Rethinking Nero: was the Roman emperor really so bad?
For centuries Emperor Nero has occupied a place in history’s hall of infamy, courtesy of tales of Christian burning, wife beating and mother murdering. Yet does he truly deserve his diabolical reputation? Shushma Malik considers the evidence
In the late 19th century, the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote a seven-volume history of Christianity. It was a vast, wide-ranging publication, spanning centuries and continents. Yet one of these volumes was dedicated entirely to the reign of one man: the Roman emperor Nero.
Nero ascended to power in AD 54 following the death of his step-father, Claudius. Fourteen chaotic, blood-spattered years later it was all over, Nero dying – perhaps by his own hand – at the climax of a rebellion against his rule. But this, Renan said, wasn’t the last the world would see of him. Nero would return to Earth again, and his second coming would signal the time of the apocalypse. “The name for Nero has been found,” the philosopher declared. “Nero shall be the Antichrist.”
Listen: Roman historian Shushma Malik discusses the infamous crimes of the emperor Nero and considers whether he is deserving of his monstrous reputation
Renan’s assertion was a bold one, but it was hardly original. Historians had been casting Nero as the epitome of evil – stitching a straight line between Rome’s fifth emperor and the end of the world – since the third century. And their lambasting of his reputation has stuck: today, everyone with an interest in ancient history ‘knows’ that Nero was one of the worst of all Rome’s emperors.
But is what everyone ‘knows’ true? Surely, before accepting history’s verdict, we should re-examine the sources, and ask ourselves what motivated the emperor’s many detractors, and how material evidence can help to flesh out the picture. Only then can we answer the question of why Nero’s reputation is so utterly dismal – and indeed if his diabolical image is entirely deserved.
Mutilated by dogs
There are a number of reasons why, for almost 2,000 years, historians have lined up to denigrate Nero. But the most important is surely that his reign saw the first persecution of the Christians.
In AD 64, a fire ripped through Rome, devastating 10 of its 14 districts. After the conflagration, Nero embarked on an ambitious rebuilding programme – one that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, he tackled with such gusto that many Romans soon suspected that he’d ordered the fire to be started in the first place.
Nero sought to quell these rumours and, to do that, he needed a scapegoat. That, Tacitus tells us, is where the Christians came in. For the crime of starting the fire, Nero punished this already unpopular religious sect by setting up a display in his own gardens at which the condemned were mutilated and killed by dogs. Another punishment saw the victims fixed to crucifixes and set alight to burn as lamps at night.
This truly horrific account understandably grabbed the attention of early Christians. When a noblewoman named Algasia asked Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin in the early fifth century) to interpret the “man of lawlessness” (the Antichrist figure) in Paul’s 2 Thessalonians, his reply was emphatic: “Nero, the impurest of the Caesars oppresses the world.”
However, the burning of Christians was far from the only event in Nero’s reign to earn him the title Antichrist. The fifth-century historian Sulpicius Severus wrote that the emperor “showed himself in every way most abominable and cruel, and at length even went so far as to be the murderer of his own mother”. Here, Sulpicius borrows from earlier, non-Christian historians to demonstrate the depth of Nero’s iniquity. And those historians gave Christian writers like Sulpicius a lot of material to work with.
The historian Sulpicius Severus wrote that Nero 'showed himself in every way most abominable and cruel'
Our three main historical accounts for Nero’s life come from Tacitus (writing a generation after Nero’s death), Suetonius (a contemporary of Tacitus), and Cassius Dio (writing a couple of generations later than the other two). All three writers invariably describe Nero as a violent fratricide, matricide and uxoricide (wife-killer). They accuse the emperor of murdering his step-brother Britannicus for fear that he might usurp his position, and of having his mother, Agrippina, put to death because she was too overbearing. He was also responsible for the demise of two of his three wives: the first, Octavia, because he had fallen for a woman called Poppaea; the second was Poppaea herself, kicked to death in a fit of rage.
Another of Nero’s ‘crimes’ was to be a lover of all things Greek. While Greek tradition played an important role in Rome (young elite males were often sent to Greece to be educated by the best orators), to be too enamoured with the culture was seen as a weakness. Romans, it was believed, should prefer Roman activities such as politics and war. Unfortunately, the Nero we read about far preferred the theatre and sexual promiscuity.
Not only did Nero enjoy watching theatrical performances, he also loved appearing in them – which he did for the first time in Naples in AD 64. In Rome, actors were predominately at the bottom of the social ladder. This made the emperor’s wish to take to the stage all the more scandalous.
Just as damning was Nero’s obsession with opulence. This was exemplified by his Golden House, which was so named for the profusion of precious metals, gems and artworks that adorned it. While emperors were allowed to flaunt their wealth and status, Nero, it was widely believed, had taken it way too far.
If Nero’s ostentation offended Romans’ sense of propriety, the allegations that he had entered into ‘mock’ marriages with two men were considered by many to be beyond the pale. The first of these spouses, Sporus, became Nero’s wife, but the second, known as either Doryphorus (‘spear-bearer’) or Pythagoras, he took as a husband. Nero and Pythagoras “devised a kind of game”, Suetonius tells us, “in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he [Nero] was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes”.
Such rumours simply confirmed what many Romans already suspected: that Nero was a cruel, feckless libertine who undermined Roman values in his enthusiasm for a life of depravity and dissolution.
Not the full picture
The evidence against Nero appears overwhelming. But before accepting history’s devastating verdict, we should acknowledge that Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio’s evidence is full of holes. At best, the picture they paint is only partially complete.
What we must remember when reading these stories is that our surviving sources were written by authors who had never met Nero – men who were either very young, or yet to be born, when the emperor ruled. None of these men were writing contemporary history – and all had their own reasons for sticking in the knife.
Tacitus and Suetonius both began their careers during the dynasty that followed the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians, and were likely writing at some point in the reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117–138) respectively. This lapse in time is crucial: it made the Julio-Claudian period a safe(r) space for writers to explore the strengths and weaknesses of Rome’s imperial system. And while Tacitus’s verdict on Nero was undeniably negative, it has to be noted that none of the Julio-Claudians come out of his Annals particularly well.
Tacitus trained his focus on the fields of politics and war. He was scathing of the sycophantic senators who acquiesced in Nero’s whims, and he used the Roman general Corbulo, whom Nero sent to Armenia to battle the Parthians, to highlight the inadequacies in military matters of the emperor and those close to him.
Suetonius, by contrast, was largely uninterested in the war in Armenia. He preferred to address Nero’s lust for violence, love of luxury and sexual proclivities – as his description of the emperor’s bedroom antics with Pythagoras proves. This approach provides colourful anecdotes but it poses a problem for historians attempting to get somewhere near the truth. Suetonius must rely on hearsay and rumours for his evidence, some of which, he claims, were still circulating in his own time. While senate affairs were officially recorded, what Nero got up to in the confines of his palace was not.
Cassius Dio wrote his accounts of Nero even later than Suetonius and Tacitus – he began his career in Rome as a young senator during the reign of Commodus (177–192) – yet it is to him that we must turn for our only detailed account of Nero’s trip to Greece. Dio, in contrast to our other writers, does not see Nero as a lover of Greece, but rather as someone who tormented the province with his presence. The sight of an emperor on stage was tortuous enough, but Dio’s Nero truly plumbed the depths, executing a large number of leading men and women and instructing their families to gift half of their inherited property to Rome. In short, he ‘waged war’ on Greece.
For and against
Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio all bring something different to our understanding of Nero. And, when viewed together, they are utterly damning. But we should also acknowledge that, in antiquity, they would have made up a mere fraction of the accounts of Nero’s life available. In the late first century, after Nero’s death, the Jewish historian Josephus told his readers that there were many different assessments of Nero’s reign circulating at that time. Some were extremely complimentary about the emperor. Sadly, these have been lost, and the only histories still available to us are overwhelmingly hostile.
So if we are to accept the limitations of Roman histories of Nero, how else are we to paint an accurate picture of this most notorious of emperors? One tactic adopted by historians – especially in recent years – is to examine his actions in the context of his times. Were his ‘crimes’ typical of those committed by first-century emperors? Or was he an abominable outlier?
Take the much-derided Golden House. While its massive dimensions and eye-watering opulence have drawn criticism, Tiberius’s villa at the coastal town of Sperlonga, Caligula’s residence at the Horti Lamiani (atop Rome’s Esquiline Hill), and Claudius’s nymphaeum at Baiae (on the Gulf of Naples) were precursors to Nero’s indulgence. It’s true that Nero out-did his predecessors when building his palace in Rome – but outdoing his predecessors was exactly what a Roman emperor was meant to do.
If the Golden House was an extravagant folly, the allegation that Nero killed his wife Poppaea by kicking her while she was pregnant is far more shocking. Yet, once again, it is not anomalous. This episode conforms to an ancient literary convention used to describe tyrannical murders. The Achaemenid king Cambyses, Corinthian tyrant Periander and Greco-Roman senator Herodes Atticus were all accused of bringing about their wives’ deaths with a kick to the belly. In short, we should not interpret the story of Poppaea’s death in isolation – as a uniquely evil act committed by a uniquely evil emperor – but recognise it as one of the ways in which literature described the unexpected deaths of pregnant women.
Another factor to bear in mind when considering Nero’s dire reputation, is that the Roman empire was enormous, and not all of its residents would have been influenced by the written sources. While Rome and parts of Italy were privy to the salacious gossip circulating around the cities, those further away encountered Nero primarily through coins, inscriptions and statues – and these often deliver a far more positive verdict.
One such can be found on the eastern side of the Parthenon in Athens. Carved into the stone of what is arguably antiquity’s most celebrated monument is an inscription hailing Nero as the greatest imperator (general) and the son of a God (ie the deified Claudius). This is high praise indeed and was probably inspired by Rome’s military gains in Armenia against the Parthians.
While the people of Rome were obsessing over Nero’s private life, those in Greece were more likely celebrating his military gains
Later, in Boeotia (also Greece) a memorial was erected to commemorate Nero’s tour of Achaea in AD 66–68, during which he declared that the province no longer had to pay taxes. The accompanying inscription declared that Nero was doing something for Greece that no other emperor had ever done; he is Zeus the Liberator and the New Apollo. While the people of Rome were obsessing over whom Nero was sleeping with and the grim details of his wife’s death, those in Greece were more likely celebrating his military prowess and their tax breaks.
And if Nero was the ogre of the popular imagination, that fact had not reached the owner of a Neronian coin minted in Lugdunum (Lyon), which decorated a buried mirror box. Even though the box was interred after Nero’s downfall, the coin was still considered beautiful and precious enough to accompany someone to their grave.
As late as the fifth century AD, the emperor’s image was staring out from medallions given to people as souvenirs at the Circus Maximus in Rome. In fact, for a period, his image appeared more frequently than that of any other emperor.
What does all this tell us? The answer is that our traditional image of Nero doesn’t necessarily represent the full picture. That, though the emperor undoubtedly committed terrible crimes, he was both loved and loathed. And that, while Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio viewed him as evil personified, many people appear to have thought quite the opposite.
Dr Shushma Malik is a lecturer in classics at the University of Roehampton. Her book The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm was published by CUP in March
This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine