Ancient Rome

Nero (Roman Emperor)

Nero's reign, marked by extravagance and controversy, ended tragically, symbolizing the complex legacy of Rome's fifth Emperor.

life and scandeals of nero roman emperor

Nero, who reigned as Emperor of Rome from 54 to 68 CE, marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His rule, lasting 14 years, epitomized the era’s decadence. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, Nero was notorious for his cruelty, violence, and flamboyant behavior, often cross-dressing in public. His era was marked by lavish feasts and events, like the infamous burning of Rome, exacerbating the economic turmoil that had been troubling Rome since Tiberius’ reign (14-37 CE). The Roman historian Suetonius, in his work “The Twelve Caesars,” recounts that Nero’s suicide prompted a public outburst of relief. People celebrated in the streets, donning caps of liberty, symbolizing their emancipation from what they felt was a tyrannical rule.

Nero’s Early Life

Nero, originally named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was born on December 15, AD 37, in Antium (now Anzio), Italy. His birth came just eight months after the death of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Nero was the only child of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, who was Emperor Caligula’s sister. Notably, Nero was a direct descendant of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, through Augustus’ daughter, Julia.

The historian Suetonius, known for his critical views on Nero and his family, reported that Nero’s grandfather was once chastised by Emperor Augustus for his excessive enjoyment of violent gladiator games. Suetonius also noted that Nero’s father was infamously irascible and brutal, with a penchant for chariot races and theater, seen as unbecoming for their status. Furthermore, when Nero’s father was congratulated on his son’s birth, he grimly predicted that any child born to him and Agrippina would prove to be malevolent and a threat to the public.

Nero’s father passed away in AD 41, and a few years prior, he had been embroiled in a significant political scandal. Nero’s mother and two sisters were exiled to a remote island due to allegations of plotting against Emperor Caligula. Consequently, Nero was stripped of his inheritance and sent to live with his paternal aunt, Domitia Lepida.

After Emperor Caligula’s death, Claudius ascended the throne. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, married Claudius in AD 49, becoming his fourth wife. In AD 50, Claudius adopted Nero, renaming him “Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.” This adoption was marked by the minting of gold coins, signaling Nero’s rise as a future leader. However, during this time, Nero’s step-brother Britannicus remained more prominent in provincial coinages.

Nero stepped into public life at age 14 in AD 51. At 16, he married Claudia Octavia, Claudius’ daughter. Between AD 51 and 53, Nero delivered speeches on behalf of various communities, including the Ilians, the Apameans, and the colony of Bologna, each facing their own crises.

Succession and Reign

By the time Claudius died in 54 CE, Agrippina had already set her plan in motion, paving the way for Nero’s ascension to the throne. Claudius’ death, following a meal of potentially poisoned mushrooms, remains shrouded in mystery. There’s some indication that Nero was aware of the plot, as he later referred to mushrooms as the “food of the gods.” Additionally, there was apprehension that Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus, might claim the throne, prompting Nero to consider extreme measures. Suetonius notes that Nero, possibly out of jealousy and fear of losing public favor, contemplated poisoning Britannicus.

Once Nero became emperor in 54 CE, Agrippina initially played a significant role behind the scenes. However, her influence was not to last. As emperor, Nero quickly distanced himself from Claudius’s policies, overturning many of his decisions and dismissing him as a “doddering old fool.” To the public, Nero initially appeared as a breath of fresh air. His reign began with optimism, with many regarding it as a mini-golden age. He was seen as generous and approachable, hosting grand entertainments and reducing taxes. Nero also seemingly restored some powers to the Roman Senate, but this move was largely self-serving, allowing him to indulge in his artistic pursuits.

Nero’s passion for performing arts, particularly singing and playing the lyre, was well-known, though his talents were questionable. His performances were mandatory viewing for the audience, with no one allowed to leave until the end. This led to extreme situations, as described by Suetonius, where some in the audience were so desperate to escape the long performances that they resorted to extreme measures, including feigning death to be carried out.

Nero and Agrippa

While Nero busied himself with his artistic interests and public spectacles, he faced significant domestic challenges, particularly from his mother, Agrippina. She continued to assert her influence over imperial affairs, openly boasting about her role as the power behind the throne. This overreach became a source of irritation for Nero, leading him to take decisive steps to curtail her influence.

Nero’s initial actions against Agrippina were symbolic yet impactful. He removed her from the palace, stripped her of her Praetorian Guard protection, and barred her from attending gladiatorial events. These moves significantly weakened her position. In response, Agrippina shifted her support to Britannicus, Nero’s stepbrother and Claudius’ biological son, in a bid to regain her standing. However, this plan was cut short when Britannicus died under mysterious circumstances, suspected to be another case of poisoning.

Realizing her dwindling control and possibly fearing for her life, Agrippina’s situation became increasingly precarious. Nero, determined to eliminate this threat, embarked on a meticulous plan to assassinate his mother. His first attempt involved an overly complex scheme involving a collapsing ceiling in her bedchamber, but this proved too challenging to execute. He then resorted to designing a collapsible boat, which also failed as Agrippina managed to survive by swimming ashore.

Ultimately, Nero opted for a more direct approach: he ordered her assassination by stabbing. Agrippina’s death marked the end of her tumultuous influence on Nero, but it was an act that would haunt him for the remainder of his life. The matricide was not only a pivotal moment in Nero’s reign but also a significant event in Roman imperial history, reflecting the extreme measures taken in the pursuit of power.

Personal Life

Nero’s personal life was just as tumultuous as his reign, particularly his marital affairs. His first marriage was to Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina. This union was orchestrated by his mother, Agrippina. However, Nero’s affections lay elsewhere; he was involved in an affair with Poppaea Sabina, who was not only pregnant but also disliked by Agrippina.

Poppaea’s background was complex. She was initially married to Rufius Crispinus, a Roman soldier, and later to Otho, a future Roman Emperor. Nero, determined to marry Poppaea, took drastic actions. He accused Octavia of adultery, leading to her exile and subsequent murder, which was disguised as a suicide.

The removal of Octavia, along with Nero’s strategic dispatching of Otho to a distant part of the empire, cleared the way for him to marry Poppaea. This second marriage was not without controversy. Rumors circulated that Poppaea might have played a role in the downfall of both Octavia and possibly Agrippina. These speculations added to the aura of intrigue and scandal that surrounded Nero’s reign, highlighting the interplay of power, love, and betrayal in the Roman imperial court. The historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals:

Over time, Nero’s boldness intensified with his prolonged reign, and his desire for Poppaea became increasingly fervent. Poppaea, seeing no chance of marrying Nero or of Octavia being divorced as long as Agrippina was alive, frequently berated the emperor. She persistently questioned him, asking, ‘Why is our marriage being delayed?’

Nero’s marriage to Poppaea was marked by sorrow and tragedy. Their first child died soon after birth, and their second pregnancy ended in a catastrophic event. Following a heated argument one night, exacerbated by Nero’s tendency to stay out late, he allegedly kicked Poppaea in the stomach. This violent act resulted in the death of both Poppaea and their unborn child.

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The Case of Rome’s Great Fire and Other Troubles

Nero’s reign, despite the guidance of capable advisors like Burrus and Seneca, was plagued by a series of disasters. First came the Piso Conspiracy, a failed assassination attempt involving at least 19 senators and other prominent figures. Its failure led to the execution of 41 people and left Nero in a state of perpetual paranoia and distrust. This was followed by the unsuccessful Boudicca rebellion in Britain and uprisings in various provinces, including Judea and Gaul, largely due to increased taxes.

However, the most devastating event during Nero’s rule was the Great Fire of Rome, which broke out on 19 July 64 CE. The fire raged for six days, destroying ten of the city’s 14 districts, resulting in numerous deaths, thousands homeless, and widespread looting. The circumstances of the fire have long been debated. Did Nero play his lyre while Rome burned, or was he even in the city at the time? Historians like Suetonius and Tacitus offer differing accounts. Suetonius claims Nero was captivated by the flames and performed in his tragedian’s costume, while Tacitus presents a more neutral view, acknowledging the uncertainty of whether the disaster was accidental or orchestrated by Nero. Subsequently, Christians, already persecuted and viewed with suspicion, were blamed for the fire.

Related: How Responsible Was Nero for Rome’s Great Fire?

Post-fire, Nero’s tax increases funded the rebuilding of Rome, leading to some improvements: reconstructed residential areas, broader streets, brick buildings, and colonnades providing shade. Notably, the new Rome featured Nero’s extravagant Golden Palace, complete with gold-plated ceilings, a lake, and exotic animals. Those who suspect Nero’s involvement in the fire often cite this grandiose project as a possible motive.

Death

Nero’s downfall was precipitated by a combination of calamities: the devastating fire, the Piso Conspiracy, widespread insurrections, and a depleted treasury. Facing these crises, the Senate turned against him, declaring Nero a public enemy and appointing Galba as the new emperor. Recognizing the end of his reign, Nero sought refuge in the villa of his freedman Phaon, where he attempted suicide. Unable to complete the act on his own, he required assistance to end his life. His final words, “What an artist dies in me,” captured the dramatic and tumultuous nature of both his reign and his personal ethos.

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Nikos Georgiou
Hailing from Athens, Greece, Nikos Georgiou brings a distinct Mediterranean perspective to his exploration of Greco-Roman history. A graduate of the University of Athens, his work incorporates a deep understanding of the region's cultural legacy and the enduring influence of classical antiquity.

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