Nero (A.D. 37-68) was the fifth emperor of Rome, ruling from A.D. 54 to 68. He became the Roman emperor when he was seventeen, the youngest ever at that time. Nero's real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He is known mainly for being a cruel wacko but in many ways he left the Roman Empire better off than when arrived.
Nero was the grandson of Germanicus and a descendant of Augustus. He was proclaimed Emperor by the praetorians (Roman army elite) and accepted by the senate. He had been educated by the great philosopher Seneca; and his interests had been looked after by Burrhus, the able captain of the praetorian guards. His accession was hailed with gladness. He assured the senate that he would not interfere with its powers. The first five years of his reign, which are known as the “Quinquennium Neronis,” were marked by a wise and beneficent administration.
During this time he yielded to the advice and influence of Seneca and Burrhus, some scholars believe practically controlled the affairs of the empire and restrained the young prince from exercising his power to the detriment of the state. Under their influence delation (accusing or bringing charges against someone, especially by an informer) was forbidden, taxes were reduced, and the authority of the senate was respected. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “Nero was a grenade hurled into an already untidy social order. Despite blood connections with Augustus on both his maternal and paternal sides, he seemed anything but Roman: blond, blue-eyed, and freckle-faced, with an aptitude for art rather than war. Roberto Gervaso, the author of the 1978 biographical novel “Nerone” told National Geographic: “He was a monster. But that’s not all he was. And those who came before and after him were no better. The true monsters, like Hitler and Stalin, lacked [Nero’s] imagination. Even today he would be avant-garde, ahead of his time. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Under “Nero, the frontiers of the empire were successfully defended and even extended. Experienced generals, such as Corbulo and Vespasian, led triumphant campaigns in Armenia, Germany, and Britain. Nero himself was more of a dilettante, and a connoisseur and patron of the arts; his coins and imperial inscriptions are among the finest ever produced in Rome. After a great fire destroyed half of Rome in 64 A.D., he spent huge sums on rebuilding the city and a vast new imperial palace, the so-called Domus Aurea, or Golden House, whose architectural forms were as innovative as they were extravagant. Nero antagonized the upper class, confiscating large private estates in Italy and putting many leading figures to death. His tendency toward Oriental despotism, as well as his failure to keep the loyalty of the Roman legions, led to civil strife and opposition to his reign.” [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org ]
Book: “Nero” by Edward Champlin (Harvard University Press, 2003). Champlin is a professor of classics at Princeton. There is a splendid translation by Robert Graves of the biography of Nero by Suetonius.
See Separate Article NERO’S CRUELTY, BUFFOONERY AND STRANGE SEX LIFE
Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ;
“Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans;
The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ;
Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu;
De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org;
British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ;
Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art;
The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ;
Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Awful Things Nero Did
In his book “Nero,” Edward Champlin wrote: “Nero murdered his mother, and Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Nero also slept with his mother, Nero married and executed one stepsister, executed his other stepsister, raped and murdered his stepbrother. In fact, he executed or murdered most of his close relatives. He kicked his pregnant wife to death. He castrated and then married a freedman. He married another freedman, this time himself playing the bride. He raped a vestal virgin. He melted down the household gods of Rome for their cash value."
“After incinerating the city in 64, he built over much of downtown Rome with his own great Xanadu, the Golden House. He fixed the blame for the Great Fire on the Christians, some of whom he hung up as human torches to light his gardens at night. He competed as a poet, singer an actor, a herald and charioteer, and he won every contest, even when he fell out of his chariot at the Olympics games, he alienated and persecuted the elite, neglected the army, and drained the treasury. And he committed suicide at the age of 30, one step ahead of his executioners. His last words were, “What an artist died in me!”
Nero’s worst enemies were in his own family and household. The intrigues of his unscrupulous and ambitious mother, Agrippina, to displace Nero and elevate Britannicus, the son of Claudius, led to Nero’s first domestic tragedy—the poisoning of Britannicus. He afterward yielded himself to the influence of the infamous Poppaea Sabina, said to be the most beautiful and the wickedest woman of Rome. At her suggestion, he first murdered his mother, and then his wife. He discarded the counsels of Seneca and Burrhus, and accepted those of Tigellinus, described a man of the worst character. Then followed a career of wickedness, extortion, and atrocious cruelty. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Patrick Ryan wrote in Listverse, Nero “ murdered thousands of people including his aunt, stepsister, ex-wife, mother, wife and stepbrother. Some were killed in searing hot baths. He poisoned, beheaded, stabbed, burned, boiled, crucified and impaled people. He often raped women and cut off the veins and private parts of both men and women. Thousands of Christians were starved to death, burned, torn by dogs, fed to lions, crucified, used as torches and nailed to crosses. He was so bad that many of the Christians thought he was the Antichrist. He even tortured and killed the apostle Paul and the disciple Peter. Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified upside down.” [Source: Patrick Ryan, Listverse, May 30, 2012]
Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “He instructed his mentor Seneca to commit suicide (which he solemnly did); castrated and then married a teenage boy; presided over the wholesale arson of Rome in A.D. 64 and then shifted the blame to a host of Christians (including Saints Peter and Paul), who were rounded up and beheaded or crucified and set aflame so as to illuminate an imperial festival. The case against Nero as evil incarnate would appear to be open and shut.” [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]
Did Nero Get a Bad Rap?
Now some scholars say Nero wasn’t all bad. After describing his alleged crimes, Champlin spends much of the rest of his book examining whether Nero was indeed the monster he was made out to be. He points out the stories of Nero's legendary exploits come mainly from the work of three writers — the historians Tacitus and L. Casius Dio and the biographer Suetonius — whose own sources appear to have been hearsay, public record long since lost and the works of “several lost authors," including Pliny the Elder and Cluvius Rufus. The accounts of the three writers are often inconsistent and sometime contradictory.
Champlin said he was not out to “whitewash” Nero: “He was a bad man and a bad ruler. But there is strong evidence to suggest that our dominant sources have misrepresented him badly, creating the image of the unbalanced, egomaniacal monster, vividly enhanced by Christian writers, that has so dominated the shocked imagination of the Western tradition for two millennia, The reality was more complex."
Champlain makes a case that Nero had “had an afterlife that was unique in antiquity." Like Alexander the Great or even Jesus Christ, he was widely seen in the popular imagination as “the man who has not died but will return, and the man who died but whose reputation is a powerful living force” and was thus — a man who was very much missed." The “evolution of a historical person into a folkloric hero says little about the actual person but much about what some people believe...The immortal hero of the folklore embodies a longing for the past and explanation of the present, and most powerfully, a justification for the future." Nero comes across more as a skillful performer on the public stage with “a fondness for pleasure among low company so strong as to identification with masses."
Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “Almost certainly the Roman Senate ordered the expunging of Neronian influence for political reasons. Perhaps it was that his death was followed by outpourings of public grief so widespread that his successor Otho hastily renamed himself Otho Nero. Perhaps it was because mourners long continued to bring flowers to his tomb, and the site was said to be haunted until, in 1099, a church was erected on top of his remains in the Piazza del Popolo. Or perhaps it was due to the sightings of “false Neros” and the persistent belief that the boy king would one day return to the people who so loved him. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]
“The dead do not write their own history. Nero’s first two biographers, Suetonius and Tacitus, had ties to the elite Senate and would memorialize his reign with lavish contempt. The notion of Nero’s return took on malevolent overtones in Christian literature, with Isaiah’s warning of the coming Antichrist: “He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother.” Later would come the melodramatic condemnations: the comic Ettore Petrolini’s Nero as babbling lunatic, Peter Ustinov’s Nero as the cowardly murderer, and the garishly enduring tableau of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. What occurred over time was hardly erasure but instead demonization. A ruler of baffling complexity was now simply a beast. ~
““Today we condemn his behavior,” says archaeological journalist Marisa Ranieri Panetta. “But look at the great Christian emperor Constantine. He had his first son, his second wife, and his father-in-law all murdered. One can’t be a saint and the other a devil. Look at Augustus, who destroyed a ruling class with his blacklists. Rome ran in rivers of blood, but Augustus was able to launch effective propaganda for everything he did. He understood the media. And so Augustus was great, they say. Not to suggest that Nero was himself a great emperor—but that he was better than they said he was, and no worse than those who came before and after him.” ~
Nero’s Family, Mother and Father
Nero was the grandson of the famed general Germanicus and a descendant of Augustus. Some have blamed Nero despicable behavior on his childhood. After his father died he was brought up in the home of his deranged uncle Caligula and raised by his "impetuous and deranged mother"Agrippina the Younger, who used "incest and murder" to secure him the throne over the rightful heir and eliminated rivals in her son's path to the emperorship by poisoning their food, it is said, with a toxin extracted from a shell-less mollusk known as a sea hare. See Caligula)
Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: Nero’s “sly and ambitious mother, Agrippina, was accused of plotting to kill her brother Caligula and later probably killed her third husband, Claudius, with poisonous mushrooms. Having already arranged for the stoic essayist Seneca to mentor her young son, Agrippina proclaimed Nero a worthy successor to the throne, and in A.D. 54, just shy of age 17, he assumed it. Anyone curious about the mother’s intentions could find the answer on coins from the era, depicting the teenage emperor’s face no larger than that of Agrippina.” [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]
On Nero’s father, Suetonius wrote: “Domitius, who became the father of Nero,” was “a man hateful in every walk of life; for when he had gone to the East on the staff of the young Gaius Caesar [Caligula], he slew one of his own freedmen for refusing to drink as much as he was ordered, and when he was in consequence dismissed from the number of Gaius' friends, he lived not a whit less lawlessly. On the contrary, in a village on the Appian Way, suddenly whipping up his team, he purposely ran over and killed a boy, and right in the Roman Forum he gouged out the eye of a Roman eques for being too outspoken in chiding him. He was, moreover, so dishonest that he not only cheated some bankers of the prices of wares which he had bought, but in his praetorship he even defrauded the victors in the chariot races of the amount of their prizes. When for this reason he was held up to scorn by the jests of his own sister, and the managers of the troupes made complaint, he issued an edict that the prizes should thereafter be paid on the spot. Just before the death of Tiberius he was also charged with treason, as well as with acts of adultery and with incest with his sister Lepida, but escaped owing to the change of emperors, and died of dropsy at Pyrgi, after acknowledging Nero son of Agrippina, the daughter of Germanicus.”
Nero’s Early Life
Nero was educated by the great philosopher Seneca; and his interests had been looked after by Burrhus, the able captain of the praetorian (elite army) guards. Suetonius wrote: “Nero was born at Antium nine months after the death of Tiberius, on the eighteenth day before the Kalends of January [December 15, 37 A.D.], just as the sun rose, so that he was touched by its rays almost before he could be laid upon the grounds. Many people at once made many direful predictions from his horoscope, and a remark of his father Domitius was also regarded as an omen; for while receiving the congratulations of his friends, he said that "nothing that was not abominable and a public bane could be born of Agrippina and himself." Another manifest indication of Nero's future unhappiness occurred on the day of his purification; for when Gaius Caesar was asked by his sister to give the child whatever name he liked, he looked at his uncle Claudius, who later became emperor and adopted Nero, and said that he gave him his name. This he did, not seriously, but in jest, and Agrippina scorned the proposal, because at that time Claudius was one of the laughing-stocks of the court. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]
“At the age of three he lost his father, being left heir to a third of his estate; but even this he did not receive in full, since his fellow heir Gaius seized all the property. Then his mother was banished too, and he was brought up at the house of his aunt Lepida almost in actual want, under two tutors, a dancer and a barber. But when Claudius became emperor, Nero not only recovered his father's property, but was also enriched by an inheritance from his stepfather, Passienus Crispus. When his mother was recalled from banishment and reinstated, he became so prominent through her influence that it leaked out that Messalina, wife of Claudius, had sent emissaries to strangle him as he was taking his noonday nap, regarding him as a rival of Britannicus. An addition to this bit of gossip is, that the would-be assassins were frightened away by a snake which darted out from under his pillow. The only foundation for this tale was, that there was found in his bed near the pillow the slough of a serpent; but nevertheless at his mother's desire he had the skin enclosed in a golden bracelet, and wore it for a long time on his left arm. But when at last the memory of his mother grew hateful to him, he threw it away, and afterwards in the time of his extremity sought it again in vain.
“While he was still a young, half-grown boy, he took part in the game of Troy at a performance in the Circus with great self-possession and success. In the eleventh year of his age [50 A.D.] he was adopted by Claudius and consigned to the training of Annaeus Seneca, who was then already a senator. They say that on the following night Seneca dreamt that he was teaching Gaius Caesar, and Nero soon proved the dream prophetic by revealing the cruelty of his disposition at the earliest possible opportunity. For merely because his brother Britannicus had, after his adoption, greeted him as usual as Ahenobarbus, he tried to convince his father [Claudius] that Britannicus was a changeling. Also, when his aunt Lepida was accused, he publicly gave testimony against her to gratify his mother, who was using every effort to ruin Lepida. At his formal introduction into public life he announced a largess to the people and a gift of money to the soldiers, ordered a drill of the praetorians and headed them shield in hand; and thereafter returned thanks to his father in the Senate. In the latter's consulship he pleaded the cause of the people of Bononia before him in Latin, and of those of Rhodes and Ilium in Greek. His first appearance as judge was when he was prefect of the city during the Latin festival, when the most celebrated pleaders vied with one another in bringing before him, not trifling and brief cases according to the usual custom, but many of the highest importance, though this had been forbidden by Claudius. Shortly afterwards he took Octavia to wife and gave games and a beast-baiting in the Circus, that health might be vouchsafed Claudius.
Nero’s Appearance, Health and Interests
Suetonius wrote: “He was about the average height, his body marked with spots and malodorous, his hair light blond, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes blue and somewhat weak, his neck over thick, his belly prominent, and his legs very slender. His health was good, for though indulging in every kind of riotous excess, he was ill but three times in all during the fourteen years of his reign, and even then not enough to give up wine or any of his usual habits. He was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls, and during the trip to Greece also letting it grow long and hang down behind; and he often appeared in public in a dining-robe [the "synthesina" was a loose robe of bright-colored silk, worn at dinner, during the Saturnalia, and by women at other times. Nero's is described by Dio, 63.13, as "a short, flowered tunic with a muslin collar."], with a handkerchief bound about his neck, ungirt and unshod [probably meaning "in slippers"]. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]
“When a boy, he took up almost all the liberal arts; but his mother turned him from philosophy, warning him that it was a drawback to one who was going to rule, while Seneca kept him from reading the early orators, to make his admiration for his teacher endure the longer. Turning therefore to poetry, he wrote verses with eagerness and without labor, and did not, as some think, publish the work of others as his own. I have had in my possession note-books and papers with some well-known verses of his, written with his own hand and in such wise that it was perfectly evident that they were not copied or taken down from dictation, but worked out exactly as one writes when thinking and creating; so many instances were there of words erased or struck through and written above the lines. He likewise had no slight interest in painting and sculpture.
“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. It was the general belief that after his victories on the stage he would at the next lustrum have competed with the athletes at Olympia; for he practiced wrestling constantly, and all over Greece he had always viewed the gymnastic contests after the fashion of the judges, sitting on the ground in the stadium; and if any pairs of contestants withdrew too far from their positions, he would force them forward with his own hand. Since he was acclaimed as the equal of Apollo in music and of the Sun in driving a chariot, he had planned to emulate the exploits of Hercules as well; and they say that a lion had been specially trained for him to kill naked in the arena of the amphitheatre before all the people, with a club or by the clasp of his arms.
Towards the end of his life, in fact, he had publicly vowed that if he retained his power, he would at the games in celebration of his victory give a performance on the water-organ, the flute, and the bagpipes and that on the last day he would appear as an actor and dance "Vergil's Turnus." Some even assert that he put the actor Paris to death as a dangerous rival. “He had a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated. With this in view he took their former appellations from many things and numerous places and gave them new ones from his own name. He also called the month of April Neroneus and was minded to name Rome Neropolis.
“He utterly despised all cults, with the sole exception of that of the Syrian Goddess [Atargatis, the principal deity of Northern Syria, identified with Magna Mater and Caelestis; often mentioned in inscriptions and called by Apul. Metam. 8.25, omnipotens et omniparens], and even acquired such a contempt for her that he made water on her image, after he was enamored of another, superstition, which was the only one to which he constantly clung. For he had received as a gift from some unknown man of the commons, as a protection against plots, a little image of a girl; and since a conspiracy at once came to light, he continued to venerate it as a powerful divinity and to offer three sacrifices to it every day, encouraging the belief that through its communication he had knowledge of the future. A few months before his death he did attend an inspection of victims, but could not get a favorable omen.”
Nero Becomes Emperor
Nero was proclaimed Emperor by the praetorians (Roman army elite) and accepted by the senate in A.D. 54. His accession was hailed with gladness. He assured the senate that he would not interfere with its powers. Suetonius wrote: “When the death of Claudius [54 A.D.] was made public, Nero, who was seventeen years old, went forth to the watch between the sixth and seventh hour, since no earlier time for the formal beginning of his reign seemed suitable because of bad omens throughout the day. Hailed emperor on the steps of the Palace, he was carried in a litter to the Praetorian camp, and after a brief address to the soldiers was taken from there to the Curia, which he did not leave until evening, of the unbounded honors that were heaped upon him refusing but one, the title of father of his country, and that because of his youth. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]
“Then, beginning with a display of filial piety, he gave Claudius a magnificent funeral, spoke his eulogy, and deified him. He paid the highest honors to the memory of his father Domitius. He left to his mother the management of all public and private business. Indeed, on the first day of his rule he gave to the tribune on guard the watchword "The Best of Mothers," and afterwards he often rode with her through the streets in her litter. He established a colony at Antium, enrolling the veterans of the Praetorian Guard, and joining with them the wealthiest of the chief centurions, whom he compelled to change their residence; and he also made a harbor there at great expense.
Proclamation of Nero's Succession
“Proclamation of Nero's Succession as Roman Emperor” dates to November 17, A.D. 54, written in Greek on papyrus, it consists of 20 lines of writing and was discovered in Oxyrhynchus (modern Behnesa, Egypt) in 1900. It reads: “The one who was owed to the ancestors, and god-made-manifest, Caesar1 , has gone to join them. And the Emperor2 whom the world anticipated and hoped for has been proclaimed; the good spirit 3 of the inhabited world and source of all goodness, Nero Caesar, has been proclaimed. Consequently, we should all wear garlands and with sacrifices of oxen give thanks to all the gods. (Year) one of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the twenty-first of the month Neus Sabastus 4 1 Greek = Kaisar , referring to the Emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54 A.D.) [Source: K.C. Hanson's website]
- What does this document express about the relationship between the emperor and the realm of spirits and the divine? 2. What does this document express about the relationship of the emperor to the well-being of the empire? How does this compare with the ideologies of kingship elsewhere in the ancient world? 3. What significance would the coronation of a new Roman emperor have had to Egyptian elites? To Egyptian peasants? 4. What was the function of the "genius" of the pater familias (the "good spirit" here) in the Roman family? What would this mean for the Roman emperor, then, in relation to the empire? 5. Note the expression of the date at the end. To what was the calendar tied, and why was that significant?
Nero: the Enlightened Emperor
The first five years of Nero’s reign, which are known as the “Quinquennium Neronis,” were marked by a wise and beneficent administration. During this period Nero was one of the most reform-minded emperors that Rome had ever known he. He banned capital punishment and blood sports and set up a procedure is which slaves could file complaints against cruel masters. He gave the Senate more autonomy, pardoned satiric playwrights who were jailed for making fun of politicians and even tolerated those who plotted against him. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
In these early years of his reign Nero followed the advice and influence of Seneca and Burrhus, who some scholars believe practically controlled the affairs of the empire and restrained the young prince from exercising his power to the detriment of the state. Under their influence delation (accusing or bringing charges against someone, especially by an informer) was forbidden, taxes were reduced, and the authority of the senate was respected. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “Nero’s early reign was golden. He banished Claudius’s secret trials, issued pardons, and when asked for his signature on a death warrant, moaned, “How I wish I had never learned to write!” He held working dinners with poets—perhaps, it would be theorized, so that he could steal their lines—and rigorously practiced his lyre as well as singing, though his voice was not the best. “Above all, he was obsessed with a desire for popularity,” wrote his biographer Suetonius, but Princeton classics professor Edward Champlin views Nero’s persona with more nuance. In his revisionist book, Nero, Champlin describes his subject as “an indefatigable artist and performer who happened also to be emperor of Rome” and “a public relations man ahead of his time with a shrewd understanding of what the people wanted, often before they knew it themselves.” Nero introduced, for instance, the “Neronia”—Olympic-style poetry, music, and athletic contests. But what pleased the masses did not always please the Roman elites. When Nero insisted that senators compete along with commoners in other public games, his golden age began to crackle with tension. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]
““It was something new, like young people today with their social media, where suddenly everything personal is on exhibit,” says archaeologist Heinz-Jürgen Beste. “Nero was an artist, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, who embodied these changes. Like his baths—and what Martial said about them—this is the polarity of Nero. He’d created something no one had seen before: a light-flooded public place not just for hygiene but also where there were statues and paintings and books, where you could hang out and listen to someone read poetry aloud. It meant an entirely new social situation.” ~
Nero’s Early Years as Emperor
Suetonius wrote: “To make his good intentions still more evident, he declared that he would rule according to the principles of Augustus, and he let slip no opportunity for acts of generosity and mercy, or even for displaying his affability.. The more oppressive sources of revenue he either abolished or moderated. He reduced the rewards paid to informers against violators of the Papian law to one fourth of the former amount. He distributed four hundred sesterces to each man of the people, and granted to the most distinguished of the senators who were without means an annual salary, to some as much as five hundred thousand sesterces; and to the praetorian cohorts he gave a monthly allowance of grain free of cost. When he was asked according to custom to sign the warrant for the execution of a man who had been condemned to death, he said: "How I wish I had never learned to write!" He greeted men of all orders offhand and from memory. When the Senate returned thanks to him, he replied, "When I shall have deserved them." He admitted even the commons to witness his exercises in the Campus, and often declaimed in public. He read his poems too, not only at home but in the theater as well, so greatly to the delight of all that a thanksgiving was voted because of his recital, while that part of his poems was inscribed in letters of gold and dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]
“He gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales, chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays, and a gladiatorial show. At the first-mentioned, he had even old men of consular rank and aged matrons take part. For the games in the Circus he assigned places to the equites apart from the rest, and even matched chariots drawn by four camels. At the plays which he gave for the "Eternity of the Empire," which by his order were called the Ludi Maximi, parts were taken by several men and women of both the orders; a well known Roman eques mounted an elephant and rode down a rope; a Roman play of Afranius, too, was staged, entitled "The Fire," and the actors were allowed to carry off the furniture of the burning Curia and keep it. Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.
“These plays he viewed from the top of the proscenium. At the gladiatorial show, which he gave in a wooden amphitheatre, erected in the district of the Campus Martius within the space of a single year [58 A.D.], he had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman equites, some of whom were well-to-do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Even those who fought with the wild beasts and performed the various services in the arena were of the same orders. He also exhibited a naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it; besides pyrrhic dances by some Greek youths, handing each of them certificates of Roman citizenship at the close of his performance. The pyrrhic dances represented various scenes. In one, a bull mounted Pasiphae, who was concealed in a wooden image of a heifer; at least many of the spectators thought so. Icarus at his very first attempt fell close by the imperial couch and bespattered the emperor with his blood; for Nero very seldom presided at the games, but used to view them while reclining on a couch, at first through small openings, and then with the entire balcony uncovered. He was likewise the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial contest in three parts, after the Greek fashion, that is in music, gymnastics, and riding, which he called the "Veronia"; at the same time he dedicated his baths and gymnasiums supplying every member of the senatorial and equestrian orders with oil. To preside over the whole contest he appointed ex-consuls, chosen by lot, who occupied the seats of the praetors. Then he went down into the orchestra among the senators and accepted the prize for Latin oratory and verse, for which all the most eminent men had contended, but which was given to him with their unanimous consent; but when that for lyre-playing was also offered him by the judges, he knelt before it and ordered that it be laid at the feet of Augustus' statue. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta, he shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol. He invited the Vestal Virgins also to witness the contests of the athletes, because at Olympia the priestesses of Ceres were allowed the same privilege.
“I may fairly include among his shows the entrance of Tiridates into the city. He was a king of Armenia, whom Nero induced by great promises to come to Rome; and since he was prevented by bad weather from exhibiting him to the people on the day appointed by proclamation, he produced him at the first favorable opportunity, with the Praetorian cohorts drawn up in full armor about the temples in the Forum, while he himself sat in a curule chair on the rostra in the attire of a triumphing general, surrounded by military ensigns and standards. As the king approached along a sloping platform, the emperor at first let him fall at his feet, but raised him with his right hand and kissed him. Then, while the king made supplication, Nero took the turban from his head and replaced it with a diadem, while a man of praetorian rank translated the words of the suppliant and proclaimed them to the throng. From there the king was taken to the theater [Of Pompeius Magnus], and when he had again done obeisance, Nero gave hint a seat at his right hand. Because of all this Nero was hailed as Imperator, and after depositing a laurel wreath in the Capitol [This was usual only when a triumph was celebrated], he closed the two doors of the temple of Janus, as a sign that no war was left anywhere.
“He held four consulships, the first for two months, the second and the last for six months each, the third for four months [55, 57-58, 60 A.D.]. The second and third were in successive years, while a year intervened between these and each of the others [He assumed a fifth consulship in 68]. In the administration of justice he was reluctant to render a decision to those who presented cases, except on the following day and in writing. The procedure was, instead of continuous pleadings, to have each point presented separately by the parties in turn. Furthermore, whenever he withdrew for consultation, he did not discuss any matter with all his advisers in a body, but had each of them give his opinion in written form; these he read silently and in private and then gave a verdict according to his own inclination, as if it were the view of the majority. For a long time he would not admit the sons of freedmen to the Senate and he refused office to those who had been admitted by his predecessors. Candidates who were in excess of the number of vacancies received the command of a legion as compensation for the postponement and delay. He commonly appointed consuls for a period of six months. When one of them died just before the Kalends of January, he appointed no one in his place, expressing his disapproval of the old-time case of Caninius Rebilus, the twenty-four hour consul [See Jul. lxxvi.2, where, however, the man's name is not mentioned]. He conferred the triumphal regalia even on men of the rank of quaestor, as well as on some of the equites, and sometimes for other than military services. As regards the speeches which he sent to the Senate on various matters, he passed over the quaestors, whose duty it was to read them [See Aug. lxv.2], and usually had them presented by one of the consuls.”
Suetonius wrote: “He devised a new form for the buildings of the city and in front of the houses and apartments be erected porches, from the flat roofs of which fires could be fought [This was undoubtedly after the great fire]; and these he put up at his own cost. He had also planned to extend the walls as far as Ostia and to bring the sea from there to Rome by a canal. During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food, the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city [Because of their disorderly conduct]. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]
“It was in his reign that a protection against forgers was first devised, by having no tablets signed that were not bored with holes through which a cord was thrice passed [The tablets consisted of three leaves, two of which were bound together and sealed. The contract was written twice, on the open leaf and on the closed ones. In cases of dispute the seals were broken in the presence of the signers and the two versions compared]. In the case of wills it was provided that the first two leaves should be presented to the signatories [As witnesses. The testator afterwards wrote the names of the heirs on these leaves] with only the name of the testator written upon them, and that no one who wrote a will for another should put down a legacy for himself; further, that clients should pay a fixed and reasonable fee for the services of their advocates [The Cincian law of 204 B.C.E. forbade fees. Augustus renewed the law in 17 B.C.E. (Dio 54.18). Claudius limited fees to 10,000 sesterces (Tac. Ann. 11.5-6). The Senate again abolished fees at the beginning of Nero's reign (Tac. Ann. 13.5), but Nero apparently revived the law of Claudius, with a provision against the addition of "costs."], but nothing at all for benches, as which were to be furnished free of charge by the public treasury; finally, as regarded the pleading of cases, that those connected with the treasury should be transferred to the Forum [Instead of coming before the prefects of the treasury; cf., Claud. ix.2], and a board of arbiters, and that any appeal from the juries should be made to the Senate.
Nero’s Foreign Policy
Under “Nero, the frontiers of the empire were successfully defended and even extended. Experienced generals, such as Corbulo and Vespasian, led triumphant campaigns in Armenia, Germany, and Britain, but for the part he was restrained when it came to conquests and military matters.
Suetonius wrote: “So far from being actuated by any wish or hope of increasing or extending the empire, he even thought of withdrawing the army from Britain and changed his purpose only because he was ashamed to seem to belittle the glory of his father [That is, his adoptive father Claudius]. He increased the provinces only by the realm of Pontus, when it was given up by Polemon, and that of Cottius in the Alps on the latter's death. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]
He planned but two foreign tours, to Alexandria and Achaia; and he gave up the former on the very day when he was to have started, disturbed by a threatening portent. For as he was making the round of the temples and had sat down in the shrine of Vesta, first the fringe of his garment caught when he attempted to get up, and then such darkness overspread his eyes that he could see nothing. In Achaia he attempted to cut through the Isthmus [Of Corinth], and called together the Praetorians and urged them to begin the work; then at a signal given on a trumpet he was first to break ground with a mattock and to carry of a basketful of earth upon his shoulders. He also prepared for an expedition to the Caspian Gates, after enrolling a new legion of raw recruits of Italian births each six feet tall [Roman measure, a little over 5 ft. 8 in. English], which he called the "phalanx of Alexander the Great." I have brought together these acts of his, some of which are beyond criticism, while others are even deserving of no slight praise, to separate them from his shameful and criminal deeds, of which I shall proceed now to give an account.
Seneca and His Suicide at Nero’s Command
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C." 65 AD) served as Nero's tutor and was his friend and confidant of Nero. He dominated Nero's court until he was suspected by Nero of plotting against him and was forced to commit suicide at Nero's command. Seneca wrote about the pursuit of the well-being of the soul and made many observations about Roman history, every day life and politics that have made their way to us today.
On “The Death of Seneca in A.D. 65, Tacitus wrote in Annals 15:64: “Then followed the destruction of Annaeus Seneca, a special joy to the emperor, not because he had convicted him of the conspiracy, but anxious to accomplish with the sword what poison had failed to do. It was, in fact, Natalis alone who divulged Seneca's name, to this extent, that he had been sent to Seneca when ailing, to see him and remonstrate with him for excluding Piso from his presence, when it would have been better to have kept up their friendship by familiar intercourse; that Seneca's reply was that mutual conversations and frequent interviews were to the advantage of neither, but still that his own life depended on Piso's safety. Gavius Silvanus, tribune of a praetorian cohort, was ordered to report this to Seneca and to ask him whether he acknowledged what Natalis said and his own answer. Either by chance or purposely Seneca had returned on that day from Campania, and had stopped at a country house four miles from Rome. Thither the tribune came next evening, surrounded the house with troops of soldiers, and then made known the emperor's message to Seneca as he was at dinner with his wife, Pompeia Paulina, and two friends. [Source: Tacitus: Annals, Book 15, Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Slightly adapted]
“Seneca replied that Natalis had been sent to him and had complained to him in Piso's name because of his refusal to see Piso, upon which he excused himself on the ground of failing health and the desire of rest. "He had no reason," he said, for "preferring the interest of any private citizen to his own safety, and he had no natural aptitude for flattery. No one knew this better than Nero, who had oftener experienced Seneca's free spokenness than his servility." When the tribune reported this answer in the presence of Poppaea and Tigellinus, the emperor's most confidential advisers in his moments of rage, he asked whether Seneca was meditating suicide. Upon this the tribune asserted that he saw no signs of fear, and perceived no sadness in his words or in his looks. He was accordingly ordered to go back and to announce sentence of death. Fabius Rusticus tells us that he did not return the way he came, but went out of his course to Faenius, the commander of the guard, and having explained to him the emperor's orders, and asked whether he was to obey them, was by him admonished to carry them out, for a fatal spell of cowardice was on them all. For this very Silvanus was one of the conspirators, and he was now abetting the crimes which he had united with them to avenge. But he spared himself the anguish of a word or of a look, and merely sent in to Seneca one of his centurions, who was to announce to him his last doom.
“Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion's refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship. At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. "Where," he asked again and again, "are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years' study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero's cruelty? After a mother's and a brother's murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor."
“Having spoken these and like words, meant, so to say, for all, he embraced his wife; then softening awhile from the stern resolution of the hour, he begged and implored her to spare herself the burden of perpetual sorrow, and, in the contemplation of a life virtuously spent, to endure a husband's loss with honourable consolations. She declared, in answer, that she too had decided to die, and claimed for herself the blow of the executioner. There upon Seneca, not to thwart her noble ambition, from an affection too which would not leave behind him for insult one whom he dearly loved, replied: "I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example. Let the fortitude of so courageous an end be alike in both of us, but let there be more in your decease to win fame."
“Then by one and the same stroke they sundered with a dagger the arteries of their arms. Seneca, as his aged frame, attenuated by frugal diet, allowed the blood to escape but slowly, severed also the veins of his legs and knees. Worn out by cruel anguish, afraid too that his sufferings might break his wife's spirit, and that, as he looked on her tortures, he might himself sink into irresolution, he persuaded her to retire into another chamber. Even at the last moment his eloquence failed him not; he summoned his secretaries, and dictated much to them which, as it has been published for all readers in his own words, I forbear to paraphrase.
“Nero meanwhile, having no personal hatred against Paulina and not wishing to heighten the odium of his cruelty, forbade her death. At the soldiers' prompting, her slaves and freedmen bound up her arms, and stanched the bleeding, whether with her knowledge is doubtful. For as the vulgar are ever ready to think the worst, there were persons who believed that, as long as she dreaded Nero's relentlessness, she sought the glory of sharing her husband's death, but that after a time, when a more soothing prospect presented itself, she yielded to the charms of life. To this she added a few subsequent years, with a most praise worthy remembrance of her husband, and with a countenance and frame white to a degree of pallor which denoted a loss of much vital energy.
“Seneca meantime, as the tedious process of death still lingered on, begged Statius Annaeus, whom he had long esteemed for his faithful friendship and medical skill, to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison. At last he entered a pool of heated water, from which he sprinkled the nearest of his slaves, adding the exclamation, "I offer this liquid as a libation to Jupiter the Deliverer." He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life's close.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018