What Are the Primary Sources of Information About Emperor Nero?

Most of what we know of Nero’s life and reign comes from historians who lived decades after the emperor’s death – Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio – and early Christian writers.

Mar 5, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
primary sources information emperor nero

 

Nero is undoubtedly one of the most controversial Roman emperors. Scandals, tyranny, depravity, and murder marked his turbulent reign. However, Nero’s infamous reputation is based mainly on the accounts of the historians who lived and wrote decades after the emperor’s death. In fact, most of Nero’s life and reign are covered in the works of three historians – Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Except for Tacitus, the sources are hostile to the last Julio-Claudian emperor, depicting him in the worst possible light. Unsurprisingly, all historians were senators, and Nero’s conflict with the Senate of Rome led to his death. Things are not much better with the early Christian writers. Emperor Nero was, after all, responsible for the first Persecution of the Christians. Whatever its real extent, long after Nero’s death, he was given the epithet of Antichrist and played an important role in shaping Christian religion. 

 

Only by reading the sources carefully and understanding the historical context can we gain a more balanced and nuanced understanding of one of the most fascinating figures in Roman history.

 

Most Objective Source for Emperor Nero: Tacitus

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Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 – 120 CE.

 

All three principal sources for Emperor Nero’s reign, including Tacitus, were senators. However, unlike other historians, Tacitus was more lenient, trying to portray the controversial ruler in more neutral terms. Born around 56 CE, during Nero’s reign, Tacitus was only eight during the Great Fire of Rome. However, Tacitus had access to the official records and eyewitness accounts, which allowed him to make a detailed account of the disaster. According to Tacitus, Nero was not a culprit and did his best to help the victims. Tacitus also left us the earliest account of the persecution of Christians. Nero’s reign is the last chapter of Tacitus’ masterpiece, the Annales, which begins with the death of Emperor Augustus. Unfortunately, both the Annales and its counterpart, the Histories, are only partly preserved, with several books lost.

 

hubert great fire of rome
The Fire of Rome, by Robert Hubert, 1771. Source: Musée d’art moderne André Malraux, Le Havre

 

As a member of one of oldest Roman families, Tacitus was a staunch Republican, and his works, such as Germania, or more famous Agricola reflect his moralist views, criticizing the greed and tyranny of the expanding Roman Empire. Writing under the Flavian dynasty, Tacitus was worried about the growing power of the emperors and the diminishing of the Senate. Yet, despite his own agenda and prejudice, Tacitus tried to describe the events as they happened, avoiding embellishment. 

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No wonder that Tacitus is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians.

 

Biographer and Gossiper: Suetonius

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Nero Walks On Rome’s Cinders, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1861. Source: The Hungarian National Gallery

 

A stark contrast to Tacitus, Suetonius was fond of rumors and gossip. He was born around 69 CE, after Nero’s death, but he lived and worked during the reigns of the emperors from the Flavian and Antonine dynasties. Suetonius was also a close friend and secretary of Emperor Hadrian, who granted him privileged access to the imperial archives and libraries. Suetonius was particularly interested in the lives and characters of the emperors rather than their political and military achievements. Thus, Suetonius searched for anecdotes, scandals, and salacious stories, which he presented in a lively and entertaining style. In addition, he had an agenda against the Julio-Claudian emperors, as tarnishing their names strengthened the legitimacy of the later imperial dynasties.

 

His most famous work – the Lives of the Twelve Caesars – is a collection of biographies of the first twelve Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Like the rest of Julio-Claudians (except, perhaps, Augustus), Nero is portrayed as a depraved, extravagant, irrational ruler who indulges in various vices and perversities.

 

Suetonius accused Nero of committing incest, adultery, rape, murder, and, worst of all, matricide. He is also the one who blamed Nero for the Great Fire of Rome, and even omitted or distorted the facts to further his agenda – he was no stranger to inventing things that had never happened. Thus, Suetonius’s account of Nero should be read with skepticism and criticism.

 

The Historian Writing Long After Nero’s Death: Cassius Dio

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

 

Like his two predecessors, Cassius Dio was a historian and a member of the Roman Senate. He wrote the Roman History, the most comprehensive history of Rome from its foundation to his own time. Cassius Dio was born around 155 CE, almost a century after Nero’s death, but lived and worked during the reign of the Severan emperors. He was a Greek by birth but a loyal and pragmatic Roman who supported the imperial system and the stability it brought.

 

Thus, for Cassius Dio, Nero was a wicked, arrogant, and incompetent ruler who wasted the resources of and endangered the security of the Roman Empire. He also accused Nero of killing his family members, such as his stepbrother Britannicus, his wife Octavia, and, worst of all, his mother Agrippina the Younger. The historian also blamed Nero for the Great Fire of Rome, the Jewish revolt, and the rebellion of Vindex and Galba, which led to the emperor’s downfall.

 

While Cassius Dio gives us important information on Emperor Nero, he is also a distant source that relied much on the earlier works. He had an agenda, which influenced the selection and interpretation of the evidence. Cassius Dio often simplified or generalized the facts to fit his historical and philosophical framework and to present moral and political lessons. Therefore, his account of Nero’s life and reign should be read with caution and criticism.

 

Emperor Nero as the Antichrist: The Early Christian Writers

Eusebius of Caesaria, 260-349 CE
Eusebius of Caesaria, 260-349 CE.

 

While all three historians were somewhat critical of Nero, the arrival of Christianity would turn the last Julio Claudian emperor into a literal Antichrist. Tertullian, Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea were three Christian authors who lived in the late third and early fourth century CE. They all wrote about Nero, focusing on his infamous Christian persecutions and martyrs. They also associated Nero with the Antichrist, the enemy of God and his chosen people – the Christians. However, the three differed in their sources, methods and purposes.

 

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Constantine’s vision of the cross, by Raphael. Source: Vatican Museums

 

Tertullian was the earliest of the three. He was a Latin rhetorician and apologist who defended Christianity against pagan critics and philosophers. He expected Nero’s return as an Antichrist to face God’s wrath. Lactantius was one of the advisors to emperor Constantine the Great and the author of “On the Deaths of the Persecutors,” describing the deaths of persecutors of Christians such as Nero or Diocletian. Eusebius of Caesarea was a Greek bishop and historian who narrated the history of Christianity from the apostolic age to his own time. As one of the chief advisors of Emperor Constantine, Eusebius produced a biography of the first Roman Christian emperorFor Eusebius, the reign of Constantine was the triumph of Christianity and the end of Persecutions, which had begun with Emperor Nero.

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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.