So, you think outlandish conspiracy theories and weird sightings of famous dead people are just a modern phenomenon? Ancient Rome had its own conspiracies. One set involves a persistent rumor surrounding Emperor Nero’s death. The demise of one of history’s most eccentric emperors sparked a series of imposters who masqueraded as Nero.
Welcome to the strange case of the pseudo-Neros. Rome’s unique bit of popular nuttiness caused considerable problems and even risked the empire’s stability.
Before Nero’s Death: Nothing About The Emperor Was Normal
So just who was Emperor Nero? A serious ruler or a deadly playboy and brat of a prince? A loved ruler and leader who traveled within his Empire (a rare thing), or a madman who subjected the Roman empire to tyranny, misrule, and abuse? A loving and misunderstood son, or a volatile unstable man, who pre-dated Norman Bates by 2000 years, with the mother of all mother complexes? A sophisticated philhellene (a lover of Greek culture), a gifted patron of the arts, or a deluded sadist, who thought himself touched with the creative and violent genius of a god?
Historians will always argue – they love it – about just how bad Emperor Nero was. He may well have been misunderstood, and he may even have been given a raw press. However, to use the ‘burning Rome’ analogy, there’s just no smoke without fire.
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Even within the Roman Emperors’ contexts – a decidedly mixed bunch – Emperor Nero was not at all normal. But was he a bad emperor? Well, yes, in my view, long prior to Nero’s death, there was much that made him a rotten emperor. Of course, there is another view, which you can read here.
In my head, the conversation goes something like this:
‘Just what do you have to do to be considered one of history’s most volatile emperors?
Well, with guys like Caligula breathing down your neck, it’s a highly competitive field. You’re going to have to be at the top of your game.’
‘How about murdering your own mother (Agrippina), the overbearing matriarch that dominated you – coming to power as you did at only 16 years of age?’
‘A strong start, but I’ve heard much worse, especially about Roman Emperors.’
‘Alright, murdering your first wife then, and just for kudos, probably your second wife too? Kicking her (Poppaea) to death while she’s pregnant if you want the awful detail?’
‘It’s strong, but I’m going to need more …’
‘OK, how about revelling on the streets at night, in disguise, sleeping with prostitutes, kicking up a fuss, and beating up on wealthy citizens, just for laughs? Oh, and if people defend themselves, they’re as good as dead.’
‘Now you’re warming up …’
‘What about encouraging false accusations against senators and wealthy Romans? Seizing their legacies for your personal gain, and creating a culture of denunciation and terror?’
‘Yes, it’s got potential; you’ve got my attention…’
‘Can you accept the maladministration of an empire, abusing provincials and ruling over three major revolts within your reign, in Britain, Judea, and Gaul?’
‘Now we’re talking, carry on.’
‘Alright, how about utterly demeaning the dignity of your imperial office, thinking yourself a great musician and performer, entering the Olympics, and reciting long and tedious performances? How about forcing people to attend and clap for hours, thinking yourself a creative god on earth, when actually you pretty much suck eggs, and people are literally passing-out during your interminable recitals?’
‘Now that’s unforgivable, you know you never get that time back.’
‘What about assassinating family and rivals and poisoning those who offend you? How about being prone to violent rages, burning the city down and buying up land on the cheap so you can build, literally, a golden palace that totally bankrupts the treasury?’ (Even if exaggerated the fact that everyone believes this to be true speaks volumes about the regard in which you are held).
‘Now you’re making a strong case …’
‘Good. How about then blaming said fire on a little-understood sect, the Christians, and persecuting them in truly novel and sadistic ways? Do I have a case yet?
‘OK, you’ve convinced me. This Nero guy does sound like a real sick puppy. A bit of a bad egg. Definitely ‘a wrong-un’, and probably even a ‘rotten apple.’
Emperor Nero was not a good or stable ruler and by 68 CE this erratic prince was starting to run out of well-paved, Roman roads. Events would end in Nero’s death.
Emperor Nero’s Death
Nothing about Emperor Nero’s life was normal and there would also be nothing normal about his death. The nature of Nero’s death was highly unconventional and no single factor had more impact on the events and flourishing conspiracy theories that followed his demise.
The year 68 CE was a shocking year for the Roman state. After years of mismanagement, erratic behavior, and general craziness, an uprising in Gaul triggered a sequence of coups that would be known as ‘the year of the four emperors’. For Emperor Nero, events quickly morphed into a dangerous imperial challenge from the usurper, Galba. Backed by provincial troops, Galba challenged Emperor Nero for rulership of the Roman world.
Utterly wrong-footed, 68 CE would quickly see Nero’s death. Bereft of supporters, a bloody civil war ensued. For the first time in many generations, the Roman empire descended back into a state of civil conflict. A condition unknown since the last days of the failing Republic. The trauma to the Roman world was profound.
‘What An Artist The World Is Losing!’
Nero’s death was a travesty. Rejected by the crucial Praetorian guard, a friendless and forlorn Emperor Nero, outlawed by the Senate, could read the writing on the wall. The curtain of history was firmly descending on the erratic musical emperor with little prospect of an encore. Nero’s death would soon be at hand.
Fleeing Rome with only a handful of personal slaves, things could not have gone worse for the last ruler of the illustrious Julio-Claudian dynasty. After balking several times at his fate and lamenting the loss of his divine talent being extinguished from the world, the emperor was finally compelled into suicide. He was only 32.
“Hark now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed hunters!” and he drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in, and as he placed a cloak to the wound, pretending that he had come to aid him, Nero merely gasped: “Too late!” and “This is fidelity!” With these words, he was gone, with eyes so set and starting from their sockets that all who saw him shuddered with horror.
[Suetonius, Life of Nero, 49]
Make no mistake, Nero’s death was an obscure, bizarre, and ignoble end for the last ruler of such a world-shattering dynasty.
From the lineage that had established the very imperial system, Emperor Nero was the last ruling descendant of true lions, like Julius Caesar and Augustus. All the more shocking to see such a legacy splutter out of history, extinguished through Nero’s death, a mad, sad, and rather bad Emperor of Rome.
So Many Questions Surround Nero’s Death.
Nero’s death did not only shocked and confused his contemporaries. It has also perplexed historians ever since. Several significantly odd things emerge about Nero’s death and many questions remain unanswered.
Why Did Nero Give Up So Fast?
Facing an armed revolt from a serious contender and abandoned by the Praetorians and Senate, it’s true to say that Nero was in a real fix. However, it remains true that the Emperor gave up his unmatched claim astonishingly quickly. Was this just an aspect of his volatile, erratic temperament, or was there something else at play?
Why Did Nero Not Flee To The East?
Although we have little detail, we hear that Nero briefly considered options like fleeing to the East and perhaps even seeking refuge with Rome’s enemy in the Middle East, the Parthians. Nero’s reign had established prolonged diplomatic relations with the Parthians and we know that king Vologaesus I of Parthia (51 – 78 CE) paid honor to Nero’s death. Such a move by Emperor Nero would also have followed a well-worn precedent of history: many an ousted ruler fleeing into exile with the enemies of their native state.
Why Did Nero Not Raise Troops In The Provinces?
Although there was no imperial precedent, in the context of Rome’s past civil wars, it was standard practice for an incumbent leader, ousted from Italy, to flee to the provinces and raise regional troops and resources to defend his claim.
This could have been especially appealing to a figure like Nero, who had toured Greece just in 67 CE and undoubtedly maintained powerful contacts and supporters there.
Why Was Nero Buried Privately?
Of Nero’s death and burial, the historian Suetonius tells us:
“He was buried at a cost of two hundred thousand sesterces and laid out in white robes embroidered with gold, which he had worn on the Kalends of January. His ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens which is visible from the Campus Martius. In that monument his sarcophagus of porphyry, with an altar of Luna marble standing above it, is enclosed by a balustrade of Thasian stone.”
[Suet, Life of Nero, 50]
This was a highly irregular burial for an Emperor in his family’s private tomb. Not the Mausoleum of Augustus as befitted a Julio-Claudian prince. Nero’s death was irregular, but why was a descendent of such a great dynasty buried privately? Why indeed, when he was friendless, hated, and legally outlawed by the state, was he allowed to be buried with honors at all? Why was he not dug up and desecrated? That was more in keeping with Rome’s treatment of outlaws.
Why Did Nero Not Appeal To The People Of Rome?
Suetonius lets slip another tantalizing detail about the aftermath of Nero’s death. Although some of the people celebrated his death in the moment, many more went on in the longer term to mourn his passing.
”Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies.”
[Suet, Life of Nero, 57]
History, like life, is infinitely nuanced and it cannot be true that everyone hated nero. Evidently, he retained some significant support amongst the populace. This again feeds the mystery of why he gave up so readily. Could he not appeal to the people for help? Suetonius’s account also hints at the popular phenomenon that followed. Not everyone in Rome even believed Nero was dead at all.
Was Some Kind Of A Deal Done With Galba?
At the time of Nero’s death, arguably only one man in Rome had the power to grant Nero – alive or dead – the power of protection. That was Galba, the incoming man of the moment who would last as an Emperor for no more than 7 months.
A major clue concerning Nero’s death falls into place when we hear that Galba’s most trusted Freedmen, Icelus, appears to have negotiated with the outgoing Nero clique:
“First and beyond all else he [Nero] had forced from his companions a promise to let no one have his head, but to contrive in some way that he be buried unmutilated.” And this was granted by Icelus, Galba’s freedman, who had shortly before been released from the bondage to which he was consigned at the beginning of the revolt”
[Suet, Life of Nero, 49]
Was this the reason Nero gave up so readily? Was Icelus, freed from bondage and sent by Galba to negotiate with the outgoing regime? Was a deal struck that saw Nero abdicate through suicide in return for an honorable burial and an un-molested death? We have way too little detail to go on and can never know for certain. However, the account emphasizes that not everything about Nero’s death was transparent or made total outward sense.
Such mirky aspects of Nero’s death would shape future events and give momentum to the strange events that would follow in the years to come.
Would The Real Nero Imposter Please Stand Up?
Long after ‘the year of the four emperors’ was to play out, long after the empire was back under a new and stable Flavian dynasty, established by Vespasian, the strange nature of Nero’s death would continue to perpetuate troubling ripples in the empire.
Playing out over two decades, the empire experienced a strange phenomenon as a succession of pseudo Neros, claiming a great name and heritage. Suffering a kind of historical indigestion, Rome would experience a troubling and persistent case of ‘Nero reflux’. It was no accident that all the pseudo Neros would emerge in the East, where Nero’s reputation was strongest, and with at least two boasting links to Rome’s major enemy, Parthia.
The First Pseudo Nero
The first pseudo-Nero emerged just a year after Nero’s death in 68 or 69 CE, in his beloved province of Achaia (Greece). The emperor had toured and performed in Greece as recently as 66/67CE and his ties to the area were famous. Could the real Nero have escaped Rome, faked his death, and resurfaced in his long favored province? It seems too unlikely to contemplate.
Tacitus (a strong source) certainly believed this figure to be an opportunist, imposter, taking advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Nero’s death:
“ … Achaia and Asia were terrified by a false rumor of Nero’s arrival. The reports concerning Nero’s death had been varied, and therefore many people imagined and believed that he was alive. … at this time, a slave from Pontus or, as others have reported, a freedman from Italy, who was skilled in playing on the cithara and in singing, gained the readier belief in his deceit through these accomplishments and his resemblance to Nero. He recruited some deserters, poor tramps whom he had bribed by great promises, and put to sea. A violent storm drove him to the island of Cythnus, where he called to his standard some soldiers who were returning from the East on leave, or ordered them to be killed if they refused. Then he robbed the merchants, and armed all the ablest-bodied of their slaves. … Many came eagerly forward at the famous name, prompted by their desire for a change and their hatred of the present situation. The fame of the pretender was increasing from day to day when a chance shattered it.
[Tacitus, Histories, 2.8]
Tacitus tells how this fledgling revolt was reported by a centurion called Sisenna who had been co-opted, but had escaped. The local governor Calpurnius Aspernas with two triremes managed to infiltrate the revolt and bribe its captains to betray Nero’s imposter.
“… they faithfully reported everything to Asprenas, at whose bidding they captured the pretender’s ship and killed him, whoever he was. His body, which was remarkable for its eyes, hair, and grim face, was carried to Asia and from there to Rome.”
[Tacitus, Histories, 2.9]
So perished our first imposter. Could this have been the real Nero? Could this have been the volatile young prince, who had loved dressing up in disguise as a teenager and terrorizing the streets of Rome? If it was, he was now terrorizing the seas of the Aegean?
It’s not at all likely. Indeed, it’s most improbable, but the instance shows the inherent and escalating danger that such a bold imposter might cause to regional stability. It also shows also the kind of provincial gullibility that might exist within marginal groups in the empire, amongst people who were not well informed and had never even seen an Emperor, except perhaps on a coin.
The Second Pseudo Nero
A second fake Nero emerged up to 10 years after Nero’s death in Titus’s reign (79 – 81CE). He was a named figure, the imposter Terentius Maximus, from Asia. Seemingly sponsored by the Parthians, this pseudo-Nero was a useful pawn for Parthian aspirations and power-politics in the region.
“In his [Titus’s] reign also the false Nero appeared, who was an Asiatic named Terentius Maximus. He resembled Nero both in appearance and in voice (for he too sang to the accompaniment of the lyre). He gained a few followers in Asia, and in his advance to the Euphrates attached a far greater number, and finally sought refuge with Artabanus, the Parthian leader, who, because of his anger against Titus, both received him and set about making preparations to restore him to Rome.”
[Cassius Dio, History, 66.19.3b]
Though this pretender was found-out and did not last long, he represented a truly dangerous situation for Rome. When hostile super-powers sponsor pretenders (genuinely or disingenuously), they start to represent a credible threat. The power of Emperor Nero’s name in the East evidently still resonated well beyond Nero’s death.
The Third and Last Pseudo Nero
The last pseudo-Nero emerged as a footnote to history a full 20 years after the original emperor’s death.
Sometime in the reign of Domitian (81 to 96CE), in an unspecified year thought to be c. 89/90CE when the historian Suetonius describes himself as a young man, we hear a single line about the last of the Nero pretenders:
“… when I was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared, who gave out that he was Nero, and the name was still in such favor with the Parthians that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him with great reluctance.”
[Life of Nero, 57]
So little detail can we glean from this last event that we know virtually nothing, though we can deduce that the name and lure of Nero’s legacy in the East had considerable staying power.
Though history does not seem to have been impacted particularly by this last instance, it is amazing to perceive the impact that Nero’s death continued to have within the empire.
Nero’s Death And The Pseudo-Neros: Interpretation & Conclusion
So passed the last mentions of the pseudo-Nero’s, a series of imposters that emerged for a generation after Emperor Nero’s suicide. Were it not for the separately defined timelines, the testimony of varied powerful historians, and the scant but differing details, it might almost be possible to see the stories of the three fake Nero’s as a single conflated event, perhaps mixed-up and told inaccurately due to a lack of information.
However, this does not appear to be the case. The three stories, though lacking depth, all stand in their own right. Although they all have commonality, there is no reason to doubt that each instance happened. Each represents something of a common phenomenon, triggered by the mystery surrounding Nero’s death and the shocking collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
As the psychologist Daniel Romer is quoted as saying:
“Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world. They can be psychologically reassuring, especially in uncertain times.”
Suppose we can accept the premise that conspiracy theories are somewhat relational to uncertain times and events. In that case, there can be no doubt that the year 68 CE, when Nero died, represented a period of profound disruption for the Roman empire. The phenomenon of the Nero imposters was in no small part the result of deep cultural and political shock felt by Romans for the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
The popular belief – almost from the start – that Nero may not have died in Rome, but lived on, was fed by the strange and murky manner of his passing. The very odd events surrounding Nero’s death, as well as his highly unconventional reign and persona, created ideal conditions for the provincial chancers and imposters (of whom all periods of history have examples) that followed.
With enduring popularity amongst sections of the people and an affiliation particularly with Greece and the East, there was no shortage of potential for the Eastern Nero imposters to take advantage.
Add to this dangerous mix the opportunist exploitation by Rome’s Eastern rival, Parthia, with at least two Nero’s being sponsored by the Parthians as convenient pawns, and you have the perfect conditions for trouble.
Emperor Nero was an unconventional emperor in life. The strange manner of his death and the curious case of the pseudo-Neros ensured that his story was equally unconventional in death.
Of course, there’s also that most unlikely of suppositions. Could Nero have gotten away to the East?