Emperor Nero: the tyrant of Rome

Nero, the fifth and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, used the resources of the mighty Roman Empire for his own indulgences and no one could stop him. Jonny Wilkes profiles one of top candidates for the uneviable title of 'Rome’s worst ruler'

Marble bust of Nero

Nero: a name that has come to embody the human capacity for cruelty, debauchery, even evil. The inauspicious honour of being Rome’s most notorious ruler – a hotly contested title – is often bestowed to the fifth emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, for killing his stepbrother, his mother and two of his wives. And that only takes care of his family life.

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In less than 14 years, he brought Rome to the brink of collapse. He ignored his rule in favour of hedonistic and depraved pursuits, almost bankrupted the empire to pay for his palace and persecuted Christians so barbarically that he has been regarded by another, more hateful name, the Antichrist. This is the Nero that emerges from the surviving documents of Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio.

While these men wrote long after his death and hardly with an agenda to preserve his reputation – which explains the generally debunked claims of fiddling while Rome burned and having an incestuous relationship with his mother – they recounted tales of such salacious and immoral deeds that they have endured. A handful of historians may attempt to re-evaluate his legacy, but Nero will always be the megalomaniacal, murderous tyrant.

Emperor Nero biography

Full name: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus)

Born: 15 December AD 37

Died: 9 June AD 68

Reign: October AD 54 – 9 June AD 68

Predecessor: Claudius

Successor: Galba

Notable family: Agripinna the Younger (mother)

Famous for: being the fifth and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty; supposed incest with his mother; allegedly playing the fiddle while Rome burned; persecuting Christians; general tyranny, depravity and debauching, and a spate of murders – including those of his mother and two wives.

Nero’s early life and family

The future Nero, born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December AD 37 in Antium, near Rome, had not been destined to be emperor. Nor did his personal ambition drive him to the throne. It was his mother, Agrippina the Younger, who became the overbearing influence on him, especially as his father had died. A dangerous combination of cunning, intelligence and ruthlessness, she survived exile under her older brother, Caligula, only to come back consumed with the aim of reaching the pinnacle of power.

Shortly after dispatching her second husband with poison, Agrippina seduced and married Emperor Claudius, her uncle. She eliminated rivals and charmed Claudius into adopting the 13-year-old Nero as his heir, at the expense of his own son Britannicus. Her machinations also saw his daughter Octavia married to Nero in AD 53. All that remained was to wait for Claudius to die, which came conveniently soon afterwards in October AD 54, supposedly helped along by Agrippina and a plate of poisoned mushrooms.

Not yet 17, Nero had become emperor with Agrippina by his side, firm in the belief that she could rule through him. For a while, she may have been right as unusual coins from early in his reign depict a bust of Nero facing his mother, suggesting the two ruled as equals. An unwanted consequence of her tight hold over Nero, though, would be the later claims that mother and son committed incest, with reported sightings of them kissing sensuously in public. Even for someone of Nero’s reputation, however, this is strongly thought to be a rumour too far.

What was Nero like as emperor?

A Roman coin showing busts of Nero and Agrippina
A coin minted in Rome, showing busts of Nero and Agrippina. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

For all of her scheming, Agrippina didn’t much enjoy her time at the centre of the world. Nero preferred the counsel of his more liberally minded tutor, Stoic philosopher Seneca, and the prefect of his Praetorian Guard, Burrus. Under their guidance, the following five years could actually be described as progressive – a word not often attributed to Nero. He granted the Senate greater independence, tackled corruption, cut taxes, ended secret trials, banned capital punishment and decreed that slaves could bring civil complaints against their masters.

In reality, the people had Seneca and Burrus to thank for these policies. To Nero, his position afforded him nothing more than the freedom to indulge in his true passions – the arts (he wanted to be a musician and actor, and bring poetry, theatre and singing to the people) and the fulfilment of personal pleasures. Disguising himself, he spent nights stalking the streets of Rome with friends, drinking, frequenting brothels and brawling. Ignoring Octavia and a marriage that bored him, he fell for a former slave, who he later left for Poppaea Sabina, the wife of a senator.


LISTEN: How much do you know about the Julio-Cluadian dynasty? Historian Tom Holland discusses the extraordinary lives of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero


Was Nero a tyrant?

Nero grew bolder, and Agrippina’s control shrank, until she turned on her son to champion Britannicus instead. That move proved both her undoing and the beginning of several formative, blood-soaked years for the emperor.

The first to die was Britannicus, on the day before he became an adult in AD 55. Although Nero claimed his step-brother succumbed to an epileptic seizure, historical records suggest poison had been added to his glass of wine. Next to go would be Agrippina herself in AD 59. Nero wanted her death to look like an accident so, according to Suetonius, came up with the idea of a booby-trapped boat, which would fall apart in the water. In a final show of her domineering personality, she survived the sinking and swam to shore, so Nero had to send assassins to finish the job at her villa. As the killers surrounded her, swords raised, she allegedly showed them her belly and exclaimed “Strike here, for this bore Nero”.

Then in AD 62, Nero lost those remaining figures who had managed to keep him in check. Burrus died – his replacement, a cruel man named Tigellinus, served with particular malice – while Seneca retired from public affairs. Nero found himself in absolute power for the first time, wholly untethered from any control or need to temper his behaviour. So when he wanted to marry his mistress Poppaea, he divorced and exiled Octavia on a trumped-up charge of adultery. When this caused outrage in Rome, he had her executed and her head presented to his new wife.

Painting of Nero's torches
Nero’s torches, painted in 1877. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the Great Fire of Rome. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rather than use this power to rule or even conquer new lands, Nero still dreamed of being an artist, cheered by an adoring public. He played the lyre, wrote poetry and sang, but Romans considered the idea of an emperor performing on stage as the ultimate disgrace, demonstrating a disrespectful and scandalous lack of dignity. Nero either didn’t care or craved the adulation too much. He forced people to watch his performances without letting them leave, which, Suetonius wrote, led some to pretend they had died so they would be carried out of the theatre.

Perhaps this innate desire to be adored inspired his actions during the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. The six-day blaze reduced much of the world’s most powerful city to ashes, destroying or damaging an estimated ten of the 14 districts, and left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. Far from ‘fiddling while Rome burned’ – an overly repeated and dubious creation of the historical accounts – Nero had been at Antium, around 30 miles away, when the fire began.

Did Emperor Nero really play the fiddle while Rome burned?

“There are several issues with the veracity of this tale, the most important problem is that the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet,” writes archaeologist Miles Russell for BBC History Revealed…

Emperor Nero and the fire in Rome

On hearing the news, he rushed back to the city to coordinate relief efforts, which included opening his private gardens as shelter and providing food. Yet no sooner had he seemingly displayed this rare example of pragmatic leadership, Nero couldn’t help but ruin it, and to such an extent that rumours of him actually being responsible for starting the fire began circulating, and have persisted ever since.

By quickly taking advantage of land cleared by the flames to begin construction of an extravagant palace complex, the Domus Aurea (Golden House), Nero gave many Romans reason to wonder whether that had been his intention all along. He needed to pass the blame, and he found his scapegoat in a small religious group that had been growing in Rome for a generation – the Christians. On Nero’s orders, they endured the most horrific methods of persecution, from torture and whipping to being dressed in animal skins and set upon by wild dogs. Nero apparently delighted in having men crucified in his garden, coated in wax and set alight to act as candles at his parties.

Violence and depravity became constant in Nero’s life, and resulted in the death of another wife. Suetonius wrote that, in AD 65, the emperor kicked the pregnant Poppaea to death after being scolded for spending too much time at the races. Grief-stricken, Nero then became fixated on a boy named Sporus, who bore a resemblance to his murdered wife, had him castrated and married him.

How did Nero almost ruin Rome?

Meanwhile, his megalomaniacal need to see the Golden House completed threatened to bankrupt the state treasury. Spanning 100 to 300 acres, the complex boasted gold-leaf-covered rooms and a lavish banqueting hall with a revolving ceiling that sprayed perfume on revellers below. Outside, the centrepiece was a 30-metre high colossus of Nero. Paying for it had proved beyond the capability of even the empire. Nero raised taxes, seized valuables from temples and squeezed Rome’s richest. When that wasn’t enough, he devalued the currency, reducing the weight and purity of the silver denarius coins.

Much like its leader, the empire looked increasingly unstable. There had been a revolt in Britain (he almost evacuated the island during Boudica’s uprising in AD 60 rather than trust his armies to defeat it), long conflicts in Parthia, an insurrection in Judea and an assassination plot uncovered in Rome. The purge of the Pisonian conspiracy in AD 65 – which intended to replace Nero with statesman Gaius Calpurnius Piso – claimed senators, army officers, aristocrats and even Seneca.

Illustration of Boudica, victorious over the Romans

Having overcome this threat and with discontent lingering, Nero left Rome, essentially renouncing his rule. For a year or so he took a hedonistic tour of Greece, competing in artistic competitions (where he ‘won’ 1,808 first prizes) and the Olympic Games. He almost died after being thrown from his chariot, but still won all his events. He, reluctantly, returned – just in time to see his reign come crashing down.

How did Nero die?

Nero did not consider it a serious danger when Gaius Julius Vindex, a governor in Gaul, rebelled in AD 68. “I have only to appear and sing to have peace once more in Gaul,” he allegedly declared. But then another governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba in northern Spain, joined the revolt and declared himself emperor, inspiring more to rise up. The Senate declared Nero a public enemy and, once the Praetorian Guard abandoned him, he knew it was the end.

The 30-year-old emperor-turned-enemy of Rome fled the city, with nowhere to run or hide. On 9 June AD 68, he gave orders to the few men still with him, including his ‘wife’ Sporus, to dig a grave for him, while he prepared to commit suicide.

However, for a man who had killed so many, dispatching himself wasn’t such an easy task. He asked someone else to go first, to set an example, before begging his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to help drive the blade home. Nero – murderer, thief, sadist, tyrant – wanted to be remembered as something else. His final words were: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!”

What were Emperor Nero’s greatest crimes?

What are the villainous deeds on the ruthless ruler’s rap sheet – as written in the historical accounts – that have made him so despised?

Persecuting Christians

Nero’s atrocities against Christians in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome demonstrated just how brutal and violent he could be. He devised elaborate ways to cause untold suffering, including crucifying his victims upside down and turning them into human candles for his garden. For his persecution, Nero has been described as the Antichrist. It was common in antiquity for letters and numbers to be transferable – and when ‘Nero Caesar’ is written in Hebrew, it can be turned into the figure 666, the number of the Beast.

Matricide

If not for Agrippina, Nero would never have become emperor – yet every mother should know when it’s time to let go. He planned a bizarre assassination attempt involving a self-sinking boat, but she survived, so Nero had to use the flimsy excuse that she might seek revenge to justify sending his guards to kill her.

Killing two wives

Move over Henry VIII. Nero divorced his first wife, Ocatavia, had her banished and then executed, all so he could marry his mistress. Three years later, however, Poppaea died too – supposedly when Nero kicked her in her belly while she was pregnant.

Stealing

To pay for his gargantuan palace, Nero went to extreme lengths to squeeze all he could out of the empire. He had the temples raided, the silver currency devalued and there are reports of him forcing the richest people in Rome to leave their properties to him in their wills, before he made them commit suicide.

Murder

Despite having overtaken his younger stepbrother as Claudius’s heir, Nero decided to eliminate the teenage rival Britannicus once and for all. According to Roman historian Suetonius, he turned to a woman named Locusta to administer poison into his drink at a dinner party – avoiding the food tasters by spiking not the warmed wine, but the water used to cool it.

Sexual debauchery

He may not have had relations with his mother, as the rumours claimed, but Nero’s tastes were certainly depraved. Suetonius wrote, “Virtually every part of his body had been employed in filthy lusts.” He goes on to say that Nero devised a game where he disguised himself in the pelt of a wild animal and attacked the private parts of men and women tied to stakes.

Castration

When Nero saw the boy Sporus, he was so struck by how much he looked like his dead wife that he had him castrated and arranged a wedding ceremony, complete with dowry and bridal veil.

What were Emperor Nero’s greatest accomplishments?

Fire fighting

When Rome went up in flames in AD 64, it has been said that Nero took an active role in helping his people – he arranged food deliveries and let his gardens be used by the homeless.

Able administration

The first five years of Nero’s reign was defined by effective government policies – mainly down to his advisers – which benefitted the poor and reduced corruption.

A patron of the arts

A keen musician and actor, Nero built theatres, encouraged poetry and singing, and created festivals for artistic and athletic endeavours.


Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the April 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed