claudians, the original dynasty of emperors and descendants of Julius Caesar and Augustus themselves. By now the young emperor’s reign had begun to truly descend into extravagance, depravity, paranoia, and tyrannical cruelty. A major milestone in this degeneration was the Great Fire of Rome–or at least his response to it. It is not conclusive what caused most of downtown Rome to be reduced to ashes. It could very well have been the same cause as the Chicago Fire, when a cow knocked over an oil lamp.
Nero’s response to the disaster was more infamous than the conflagration itself. He was not in the city when it burned, and rumors that he “fiddled while Rome burned” are simply false, invented to further blacken the emperor’s reputation after his death. What he did do was take advantage of the sudden clearance of free real estate in the middle of Rome to build for himself a massive, private palace complex called the Golden House. As the rubble was cleared and the foundations laid for this imperial mansion (replete with gardens, an artificial lake, and a colossal statue of the emperor himself), public opinion soured and whispers spread that Nero had set the fire himself in order to clear land for that very project.
The emperor needed to deflect these accusations, and he found a convenient scapegoat in a new religious group that formed in Rome around Sts. Peter and Paul, the Christians. According to the historian Tacitus, Nero took advantage of popular resentment toward this new group who worshipped a criminal executed by a provincial governor and who denied the existence of all other gods, including the deified emperors. Nero rounded up several of these sectarians and had them humiliated and executed in ways befitting the lowest of the low. One such method including crucifying them and setting them on fire in order to provide street lighting at night. As a result, Nero goes down in history as the first Roman emperor to persecute the Christians. Not long after his reign, John of Patmos would designate 666 as the Number of the Beast, of the Antichrist. Numerologically, 666 corresponds to the Hebrew letters of Nero’s name.
In this song, Bewitcher see Nero as the archetypal imperial persecutor and antichrist of 666. They reference his methods of humiliating executions, both turning Christians into human torches and feeding them to wild beasts. They connect Nero’s persecution to his own self-image as a god ruling on earth (outrageous even to Romans, who would only stand to worship dead, not living emperors). Yet toward the end of the song, it becomes apparent that Nero is assimilated with his equally infamous predecessor, the megalomaniacal emperor Caligula. Caligula never persecuted Christians (he ruled less than a decade after Jesus’ death), but he was similar in the degree of cruelty he wielded. “Let them hate me so long as they fear me” (oderint dum metuant) is a phrase attributed to him, not Nero. The track ends with an imperial salute to both tyrants. To Bewitcher, the reign of a tyrannical god-king and the extermination of Christianity go hand-in-hand. Nero and Caligula are incarnations, it would seem, of Satan himself.
Pagan kings who rule as gods
Conjurers of mystic might
Raiding the temples
The city bleeds
Rom is on fire
(1st) Cult of the cross, crushed beneath the iron fist
(2nd & 3rd) Engraved in stone the deadly
Sign of the iron fist… 666
To the lions! to the lions!
From gold cups you drink deeply
Long shall your names be known
Plunder of the conquered lavished unto thee
Crucified and burned alive
To serve as living torches in the night
So, all now hear the new decree
Let them hate me
So long as they fear me
Ave, Ave, Caligula
Ave, Ave, Nero