History has given us some exceptional heroes and villains. Nero falls into the second category. Debauchery and cruelty dominated his rule.
The Last of the Julio-Claudian Rulers
As a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero followed Claudius as ruler of the Roman Empire in 54A.D. Nero was the last of the dynasty to rule and the last direct descendant of Emperor Augustus; they were succeeded by the Flavians in 68A.D.
He was born on the 15th December 37A.D. to statesman Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Julia Agrippina, also known as Agrippina the Younger, a great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus and a sister of the crazed emperor Caligula.
Nero's father died three years after his arrival and so he was raised by his influential mother who married again, this time to Passienus Crispus. Agrippina was later accused of fatally poisoning him so that she could incestuously marry her uncle Emperor Claudius and promote Nero as his successor.
Despite having a surviving male heir named Britannicus by his third wife Valeria Messalina, Claudius was capably manipulated into proclaiming that his adopted stepson-great nephew was his heir not his own birth son.
Nero was originally named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was renamed Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus and after his adoption by Claudius from A.D. 50 he used the name Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus.
Nero officially entered into adulthood and the Roman court life aged fourteen. Two years later he was married to his stepsister, Claudius' daughter Claudia Octavia.
Around the time of Claudius' death in 54A.D.Agrippina persuaded the emperor to surround his heir with guards who she knew were loyal to her and therefore to Nero. Agrippina the widow watched Nero assume power in a smooth transition. She was unperturbed when rumours arose that she had poisoned Claudius to Nero's obvious benefit.
Britannicus, his only rival, conveniently died suddenly in 55A.D. Agrippina's handiwork again? Probably not. His removal seems to have been ordered by Nero against his mother's wishes.
Nero and Agrippina Rule (to the Death)
His first speech to the senate was written by his tutor Seneca. The senators liked Nero initially because he, unlike his two predecessors, did not challenge the rights and privileges of the senate. However, the prevalent view was that Agrippina and not Nero was the true ruler of Rome in the early weeks.
As if to confirm this the first coins issued by Nero featured her as dominant as him and at the senate she was accompanied by two civil servants which was a significant honour and unknown for the mother of an emperor.
Anyone who Agrippina considered a rival met with death, this included relatives. Unfortunately for Agrippina, she did not factor in the true derailment of her plans: Nero. His relationship with his mother became increasingly strained. She presumed too much, murdered too often and she was horrified that Nero was having an affair with a slave called Claudia Acte.
This lead Agrippina to threaten Nero with championing Britannicus' claim to rule in early 55A.D. (the same claim she'd schemed to extinguish), for which Nero swiftly banished her from court. He had her executed in 59A.D. probably because she opposed his affair with Poppaea Sabina who he married in 62A.D. after they dispensed with their respective spouses.
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Fiddling While Rome Burned?
Most of our impressions of Nero come from the writings of contemporary historians and scholars. Despite his great interest in music and poetry, acting and architectural projects, Nero's flaws were plentiful.
Hedonistic, cruel, extravagant, disinterested in much of the politics of his empire and incapable of making a wise decision without experiencing a flurry of panic, he was often saved by his advisors who initiated good policies in his name.
That Nero fiddled while Rome burned is one of the best-known facts about him—or falsehoods. It was more likely to have been good propaganda issued by the Flavians. There's no proof that he brought out the infamous fiddle. He did however decide to blame the Christians in Rome who he despised for the Great Fire of Rome.
The fire broke out in a shop overnight on the 18th-19th July 64A.D. There were steady winds and a mass of timber structures to consume. The fire swept through Rome and finally seemed to have been put out after seven destructive days. Unfortunately, the fire had not been extinguished; three more days of fire followed.
The question was later asked: Was the fire an accident or ignited on the orders of Nero, who was in Antium (30 miles away) on that first night of the blaze?
He used the prime spaces for his architectural projects in the new Rome which did nothing to ease suspicions of foul play. Taxes rose considerably across the Roman Empire to pay for the reconstruction work in less-flammable materials. Taxes are rarely popular.
Nero's Allies Desert Him
After rumours that he had murdered Poppea Sabina in 65A.D. and a conspiracy to overthrow him to create a republic that same year, Nero must have sensed that he was in trouble but he did not adjust his behaviour.
He even ordered Seneca, his trusted advisor and former tutor to commit suicide because he fell out of favour. In 67A.D. he married a young boy who reputedly reminded him of Poppaea Sabina. The poor boy was castrated and made to dress as a girl.
The revolts of 68A.D. met with greater success than the one three years earlier. Governor Gaius Julius Vindex challenged the level of taxation and Nero's artistic tendencies which were thought to be beneath a great ruler. He stated that he wanted to make himself emperor. Vindex was defeated in battle and he committed suicide but the idea of another ruler in Rome did not die with him.
Galba of Hispania was popular and his opposition to Nero led to a swell of anti-Nero sentiments and loyalties sworn to Nero were retracted. The guards who had happily helped him to rule in 54A.D. now shunned him.
Nero Reborn? The Horror
Nero fled Rome to gather an army to regain power. The army refused to aid him and so he returned to his Roman palace and sent messages to people he thought were his friends. They did not come. He went to their rooms and found them deserted. The senate declared Nero a public enemy.
Nero prepared to kill himself but he couldn't carry out the act so it seems that his private secretary stabbed him at his request. Nero died on the 9th June 68A.D. which was the sixth anniversary of his first wife Claudia Octavia's suspicious death enabling his marriage to Poppaea Sabina. A story prevailed for a time that he actually escaped Rome and died in Greece in 69A.D. when slain by a Greek who recognised him to be Nero.
At least three unsuccessful rebellions were staged by "Nero Reborn." He lives on in history as an example of how not to rule.
- Who was Nero? | British Museum Blog
- Emperor Nero | Rome.us
- Nero | Biography, Claudius, Rome, Burning, Fate, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanne Hayle