Nero

15 December 37 CE - 9 June 68 CE
Ascended to the Purple 13 October 54 CE

In the beginning

Born at Antium, 15 December 37 CE, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was the son of Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger. According to Suetonius, Ahenobarbus was a most unpleasant man with a violent temper (Suetonius: Nero 5). Agrippina was the daugher of Germanicus (brother of Claudius and son of Antonia the Younger) and the Elder Agrippina (who was daughter of Julia and Agrippa, hence granddaughter to Augustus).

Nero's birth was steeped in premonition, with the first rays of the day's sun falling on his head before he could even be laid on the ground. (Laying a new born baby on the ground was part of the traditional Roman birthing custom.) On his naming day, Agrippina asked Gaius Caligula — Emperor at the time — what he should be called. Caligula, in a remark laced with his usual cruelty, indicated Claudius, who was the court laughing-stock, and suggested that he be named after him. Agrippina declined the offer. The irony in this was that Claudius would succeed Caligula as Emperor and adopt Nero. Nero's father was reported to have said that nothing born to him and his wife would achieve anything other than loathing and heaping disaster on the State (Suetonius: Nero 6).

At the age of three, Nero's father died and his mother was sent into exile shortly afterwards. The terms of his father's will stipulated that Nero was entitled to a third of his estate. However, the other heir, Caligula, seized the entire estate and it was not until Claudius became Emperor that Nero's entitlement was restored. Nero remained in Rome despite his mother's enforced absence and was raised in the care of his aunt, Lepida. His education was managed, Suetonius suggests, by a barber and a dancer (Suetonius: Nero 6). To what extent this influenced Nero's later predilictions and propensities is a matter for conjecture.

Claudius was made Emperor in 41 CE, following Caligula's assassination. Agrippina was recalled from exile at some point between then and 49 CE, when she married Claudius. In 50 CE, Nero was formally adopted by Claudius and assumed the name Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. He sometimes referred to himself as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. At this point, his education was transferred to the authority of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who is also known as the Younger Seneca.

At the age of 13, Nero assumed the toga virilis (the toga that was worn on reaching adulthood) and was awarded the same privileges that Augustus' grandsons, and heirs, Gaius and Lucius had been granted before their deaths in 4 and 2 CE respectively. He was designated for consul, admitted to the Senate and hailed as princeps iuventutis, or Prince of Youth. From this point it was clear that he was being primed to succeed Claudius.

Nero was seventeen when he rose to Emperor (54 CE). The story goes that it was Agrippina who ensured her son's succession by disposing of Claudius with a dish of mushrooms (Suetonius: Deified Claudius 44). Becoming Emperor was not just a matter of being the right person's son, though. The Senate had to officially offer the post to the chosen candidate, who would then accept the various titles conferred on him. The chances of the Senate refusing to offer the designated heir the position were slim-to-none, but it was a remnant of the Augustan facade that the Principate was just that, rather than a form of monarchy. Nero accepted all the titles offered to him, bar one, which was pater patriae, or Father of the Country. He deemed that he was too young to hold such a title.

Claudius was deified and given a sumptuous funeral. However Claudius might have died, he was to be remembered the right way and it set the tone for the first five years of Nero's reign. Seneca wrote the first speech that Nero addressed to the Senate, in which he claimed that he would endeavour to uphold the virtues laid down by Augustus of piety, clemency, approachability and generosity. It followed that it was really Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus who were ruling whilst Nero was left to endulge his pleasures. The ruler traits that were to taint Nero's later years were not in evidence as taxes were cut, grain was liberally distributed and financial assistance was available to most citizens.

A sense of hope began to dawn amongst the Roman people. The terror that had permeated Claudius' later years, marred by Senate purges and bouts of insanity, drifted into memory. Rome was headed by a young and enthusiastic Emperor, guided by valuable advisors. The future was looking bright.

From Mummy's Boy to Matricidal Monster

"Let him kill me, but let him rule." Agrippina reportedly uttered these words on hearing the prophecy that her son would become Emperor, but that it would be at the expense of her life. As much as this phrase is a probing insight into Agrippina's mindset, it does summarise the relationship between mother and son. It was Agrippina who was instrumental in securing Nero's position as Emperor, but her overpowering nature eventually grated on Nero and his character got the better of him.

In the beginning, it would appear that there were few lengths that Nero would not go to in order to appease his mother. Despite his aunt Lepida having raised Nero during his early years, Agrippina came into conflict with her and worked to disparage her publicly. Consequently, when Lepida faced trial, Nero submitted evidence against her, thereby satisfying his mother. When he was required to submit a password to the tribune of the watch on his first night as Emperor, Nero offered: "Best of Mothers". Images of Agrippina were struck onto the reverse of coins issued under Nero, and she reportedly shared a litter with him when he travelled. Initially, it would appear that Agrippina acted almost as a co-ruler.

Nero began to find Agrippina's influence and interference problematic, though. Seneca's and Burrus' authority almost certainly increased as Nero attempted to reduce his mother's influence. Her official authority was steadily diminished and she was subjected to taunts and abuse. However, he never quite managed to suppress her. The crunch came when Agrippina objected to Nero's affair with Poppaea Sabina; Nero no longer regarded his mother as the influential source of his authority, but as an interfering and didactic crone. It was time for her to go.

Agrippina seems to have been something of a Rasputinesque figure and Suetonius' descriptions of Nero's attempts to assassinate his mother read something like a farce (Suetonius: Nero 34). Verifying them is not easy. However, we do know that she was eventually dispatched. Poison was Nero's first choice to dispose of his mother. Unfortunately for him, she had been preparing herself for years and had raised her immunity by daily ingestion of antidotes. A plan was then hatched to crush her by means of a collapsing ceiling as she slept. This plot was compromised leading to the infamous collapsible boat episode. Nero made a show of reconciliation with his mother and invited her to his villa at Baiae. The captain of the fleet at Misenum was brought in to take Agrippina back to her villa at Bauli in a boat that was made to fall apart and drown her. The boat duly fell apart, but failed to drown Agrippina, who swam to shore. Deciding that intricate plans were not the way forward, Nero employed the old-fashioned and trusted method of stabbing. Knowing that her time had eventually come, Agrippina asked the man who came to kill her to stab her through the stomach, from where she had born her son.

Nero did regret having mother murdered on various occasions. He was sure that the Furies were haunting him, as they haunted Orestes when he killed Clytaemnestra, and towards the end of his reign, when issues reached a crisis, he regretted smashing a bangle that his mother had given him, stuffed with the skin of some snakes that had purportedly prevented his murder earlier in his life (Suetonius: Nero 6, 34).

The murder of Agrippina in 59 CE did mark a turning point in Nero's reign and is often seen as the watershed between his five good years of rule and the ensuing years of depravity, violence and terror.

Wives and Lovers

Nero's first marriage was in 53 CE, to Octavia, daughter of Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Octavia was divorced in 62 CE, on the grounds of sterility. A charge of adultery had been levelled at her, but was dismissed. It was hardly surprising that Octavia had never born children, Nero despised, ignored and neglected her; he was far more interested in Poppaea Sabina (who was married to the future Emperor Otho) and had been conducting an affair with her since 59 CE. Following their divorce, Octavia was sent to Campania and Nero married Poppaea. Octavia never lost her public support and when rumours began to circulate that she might have found favour again she was banished to Pandateria and later put to death.

In 63CE, Poppaea gave birth to a daughter, who died at about four months old. By 65 CE, Poppaea was pregnant again, but Nero was supposed to have kicked her to death in a fit of temper. Poppaea was by no means a popular figure, Tacitus refers to her "backstairs intrigues" (Tacitus: Histories I.22), but her murder was received badly. This marriage was followed by another in 66 CE to Statilia Messalina, a woman renouned for her eloquance and intelligence.

From 55 CE, Nero was involved in an affair with his freedwoman, Acte. He had planned to marry her at one point, claiming her descent from a royal dynasty in Asia Minor, but was thwarted from doing so by his mother. Nero's interest in her waned whilst he was involved with Poppaea, but Acte's loyalty did not falter and following Nero's death, she carried his remains to his father's family tomb.

In between three marriages, a long-term affair, hinted incest (Suetonius suggests that Agrippina and Nero were sexually involved, Nero 28) and almost certainly a string of slave girls, it would seem that Nero also found the time to indulge in a slightly unusual relationship with a young man named Sporus. According to Suetonius (Nero 28), Nero fell madly in love with him, had him castrated, proceeded to marry him and treated him virtually as his wife! Sporus was even dressed as the Empress. Apparently, however, even this did not satisfy Nero's lusts: he felt compelled to dress as a wild animal and attack naked men and women strapped to posts. Suetonius' reliabilty here is difficult to determine; given Nero's liking for acting and role-playing, it could be possible, but he could have been trying to prove a point about Nero's sexual conduct, too.

The Entertainer and the Entertained

The idea of inversion is one that frequently characterises the behaviour of "bad" Emperors. It suggests that they have no understanding of the boundaries and spheres in which they are expected to work and lead their lives. For Nero, the world of entertainment was one where he frequently inverted protocol and expectations. Actors in Rome were denied full citizenship rights; their ability to change and to manipulate was regarded as undesirable and untrustworthy. Yet Nero himself took to the stage. He took his music and theatre very seriously, in fact. He had a voice coach, he supposedly adhered to a particular diet that was thought to aid the voice, and he even refused to address the army in person, for fear of the damage that it might have done! He took to the stage first in Naples, playing the lyre and singing with his "thin and indistinct voice" (Suetonius: Nero 20) to a large audience and had even wanted to act in Rome. This might have been a step too far, however, and he restricted himself to private performances. Nero's inversion and impropriety continued to his granting of diplomas of citizenship to foreign actors.

This idea of role-playing extended to the degree that there were reports of Nero walking the streets of Rome at night, disguised in a wig and cloak, to either listen to the public's opinions of him, or to involve himself in fights (Suetonius: Nero 26). He even went as far as to demand that men of senatorial or equestrian classes were to take arms against each other in the arena (Suetonius: Nero 12).

One of the actions for which Nero is perhaps most famous is fiddling whilst Rome burned. Whether he really did sing of the Fall of Troy, standing in the tower of Maecenas surveying the raging inferno beneath him, or if it was a Suetonian invention, or the result of gossip, is unproven. Given Nero's personality, and his desire to rebuild large areas of the city, including constructions such as the Domus Aurea, or the Golden House and its pleasure gardens, it would not be surprising. In truth, we just do not know. As for his so-called dying words: "What a loss I shall be to the art of music", well, they were not quite his dying words. He is reported to have said them as he realised that the end was drawing near, though.

Home and Abroad

The support of the army was pivotal to the retention of Imperial power in Ancient Rome. The Emperor needed their personal loyalty and protection, the State needed their defensive protection and the people needed their morale-boosting conquests. Nero's reign is notable for his lack of military activity, in particular for the Boudiccan Revolt of 60 CE, when Roman authority in Britannia was seriously challenged and virtually an entire legion was lost. There was a period of severe unrest in Judea from 66 CE onwards. Vespasian was selected from Nero's entourage that was touring Greece at the time to suppress it. Claudius' advisors recognised that he did not have a military background and sought to provide him with one: Britannia was his achievement. Nero, however, was far too interested in the conquest of the stage, not the protection, or expansion, of the Empire.

Nero undertook two tours throughout his reign: one to Alexandria and the other to Achaea, making apparent his interest in all things Greek. Nero's love of Greece was a significant issue for Romans, who took seriously the idea of being "Roman". The Roman sense of identity was firmly rooted in State and society and conflicted with anything Greek. Nero had to exert caution when wishing to explore his Greek side. He could only grow his hair long when in Greece, and wearing Greek-style attire in Rome would have been frowned upon, Emperor or not. His pro-Attic behaviour was not well received by the Senate.

Support and Opposition

Opposition goes with the territory of ruling. Some rulers face more than others; some have to overcome opposition to get to power, some are undone by their opposition, some face opposition throughout their period of rule. Nero experienced all of these. Although Claudius had formally adopted Nero, Claudius had another son, Britannicus, his child by his third wife, Messalina. Britannicus was a serious threat to Nero's potential: he was capable and popular. When Nero was proclaimed Emperor, Britannicus was at first suppressed, and killed the following year (55 CE). Nero and Agrippina employed the services of the arch-poisoner, Lucusta — a member of Nero's retinue — to dispose of Nero's step-brother. Lucusta's potion was so strong that it took one mouthful to do-away with him. The same poison was also to threaten the life of the future Emperor Titus, who was raised at court alongside Britannicus, and dining with him the night that he died (Suetonius: Deified Titus 2).

Britannicus was not the only threat that Nero faced to his supremacy. In 65 CE a conspiracy formed against Nero led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso. Frequently, conspiracies form because of lust for power or desire to rule; unusually, the Piso conspiracy developed as a direct challenge to Nero's capabilities and suitability as a ruler. According to Tacitus: "...his ambitions were not what originated the conspiracy." (Tacitus: Annals XV.47). The plot had a great deal of support, but failed owing to Piso's reluctance to carry out the plan at his villa in Baiae, fearing the pollution that it would bring. Had he chosen that path, it would have been over quickly, but the delay and the desire to kill Nero whilst he was at the Circus led to betrayal. Piso, the poet Lucan, the prefect Faenius Rufus and various Senators, Equestrians and Praetorian Guards were convicted of treason and executed.

Following the Piso conspiracy, Nero suffered from a period of paranoia that led him to execute figures such as Seneca and the senators Thrasea and Barea Soranus. Seneca had lost his influence some four years previously, having retired following Burrus' death in 62 CE, which it is possible was by poison on Nero's orders. Tigellinus, a prefect who had succeeded Seneca and Burrus (and who is generally regarded as an unpleasant character) was Nero's trusted and favoured advisor.

As opposition mounted against Nero for his involvement with the Great Fire, he sought a scape-goat. Needing to protect himself and his position as Emperor, he sprang upon a small sect of Judaism that was regarded as especially odd because it claimed to have some supernatural King. Hence, Christians were blamed for the Great Fire and executed by means of being transformed into human torches because their misunderstood beliefs were presented as a threat to the Roman State and to the Emperor.

The Vindex Revolt of 68 CE was the decisive moment of Nero's reign. Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis led an armed revolt against Nero. Nero was in Greece at the time and reacted slowly to his advisors pleas to return to Rome and act decisively. He was reported to have hoped that he would be able to quell the resistence by his tears! Although the rebellion was crushed, Nero had revealed his weakness: Galba rose up in Spain, whilst Lucius Clodius Macer led a rebellion in Africa.

Galba's revolt incited the Praetorian Guard to declare for him, and the Senate cited Nero as a public enemy soon afterwards. Hearing this news, Nero sent for his friends, none of whom came to his aid. Nero's freedman, Phaon, suggested that he make for his villa a short distance outside of Rome. A disguised Nero and small group of supporters (probably numbering no more than four) headed out of Rome to contemplate their next move. Nero and his supporters realised that his support was crumbling and that suicide was the only escape. Bewailing his fate, Nero took his life by stabbing himself in the throat.

"And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make..."

It is easy to see why Nero was so despised by his contemporaries and was used as an example by authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus. He was capricious and flippant; he ruled with a sense of terror rather than of authority. The Senate feared him for his whimsical nature and detested him for his tyrannical grasp of power that he wielded inefficiently. The people, however, regarded him in a different light. His treatment of Octavia and his matricidal nature did not do him any favours, but they enjoyed his sense of fun and they benefited from his love of the theatre and the circus, with frequent performances, displays and contests.

With Nero's death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended. Rome entered a period of civil war, with four Emperors taking the throne in the space of a year and three of them meeting sticky ends. Eventually it was Vespasian who cut through the strife, and attempted to rule with a sense of the so-called Augustan virtue.



Bibliography

  • Suetonius: Deified Claudius; Nero; Deified Titus (trans. C Edwards, OUP, 2000)
  • Tacitus: Annals (trans. M Grant, Cassell, London, 1963); Histories (trans. K Wellesley, Penguin, London, 1964)
  • Oxford Classical Dictionary, OUP, 1996

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, more commonly known by his adopted name, Nero Caesar, was an eccentric ruler of Rome who delighted in perversity and evil. He is well-known for his involvement in persecution of Christians, known in his time as "Followers of The Way." Nero Caesar was the last of the Julio-Claudian Caesars. His reign was a veritable rule of terror for those who failed to comply with a tyrant's wishes, no matter how absurd, brutal, or revolting.

In approximately AD 47, Claudius Caesar gained power of Rome. After three failed marriages, he married his niece, Agrippina. (This incestuous marriage would prove fatal to Claudius.) Agrippina had a son from a previous marriage, called Domitius, and she persuaded Claudius to adopt the boy, giving him the name people centuries later would remember with horror and repulsion...Nero. In spite of Nero's adoption and the four-year age difference between Nero and Britannicus, Claudius' son from his previous marriage, Claudius had no intention of making Nero his heir. Agrippina, together with her paramour Pallas and the Greek palace physician Xenophon, whom she bullied into submission, poisoned Claudius; a very short time later, after talking to his mother, a frightened Nero had his stepbrother Britannicus also poisoned. Nero was now the heir, and the fifth Caesar of Rome.

At a young age, Nero was impish and mischievous. From the times he antagonized women at the Roman baths at the age of twelve to the times he made fun of his stepbrother Britannicus to "maturity," Nero possessed a cruelty and vanity that would carry him into adulthood and remain with him all of his life. Nero was a nymphomaniac and it has been recorded that he had many marriages, was a bigamist and had trysts with members of both genders. As a young man of seventeen he was so crazed that he would wear a mask and terrorize the people of Rome, namely unsuspecting women--victims whom he violated and shamed. He had openly incestuous relations with his mother Agrippina, but when he feared that she would assassinate him, he had her murdered. She was so shamed by her son that when the assassin came, she begged for him to stab her in the "womb that bore Nero." Nero's tastes and habits were so lurid that after his mother's murder, he thoroughly and intimately examined her body, praising its beauty.

Nero considered himself a brilliant artist, skilled in music, theater, and playing the lyre. He was so vain that when he committed suicide in AD 68 he stabbed himself, careful to miss his voice box. His last words were "Qualis artifex pereo," which means, "What an artist dies in me!" Probably the most famous incident involving Nero was during the Great Fire of Rome, ironically revolving around his self-proclaimed "brilliance" in music. Watching as Rome burned from his Esqiline Terrace, he played his lyre, tears streaming down his face as his beloved palace and his valuables, such as his collections of art, his wardrobe, and lyres, burned. This is quite obviously from where the statement, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned," is derived.

After the Great Fire in AD 64 destroyed a major portion of Rome, to deflect blame from himself Nero used Rome's Christians as a scapegoat. In his gardens and chariot-racing center, called the hippodrome, almost a thousand people were brutally murdered. Death alone was not punishment enough for Christians, Nero felt; the victims must endure torture beforehand. Horrible, cruel, barbaric agonies were administered to these people. One example of the truly sadistic nature of Nero is gleaned from his reported reaction to the torture of the people. Christians were chained to posts, each wearing shirts heavily saturated in nitrates, sulfur, and pitch. The posts themselves had been seeped in resin and oil. The posts were lit on fire; the people choked on the smoke, the heat mercifully rendering them unconscious with pain, and it is reported that some spent their last breaths praying to God. Nero was so impressed with the spectacle that he began to weep, saying, "Such art! Such beautiful, beautiful candles!" This was far from the extent of Nero's wicked plans for "The Way's" followers. Women suffered indignities that whetted the Caesar's thirst for perverse pleasure. Crucifixion, being impaled on spikes, being dropped from great heights, being gored, being eaten alive by wild animals that had been starved and tortured, and being burned alive on poles, pyres, or spits are only some of the repulsive ways that Nero devised to inflict slow, painful deaths upon the "arsonists," in reality guilty innocents who were ruthlessly murdered in cold blood. An estimated 977 people were massacred in two days.

Maier, Paul L. The Flames of Rome. 2nd ed. Garden City: Kregel Publications, 1995.

Ne"ro (?), n.

A Roman emperor notorius for debauchery and barbarous cruelty; hence, any profligate and cruel ruler or merciless tyrant.

-- Ne*ro"ni*an (#), a.

 

© Webster 1913.

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