Roman Emperor Nero: Does He Deserve His Bad Boy Reputation?
Nero (in full Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) was a Roman emperor who lived during the 1 st century AD. He was the fifth and last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had been founded by Augustus. Nero is commonly regarded to be one of the worst emperors in Rome’s history.
Most of the information we have today about Emperor Nero comes from the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all of whom were writing after Nero’s reign. These men belonged to the senatorial class, who hated the emperor very much. This would provide some explanation for the extremely negative portrayal of Nero in these historical sources.
Nevertheless, Emperor Nero seems to have enjoyed some level of popularity amongst the lower classes. Apart from Roman history, Nero has a prominent place in the history of Christianity, as he is remembered as a great persecutor of the Church, and was widely considered by early Christians to be the anti-Christ.
A depiction of Emperor Nero with a tiger and Rome burning in the background during the Great Fire. Photo source: Jan Styka / Public domain .
An Early History and Loose Ties to the Empire
Nero was born on the 15 th of December 37 AD in Antium, near Rome. He was originally known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, and was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger. Nero had close links to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, especially through his mother. Agrippina the Younger was a sister (and reputed lover) of Caligula, and a daughter of Agrippina the Elder, the granddaughter of Augustus through Julia the Elder. This meant that Nero was the nephew of one emperor, i.e. Caligula, and the great great-great grandson of another, i.e. Augustus.
In addition, Nero was also connected to Tiberius through his maternal grandfather, Germanicus, who was the second emperor’s nephew and adopted son. Furthermore, Germanicus was the brother of Claudius, Nero’s predecessor and adoptive father. Although Nero was well-connected, it was initially thought that he would never have the opportunity to become emperor.
In the year that Nero was born, his uncle Caligula had just succeeded Tiberius as emperor. The new emperor was only 24 years old at the time of his ascension, and both his predecessors, Augustus and Tiberius, lived well into their 70s. It was expected at the time that Caligula too would reign for many decades to come, and that in time, he would produce his own heirs.
As things turned out, Caligula barely ruled for four years before he was assassinated in early 41 AD. Caligula had no sons, and his only daughter, Julia Drusilla, was also murdered, despite being a mere infant. It was feared that if allowed to live, Caligula’s daughter, or her descendants, could one day attempt to reclaim the throne.
In AD 41, the debauched Roman Emperor Caligula was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot. (Lawrence Alma Tadema / Public domain ).
Caligula was succeeded by his uncle, Claudius. At the time of Claudius’ ascension, Nero was practically an orphan. His mother had been exiled to the Pontian Islands in 39 AD for allegedly participating in a conspiracy against Caligula. Suetonius records that Nero was sent to live with his aunt Lepida, where he had two tutors, a dancer and a barber.
A year later, his father died from edema. When Claudius became emperor, one of the first things he did was to recall his nieces, Agrippina and her sister, Julia Livilla, from their exile. After her return in Rome, Agrippina married Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus, one of the wealthiest men in the city. Suetonius claiming that he “possessed an estate of two hundred million sesterces.” Suetonius also wrote that after Passienus made Agrippina his heir, he was slain by her treachery. Passienus died sometime between 44 and 47 AD. Agrippina’s next move was to put Nero on the throne.
Scheming Their Way to the Top
In 48 AD, Claudius had been ruling the Roman Empire for seven years already. In that year, the emperor had his third wife, Valeria Messalina, executed, as she was accused of plotting against her husband. This was an opportunity for Agrippina to draw closer to her goal of making her son emperor.
According to the ancient sources, the emperor’s freedmen had a task of selecting a new wife for Claudius. Eventually, the competition narrowed down to three candidates – Lollia Paulina, the daughter of the consul Marcus Lollius, Aelia Paetina, Claudius’ second wife whom he had previously divorced, and Agrippina. According to Tacitus, each of the three women had their own patrons, who put forward the arguments in support of their candidate. Agrippina was supported by Pallas, whose arguments, according to Tacitus, are as follows, “Pallas, in his eulogy of Agrippina, insisted on the point that she brought with her the grandson of Germanicus, who fully deserved an imperial position: let the sovereign unite to himself a famous stock, the posterity of the Julian and Claudian races, and ensure that a princess of tried fecundity, still in the vigor of youth, should not transfer the glory of the Caesars into another family!” Tacitus goes on to state that Pallas’ arguments, “with help from the allurements of Agrippina” won Claudius over, and emperor made Agrippina, who was also his niece, his fourth wife.
Agrippina and her children mourning over the ashes of Germanicus. (Gavin Hamilton / Public domain )
Agrippina continued to work towards her goal by arranging the marriage between Nero and Claudia Octavia, Claudius’ daughter with Messalina. Octavia had in fact been betrothed to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, but Agrippina’s scheming ruined the young man, and caused Claudius to cancel the engagement. Nero and Octavia were married in 53 AD. By then, Agrippina had been awarded the honorable title ‘Augusta’, which had previously been held only by Livia, the wife of Augustus, by the Roman Senate.
In that same year, 50 AD, Nero was officially adopted by Claudius, and took the name Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. Since Nero was older than Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Messalina, he was effectively the heir to the throne at the time of his adoption. Claudius died in 54 AD, possibly poisoned by Agrippina herself. According to the ancient sources, she obtained a poison from the notorious Locusta, and had it sprinkled on some mushrooms, which the emperor was extremely fond of. In Tacitus’ account, the poison did not kill Claudius, and Agrippina had Xenophon, plunge a feather dipped in quick poison down the emperor’s throat, “under cover of assisting the emperor's struggles to vomit.”
Once Claudius was dead, Nero, who was not even 17 years old, became the new emperor of Rome. At this point of time, Nero was not yet the monster that history remembers him to be. Instead, Emperor Nero’s reign got off to a promising start.
Statue of Roman Emperor Nero in Anzio, Italy. ( robiuankenobi / Adobe stock)
Promising Start to Emperor Nero’s Reign
The early part of his reign is considered a period of good governance, and the affairs of state were handled effectively. Credit for this achievement, however, doesn’t go to Nero alone, as it was actually his advisers, Agrippina, Sextus Afranius Burrus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Nero’s tutor, who were running the show.
During the first five years of his reign, Emperor Nero (or, more appropriately, his advisers) brought some positive changes to Roman society. For instance, during the later years of Claudius’ reign, secret political trials were conducted before the emperor, and corrupt freemen wielded much power over the emperor. Both these features were abolished. Nero is said to have reduced taxes, gave the Senate more power, replaced gladiatorial combats with poetry and athletic competitions, and even pardoned those who plotted against him.
Debaucheries and Murders
As Nero’s advisers handled the administration of the empire, Nero began to indulge in his passions, which became increasingly extravagant as the years went by. In addition, Nero is recorded to have been dissatisfied with his marriage to Octavia, and that he began an affair with a former slave, Claudia Acte.
In 55 AD, Agrippina attempted to intervene on behalf of Octavia. By this time, however, Agrippina had lost her influence over her son. This was partly due to the encouragement given by Seneca to Nero, urging him to free himself from his mother’s grip. Agrippina, realizing that she may soon lose power, decided to throw her support behind Britannicus, who had a claim to the throne. Britannicus, however, died in 55 AD, poisoned by Nero, according to the ancient sources.
Three years later, Agrippina herself was murdered by Nero. The emperor tried to assassinate his mother by having the ship she was travelling on wrecked. Agrippina, however, survived, and swam to the shore to safety. Although Agrippina was suspicious that the sinking of the ship was no accident, and that an attempt on her life had been made, she feigned ignorance, and sent her freedman, Agermus, to report to Nero that she was fine. Nero had a sword thrown on the ground, accused Agermus of trying to assassinate him, and had him punished. He also had Agrippina killed, and conjured the story that his mother had sent Agermus to kill him, but realizing that the assassination had failed, committed suicide.
Emperor Nero crouches over his mother, Agrippina, after ordering her murder. (Antonio Rizzi / Public domain )
Burrus and Seneca continued to run the empire for the four years after Agrippina’s death. In the meantime, Emperor Nero was free to pursue his passions. When Burrus died in 62 AD and Seneca retired, they were replaced by Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, a favorite of Nero. In the same year, the emperor divorced Octavia, and married Poppae Sabina, who had become Nero’s favorite mistress.
Soon after Tigellinus’ promotion, a series of treason laws were introduced, many capital sentences were carried out, and two of Nero’s few surviving relatives were executed.
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The Great Fire: Hero or Villain?
In July 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome broke out, which devastated the city. It is this incident that gave rise to the legend that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” which had begun as a rumor. In fact, Nero was not even in Rome when the fire started, but was at Antium, and that he contributed to the relief efforts.
Emperor Nero watches as Rome burns during the Great Fire. (Carl Theodor von Piloty / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
According to Tacitus, “Nero, who at the time was staying in Antium, did not return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the Gardens of Maecenas. … Still, as a relief to the homeless and fugitive populace, he opened the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens, and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces. Yet his measures, popular as their character might be, failed of their effect; for the report had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage, and typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, had sung the destruction of Troy.”
After the fire, Emperor Nero seized the opportunity to build the Golden House , a new palace, which, had it been completed, would have covered a third of the city. It is due to this ambitious project that another rumor spread, accusing Nero of deliberately starting the fire, so that he could build his Golden House.
Part of Emperor Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea) in Rome (photo taken in 2017). (Andy Montgomery / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
On the other hand, Tacitus reports that Nero’s rebuilding of the rest of the city took into consideration measures that would prevent such fires from happening in the future. For instance, the districts were to be built “in measured lines of streets, with broad thoroughfares, buildings of restricted height, and open spaces, while colonnades were added as a protection to the front of the tenement-blocks.” Other measures included having water supply available “for public purposes in greater quantities and at more points,” and “appliances for checking fire were to be kept by everyone in the open.”
Whilst many blamed Nero for starting the fire, the emperor managed to find a scapegoat for the disaster, blaming the Christians, who were believed to be engaged in various wicked deeds. According to Tacitus, “vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race,” and that “they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.” By blaming the Christians for the fire, Nero is said to have inadvertently initiated the policy of persecuting Christians, which would be pursued later on by other Roman emperors. As a consequence, Nero became identified as the anti-Christ.
The End is Near
In the following year, an attempt on the emperor’s life, the Pisonian Conspiracy, was made. The plot, however, was discovered, and many of the conspirators, which included Seneca, were forced to commit suicide. It is clear that Emperor Nero was fast losing his popularity amongst the elite.
In 68 AD, a rebellion broke out in Gaul, led by its governor, Gaius Julius Vindex. Nero did not deal with the revolt decisively, and it soon spread to other parts of the empire. Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania, was made emperor by the legions, and he declared himself the legate of the Senate and the Roman people. Nero was abandoned by the Praetoian Guard , and the emperor tried to flee.
When he learned that the Senate had ordered his arrest and execution, however, Nero chose to commit suicide by stabbing his throat with a dagger. Nero ended his life on the 9 th of June, 68 AD, According to Suetonius, Nero lamented “what an artist the world is losing” before committing suicide. Although commonly said to be Nero’s last words, the emperor’s final words, according to Suetonius, were in fact “too late!” and “this is fidelity!”, uttered as a centurion placed a cloak around the wound, pretending that he had come to aid the emperor.
Emperor Nero lies dead on the floor after committing suicide. ( sweejak / CC BY-NC 2.0)
To conclude, Nero is commonly considered to be one of the most wicked emperors Rome ever had, and he is remembered as such even till this day. Indeed, a list of the ‘worst emperors of the Roman Empire’ would not be complete without him. Whilst it cannot be denied that Nero was a terrible emperor, he was not without any positive points. For instance, the first five years of his reign can be viewed positively, whilst his actual conduct during the Great Fire of Rome is noteworthy. Nevertheless, these are often left out, perhaps unjustly so, leaving us only with the image of Nero the monster.
Top image: Hyper realistic reconstruction of Emperor Nero from bust. Photo courtesy of artist Salva Ruano, All Rights Reserved. https://cesaresderoma.com/
By: Wu Mingren
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