Nero was one of the most controversial and infamous Roman Emperors in history. His 14-year rule is portrayed by many later historians as corrupt, violent and extravagant. He was accused by both Suetonius and Cassius Dio of committing matricide and also of starting the catastrophic Great Fire of Rome. His death led to the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the start of the new Flavian Dynasty. It was the life of this infamous emperor that this article aims to present. What made Nero the merciless emperor that he was?
Nero was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina ‘The Younger’. Both his parents were grandchildren of Augustus and therefore Nero was the great-grandson of the founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero’s childhood was not a happy one and things didn’t go well for his family. His father Gnaeus passed away in 40 CE when Nero was three and his mother Agrippina was sentenced for exile by her brother Caligula the year before. Following the misfortunes happening to his family, Nero’s inheritance was taken away from him and he was sent to live with his paternal aunt, Domitia Lepidia the Younger.
In 41 CE, a major incident happened in Rome which changed the destiny of Nero’s life. The emperor Caligula was murdered by his praetorian guards on the Palatine Hill and his uncle Claudius became the new emperor. Following Claudius’ accession, Agrippina was recalled from exile and was later reunited with her son Nero. When Nero was young, his mother selected great tutors for him. One of them was the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger. Nero’s education was mainly Classical with a strong emphasis on poetry, rhetoric and arts. Suetonius suggests in his Twelve Caesars that Agrippina forbade Nero from learning philosophy because she believed it was no proper pursuit for a future ruler. Nero was officially adopted by Claudius in 50 CE after the emperor married his mother the year before.
Claudius passed away mysteriously in 54 CE and, as the emperor’s adopted son, Nero was crowned emperor by the Senate. Many scholars suspected that Agrippina was behind the death of the emperor as Claudius began to develop more affections for his biological son Brittanicus in the later stage of his life. As a Julio-Claudian woman, Agrippina had to secure the ascent of her son in order to solidify her own position. Only a year after Nero’s succession, Britannicus was put to death under the order of Nero. In Nero’s first address to the Senate, he spoke about his determination to eliminate the previous regime's ills. However, he soon unleashed his own evils on his relatives and the people of Rome. In 59 CE, Nero’s mother Agrippina was put to death under the order of Nero. Many historians have debated the main reason behind this matricide. Some have argued that the killing was mainly driven by Nero’s desire to get married to Poppaea Sabina, a relationship that was not approved by Agrippina. Others have also argued that Nero’s matricide was driven by his desire to escape the supervision and control of his mother. Nero always wanted to live his own life freely without interference from anyone. Before the death of Agrippina, Cassius Dio reported that she emotionally cried out that ‘swab my womb, the womb that gave birth to Nero!’
Following the death of Agrippina, Nero began to live his own lifestyle and chased his passion for public performance. He would often perform his lyric publicly and practised with professional lyrics player together. Soon he got bored with the music culture in Rome and headed for Achaia in Greece. He developed a great affection for Greek lyric performance and publicly stated that ‘The Greeks alone are worthy of my genius; they really listen to music.’ However, outside Nero’s passion for music and public performance, he was a man detested by many. Suetonius remarks that ‘Nero’s insolence, lust, extravagance, greed and cruelty he at first revealed only gradually and secretly, to be sure, as though merely youthful mistakes; but even then there could be no doubt that these were the faults of his character, not of his age.’ Nero was an emperor with a problematic character.
In 64 CE, the most controversial incident under Nero’s reign happened: the Great Fire of Rome. Historians such as Suetonius and Cassius Dio believed that Nero intentionally set fire on the city because he was bored with the old architecture and wanted more public space to complete his Golden House project. Meanwhile, Tacitus reported that Nero was actually not in Rome when the fire happened. Once he heard that a major fire broke out in Rome, he immediately returned to Rome and organised a relief effort. However, it was the version reported by Suetonius and Cassius Dio that the future generation mostly believed in. Suetonius reported that the fire lasted for six days and seven nights, causing many people to take shelter in the tombs. Nero was watching the fire from the Garden of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called ‘the beauty of the flames’, then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang the Fall of Troy. After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero blamed the Christians as the scapegoat and the perpetrator of the crime. He later started the first official persecution of the Christians in the history of the Roman Empire.
In 66 CE, Nero experienced the high days of his reign by successfully solving the power disputes between Rome and Parthia over Armenia. The settlement was reached in 63 CE and it was agreed that Tridates, the brother of the Armenian King, would become the King of Armenia, but only after his journey to Rome to be crowned by Nero. The coronation ceremony took place in the summer of 66 CE and all of Rome saw the new Parthian King kneeling in front of Nero. This was the high point of Nero’s rule. He later closed the Temple of Janus to symbolise the end of all foreign conflicts, just like his great grandfather Augustus did after he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
The end of Nero’s ruthless reign came in the year 68 CE. Vindex, the governor of Gaul started a rebellion against him and also publicly supported the rule of Galba. It was also in this year that Galba had successfully cut off the transportation link between Egypt and Rome and therefore there was a major grain shortage in Rome. Nero began to lose his support among the people of Rome and it was at this time that he began to fear for his life. At the meeting with the Senate over the revolt in Gaul, he publicly said that when he reached Gaul he would at once step unarmed in front of the embattled enemy and weep, and weep. This would soften their hearts and win them back loyalty, and on the next day, he would stroll among his joyful troops singing odes of victory. Nero eventually fled Rome with his slaves and was pursued by the chasing army. Before he was found by his pursuing army, he emotionally cried to his slave that ‘Dead! And so great an artist!’ And also ‘How ugly and vulgar my life has become! This is certainly not fitting for Nero, not fitting at all.’ Soon he was discovered and he committed suicide by cutting his throat with his sword.
Nero died at the age of thirty-two, on the anniversary of his wife’s Octavia’s murder. After the death of Nero was announced to the general public of Rome, there was widespread rejoice and the citizens were chanting libertas ('freedom' or 'liberty') around every corner of the city. Overall, Nero was a very problematic emperor whose reign was not popular and was detested by many. Historians summarised Nero’s weaknesses such as jealousy, greed and his thirst for popularity. History is the study of the human condition and human character. We must learn from the mistakes of Nero and use them to warn us about what uncontrolled human desires could lead to.
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