How Did Emperor Nero’s Reign End?

Nero’s reign ended in 68 CE with the emperor’s suicide. His death plunged the Roman Empire into a bloody civil war, eventually ushering in a new imperial dynasty.

Jan 29, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

how did emperor nero reign end


Nero’s controversial reign ended in 68 CE, after the hapless emperor, abandoned by all his allies and facing an open revolt, committed suicide. It was a fitting end for a man widely considered one of Rome’s worst emperors. This negative image of a tyrant, madman, abuser, murderer, arsonist, and antichrist is nowadays challenged by historians. Yet, the fact remains that Emperor Nero was wholly unprepared for the demanding task of ruling the Roman Empire. The circumstances of Nero’s death reflect the tumultuous political climate of ancient Rome, where power struggles between the ruler and the Senate played a pivotal role. And a political vacuum caused by the emperor’s violent demise would lead to the end of the first imperial dynasty, plunging Rome into a bloody civil war.


Emperor Nero Waged War With the Senate

Agrippina the Younger crowns her son Nero emperor, relief from the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, ca. 54 – 59 CE, Sebasteion-Sevgi Gönül Gallery, Aphrodisias. Source: Oxford University Open Content


It might seem hard to believe, but Nero came to the throne as an unwilling emperor. Nero would probably never take the purple if not for his ambitious mother – Agrippina the Younger – who secured the support of Emperor Claudius and the recognition of the Senate and the Roman army. While initially, the two ruled in harmony, Nero’s attempts to assert independence from his overbearing mother and be the sole ruler led to a conflict between mother and son, eventually ending in Agrippina’s death. The involvement in matricide further worsened relations with the Senate, who already considered Nero a threat to their power. It did not help that Nero did nothing to appease the worried senators. Nero was, first and foremost, an autocrat, and to attain his goals, he was ready to engage in an open war with the Senate.


He Was Blamed for the Great Fire of Rome

Nero walks on Rome’s cinders, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1861. Source: The Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest


Nero’s reputation was further tarnished by his involvement in the assassination of his stepbrother Britannicus and the murder of his second wife, Poppea Sabina. The latter’s death was probably a result of complications related to the empress’ pregnancy, but Nero’s enemies readily exploited Poppaea’s demise to undermine the hated emperor. The situation between Nero and the Senate was so tense that when the Great Fire of Rome devastated the capital in 64 CE, Nero was blamed for the catastrophe. Nero, however, was far from Rome at the time of the outbreak, in his villa at Anzio. As soon as he was notified of the fire, the emperor immediately hurried back to the capital, where he personally led the rescue efforts, assisting the victims. 


Nero’s Lavish Lifestyle Worsened the Situation

Visual reconstruction of the Domus Aurea, built after the Fire of Rome in 64 CE

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Nero’s reputation as an arsonist was not helped by an ambitious building project the emperor embarked on immediately after the fire. The Senate rallied against Nero’s masterpiece – the Domus Aurea. They perceived the colossal and opulent palatial complex, featuring the man-made lake and the circular rotating dining room, as a waste of money and the ultimate illustration of the tyrant’s megalomania. Another bone of discontent was the emperor’s artistic lifestyle. For the senators, Nero’s obsession with Greece and the Hellenistic East, and his direct participation in various plays and contests, including the Olympics, was a direct affront to traditional Roman values. However, while elites detested the absolutist emperor, the populace adored him. 


Loss of the Army’s Support Led to Nero’s Death

Head of Nero, from a larger than life statue, after 64 CE, Glyptothek, Munich


The Senate had money and connections, but Nero enjoyed the support of the people and, more importantly, the Roman army. In 65 CE, the so-called Pisonian conspiracy failed to kill the emperor, leading to brutal reprisals. Among those killed was Nero’s old advisor, the philosopher Seneca. Nero’s luck, however, ran out when, in March 68, the governor of Gaul rebelled, declaring his support of Galba, the governor of Spain. Nero’s loyalists managed to defeat the Gallic troops, but the emperor’s enemies now had the favor of the major part of the military. When legions in Egypt halted the vital grain fleet, Nero lost the support of the people of Rome.


Nero’s Reign Ended With His Suicide

Death of Nero, by Vasily. S. Smirnov, 1888, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


After the Senate declared him the enemy of the state, Nero fled the capital. Cornered and with no ally in sight, Nero faced a grim fate – arrest, trial, and almost certain execution. In a final, dramatic act, Nero chose to take control of his destiny, committing suicide. Or to be more precise, the emperor forced one of the few who remained loyal – his secretary Epaphroditus – to perform the task. According to Suetonius, Nero’s last words were: “What an artist dies in me!” What followed was the established Roman protocol of damnatio memoriae. Due to dwindling popular support, a private funeral took place, and Nero’s ashes were placed in the family tomb.


Emperor Nero’s Death Plunged Rome into Civil War

Gold coin of Vespasian, commemorating the restoration of peace, 71 CE. Source: The British Museum, London


Nero’s violent death extinguished the first Roman imperial dynasty, going back to Emperor Augustus. The empty throne immediately became the target of most powerful figures in the empire. A bloody civil war followed, known as the Year of Four Emperors. Ultimately, Vespasian emerged victorious, establishing the new Flavian dynasty. However, this was not the end of Nero’s story, as several pretenders – Pseudo-Neros – rose in different parts of the Roman Empire, the last of them appearing during the reign of Domitian – twenty years after the emperor’s death! This is further evidence of Nero’s support among the common people, who considered him their champion and protector. However, the elites (the senators in particular) were the ones writing history, and they did their best to make their hated rival appear to be a tyrant and a madman. Meanwhile, the early Christian historians blamed Nero for persecuting Christians, making him an antichrist.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.