20120224-Nero Filippino_Lippi_004.jpg
Peter, Paul, Simon Magus and Nero by Filippino Lippi
Nero allegedly ordered the slaughter of Christians. Among them, according to tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul. Christians, wrote Tacitus, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night."

Nero began persecuting Christians on the grounds of disloyalty and blamed them, along with Jews, for the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, something which he is believed to have been was involved in. Tacitus wrote that before the killing of Christians, Nero used them to amuse the masses. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire. Although some persecution of Christian is believed to have occurred, and some it was very cruel, the extent of it has been wildly exaggerated. Most of the victims were bishops or other male leaders. Nero is believed to have accused the Christians of starting the Rome fire in order to shield himself from the suspicion of setting the fire himself.

The height of the persecution of Christians was not during the reign of Nero, but much later. Domitian, Marcus Aurelius and Valerian all brutalized Christians after A.D. 150, when Christians held many high positions and presented a threat as "state within a state." In A.D. 202 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus made baptism a criminal act. In A.D. 250 Emperor Decius increased the persecution of Christians.

According to the traditional story, in A.D. 67, in the last year of Nero’s reign, St. Peter was hung upside down and beheaded at the Circus Maximus during a wave of brutal anti-Christian persecution after the burning of Rome. His brutal treatment was partly of the result of his request not to be crucified, because he didn't consider himself worthy of the treatment of Jesus. After Peter died, it is said, his body was taken to a burial ground, situated where St. Peter's cathedral now stands. His body was entombed and later secretly worshiped.

It is not exactly clear what happened to St. Paul but it is believed that he was martyred in A.D. 64, the year that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Christian and Jews. Before he was killed St. Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be beheaded. His wish was granted. According to some, Paul was martyred at the site occupied by the Monastery of the Three Fountains in Rome. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Tacitus’s Account of Nero’s Persecution of the Christians

Peter by Caravaggio

Our understanding of the “first persecution” of Christians under Nero largely comes from the account of the Roman historian Tacitus, which is of great interest because it contains the first reference by a pagan author to Christ and his followers. The following passage shows not only the cruelty of Nero and the terrible sufferings of the early Christian martyrs, but also the pagan prejudice against the new religion. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Tacitus wrote: says: “In order to drown the rumor, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. [Source: “Annals,” Book. XV., Ch. 44, by P. Cornelius Tacitus, A.D. 109, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb]

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. 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 a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his own gardens for this spectacle. The people were moved with pity for the sufferers; for it was felt that they were suffering to gratify Nero’s cruelty, not from considerations for the public welfare.”

Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64

The great fire of Rome took place in July, A.D. 64, in the tenth year of Nero’s reign. According to Gibbons it "raged beyond the memory or example of former ages" for nine days. Of Rome's 14 regions, three were leveled and seven were devastated. In other accounts six were reduced to ashes. Many ancient temples and public buildings were consumed, such as the temple of Jupiter Stator ascribed to Romulus, and the temples of Vesta and Diana, which dated from the time of the kings.

Fire of Rome

Tacitus wrote: "During the night of July 18, A.D. 64, fire broke out in the merchant area of the city of Rome. Fanned by summer winds, the flames quickly spread through the dry, wooden structures of the Imperial City. Soon the fire took on a life of its own consuming all in its path for six days and seven nights. When the conflagration finally ran its course it left seventy percent of the city in smoldering ruins. [Source: Tacitus, “The Annals”, from Victor Duruy, “History of Rome” vol. V (1883); translated by Michael Grant, Eyewitness to History]

“Whether it was accidental or caused on the part of the emperor is uncertain---both versions have supporters. Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had experienced. It began in the Circus...breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills - but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city's narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

“Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike - all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed - even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything - even their food for the day - could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.

“By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus' estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself. Of Rome's fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins."

Nero and the Great Fire of Rome

Although Nero was fond of music and played a Roman instrument somewhat similar to a violin, there is no historical evidence that he played it during the fire. Rumors were spread that Nero enjoyed watching the fire and many Romans accused him of deliberately setting it.

The reports which have come to us of the conduct of Nero during this great disaster are very diverse. Some represent him as gloating over the destruction of the city and repeating his own poem on the “Sack of Troy.” Other reports declare that he never showed himself in a more favorable light, exerting himself to put out the flames, opening the public buildings and the imperial palace for the shelter of the homeless, and relieving the suffering by reducing the price of grain. But it is charged that if he performed these charities, it was to relieve himself of the suspicion of having caused the conflagration. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Tacitus wrote: “Rumors soon arose accusing the Emperor Nero of ordering the torching of the city and standing on the summit of the Palatine playing his lyre as flames devoured the world around him. These rumors have never been confirmed. In fact, Nero rushed to Rome from his palace in Antium (Anzio) and ran about the city all that first night without his guards directing efforts to quell the blaze. But the rumors persisted and the Emperor looked for a scapegoat. He found it in the Christians, at that time a rather obscure religious sect with a small following in the city. To appease the masses, Nero literally had his victims fed to the lions during giant spectacles held in the city's remaining amphitheater. [Source: Tacitus, “The Annals”, from Victor Duruy, “History of Rome” vol. V (1883); translated by Michael Grant, Eyewitness to History] Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa's public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.

“Nero's unpopularity increased because while much of the Rome's population suffered after the fire he built a massive palace, hugely extravagant even by Roman terms. Nero later blamed the burning of Rome on Christians. Thousands were executed by being forced to on the tar-impregnated "shirts of torture," which were set on fire.

Blaming Nero for the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64

Dio Cassius (c.155-235 A.D.) wrote: “Nero had the wish — or rather it had always been a fixed purpose of his — to make an end of the whole city in his lifetime. Priam he deemed wonderfully happy in that he had seen Troy perish at the same moment his authority over her ended. Accordingly, Nero sent out by different ways men feigning to be drunk, or engaged in some kind of mischief, and at first had a few fires kindled quietly and in different quarters; people, naturally, were thrown into extreme confusion, not being able to find either the cause of the trouble nor to end it; and meantime met with many strange sights and sounds. They ran about as if distracted, and some rushed one way, some another. In the midst of helping their neighbors, men would learn that their own homes were blazing. Others learned, for the first time, that their property was on fire, by being told it was burned down. People would run from their houses into the lanes, with a hope of helping from the outside, or again would rush into the houses from the streets seeming to imagine they could do something from the inside. The shouting and screaming of children, women, men, and gray beards mingled together unceasingly; and betwixt the combined smoke and shouting no one could make out anything. [Source: Dio Cassius (c.155-235 A.D.) from “Roman History, 62.16-18, William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 191-195]

“All this time many who were carrying away their own goods, and many more who were stealing what belonged to others kept encountering one another and falling over the merchandise. It was impossible to get anywhere; equally impossible to stand still. Men thrust, and were thrust back, upset others, and were upset themselves, many were suffocated or crushed; in short, no possible calamity at such a disaster failed to befall.

“This state of things lasted not one day, but several days and nights running. Many houses were destroyed through lack of defenders; and many were actually fired in more places by professed rescuers. For the soldiers (including the night watch) with a keen eye for plunder, instead of quenching the conflagration, kindled it the more. While similar scenes were taking place at various points, a sudden wind caught the fire and swept it over what remained. As a result nobody troubled longer about goods or homes, but all the survivors, from a place of safety, gazed on what appeared to be many islands and cities in flames. No longer was there any grief for private loss, public lamentation swallowed up this — as men reminded each other how once before the bulk of the city had been even thus laid desolate by the Gauls.

“While the whole people was in this state of excitement, and many driven mad by calamity were leaping into the blaze, Nero mounted upon the roof of the palace, where almost the whole conflagration was commanded by a sweeping glance, put on the professional harpist's garb, and sang "The Taking of Troy" (so he asserted), although to common minds, it seemed to be "The Taking of Rome." The disaster which the city then underwent, had no parallel save in the Gallic invasion. The whole Palatine hill, the theater of Taurus, and nearly two thirds of the rest of the city were burned. Countless persons perished.

“The populace invoked curses upon Nero without intermission, not uttering his name, but simply cursing "those who set the fire"; and this all the more because they were disturbed by the recollection of the oracle recited in Tiberius's time, to this effect,
"After three times three hundred rolling years
In civil strife Rome's Empire disappears."
And when Nero to encourage them declared these verses were nowhere to be discovered, they changed and began to repeat another oracle — alleged to be a genuine one of the Sibyl,
"When the matricide reigns in Rome,
Then ends the race of Aeneas."

“And thus it actually turned out, whether this was really revealed in advance by some divination, or whether the populace now for the first time gave it the form of a sacred utterance merely adapted to the circumstances. For Nero was indeed the last of the Julian line, descended from Aeneas. “Nero now began to collect vast sums both from individuals and nations, sometimes using downright compulsion, with the conflagration as his excuse, and sometimes obtaining funds by "voluntary" offers. As for the mass of the Romans they had the fund for their food supply withdrawn.

Did Nero Cause the Great Fire of Rome?

Nero at Baiae

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “Most historians charge Nero with having caused the great fire that nearly destroyed Rome in 64 CE. Modern criticism makes it very doubtful whether the Emperor really caused the fire; although his life was so iniquitous that people readily believed that he was guilty. The city of Rome was, for the most part, composed of very ill-built and inflammable insulae (tenement houses), and a blaze once under headway was almost impossible to check. In any case, the burning of Rome was one of the famous events of the age; and it is likely enough that thugs and bandits pretended they had the Emperor's orders, when they spread the flames in the hope of getting new chances for plunder. [Source: Dio Cassius (c.155-235 A.D.) from “Roman History, 62.16-18, William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 191-195]

Speaking up in Nero's defense, the Italian archaeologist Ida Sciortino told National Geographic, "Please remember, a lot of the stuff was written by his political opponents...Nero was not fiddling while Rome burned. He realized that nobody could save the old wooden tenements near the Tiber from such an intense blaze. So he spent that time writing a stronger fire code and designing a new city. He started reconstruction one day after the fires were out." [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]

“This rehabilitation—this process of a small group of historians trying to transform aristocrats into gentlemen—seems quite stupid to me,” famed Roman archaeologist Andrea Carandini to National Geographic. “For instance, there are serious scholars who now say that the fire was not Nero’s fault. But how could he build the Domus Aurea without the fire? Explain that to me. Whether or not he started the fire, he certainly profited from it.” ~

Marisa Ranieri Panetta, the author of books on ancient Rome and Pompeii, told National Geographic: “Even Tacitus, the great accuser of Nero, writes that no one knows whether Rome burned from arson or by chance. Rome in Nero’s time had very narrow streets” and was full of tall buildings with wooden upper stories. “Fire was essential for lighting, cooking, and heating. Consequently almost all the emperors had big fires during their reigns.”

Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “While it seems the case that Nero did enjoy playing a stringed instrument known as the kithara, the first account alleging that he did so while watching flames consume the city was written by Cassius Dio a century and a half after the fact. Tacitus, who lived during the time of Nero, wrote that the emperor ordered the homeless to be sheltered, offered cash incentives to those who could expeditiously rebuild the city, and instituted and enforced fire safety codes.” ~

Nero Rebuilds Rome

Nero's most lasting contribution was his rebuilding of Rome. Before the fire, Tacitus wrote, the great city was put together "indiscriminately and piecemeal." Afterwards, according to Nero's orders, Rome was rebuilt "in measured lines of streets, with broad thoroughfares, buildings of restricted height, and open spaces, while porticoes were added as protection to the front of the apartment-blocks...These porticoes Nero offered to erect at his own expense, and also to hand over his building sites, clear of rubbish, to the owners." He also established building codes that required new houses to be built with fire walls, and organized a fire department. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin] Tacitus wrote: “From the ashes of the fire rose a more spectacular Rome. A city made of marble and stone with wide streets, pedestrian arcades and ample supplies of water to quell any future blaze. The debris from the fire was used to fill the malaria-ridden marshes that had plagued the city for generations.

Narrow streets were widened, and more splendid buildings were erected. The vanity of the emperor was shown in the building of an enormous and meretricious palace, called the “golden house of Nero,” and also in the erection of a colossal statue of himself near the Palatine hill. To meet the expenses of these structures the provinces were obliged to contribute; and the cities and temples of Greece were plundered of their works of art to furnish the new buildings. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Nero began he process of rebuilding Rome in true imperial form

Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “In addition to the Gymnasium Neronis, the young emperor’s public building works included an amphitheater, a meat market, and a proposed canal that would connect Naples to Rome’s seaport at Ostia so as to bypass the unpredictable sea currents and ensure safe passage of the city’s food supply. Such undertakings cost money, which Roman emperors typically procured by raiding other countries. But Nero’s warless reign foreclosed this option. (Indeed, he had liberated Greece, declaring that the Greeks’ cultural contributions excused them from having to pay taxes to the empire.) Instead he elected to soak the rich with property taxes—and in the case of his great shipping canal, to seize their land altogether. The Senate refused to let him do so. Nero did what he could to circumvent the senators—“He would create these fake cases to bring some rich guy to trial and extract some heavy fine from him,” says Beste—but Nero was fast making enemies. One of them was his mother, Agrippina, who resented her loss of influence and therefore may have schemed to install her stepson, Britannicus, as the rightful heir to the throne. Another was his adviser Seneca, who was allegedly involved in a plot to kill Nero. By A.D. 65, mother, stepbrother, and consigliere had all been killed. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]

Nero's Golden Palace

Nero's Golden Palace (in a ratty-looking park on Esquiline Hill near the Colosseum Metro station) is where Nero built a sprawling palace "worthy of his greatness" that once covered about a third of Rome. Nero's most monumental construction project, it was completed in A.D. 68, the year Nero committed suicide during a revolt, when the whole city was invited inside.

Built more for carousing and relaxing than to live in, the Golden House (Domus Aura) is a ruin today but in Nero's time it was a magnificent pleasure garden decorated with gold, ivory and mother-of-pearl and statues gathered from Greece. Buildings were connected by long columned colonnades and surrounded by a vast expanse of gardens, parks and forests stock with animals from the far corners of his empire.

The main palace was built overlooking an artificial lake made by flooding the area where the Colosseum now stands; Caellian Hill was the site of his private garden; and the Forum was made into a wing of the palace. A 35-foot-high colossus of Nero, the largest bronze statue ever made, was erected. The palace was encrusted in pearls and covered with ivory,

"Its vestibule," wrote Suetonius, “was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the Emperor a hundred and twenty feet height: and it was so extensive that it had a triple portico a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities; besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domesticated animals.”

"In the rest of the palace all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers, and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolving night and day, like the heavens...When the palace was finished...he dedicated last he was beginning to be housed as a human being."

Domos Aurea Oppion plan

The Golden House was surrounded by a vast country estate right in the middle of Rome that was laid out like a stage, with woodlands and lakes and promenades accessible to all. Some scholars say that Suetonius only hinted at it splendor. Nero revisionist Ranieri Panetta told National Geographic, “it was a scandal, because there was so much Rome for one person. It wasn’t only that it was luxurious—there had been palaces all over Rome for centuries. It was the sheer size of it. There was graffiti: ‘Romans, there’s no more room for you, you have to go to [the nearby village of] Veio.’” For all its openness, what the Domus ultimately expressed was one man’s limitless power, right down to the materials used to construct it. “The idea of using so much marble was not just a show of wealth,” Irene Bragantini, an expert on Roman paintings, told National Geographic. “All of this colored marble came from the rest of the empire—from Asia Minor and Africa and Greece. The idea is that you’re controlling not just the people but also their resources. In my reconstruction, what happened in Nero’s time is that for the first time, there’s a big gap between the middle and upper class, because only the emperor has the power to give you marble.” [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 ~]

The House of Gold stood for 36 years after Nero’s suicide when it was destroyed by fire in A.D. 104. Succeeding emperors erected their own temples and palaces, filled in his ponds that were "like the sea" and hauled away the marble and statuary with elephants to decorate what later became the Colosseum. According to legend, the emperors kept the statues and replaced the heads with likenesses of themselves. The frescoed halls, today mostly underground, were preserved thanks to Emperor Trajan, who buried the palaces and used it as a foundation for a bath complex.

Criticism of Nero

Suetonius wrote: “To all the disasters and abuses thus caused bu the princeps there were added certain accidents of fortune; a plague which in a single autumn entered thirty thousand deaths in the accounts of Libitina; a disaster in Britain, where two important towns were sacked [Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and Verulamium (modern St. Albans); according to Xiphilinus 80,000 perished] and great members of citizens and allies were butchered; a shameful defeat in the Orient, in consequence of which the legions in Armenia were sent under the yoke and Syria was all but lost. It is surprising and of special note that all this time he bore nothing with more patience than the curses and abuse of the people, and was particularly lenient towards those who assailed him with gibes and lampoons. [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]

20120224-Nero torches Siemiradski_Fackeln.jpg

“Of these many were posted or circulated both in Greek and Latin, for example the following:
"Nero, Orestes, Alcmeon their mothers slew."
"A calculation new. Nero his mother slew."
"Who can deny the descent from Aeneas' great line of our Nero?
One his mother took off, the other one took off his sire."
"While our ruler his lyre does twang and the Parthian his bowstring,
Paean-singer our princeps shall be, and Far-darter our foe."
"Rome is becoming one house; off with you to Veii, Quirites!
If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well."

“He made no effort, however, to find the authors, in fact, when some of them were reported to the Senate by an informer, he forbade their being very severely punished. As he was passing along a public street, the Cynic Isidorus loudly taunted him, "because he was a good singer of the ills of Nauplius, but made ill use of his own goods." Datus also, an actor of Atellan farces, in a song beginning: "Farewell to thee, father; farewell to thee, mother," represented drinking and swimming in pantomime, referring of course to the death of Claudius and Agrippina; and in the final tag, "Orcus guides your steps," he indicated the Senate by a gesture. Nero contented himself with banishing the actor and the philosopher from the city, either because he was impervious to all insults, or to avoid sharpening men's wits by showing his vexation.

“After the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off...he was driven by numerous insulting edicts of Vindex, to urge the Senate in a letter to avenge him and the state, alleging a throat trouble as his excuse for not appearing in person. Yet there was nothing which he so much resented as the taunt that he was a wretched lyre-player and that he was addressed as Ahenobarbus instead of Nero. With regard to his family name, which was cast in his teeth as an insult, he declared that he would resume it and give up that of his adoption. He used no other arguments to show the falsity of the rest of the reproaches than that he was actually taunted with being unskilled in an art to which he had devoted so much attention and in which he had so perfected himself, and he asked various individuals from time to time whether they knew of any artist who was his superior. Finally, beset by message after message, he returned to Rome in a panic; but on the way, when but slightly encouraged by an insignificant omen, for he noticed a monument on which was sculptured the overthrow of a Gallic soldier by a Roman horseman, who was dragging him along by the hairs he leaped for joy at the sight and lifted up his hands to heaven. Not even on his arrival did he personally address the Senate or people, but called some of the leading men to his house and after a hasty consultation spent the rest of the day in exhibiting some water-organs of a new and hitherto unknown form, explaining their several features and lecturing on the theory and complexity of each of them; and he even declared that he would presently produce them all in the theater "with the kind permission of Vindex."

20120224-Nero 800px-Dirce.jpg

Nero’s Response to a Revolt in Spain

Suetonius wrote: “Thereafter, having learned that Galba also and the Spanish provinces had revolted, he fainted and lay for a long time insensible, without a word and all but dead. When he came to himself, he rent his robe and beat his brow, declaring that it was all over with him; and when his old nurse tried to comfort him by reminding him that similar evils had befallen other princes before him, he declared that unlike all others he was suffering the unheard of and unparalleled fate of losing the supreme power while he still lived. Nevertheless he did not abandon or amend his slothful and luxurious habits; on the contrary, whenever any good news came from the provinces, he not only gave lavish feasts, but even ridiculed the leaders of the revolt in verses set to wanton music, which have since become public, and accompanied them with gestures; then secretly entering the audience room of the theater, he sent word to an actor who was making a hit that he was taking advantage of the emperor's busy days. [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 very beginning of the revolt it is believed that he formed many plans of monstrous wickedness but in no way inconsistent with his character: to depose and assassinate the commanders of the armies and the governors of the provinces, on the ground that they were all united in a conspiracy against him; to massacre all the exiles everywhere and all men of Gallic birth in the city: the former, to prevent them from joining the rebels; the latter, as sharing and abetting the designs of their countrymen; to turn over the Gallic provinces to his armies to ravage; to poison the entire Senate at banquets; to set fire to the city, first letting the wild beasts loose, that it might be harder for the people to protect themselves. But he was deterred from these designs, not so much by any compunction, as because he despaired of being able to carry them out, and feeling obliged to take the field, he deposed the consuls before the end of their term and assumed the office alone in place of both of them, alleging that it was fated that the Gallic provinces could not be subdued except by a consul. Having assumed the fasces, he declared as he was leaving the dining room after a banquet, leaning on the shoulders of his comrades, that immediately on setting foot in the province he would go before the soldiers unarmed and do nothing but weep; and having thus led the rebels to change their purpose, he would next day rejoice among his rejoicing subjects and sing paeans of victory, which he ought at that very moment to be composing.

“In preparing for his campaign his first care was to select wagons to carry his theatrical instruments, to have the hair of his concubines, whom he planned to take with him, trimmed man-fashion, and to equip them with Amazonian axes and shields. Next he summoned the city tribes to enlist, and when no eligible person responded, he levied from their masters a stated number of slaves, accepting only the choicest from each household and not even exempting paymasters and secretaries. He also required all classes to contribute a part of their incomes, and all tenants of private houses and apartments to pay a year's rent at once to the privy purse [Instead of to their landlords. These people had no rating on the census list and their contribution took this form]. With great fastidiousness and rigor he demanded newly minted coin, refined silver, and pure gold [that is, tested by fire; see Pliny, Nat. Hist. 33.59], so that many openly refused to make any contribution at all, unanimously demanding that he should rather compel the informers to give up whatever rewards had been paid them.

Nero's triumphant entrance to Rome

Nero's Death

Nero was forced to commit suicide in 68 A.D. at the age of 30. He killed himself by falling on his sword. Nero's death was followed by the Year of the Four Emperors (A.D. 69), in which Rome was lead in succession by Galba, Otho, Vitellisu and Vespasian.

Suetonius wrote: “The bitter feeling against him was increased because he also turned the high cost of grain to his profit [by using for his own purposes ships which would otherwise have been loaded with grain; but the text and the meaning are uncertain]; for indeed, it so fell out that while the people were suffering from hunger it was reported that a ship had arrived from Alexandria, bringing sand for the court wrestlers. When he had thus aroused the hatred of all, there was no form of insult to which he was not subjected. A curl [doubtless an allusion to the long hair which he wore during his Greek trip] was placed on the head of his statue with the inscription in Greek: "Now there is a real contest [in contrast with those of the stage], and you must at last surrender." To the neck of another statue a sack was tied and with it the words: "I have done what I could, but you have earned the sack" [the one in which parricides were put; see Aug. xxxiii.1]. People wrote on the columns that he had stirred up even the Gauls [there is obviously a pun on "Galli" (or "Gauls") and "galli" (or "cocks"), and on "cantare" in the sense of "sing" and of "crow"] by his singing. When night came on, many men pretended to be wrangling with their slaves and kept calling out for a defender [punning, of course, on Vindex, the leader of the revolt]. [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]

“In addition, he was frightened by manifest portents from dreams, auspices and omens, both old and new. Although he had never before been in the habit of dreaming, after he had killed his mother it seemed to him that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands; that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness, and that he was now covered with a swarm of winged ants, and now was surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompeius Magnus' theater and stopped in his tracks. An Hispanic steed of which he was very fond was changed into the form of an ape in the hinder parts of its body, and its head, which alone remained unaltered, gave forth tuneful neighs. The doors of the Mausoleum flew open of their own accord, and a voice was heard from within summoning him by name. After the Lares had been adorned on the Kalends of January, they fell to the ground in the midst of the preparations for the sacrifice. As he was taking the auspices, Sporus made him a present of a ring with a stone on which was engraved the rape of Proserpina. When the vows were to be taken [on the first of January, for the prosperity of the emperor and the state] and a great throng of all classes had assembled, the keys of the Capitol could not be found for a long time. When a speech of his in which he assailed Vindex was being read in the Senate, at the words "the wretches will suffer punishment and will shortly meet the end which they deserve," all who were present cried out with one voice: "You will do it, Augustus" [of course, used in a double sense]. It also had not failed of notice that the last piece which he sang in public was "Oedipus in Exile," and that he ended with the line: "Wife, father, mother drive me to my death."

“When meanwhile word came that the other armies had revolted, he tore to pieces the dispatches which were handed to him as he was dining, tipped over the table, and dashed to the ground two favorite drinking cups, which he called "Homeric," because they were carved with scenes from Homer's poems [Pliny, Nat. Hist. 37.29 tells us that the cups were of crystal]. Then taking some poison from Locusta and putting it into a golden box, he crossed over into the Servilian gardens, where he tried to induce the tribunes and centurions of the Guard to accompany him in his flight, first sending his most trustworthy freedmen to Ostia, to get a fleet ready. But when some gave evasive answers and some openly refused, one even cried: "Is it so dreadful a thing then to die?" [Verg. Aen. 12.646] Whereupon he turned over various plans in his mind, whether to go as a suppliant to the Parthians or Galba, or to appear to the people on the Rostra, dressed in black, and beg as pathetically as he could for pardon for his past offences; and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt. Afterwards, a speech composed for this purpose was found in his writing desk; but it is thought that he did not dare to deliver it for fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum. Having therefore put off further consideration to the following day, he awoke about midnight, and finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends. Since no reply came back from anyone, he went himself to their rooms a with a few followers. But finding that the doors were closed and that no one replied to him, he returned to his own chamber, from which now the very caretakers had fled, taking with them even the bed-clothing and the box of poison. Then he at once called for the gladiator Spiculus or any other adept at whose hand he might find death, and when no one appeared, he cried "Have I then neither friend nor foe?" and ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber.

Remorse of Nero after the Murder of his Mother

“Changing his purpose again, he sought for some retired place, where he could hide and collect his thoughts; and when his freedmen Phaon offered his villa in the suburbs between the Via Nomentana and the Via Salaria near the fourth milestone, just as he was, barefooted and in his tunic, he put on a faded cloak, covered his head, and holding a handkerchief before his face, mounted a horse with only four attendants, one of whom was Sporus. At once he was startled by a shock of earthquake and a flash of lightning full in his face, and he heard the shouts of the soldiers from the camp hard by, as they prophesied destruction for him and success for Galba. He also heard one of the wayfarers whom he met say: "These men are after Nero," and another ask: "Is there anything new in the city about Nero?" Then his horse took fright at the smell of a corpse which had been thrown out into the road, his face was exposed, and a retired soldier of the Guard recognized him and saluted him. When they came to a by-path leading to the villa, they turned the horses loose and he made his way amid bushes and brambles and along a path through a thicket of reeds to the back wall of the house, with great difficulty and only when a robe was thrown down for him to walk on. Here the aforesaid Phaon urged him to hide for a time in a pit, from which sand had been dug, but he declared that he would not go under ground while still alive, and after waiting for a while until a secret entrance into the villa could be made, he scooped up in his hand some water to drink from a pool close by, saying: "This is Nero's distilled water" [referring to a drink of his own contrivance, distilled water cooled in snow; cf., Pliny, Nat. Hist. 31.40]. Then, as his cloak had been torn by the thorns, he pulled out the twigs which had pierced it, and crawling on all fours through a narrow passage that had been dug, he entered the villa and lay down in the first room ["Cella" implies a small room, for the use of slaves] he came to, on a couch with a common mattress, over which an old cloak had been thrown. Though suffering from hunger and renewed thirst, he refused some coarse bread which was offered him, but drank a little lukewarm water.

“At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him, he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, collect any bits of marble that could be found, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body [the water was for washing his corpse and the fire for burning it]. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: "What an artist the world is losing!" While he hesitated, a letter was brought to Phaon by one of his couriers. Nero snatching it from his hand read that he had been pronounced a public enemy by the Senate, and that they were seeking him to punish him in the ancient fashion [Cf., Claud. xxxiv.1], and he asked what manner of punishment that was. When he learned that the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a fork [two pieces of wood, fastened together in the form of a "V"], and then beaten to death with rods, in mortal terror he seized two daggers which he had brought with him, and then, after trying the point of each, put them up again, pleading that the fated hour had not yet come. Now he would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example; anon he reproached himself for his cowardice in such words as these: "To live is a scandal and shame---this does not become Nero, does not become him---one should be resolute at such times---come, rouse oneself!" And now the horsemen were at hand who had orders to take him off alive. When he heard them, he quavered: "Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!" [Iliad 10.535], and drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary [See Domitian xiv.4]. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in, and as he placed a cloak to the wound, pretending that he had come to aid him, Nero merely gasped: "Too late!" and "This is fidelity!" With these words he was gone, with eyes so set and starting from their sockets that all who saw him shuddered with horror. First and beyond all else he had forced from his companions a promise to let no one have his head, but to contrive in some way that he be buried unmutilated. And this was granted by Icelus, Galbas' freedman [See Galba xiv.2], who had shortly before been released from the bondage to which he was consigned at the beginning of the revolt.

Nero’s Legacy and the Celebration After His Death

Suetonius wrote: “He met his death in the thirty-second year of his age, on the anniversary of the murder of Octavia, and such was the public rejoicing that the people put on liberty-caps and ran about all over the city. Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the Rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies. Nay more, Vologaesus, King of the Parthians, when he sent envoys to the Senate to renew his alliance, earnestly begged this too, that honor be paid to the memory of Nero. In fact, twenty years later, when I was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared, who gave out that he was Nero, and the name was still in such favor with the Parthians, that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him with great reluctance. [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 was buried at a cost of two hundred thousand sesterces and laid out in white robes embroidered with gold, which he had worn on the Kalends of January. His ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens [the modern Pincio], which is visible from the Campus Martius. In that monument his sarcophagus of porphyry, with an altar of Luna marble standing above it, is enclosed by a balustrade of Thasian stone.”

In spite of such enormous crimes as those practiced by Nero, the larger part of the empire was beyond the circle of his immediate influence, and remained undisturbed. While the palace and the city presented scenes of intrigue and bloodshed, the world in general was tranquil and even prosperous. Except the occasional extortion by which the princes sought to defray the expenses of their debaucheries, Italy and the provinces were reaping the fruits of the reforms of Julius Caesar and Augustus. During this early period, the empire was better than the emperor. Men tolerated the excesses and vices of the palace, on the ground that a bad ruler was better than anarchy. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

After Nero: Year of Three Emperors

Nero was forced to commit suicide in 68 A.D. at the age of 30. He killed himself by falling on his sword. Nero's death was followed by the Year of the Four Emperors (A.D. 69), in which Rome was lead in succession by Galba, Otho, Vitellisu and Vespasian.

With the death of Nero, the imperial line which traced its descent from Julius Caesar and Augustus became extinct. With all his prudence, Augustus had failed to provide a definite law of succession. In theory the appointment of a successor depended upon the choice of the senate, with which he was supposed to share his power. But in fact it depended quite as much upon the army, upon which his power rested for support. Whether the appointment was made by the senate or by the army, the choice had hitherto always fallen upon some member of the Julian family. But with the extinction of the Julian line, the imperial office was open to anyone. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Under such circumstances we could hardly expect anything else than a contest for the throne. Not only the praetorian guards, but the legions in the field, claimed the right to name the successor. The rival claims of different armies to place their favorite generals on the throne led to a brief period of civil war—the first to break the long peace established by Augustus. \~\

Galba (A.D. 68-69): At the time of Nero’s death, the Spanish legions had already selected their commander, Galba, for the position of emperor. Advancing upon Rome, this general was accepted by the praetorians and approved by the senate. He was a man of high birth, and with a good military record. But his career was a brief one. The legions on the Rhine revolted against him. The praetorians were discontented with his severity and small donations: He soon found a rival in Otho, the husband of the infamous Poppaea Sabina who had disgraced the reign of Nero. Otho enlisted the support of the praetorians, and Galba was murdered to give place to his rival. \~\

Otho (A.D. 69): The brief space of three months, during which Otho was emperor, cannot be called a reign, but only an attempt to reign. On his accession the new aspirant to the throne found his right immediately disputed by the legions of Spain and Gaul, which proclaimed Vitellius. The armies of these two rivals met in northern Italy, and fortune declared in favor of Vitellius. \~\

Vitellius (A.D. 69): No sooner had Vitellius begun to revel in the luxuries of the palace, than the standard of revolt was again raised, this time by the legions of the East in favor of their able and popular commander, Vespasian. The events of the previous contest were now repeated; and on the same battlefield in northern Italy where Otho’s army had been defeated by that of Vitellius, the forces of Vitellius were now defeated by those of Vespasian. Afterward a severe and bloody contest took place in the streets of Rome, and Vespasian made his position secure. \~\ The only significance of these three so-called reigns, and the civil wars which attended them, is the fact that they showed the great danger to which the empire was exposed by having no regular law of succession. \~\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; 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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.