Introduction and Sources
The five Julio-Claudian emperors are very different one from the other. Augustus dominates in prestige and achievement from the enormous impact he had upon the Roman state and his long service to Rome, during which he attained unrivaled auctoritas. Tiberius was clearly the only possible successor when Augustus died in AD 14, but, upon his death twenty-three years later, the next three were a peculiar mix of viciousness, arrogance, and inexperience. Gaius, better known as Caligula, is generally styled a monster, whose brief tenure did Rome no service. His successor Claudius, his uncle, was a capable man who served Rome well, but was condemned for being subject to his wives and freedmen. The last of the dynasty, Nero, reigned more than three times as long as Gaius, and the damage for which he was responsible to the state was correspondingly greater. An emperor who is well described by statements such as these, “But above all he was carried away by a craze for popularity and he was jealous of all who in any way stirred the feeling of the mob.” and “What an artist the world is losing!” [] and who is above all remembered for crimes against his mother and the Christians was indeed a sad falling-off from the levels of Augustus and Tiberius. Few will argue that Nero does not rank as one of the worst emperors of all.
The prime sources for Nero’s life and reign are Tacitus’ Annales 12-16, Suetonius’ Life of Nero, and Dio Cassius’ Roman History 61-63, written in the early third century. Additional valuable material comes from inscriptions, coinage, papyri, and archaeology.
He was born on December 15, 37, at Antium, the son of Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus [[PIR2 D127]]and Agrippina [[PIR2 I641]]. Domitius was a member of an ancient noble family, consul in 32; Agrippina was the daughter of the popular Germanicus [[PIR2 I221]], who had died in 19, and Agrippina, daughter of Agrippa, Augustus’ closest associate, and Julia, the emperor’s daughter, and thus in direct descent from the first princeps. When the child was born, his uncle Gaius had only recently become emperor. The relationship between mother and uncle was difficult, and Agrippina suffered occasional humiliation. But the family survived the short reign of the “crazy” emperor, and when he was assassinated, it chanced that Agrippina’s uncle, Claudius, was the chosen of the praetorian guard, although there may have been a conspiracy to accomplish this.
Ahenobarbus had died in 40, so the son was now the responsibility of Agrippina alone. She lived as a private citizen for much of the decade, until the death of Messalina, the emperor’s wife, in 48 made competition among several likely candidates to become the new empress inevitable. Although Roman law forbade marriage between uncle and niece, an eloquent speech in the senate by Lucius Vitellius [[PIR V500]], Claudius’ closest advisor in the senatorial order, persuaded his audience that the public good required their union. [] The marriage took place in 49, and soon thereafter the philosopher Seneca [[PIR2 A617]] was recalled from exile to become the young Domitius’ tutor, a relationship which endured for some dozen years.
His advance was thereafter rapid. He was adopted by Claudius the following year and took the name Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar or Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, was preferred to Claudius’ natural son, Britannicus [[PIR2 C820]], who was about three years younger, was betrothed to the emperor’s daughter Octavia, and was, in the eyes of the people, the clear successor to the emperor. In 54, Claudius died, having eaten some poisoned mushrooms, responsibility for which was believed to be Agrippina’s, [] and the young Nero, not yet seventeen years old, was hailed on October 13 as emperor by the praetorian guard.
The first years of rule
The first five years of Nero’s rule are customarily called the quinquennium, a period of good government under the influence, not always coinciding, of three people, his mother, Seneca, and Sextus Afranius Burrus [[PIR2 A441]], the praetorian prefect. The latter two were allies in their “education” of the emperor. Seneca continued his philosophical and rhetorical training, Burrus was more involved in advising on the actualities of government. They often combined their influence against Agrippina, who, having made her son emperor, never let him forget the debt he owed his mother, until finally, and fatally, he moved against her.
Nero’s betrothal to Octavia [[PIR2 C1110]] was a significant step in his ultimate accession to the throne, as it were, but she was too quiet, too shy, too modest for his taste. He was early attracted to Poppaea Sabina [[PIR2 P850), the wife of Otho, and she continually goaded him to break from Octavia and to show himself an adult by opposing his mother. In his private life, Nero honed the musical and artistic tastes which were his chief interest, but, at this stage, they were kept private, at the instigation of Seneca and Burrus.
As the year 59 began, Nero had just celebrated his twenty-first birthday and now felt the need to employ the powers which he possessed as emperor as he wished, without the limits imposed by others. Poppaea’s urgings had their effect, first of all, at the very onset of the year, with Nero’s murder of his mother in the Bay of Naples.
Agrippina had tried desperately to retain her influence with her son, going so far as to have intercourse with him. But the break between them proved irrevocable, and Nero undertook various devices to eliminate his mother without the appearance of guilt on his part. The choice was a splendid vessel which would collapse while she was on board. As this happened, she swam ashore and, when her attendant, having cried out that she was Agrippina, was clubbed to death, Agrippina knew what was going on. She sent Nero a message that she was well; his response was to send a detachment of sailors to finish the job. When she was struck across the head, she bared her womb and said, “Strike here, Anicetus, strike here, for this bore Nero,” and she was brutally murdered. []
Nero was petrified with fear when he learned that the deed had been done, yet his popularity with the plebs of Rome was not impaired. This matricide, however, proved a turning point in his life and principate. It appeared that all shackles were now removed. The influence of Seneca and Burrus began to wane, and when Burrus died in 62, Seneca realized that his powers of persuasion were at an end and soon went into retirement. Britannicus had died as early as 55; now Octavia was to follow, and Nero became free to marry Poppaea. It may be that it had been Burrus rather than Agrippina who had continually urged that Nero’s position depended in large part upon his marriage to Octavia. Burrus’ successor as commander of the praetorian guard, although now with a colleague, was Ofonius Tigellinus [[PIR2 O91]], quite the opposite of Burrus in character and outlook. Tigellinus became Nero’s “evil twin,” urging and assisting in the performance of crimes and the satisfaction of lusts.
Administrative and foreign policy
With Seneca and Burrus in charge of administration at home, the first half-dozen years of Nero’s principate ran smoothly. He himself devoted his attention to his artistic, literary, and physical bents, with music, poetry, and chariot racing to the fore. But his advisors were able to keep these performances and displays private, with small, select audiences on hand. Yet there was a gradual trend toward public performance, with the establishment of games. Further, he spent many nights roaming the city in disguise, with numerous companions, who terrorized the streets and attacked individuals. Those who dared to defend themselves often faced death afterward, because they had shown disrespect for the emperor. The die was being cast for the last phases of Nero’s reign.
Abroad there were continuous military and diplomatic difficulties, first in Britain, then in the East involving Parthia and Armenia, and lastly in Judaea. The invasion of Britain had begun in 43 and that campaign continued for four years. But the successive governors had the task of consolidating what had been conquered and adding to the extent of the province. This involved some very vicious fighting, particularly in the west against the Silures and the Ordovices. In the year 60 the great explosion occurred. When the governor, Suetonius Paullinus [[PIR S694]], was attacking the island of Mona, modern Anglesey, to extirpate the Druids, Boudica, the queen of the Iceni, located chiefly in modern Norfolk, rose in revolt, to avenge personal injuries suffered by herself and her daughters and to expel Rome from the island. Her army destroyed three Roman cities with the utmost savagery, Colchester, London, and St. Albans falling to sword and fire. But Paullinus met the enemy horde at a site still unknown and destroyed the vastly larger British forces. [] Nero is said to have considered giving up the province of Britannia because the revenue it produced was far lower than had been anticipated about a score of years before, and it cost Rome more to maintain and expand the province than the latter was able to produce. Yet, at the last, Nero decided that such an action would damage Rome’s prestige enormously, and could be interpreted as the first of a series of such actions. The status quo therefore remained. []
The problem in the East was different. Parthia and Rome had long been rivals and enemies for preeminence in the vast territory east of Syria and Cappadocia. The key was Armenia, the land which separated the two great powers. It served as a buffer state; the important issue in the minds of both concerned the ruler of Armenia. Was he to be chosen by Rome or by Parthia, and thereby be considered the vassal of one or the other? In the latter fifties there were frequent disagreements which led to war, fought viciously and variously. Rome suffered some significant losses, until Cn. Domitius Corbulo [[PIR2 D142]]was appointed governor of Syria and made commander of all military forces. He won the day by diplomacy as much as by force of arms. The upshot was that the man chosen for the Armenian throne came to Rome to be crowned by Nero with enormous panoply and display.
The year 66 saw the beginning of an uprising in Judaea which was brutal in the extreme. The future emperor Vespasian was appointed to crush the rebels, which he and his son Titus were able to accomplish. Four legions were assigned to Judaea; the neighboring province of Syria, under its governor Mucianus, also possessed four. This was a mighty military muster in a relatively small part of the empire.
The great fire at Rome and the punishment
of the Christians
The year 64 was the most significant of Nero’s principate up to this point. His mother and wife were dead, as was Burrus, and Seneca, unable to maintain his influence over Nero without his colleague’s support, had withdrawn into private life. The abysmal Tigellinus was now the foremost advisor of the still young emperor, a man whose origin was from the lowest levels of society and who can accurately be described as criminal in outlook and action. Yet Nero must have considered that he was happier than he had ever been in his life. Those who had constrained his enjoyment of his (seemingly) limitless power were gone, he was married to Poppaea, a woman with all advantages save for a bad character [], the empire was essentially at peace, and the people of Rome enjoyed a full measure of panem et circenses. But then occurred one of the greatest disasters that the city of Rome, in its long history, had ever endured.
The fire began in the southeastern angle of the Circus Maximus, spreading through the shops which clustered there, and raged for the better part of a week. There was brief success in controlling the blaze, but then it burst forth once more, so that many people claimed that the fires were deliberately set. After about a fortnight, the fire burned itself out, having consumed ten of the fourteen Augustan regions into which the city had been divided.
Nero was in Antium through much of the disaster, but his efforts at relief were substantial. Yet many believed that he had been responsible, so that he could perform his own work comparing the current fate of Rome to the downfall of Troy. All his efforts to assist the stricken city could not remove the suspicion that “the emperor had fiddled while Rome burned.” He lost favor even among the plebs who had been enthusiastic supporters, particularly when his plans for the rebuilding of the city revealed that a very large part of the center was to become his new home.
As his popularity waned, Nero and Tigellinus realized that individuals were needed who could be charged with the disaster. It so happened that there was such a group ready at hand, Christians, who had made themselves unpopular because of their refusal to worship the emperor, their way of life, and their secret meetings. Further, at this time two of their most significant “teachers” were in Rome, Peter and Paul. They were ideal scapegoats, individuals whom most Romans loathed, and who had continually sung of the forthcoming end of the world.
Their destruction was planned with the utmost precision and cruelty, for the entertainment of the populace. The venue was Nero’s circus near the Mons Vaticanus. Christians were exposed to wild animals and were set ablaze, smeared with pitch, to illuminate the night. The executions were so grisly that even the populace displayed sympathy for the victims. Separately, Peter was crucified upside down on the Vatican hill and Paul was beheaded along the Via Ostiensis. But Nero’s attempt, and hope, to shift all suspicion of arson to others failed. His popularity even among the lower classes was irrevocably impaired. []
City planning, architecture, and literature
The devastation in the center of the city presented an opportunity for Nero to build a mansion worthy of himself, the vast estate known as the “Golden House,” the domus aurea. It consisted of a very extensive residential quarter, with numerous architectural innovations, a lake, and a colossal statue of himself. In subsequent years, all were destroyed or transformed. The Golden House was filled in and served as the foundation of Trajan’s baths, the lake disappeared under the Colosseum, the amphitheatrum Flavium, and the statue’s head was changed to that of a divinity. The entire project was a huge example of Roman building techniques and imagination. Indeed, the architects responsible, Severus and Celer, [] are the first in Roman history whose names are known. []
There is little else of importance in the field of architecture. Nero did have other grand plans, such as cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece, but they did not come to fruition.
The situation was different in the arts and literature. Nero considered himself a virtuoso in music, acting, chariot racing, and literary activity, to the point that he could not tolerate any rivals. In competitions, it was routine that he always won, and those compelled to attend his performances were faced with execution if they did not evince appropriate attention and enthusiasm. The future emperor Vespasian fell asleep on more than one such occasion but was spared.
We know essentially nothing about Nero’s competitors in other fields, but in literature there were substantial rivals. Chief among them was Lucan, whose epic on the Caesarian civil war evoked the majesty, in subject and manner, of Vergil. Lucan offended Nero by criticism of the latter’s poetry and was forbidden to recite his own work. Seneca was the other great figure of the literary age, but his specialities of philosophy and rhetoric did not appeal to the emperor. Pliny the Elder similarly devoted himself to works of massive scope, such as his History of the German Wars and the Natural History, which defied competition from the emperor.
A failed conspiracy
The year 65 was marked by a conspiracy of a large scale, the purpose of which, it goes without saying, was to eliminate Nero and replace him with a member of the senatorial order. [] The chosen designee was C. Calpurnius Piso [[PIR2 C284]], although there was talk that Seneca was the favorite of many. The conspiracy failed, in part because there were too many people involved in it and some, by action or word, caused suspicion which Tigellinus ruthlessly pursued. Once it was broken, leading members of society behaved miserably and dishonorably, squealing on others and facing their own ends with fear and shame. Only two persons who were tortured or put to death behaved in the fashion of an “old Roman,” and these were members of the lower classes. A freedwoman Epicharis, after torture had not succeeded in breaking her resistance, committed suicide by hanging herself before a second day of interrogation. [] Subrius Flavus, a tribune of the praetorian guard, was the only person, as reported by Tacitus, who bluntly spoke when Nero asked him why he had ignored his oath as a soldier and acted against him.
“I hated you, yet not a soldier was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you when you became the murderer of your mother and your wife, a charioteer, an actor, and an incendiary.” []
Flavus’ judgment of Nero essentially expressed the views of subsequent history. Among the other deaths were those of Piso and Seneca by suicide.
Nero was now twenty-seven years old. He had been emperor for more than a decade and had overseen or been responsible for three major disasters in the space of little more than one year. The only positive result from any of these was the imposition of strict building laws for the reconstruction of the city, calling for wider streets, a limitation on the height of buildings, and the use of safer building materials. Though Rome became a healthier and more attractive city, resentment remained because Nero had taken for his own use such a large part of the central city and had brought the countryside into the city. Yet Nero’s response to these challenges was to devote ever more attention to his artistic leanings, in ever more public contexts. First there came an extended visit to Naples, the most Greek city of Italy, then a trip to Greece, where he participated in each of the great festivals and won hundreds of contests. Who, after all, would dare vote against the man who held the power of life and death over all? []
The end – Nero’s death and its aftermath
Nero’s and Tigellinus’ response to the conspiracy was immediate and long-lasting. The senatorial order was decimated, as one leading member after another was put to death or compelled to commit suicide. The year 66 saw the suicides of perhaps the most distinguished victims of the “reign of terror,” Caius Petronius [[PIR2 P294]]and Thrasea Paetus [[PIR2 C1187]].[] Petronius, long a favorite of Nero because of his aesthetic taste, had been an able public servant before he turned to a life of ease and indolence. He was recognized as the arbiter elegantiae of Nero’s circle, and may be the author of the Satyricon. At his death, he left for Nero a document which itemized many of the latter’s crimes. Thrasea, a staunch Stoic who had been for some years an outspoken opponent of Nero’s policies, committed suicide in the Socratic manner. This scene is the last episode in the surviving books of Tacitus’ Annals.
In the year 68, revolt began in the provinces, with the uprising of Julius Vindex, a Gallic noble, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis. His purpose, it seems clear, was not a nationalistic undertaking but an attempt to depose Nero and offer Rome the opportunity to choose a new ruler. But he received little support from other governors; indeed, only the elderly Galba in Spain indicated approval. Vindex may have been in communication with Lucius Verginius Rufus [[PIR2 V284]], governor of Germania Superior, but when he moved his army in Gaul, a battle ensued between the two forces, perhaps instigated by the army of Germany. Upon Vindex’s defeat and death, Verginius was offered the purple by his troops, which he rejected, stating that such a decision was a prerogative of the Senate. By this action he gained enduring fame, which was recorded on his epitaph almost thirty years later:
Hic situs est Rufus, pulso qui Vindice quondam
imperium adseruit non sibi, sed patriae.
(Pliny the Younger 9.19.1)
Here lies Rufus, who once, after Vindex’s defeat, claimed the empire not for himself, but for his country.
Nonetheless the end of Nero’s reign became inevitable. Galba claimed the throne and began his march from Spain. Nero panicked and was rapidly abandoned by his supporters. He finally committed suicide with assistance, on June 9, 68, and his body was tended and buried by three women who had been close to him in his younger days, chief of whom was Acte.[] His death scene is marked above all by the statement, “Qualis artifex pereo,” (What an artist dies in me.) Even at the end he was more concerned with his private life than with the affairs of state.
The aftermath of Nero’s death was cataclysmic. Galba was the first of four emperors who revealed the new secret of empire, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than in Rome. [] Civil war ensued, which was only ended by the victory of the fourth claimant, Vespasian, who established the brief dynasty of the Flavians. The dynasty of the Julio-Claudians was at an end.
Nero’s popularity among the lower classes remained even after his death. His close friend, and successor to Galba, Otho paid him all public honors. But with Vespasian’s triumph Nero began to fade from public memory. Vespasian built the enormous amphitheater known from the beginning of the Middle Ages as the Colosseum on the site of Nero’s lake, the stupendous statue of himself was transformed into a representation of a god, and in the decades of Trajan and Hadrian most of the remainder of the Golden House disappeared under the Baths of Trajan on the Esquiline Hill and the Temple of Venus and Rome built by Hadrian at the extreme east end of the Roman Forum. The land claimed by Nero for his private pleasure was restored to the Roman people, for enjoyment and worship.
Nonetheless, over the two decades or so after his death, several pseudo-Neros appeared on the scene, claiming to be the emperor. But these claimants had no success, and Nero then passed entirely into history.
It is not excessive to say that he was one of the worst of Rome’s emperors in the first two centuries and more of the empire. Whatever talents he had, whatever good he may have done, all is overwhelmed by three events, the murder of his mother, the fire at Rome, and his savage treatment of the Christians.
Precisely these qualities are the reasons that he has remained so well known and has been the subject of many writers and opera composers in modern times. These works of fiction particularly merit mention: Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, one of the finest works of the 1907 Nobel Laureate in Literature, and John Hersey’s The Conspiracy. Nero unquestionably will always be with us.
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[] Suetonius 53 and 49. All translations from Suetonius are taken from J.C. Rolfe’s Loeb Classical Library edition II, 1950.
[] Tacitus 14.1-11; Dio 62.11-14.
[] Tacitus Agricola 15-16, Annals 14.29-39; Dio 62.1- 12.
[] Tacitus 13.45; huic mulieri cuncta alia fuere praeter honestum animum.
[] Tacitus 15.38-44, Suetonius 38. See Beaujeu, Freudenberger, Wlosok.
[] See Ball, Boëthius and Ward-Perkins, MacDonald.
[] Tacitus 15.48-74, Dio 62.24-25.
[] Tacitus 15.67. The translation is from A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, 1942.
[] Tacitus 16.18-19, 34-35.
[] Tacitus, Histories 1.4.2, evolgato imperii arcano, posse principem alibi quam Romae fieri.