Rome’s first Imperial dynasty – the heirs of Julius Caesar and Augustus – ended in 68 AD when its last ruler took his own life. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as “Nero”, was Rome’s fifth and most infamous Emperor.
Throughout most of his reign, he was associated with unrivalled extravagance, tyranny, debauchery and murder – to the extent that Roman citizens allegedly considered him to be the Antichrist. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Rome’s iconic and abominable leader.
1. He became Emperor at the age of 17
As Nero was older than Emperor Claudius’ natural son, Britannicus, he now had a superb claim to the imperial purple. When Claudius was almost certainly poisoned by his wife Agrippina in 54 AD, her young son declared the dish of mushrooms that had done the deed to be “the food of the gods”.
By the time Claudius died, Britannicus was still younger than 14, the minimum legal age to rule, and therefore his step-brother, the 17-year-old Nero, took the throne.
The day before Britannicus was due to come of age, he met a very suspicious death after drinking wine prepared for him at his celebratory banquet, leaving Nero – and his mother – in undisputed control of the world’s greatest empire.
2. He murdered his mother
Having poisoned two different husbands to reach her exalted position, Agrippina was unwilling to relinquish the hold that she had over her son, and was even portrayed face-to-face with him in his early coins. Soon Nero grew tired of his mother’s interference. While her influence dwindled she tried desperately to maintain control over proceedings and her son’s decision making.
As a result of her opposition to Nero’s affair with Poppaea Sabina, the Emperor eventually decided to murder his mother. Inviting her to Baiae, he had her set forth on the Bay of Naples in a boat designed to sink, but she swam ashore. Eventually she was murdered by a loyal freedman (ex-slave) in 59 AD on Nero’s orders at her country house.
3. …and two of his wives
Nero’s marriages to both Claudia Octavia and later Poppaea Sabina both ended in their subsequent murders. Claudia Octavia was perhaps the best suitor for Nero, described as “an aristocratic and virtuous wife” by Tacitus, yet Nero quickly grew bored and began to resent the Empress. After several attempts to strangle her, Nero claimed that Octavia was barren, using this as an excuse to divorce her and marry Poppaea Sabina twelve days later.
Unfortunately, Octavia was not off the hook. Her banishment at the hands of Nero and Poppaea was resented in Rome, infuriating the capricious Emperor even more. Hearing the news that a rumour of her reinstatement was met with widespread approval, he effectively signed her death warrant. Octavia’s veins were opened and she suffocated in a hot vapour bath. Her head was then chopped off and sent to Poppaea.
Despite Nero’s eight year long marriage to Claudia Octavia, the Roman empress had never bore child, and so when Nero’s mistress Poppaea Sabina became pregnant, he had used this opportunity to divorce his first wife and marry Sabina. Poppaea bore Nero’s only daughter, Claudia Augusta, in 63 AD (although she would die only four months later).
Her strong and ruthless nature was seen as a good match for Nero, yet it did not take long before the two fatally clashed.
After a fierce argument over how much time Nero was spending at the races, the intemperate Emperor violently kicked Poppaea in the abdomen whilst she was pregant with his second child – she died as a result in 65 AD. Nero went into a long period of mourning, and gave Sabina a state funeral.
4. He was immensely popular during his early reign
Despite his violent reputation, Nero had an uncanny knack for knowing what actions would endear him to the Roman public. After putting on several public musical performances, cutting taxes and even persuading the King of Parthia to come to Rome and take part in a lavish ceremony, he soon became the darling of the crowds.
Nero was so popular, in fact, that after his death there were three separate attempts by impostors over thirty years to gather support by assuming his appearance – one of which was so successful that it almost lead to a civil war. This immense popularity amongst the common people of the empire, however, only made the educated classes distrust him even more.
Nero is said to have been obsessed with his own popularity and far more impressed by the theatrical traditions of the Greeks than Roman austerity – something that was considered simultaneously scandalous by his senators yet superb by the inhabitants of the eastern part of the empire.
5. He was accused of orchestrating the Great Fire of Rome
In 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome erupted on the night of 18 to 19 July. The fire started on the slope of the Aventine overlooking the Circus Maximus and ravaged the city for over six days.
It was noted that Nero was (conveniently) not present in Rome at the time, and most contemporary writers, including Pliny the Elder, Suetonius and Cassius Dio held Nero responsible for the fire. Tacitus, the main ancient source for information about the fire, is the only surviving account which does not blame Nero for starting the fire; although he says he is “unsure”.
Although it is likely that claims stating Nero was playing the fiddle whilst the city of Rome burned are a literary construct of Flavian propaganda, Nero’s absence left an extremely bitter taste in the public’s mouth. Sensing this frustration and aggravation, Nero looked to use the Christian faith as a scapegoat.
6. He instigated the persecution of Christians
With the supposed intention of diverting attention away from the rumours that he had instigated the Great Fire, Nero ordered that Christians should be rounded up and killed. He blamed them for starting the fire and in the subsequent purge, they were torn apart by dogs and others burnt alive as human torches.
“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.” – Tacitus
Over the next hundred years or so, Christians were sporadically persecuted. It was not until the mid-third century that emperors initiated intensive persecutions.
7. He built a ‘Golden House’
Nero certainly took advantage of the devastation of the city, building a lavish private palace on part of the site of the fire. It was to be known as the Domus Aurea or ‘Golden Palace’ and was said, at the entranceway, to have included a 120-foot-long (37 meters) column that contained a statue of him.
The palace was nearly completed before Nero’s death in 68 AD, a remarkably short time for such an enormous project. Unfortunately little has survived of the incredible architectural feat because the expropriations involved in its building were deeply resented. Nero’s successors hastened to put large parts of the palace to public use or to construct other buildings on the land.
8. He castrated and married his former slave
In 67 AD, Nero ordered the castration of Sporus, a former slave boy. He then married him, which noted historian Cassius Dio claims was because Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Nero’s dead former wife Poppaea Sabina. Other suggest Nero used his marriage to Sporus to assuage the guilt he felt for kicking his former pregnant wife to death.
9. He competed in Rome’s Olympic Games
Following the death of his mother, Nero became deeply involved in his artistic and aesthetic passions. At first, he sang and performed on the lyre in private events but later began performing in public to improve his popularity. He strived to assume every kind of role and trained as an athlete for public games which he ordered to be held every five years.
As a competitor in the games, Nero raced a ten-horse chariot and nearly died after being thrown from it. He also competed as an actor and singer. Although he faltered in the competitions, being the emperor he won nevertheless and then he paraded in Rome the crowns he had won.
10. Citizens worried he would return to life as the Antichrist
Revolts against Nero in 67 and 68 AD sparked a series of civil wars, which for a time threatened the survival of the Roman Empire. Nero was followed by Galba who was to be first emperor in the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors. The death of Nero brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had ruled the Roman Empire from the time of its formation under Augustus in 27 BC.
As Nero died, he proclaimed “what an artist dies with me” in a piece of arrogant melodrama which has come to symbolise the worst and most ludicrous excesses of his 13-year reign. In the end, Nero was his own worst enemy, as his contempt of the Empire’s traditions and ruling classes gave rise to rebellions that ended the line of the Caesars.
Due to the troubled time after his death, Nero might have initially been missed but with time his legacy suffered and he is mostly portrayed as an insane ruler and a tyrant. Such was the fear of his persecutions that there was a legend for hundreds of years among Christians that Nero was not dead and would somehow return as Antichrist.