How Did Nero Become the Emperor of Rome?

Nero was a reluctant emperor, installed on the throne by his mother, empress Agrippina. He could only become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire by getting rid of her.

Feb 21, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

nero emperor of rome


Nero was the fifth emperor of Rome, and the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nowadays, he is best known for his tyranny, murderous cruelty, decadence, and the Great Fire of Rome. However, Nero was a more complex figure. He was a reluctant emperor, installed to the throne by his ambitious mother, empress Agrippina the Younger. It was Agrippina who had convinced her husband – Emperor Claudius – to secure the throne for her only son. After Claudius’ death, mother and son ruled together. But Agrippina’s meddling in politics and her son’s personal life led to a cooling of the relationship, eventually culminating in Agrippina’s infamous murder. From that point until his death, Nero ruled as a sole emperor, an autocrat who constantly clashed with the Senate, which ultimately cost him his life.


Nero Was a Reluctant Emperor

Marble statue of young Nero, 50-54 CE, Louvre Museum, Paris


The future Roman Emperor Nero was born in 37 CE as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, a great-granddaughter of the first Emperor Augustus and sister of the late Emperor Caligula. This made Nero a member of the most prestigious Roman family – the Julio-Claudian dynasty. However, Nero’s place on the throne was not assured. Nor did the sixteen-year-old want it. Nero was more of an artist than a ruler.


His ambitious mother, however, thought differently, and did all in her power to persuade her uncle and husband – Emperor Claudius – to adopt Nero as his heir instead of his nephew Britannicus. Agrippina was also instrumental in arranging the marriage of Nero and Claudius’s daughter, Octavia, in 53 CE, which further solidified Nero’s claim. She also employed one of the best minds in the Roman Empire, Seneca, a famous philosopher, to tutor her son and teach Nero how to rule.


Agrippina Secured Throne for Nero

Chalcedony cameo portrait bust of Agrippina the Younger, 37-39 CE, The British Museum


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Agrippina the Younger was the driving force behind Nero’s rise to power. She used her influence over Emperor Claudius to promote Nero’s interests and eliminate his rivals. After Claudius officially adopted Nero in 50 CE, he granted his adoptive son the title of princeps iuventutis (leader of the youth). Nero could make public appearances and speeches, allowing him to meet his future subjects. Agrippina also secured the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard, instrumental in the imperial succession, through her favorite – the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. Thus, when Emperor Claudius died in 54 (allegedly after eating poisoned mushrooms given by Agrippina), the ambitious woman set her plan in motion. Nero was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard and with the Senate’s approval. The 17-year-old was now master of the Roman Empire. 


Agrippina Ruled Through Her Son

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


However, in this early stage of his reign, the boy emperor was overshadowed by his ambitious mother; Agrippina ruled through her son. The extent of Agrippina’s influence can be best seen in depictions of the imperial family, especially on the coinage minted in the first years of Nero’s reign. One of the earliest coins features Agrippina on the obverse — the place traditionally reserved for the emperor. Other coins show a joint portrait of mother and son, suggesting an equal relationship. The most striking example of Agrippina’s power is the relief from Aphrodisias (in modern-day Western Turkey), where Agrippina is portrayed as the source of the emperor’s authority, crowning her son.


The Mother – Son Relationship Soured Quickly

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


However, the “honeymoon” did not last for long. Agrippina’s increased meddling in imperial politics and her son’s private life soured the relationship between mother and son. Fearing Agrippina may use Britannicus against him, Nero poisoned his stepbrother and co-ruler in 55 CE. The already bad relationship between mother and son turned worse when Nero started an affair with an ex-slave girl, Claudia Acte. The marriage with Octavia was purely political affair. Thus, when Agrippina tried to befriend Octavia, Nero exiled his mother from the Palace. However, Agrippina’s influence continued manifesting through her allies at the court, such as Seneca or Burrus. Nero had to get rid of his mother if he wanted to establish himself as a sole ruler.


Nero Eliminated Agrippina, Becoming the Sole Emperor

The Shipwreck of Agrippina, Gustave Wertheimer, 19th century, private collection


After Octavia’s banishment and subsequent death, the situation escalated quickly. Agrippina never approved of Nero’s marriage with Poppea Sabina. Ambitious like his mother, Poppea was probably behind Octavia’s demise and had a hand in Agrippina’s murder. After Agrippina’s plot to remove her son from the throne failed, Nero decided to eliminate his problematic mother. The sources on Agrippina’s death differ and contradict each other, but they all agree that Agrippina survived several assassination attempts. The most infamous one involved a self-sinking pleasure barge from which Agrippina miraculously escaped, able to swim ashore. However, Agrippina’s luck finally ran out in 56 CE. 


After the death of his mother, Nero became the sole emperor. However, his involvement in Agrippina’s demise further widened the gap between Nero and the Senate. Nero had the support of the people and the army, but the Senate had connections and influence. Eventually, the conflict with the Senate would lead to Nero’s death and vilification of his name for future generations. 

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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.