Emperor Nero: Man or Monster? | History Hit

Emperor Nero: Man or Monster?

Sarah Roller

25 May 2021
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A bust of the Emperor Nero as a young man.
Image Credit: Sarah Roller / British Museum

Nero has long been known as one of Rome’s most wicked emperors – the personification of greed, vice and tyranny. But how much of his reputation is deserved, and how much of it comes down to smear campaigns and propaganda by his successors?

Born to rule?

Nero – born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus – was born in 37AD, the great-great grandson of the emperor Augustus, and the great-nephew of the emperor Claudius. Claudius eventually adopted Nero, having married his mother Agrippina, and the teenager’s entrance into public life began. He quickly overtook Claudius’ son Britannicus in popularity and status, cementing his position as Claudius’ heir.

When Claudius died, Nero’s accession was seamless: he had the support of his mother, Agrippina, as well as the Praetorian Guard and many of the senators. Nero was a young man of 17, and many believed his reign would herald the start of a new golden age.

Power and politics

When Nero became emperor in 54AD, the Roman empire was huge – expanding from the northern reaches of Britain all the way down and across to Asia Minor. War with the Parthians on the eastern front of the empire kept troops engaged, and Boudicca’s revolt in Britain in 61AD proved a challenge in the west.

The Roman Empire (purple) as it was when Nero inherited it.

Image Credit: Sarah Roller / British Museum

Keeping such a vast empire unified and well governed was vital to its ongoing prosperity. Nero chose experienced generals and commanders to ensure that he could present his rule as glorious. In Rome, the commemorative Parthian arch was built following victories, and the issuing of new coins depicting Nero in military garb were issued to reinforce images of the emperor as a strong military leader.

Making a spectacle

Beyond Nero’s emphasis on military prowess, he also actively participated in the entertainment organised for his people. Nero was a keen charioteer, supporting the Green faction, and often attended the races at the 150,000 strong Circus Maximus. The emperor also commissioned a new amphitheatre in the Campus Martius, new public baths and a central food market, the Macellum Magnum.

Nero also has a reputation for his performances on stage. Unlike many of his predecessors, Nero didn’t just attend the theatre, he acted and recited poetry too. The elites – particularly the senators – strongly disliked this, believing it was not fitting for the emperor to do such things. However, it seems Nero’s performances were very popular with the people, and helped add to their admiration of him.

Graffiti uncovered in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which was on the walls over 10 years after his death, has been uncovered, alluding to his and Poppaea’s popularity amongst ordinary people. Nero is the emperor whose name features the most in the city.

A bust of Nero and masks used in theatrical productions.

Image Credit: Sarah Roller / British Museum

A ruthless streak

Nero may have been a successful and popular ruler in many respects, but he possessed a vicious streak. His step-brother Britannicus was poisoned shortly after Nero became emperor in order to eliminate any potential threat to his power.

His mother, Agrippina was murdered on Nero’s orders in 59AD: it’s not exactly clear why, but historians and archaeologists have hypothesized it was a combination of revenge for her disapproval at his affair with Poppaea and a way to prevent her exerting her own political influence against him.

Claudia Octavia, Nero’s first wife was banished for alleged adultery: she remained extremely popular, and there were said to be protests on the streets of Rome about his treatment of her. She was forced to commit ritual suicide in exile, and according to legend, her head was cut off and sent to Nero’s new wife, Poppaea. Rumours swirled surrounding the death of his second, very popular, wife Poppaea although many historians believe she probably died from complications following a miscarriage.

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‘Fiddled while Rome burnt’

One of the most notorious events in Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD: the fire decimated Rome, completely destroying 3 of the city’s 14 districts and seriously damaging a further 7. Despite relief efforts set up by the emperor shortly after the inferno, supposedly rumours began that Nero had started the fire in order to clear room for new building projects. This seems unlikely, given it seems Nero was not actually in the city at this point, although this fact received equal condemnation. It was much later that the famous description of Nero ‘fiddling while Rome burnt’ came into being.

After organising immediate relief including refugee camps, Nero set about having Rome rebuilt in a more orderly plan, and also embarked on his most infamous building project – the Domus Aurea (Golden House), a new palace atop the Esquiline Hill. This was widely condemned as conspicuously lavish and excessive, yet it was no more so than residences of senators and other members of the Roman elite.

Unsurprisingly, rebuilding Rome was expensive: tributes were imposed on Rome’s provinces and coinage was devalued for the first time in the history of the Roman Empire.

Conspiracy

Much of Nero’s early reign was ultimately successful, although resentment from the ruling classes grew slowly but steadily. Many see the Pisonian conspiracy of 65AD as a turning point: over 41 men were named in the conspiracy, including senators, soldiers and equites. Tacitus’ version suggests these men were noble, wanting to ‘rescue’ the Roman empire from Nero the despot.

Shortly after this, in 68AD, Nero faced open rebellion from the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis and later Hispania Tarranconensis. Whilst Nero managed to put down the worst of this rebellion, support for the rebels grew and when the prefect of the Praetorian Guard changed allegiance, Nero fled to Ostia, hoping to board a ship to the loyal eastern provinces of the empire.

When it became apparent he would not be able to flee, Nero returned to Rome. The Senate dispatched men to bring Nero back to Rome – not necessarily with the intention of executing him – and on hearing this, Nero either had one of his loyal freedmen kill him or committed suicide. Supposedly his final words were Qualis artifex pereo (“What an artist dies in me”) although this is according to Suetonius rather than any hard evidence. The line certainly fits the image of Nero as a deluded artist-cum-tyrant. His death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

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Aftermath

Nero’s death arguably caused more problems than it solved, despite the posthumous declaration of Nero as a public enemy. Rome descended into chaos, and the subsequent year is known as the year of the Four Emperors. Whilst many senators were pleased they were rid of Nero, it seems the general mood was left jubilatory. People were said to mourn on the streets, particularly as the ensuing struggle for power continued to rage.

There were widespread beliefs that Nero was not in fact dead, and that he would return to restore Rome’s glory: several imposters led rebellions in the years after his death. During the reign of Vespasian, many statues and likenesses of Nero were erased or repurposed, and stories of his tyranny and despotism were increasingly incorporated into the canon thanks to histories of Suetonius and Tacitus.

A bust of Emperor Vespasian, which was formerly of Nero. The statue was repurposed between 70 and 80AD.

Image Credit: Sarah Roller / British Museum

Whilst Nero was by no means a model ruler, by the standards of his time he was not unusual. The Roman ruling dynasty could be ruthless and complicated familial relationships were normal. Ultimately Nero’s downfall stemmed from his alienation from the elites – the people’s love and admiration could not save him from political unrest.

Tags: Emperor Nero

Sarah Roller