Was Emperor Nero Universally Hated During His Reign?

The Senate and wealthy elites hated Emperor Nero, but the emperor enjoyed great popularity among the people of Rome, the provincials, and the imperial army.

Feb 16, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
was emperor nero universally hated during his reign

 

Nero, the fifth and last Julio-Claudian emperor, is considered by many to be one of the worst Roman emperors. This is mainly due to his conflict with the Senate, which the emperor ultimately lost. Following his violent death, the senators, who happened to be historians, embarked on a quest to vilify and tarnish Nero’s name, making the arrogant tyrant, average ruler, madman, murderer and arsonist. And after the Empire became Christian, the early Christian chroniclers joined the Nero-hating club, naming him the Antichrist.

 

However, like many other “bad” Roman emperors, Nero was a more complex figure. Despite the attempts to portray him as universally hated, Nero enjoyed great popularity among the lower classes, the people of Rome, and those who lived in the provinces, especially in the areas that once belonged to the Hellenistic Kingdoms. Lastly, at least until the last months of his reign, Nero had considerable support from one of the main pillars of Roman society – the army. And it was the loss of this support that sealed Nero’s fate.

 

The People of Rome Loved Emperor Nero

portrait nero munich
Head of Nero, from a larger-than-life statue, after 64 CE, Glyptothek, Munich

 

Contrary to traditional thinking, Emperor Nero was not universally hated during his reign. Nero enjoyed great popularity among the people, to a level not experienced by any of his predecessors, including Nero’s great, great grandfather and the founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty – emperor Augustus. All of the Roman emperors were patrons of art and culture. The emperor had to build and maintain public buildings such as theatres and amphitheaters, temples and baths, and he also provided funds for lavish performances and spectacles. Nero, however, went above and beyond, directly participating in various artistic and sports events. These actions earned him the admiration of the populace, both in the capital and especially in the eastern provinces. 

 

However, Nero’s obsession with the Hellenistic East and his mingling with the common folk angered the aristocratic elite, including the members of the Senate, who considered Nero’s behavior undignified for an emperor and an insult to traditional Roman values. 

 

Nero Was Wildly Popular in Greece

nero playing lyre coin
Coin showing a bust of Nero on the left, Nero laureate, playing lyre on the right, 62 CE. Source: The British Museum

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

The Senate was shocked by Nero’s special relationship with Greece and Hellenic culture, which the emperor considered superior to Rome. Twice during his reign, Nero visited Greece, in 66 and 68 CE. He spent more than a year there, each time participating in various artistic and athletic competitions, including the famed Olympic Games. The emperor won many prizes, often by bribing the judges or even competing against no one. Once, he even won chariot races despite falling from the chariot! While this was a sign of autocratic behavior, the people seemed not to care; they were grateful and happy for the emperor’s close company. And the emperor was ready to reward his admirers. In what was another affront to the Senate, Nero did something unprecedented. He granted Greece autonomy and freed the entire province from taxes! No wonder the people hailed him the liberator and benefactor. 

 

While Nero’s love for Greece was genuine, it alienated and angered many aristocrats, who saw this as clear and present evidence of the mad emperor. In the early Empire, going Greek was considered to be unmanly and degenerate.

 

The Emperor Assisted the Victims of the Great Fire of Rome

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

 

Among many of Nero’s “sins” is his infamous involvement in the Great Fire of Rome of 64 CE. However, the emperor did not make the order. He certainly did not play the fiddle (or the lyre) while Rome was burning. When the fire started, the emperor was not in the city but in the imperial resort at Anzio, 50 km (31 miles) from Rome. In fact, Nero has shown compassion and generosity during and after the disaster. According to Tacitus, the emperor opened the Campus Martius and the public buildings as a shelter for the homeless, going as far as to allow the use of his palace gardens. Nero also distributed food and money to the victims. After the blazing inferno was finally contained, the ambitious emperor rebuilt the city, instituting strict building codes and enforcing new regulations to prevent further disaster. 

However, Nero’s eagerness to use a large portion of the devastated area for his grand palace complex – Domus Aurea – was exploited by his enemies to blame the emperor for the fire.

 

The Christians Made Nero the Antichrist

siemiradski nero torches great fire of rome
Nero’s Torches, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876. Source: The National Museum, Krakow

 

While Nero was not personally responsible for the disaster, the Great Fire of Rome destroyed much of the city, leaving many homeless and angry. Nero’s enthusiasm for his lavish Golden House did not help. Thus, the emperor had to divert the attention and find a scapegoat. The answer was a relatively unknown sect that worshipped one God and stirred trouble in the capital – the Christians. According to Tacitus, the Roman authorities rounded the members of the sect, punishing them in the cruelest ways possible, from throwing them to the beasts in the amphitheater to turning them into human torches that illuminated the night. 

 

However, it seems that the extent of Nero’s persecutions was exaggerated by early Christian historians, who found a long-deceased and already reviled pagan ruler an easy target.  

 

Abandoned by the Army, Emperor Nero Committed Suicide

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

 

Like his predecessors, Nero did not personally lead the troops. He is also one of the few emperors during whose reign the Roman army was relatively inactive. Besides crushing the Jewish revolt and Boudicca’s rebellion in Britain, the only significant offensive under Nero was the war with Parthia to control Armenia. The war ended in a nominal Roman victory, with the king of Armenia coming to Rome, where Nero crowned him personally. However, Nero’s tax policies and his increased hostility to the senatorial elite, the people controlling the finances, resulted in alienation and then open hostility of several key governors and army commanders, including Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul, Servius Sulpicius Galba in Spain, and Lucius Clodius Macer in Africa. Germanic legions loyal to Nero managed to defeat the Gallic army but then turned against the emperor. 

 

Declared “public enemy” by the Senate and abandoned by almost all of his allies, including the Praetorian Guard, Nero finally committed suicide on 9 June 68. His death led to the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Also, it plunged Rome into a bloody civil war, from which a new Flavian dynasty would arise, opening a new chapter in the history of the Roman Empire.

Author Image

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.