Emperor Nero holds a special place in the history of ancient Rome (and the world). Few other emperors epitomize decadence, destruction, and debauchery so well. Ascending to the throne in 54 CE when he was only 16 years old, Nero spent the next 14 years committing all sorts of crimes. If we are to believe the sources, the emperor was a mother/wife killer, pervert, tyrant, arsonist, madman — and even the anti-Christ (!).
This demonic image continued to follow Nero long after his violent death. It is also still embedded in our psyche, immortalized by Hollywood, most notably by the great Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis. Thus, it might be shocking to discover that Emperor Nero was a complex figure. Ancient Rome was a place where rumors flowed freely and where propaganda was a powerful political tool. Our primary sources adapted those rumors for their narratives, sometimes unwillingly, but often deliberately, as a part of the systematic campaign to tarnish Nero’s name.
1. Emperor Nero, his Ambitious Mother, and Their Unnatural Relationship
According to one of our most salacious stories about him, Emperor Nero was close to his mother Agrippina, perhaps too close — the young emperor and his mother engaged in incest. Unsurprisingly, the depraved relationship scandalized Rome, causing uproar among the elites and gossiping among the populace. To add fuel to the fire, the emperor took a mistress who was the spitting image of his mother. This transgression alone would place Nero among the most notorious emperors of Rome. Yet, upon close inspection, a different story emerges. One that tells us more about the ancient Romans and their perception of ambitious women, than about Nero himself.
Agrippina the Younger was a fascinating woman. For one, few people in the Roman Empire could compare with her. She was the granddaughter of none other than the first Roman emperor Augustus. Agrippina was also the sister of the controversial Emperor Caligula and the wife of his successor Claudius. However, for all her imperial pedigree and accomplishments, there was one glaring problem: She was a woman. In the minds of the ancient Romans, women could climb to power only by using underhanded methods, including sex.
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Agrippina could not sit on the throne, but her son could. Thus, Agrippina did all she could to make 16-year-old Nero Roman Emperor. Then, Agrippina quickly asserted herself as the emperor’s guardian and the real power behind the throne. Her extraordinary influence is clearly visible on coins that depict portraits of the emperor and his mother on the “obverse” side — an unprecedented move. Furthermore, the large marble reliefs portray Agrippina crowning her son, pointing to the real source of Nero’s power.
Thus, the incestuous allegations reflected an unusual political situation and Agrippina’s elevated role at court. Yet, Agrippina’s hold on power would not last for long. Fed up with his overbearing mother, Nero removed her people from the key positions in the Empire’s government, then evicted Agrippina from the Palace. From here, things got ugly. The sources are murky, but it seems that Agrippina tried to regain her power by plotting against her son. Things escalated quickly. In 59 CE, Nero’s mother was dead, murdered by her own son. However, this heinous act could be interpreted as the emperor’s attempt to appease the senatorial elite, who resented Agrippina’s intervention in public affairs. After all, despite committing an act tantamount to sacrilege, Nero remained in power.
2. The Tragic Death of Poppea Sabina and Nero’s Unborn Child
Agrippina was not the only victim of the notorious emperor. If we are to believe the sources, Nero was responsible for the murder of his brother-in-law and potential competitor Britannicus. The historians also blame Nero for the deaths of both of his wives. However, due to a lack of information, it is hard to establish what happened. Britannicus may just have been a victim of illness (the same one that plagued his father, the late Emperor Claudius) rather than poisoning. As for Claudia Octavia, Britannicus’ sister and Nero’s wife, her death could result from the failed court plot. After all, Octavia sided with Agrippina.
Yet, no death was more controversial than the demise of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. According to the sources, Nero was rumored to have kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant with their second child, and she died shortly after. While this is a scandalous and tragic story, clearly painting Nero as a monster, the reality is slightly different. We should not forget that Nero loved Poppaea very much. Allegedly the emperor ordered Octavia’s death so that he could marry Poppaea. It is also possible that his jealous wife, not Nero, was involved in Octavia’s demise.
More importantly, one of the most notorious gossipers of antiquity — Suetonius — suggests that the blow to Poppaea’s belly may have been merely the climax of a marital quarrel that went too far. Even if the death was accidental, it does not fully exculpate Nero, as he is still a culprit in family violence. But there is another option. Nero did not kill his wife. Instead, Poppaea, who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, died in childbirth — a common cause of death for women in premodern times.
Following traditional Roman rhetoric, the argument conforms to a “tyrant killing his pregnant wife” topos, used to vilify powerful figures in Greek and Roman history. In addition, there is enough evidence that Nero was in deep love with Poppaea and desperate for a male heir. Killing his wife would be a deeply irresponsible act and would have imperiled the continuation of the imperial dynasty. The last part of the puzzle happened after Poppaea passed away. She not only received a state funeral but was embalmed and deified. One could hardly have expected such a level of devotion from a murderous husband.
3. Nero and the Great Fire of Rome
It is one of the most famous stories of antiquity. As Rome blazed in a great fire, the plump emperor enjoyed the spectacle while playing his fiddle. It is a striking image — a tyrant, a madman, a monster, enjoying the destruction he created. No wonder Nero became a byword for power-hungry dictators and strongmen enjoying the high life while their people suffered. In our IT age, the notorious arsonist has been immortalized as computer software, Nero Burning ROM (featuring a pictogram of a burning Colosseum). However, there are several problems with the infamous story. For starters, the fiddle would not have been invented until the early 1600s, so there is no way that Nero played that instrument.
Nor did he play the lyre, an instrument known to the ancient Romans. In fact, Nero did not set Rome ablaze. When the Great Fire of Rome broke out on July 18th, 64 CE, Nero was resting in his imperial villa at Anzio, 30 miles away from Rome. When the messenger arrived with the news of the calamity, the “mad” emperor did something unexpected. Nero immediately hurried back to the capital. There, he personally led the rescue efforts and assisted the victims.
According to Tacitus, Nero opened the Campus Martius and its lavish gardens to the homeless, constructed temporary lodgings for the fire victims, and secured food for the people of Rome at low prices. But the emperor did not stop here. He had buildings torn down to help stop the fire’s advance and instituted stricter building codes to prevent recurring disasters.
However, the emperor was unable to prevent Rome’s destruction. The easily flammable and poorly constructed buildings, an issue to the city since the times of Crassus, proved to be an excellent catalyst for the fire that raged for nine days. In the end, 10 of the 14 city districts were in ruin, and three were utterly destroyed. The great extent of the devastation and the sight of Nero’s grandiose palace — the Domus Aurea — built so soon after the fire, fanned the flames of rumor, pointing the finger at the emperor himself. Furthermore, Nero’s persecutions of Christians, used as scapegoats to prevent a full-scale revolt, further solidified the emperor as an arsonist, making him a model Antichrist.
4. Nero’s Lavish Palace of Gold
While Nero did not start the Great Fire of Rome, he undoubtedly profited from it. Soon after the disaster, the emperor embarked on an ambitious building program for his new grand palace — the Domus Aurea. According to Tacitus, Nero tackled the project with such enthusiasm that many Romans soon began to question if he had ordered the fire in the first place. A century after Nero’s death, Cassius Dio saw the emperor’s delight as crucial evidence of his guilt.
The Domus Aurea (Golden House) was a palace complex unlike any other. It was probably the most lavish structure the Romans had ever built. Some of its three hundred rooms were covered in gold and decorated with precious gems, ivory ceilings, and special devices that diffused perfumes. The lavish complex contained numerous pools and fountains, elaborate gardens, and a large artificial lake. The highlight was the circular revolving dining room, with a ceiling from which panels opened to shower dinner guests with gifts. In short, the Palace was a masterpiece of ancient engineering, unrivaled even by Hadrian’s Villa.
Unsurprisingly, Nero’s extravagant palace further bolstered his opposition. The most vocal among them were the members of the Senate, who saw the opulent complex as a waste of funds and, more concerningly, a display of power unbecoming of Rome’s ruler. Yet, despite the harsh criticism, Nero followed the pattern established by previous emperors. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, promoted modesty, but his successors, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, all built lavish residences to outdo their predecessors.
The Golden Palace could also be Nero’s direct challenge to the Senate, an attempt to establish an absolutist rule modeled after the Hellenistic kingdoms. Lastly, according to recent archaeological excavations, the massive Domus Aurea could fulfill the role of a vast public building. If we accept such a view, Nero’s opulent palace was to be a home for the people and their protector and artist — the emperor. Such an interpretation would be more than fitting with the popularity Nero enjoyed among the common folk.
5. Emperor Nero: The Hated Ruler?
While the Senate hated Nero, the emperor enjoyed great popularity among the people of Rome, and beyond, in the provinces. For instance, Nero enjoyed huge popularity in Greece, where he participated in various events, including the Olympic games (unsurprisingly, he won all the competitions). Nero was also a big fan of chariot racing, one of the favorite pastimes of the ancient Romans. The emperor’s Hellenistic education encouraged his love for the theatre and arts. His participation in competitions further endeared him to the public.
Nero also enacted tax and currency reforms, acts that may have been unpopular with the wealthy but were welcomed by the broader public. Even Emperor Trajan, who came to power thirty years after Nero’s death, considered Nero’s reign (or at least part of it) prosperous for Rome. Besides his monumental palace complex, the emperor built several structures for the use of the public – including a new marketplace and, most importantly, a massive bath complex, which allowed ordinary citizens to indulge in ablutionary pleasures. No wonder the satirical poet Martial asked his audience, “Who was ever worse than Nero? Yet what can be better than Nero’s warm baths?”
Nero also presided over several military victories and sent an expedition to discover the source of the Nile. However, the emperor’s position among the wealthy and powerful steadily deteriorated. A rebellion in Britain, although crushed, was exploited to undermine the emperor. Then, a group of aristocrats tried to topple the emperor. The conspiracy failed, with many plotters being caught or forced to commit suicide, but the writing was on the wall. Nero’s rule was in question. Finally, in 68 CE, the Senate got a strong ally in the person of Galba, the Roman governor of Spain, after he rebelled against Nero.
Abandoned by all, including the Praetorian Guard, the hapless emperor fled to a country estate where he committed suicide. Nero was thirty years old. However, the death of the last heir of Augustus plunged Rome into a bloody civil war known as the “Year of Four Emperors”. The winner, Emperor Vespasian, tried to legitimize his new dynasty by tarnishing Nero’s reputation. However, the emergence of no less than three pseudo-Neros in the early years of the Flavian dynasty hints at the late emperor’s continuing popularity among the populace. It is hard to imagine that anyone would claim to be Nero, if he was universally hated.