Nero (AD 37-68) was the Roman emperor to whom Paul appealed upon return to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. Though not mentioned by name in the Bible, secular records (and perhaps the book of the Revelation) identify him as a ruthless man who began persecuting Christians.
He began to rule in AD 54, and ruled until AD 68. He is thought to have had both Paul and Peter killed in Rome. He was the fifth and last emperor of the dynasty that had begun with Augustus in 27 BC.
Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, in AD 37, to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina, sister to Emperor Caligula. Growing up in Rome, he probably knew of the new "sect" among the Jews that had migrated from Jerusalem, Judea, about the time of his birth. When he was 17 years old, his mother married the Emperor Claudius after the mysterious death of Gnaeus. Young Lucius became emperor after the poisoning of Claudius, by the hand of Agrippina that very same year. He took the ancestral name of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, claiming his linage from both Tiberius Claudius Nero (his step-father and uncle) and Gaius Octavius Augustus (his great grandfather).
In about his fifth year in power (c. AD 59), Nero appointed Porcius Festus to be procurator in Judea. Paul had been kept in prison for two years by his predecessor Antonius Felix from Claudius' administration. When Paul stood at the Roman judgment seat charged with crimes against he Jews, Festus tried to send him to Jerusalem to be tried in religious courts. However, Paul insisted on being tried by the emperor himself.
Though Paul had asked for an audience before Nero, political considerations kept this from happening. It was enough that Nero followed his mother's example in killing off the competition, but political trials would wait for a while. Claudius had once exiled Jews from Rome, but by the time Paul got there, things had improved. The apostle met with many believers in around the house to which he was confined. For two years, Paul preached within the shadow of the seat of government in the world's most powerful empire. Some of those reached were "in caesar's household."
After Paul had been released, in about AD 63, Nero began to get paranoid of political movements not directly threatening his hold on the throne. While Paul was reaching the far western edge of the empire, the church at Rome began to be persecuted. Both Peter and Paul write of such conditions developing. Internal evidence from the Revelation is inconclusive, but even that book may have been warning of these conditions soon to come as well. In a late edition of Paul's second letter to Timothy, a postscript directly identifies Nero as the Caesar during his final imprisonment.
Death and Legacy
In AD 67, when the Jews revolted, Nero sent Vespasian to Judea to squelch the rebellion. Nero died young, killing himself at the age of 30, in AD 68. Taking advantage of the unrest in the east, civil war broke out in Rome. Three men rose up in the course of a year, though Vespasian lter returned victorious and began his reign as emperor (ruled AD 70-79).
In his fifteen years as emperor, Nero set an example that was not surpassed by many. Looking back on the destruction of Jerusalem, the apostle John surely reflected on the contrast between the life of Jesus and that of Nero. The general persecution subsided as the elder apostle sat dictating his what he remembered about his Master. The evil of the Roman government paled to that of the self-righteous Pharisees who had plagued the Messiah's mission. But, when it came time to warn of a return of persecution, Nero had to be on his mind.
Nero had seemed to be been the "man of sin" of which Paul had preached. The martyrdoms of the greatest pillars of the faith -- Peter and Paul -- at his hands surely were the acts of an "anti-christ." Many people in the centuries to follow considered Nero to be the "model" for the coming "Antichrist." Some saw the "number of his name" to indeed be "666." The evidence is slim, though NRON QSR, a Latin spelling using Hebrew letters, does translate to "666."