Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 ce) was the fifth of the five Julio-Claudian emperors and one of the most notorious. Two millennia after his death, his name continues to conjure images of a cruel, self-indulgent tyrant who “fiddled while Rome burned.” He is also legendary for being one of the first rulers to order the persecution of a small religious sect known as the Christians. Despite the overwhelmingly negative views of Nero and his rule, he represents an important period in the history of Rome. Nero was the last emperor with a hereditary link to Julius Caesar. He reigned at the end of a century of peace. After his death, civil war broke out. Because Nero had ordered the death of any relative who might inherit the throne after him, when he died the throne was open to anyone with the power to claim and keep it.
Nero was born in Antium in December, 37 CE, and was named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father, Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was a member of a distinguished noble family of the republic. His mother, Agrippina the younger, was the daughter of Germanicus. When Lucius was 2 years old, his father died. The reigning emperor, Gaius (Caligula), brother to Agrippina, seized his inheritance and banished mother and son to the Pontian Islands, where they lived in near poverty. Caligula and his wife and infant daughter were killed in 41 CE. His uncle Claudius, a far milder ruler, ascended to the throne and recalled his niece and her son from exile. Agrippina, a very ambitious woman, promptly arranged a proper education for her son.
In 48 CE, Claudius had his wife Messalina executed for adultery. The following year he married his niece Agrippina, and she furthered Lucius’s prospects by having him betrothed to his stepsister Octavia (whom he married 4 years later). Lucius completed his education under the tutelage of the eminent Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca. In 50 CE, Agrippina persuaded Claudius to formally adopt her son, securing his place as heir to the throne. Lucius’s name was officially changed to Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus.
Claudius died in 54 CE—probably poisoned by his wife. Nero claimed the throne with the support of the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. Agrippina acted as regent to the 16-year- old emperor. Nero’s first few years as ruler were stable, led by the sound guidance of Burrus and Seneca. Nero announced that he would model his rule after that of Augustus, a very prestigious and respected ancestor. Nero applied himself to his judicial duties, granting more freedom to the senate, forbidding the killing of gladiators and criminals, lessening taxes and the extortion of money by provincial governors, and making reforms to legislation.
Difficult decisions and administrative pressures eventually caused Nero to withdraw. He devoted himself to pleasures: chariot racing, singing, poetry, acting, dancing, and sexual activity. Seneca and Burrus attempted to keep his performances private and the government running smoothly. Agrippina was furious about (some say jealous of) Nero’s conquests. She also deplored her son’s interest in Greek art. Nero grew hostile toward his mother as news of her virulent gossip came back to him.
Nero’s life reached a turning point when he took a new mistress named Poppaea Sabina. Agrippina supported his wife Octavia, who was naturally opposed to this latest affair. Nero responded by making various attempts on his mother’s life. After three unsuccessful attempts to poison her, the ceiling over her bed was rigged to collapse while she slept. That also failed, so a boat was constructed that would break apart and sink in the Bay of Naples. However, Agrippina managed to swim ashore as the boat sank. An exasperated Nero finally sent an assassin who clubbed and stabbed her to death in 59 CE. Nero reported to the senate that his mother was plotting his death and he had no choice but to retaliate. The senators had never approved of Agrippina and did not question her removal.
Nero celebrated his freedom with even more contests, festivals, and orgies. He sang, acted, and played instruments in public. Performers were considered unsavory, so it was an outrage to have an emperor on stage. In 62 CE, Burrus died from an illness. He was succeeded as praetorian prefect by two senators who were corrupt and encouraged Nero in his excesses. Seneca found the situation uncontrollable and resigned. Nero’s life became a series of scanDalís. He divorced Octavia and had her killed later that year. He then married Poppaea, who was also killed by Nero a short time later.
Despite Nero’s behavior in Rome, the empire as a whole was relatively peaceful and prosperous until one of the greatest disasters in Rome’s long history occurred. In July of 64 CE, the great fire of Rome ravaged the city for 6 days. When it was finally contained, 10 of the 14 districts of the city had been reduced to rubble and ashes. After the fire, Nero claimed a vast area and began construction of his “Golden Palace.” Given the vast size of this complex, it could never have been built before the fire. The Roman people began to have suspicions about the source of the blaze. Nero, always desperate to be popular, looked for a scapegoat to blame. He found a new, obscure religious sect called the Christians. Many were arrested, thrown to the wild animals in the circus, burned to death, or crucified.
Beginning of the End
A large-scale conspiracy planned by a number of senators to remove Nero from the throne was discovered in 65 CE. The 27-year-old had been emperor for more than a decade, and the only positive result of his reign was the strict building codes put into place after the great fire, making Rome a safer and more attractive city. Nero’s response to the conspiracy was to take an extended tour of Greece while his prefect decimated the senatorial ranks by execution or ordered suicide. In the year 68 CE, another revolt began in the provinces. Galba, an elderly provincial governor, claimed the throne and marched his troops toward Rome. Nero was abandoned by the few supporters he had remaining. The senate ordered Nero’s death. Nero heard and chose to commit suicide instead, with the assistance of his secretary. He died on June 9 in the year 68 AD. Even at the very end of his life, Nero remained more concerned with his artistic pursuits than affairs of state. His last words were “Qualis artifex pereo!” or, “What an artist the world loses in me!”
Nero ruled when there had been over 100 years of relative peace. Despite his antics in Rome, the people in the rest of the empire lived well enough to prevent unrest. Before Nero’s death, he had every relative who might ascend to the throne killed, to assure that a child with his blood would rise to power. After he died childless, civil war broke out, because the throne was open to anyone who claimed it. The last of the Caesars was succeeded by a series of provincial strongmen with personal armies.
Jill M. Church
See also Caesar, Gaius Julius; Christianity; Rome, Ancient
Champin, E. (2003). Nero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Grant, M. (1985). The Roman emperors: A biographical guide to the rulers of imperial Rome 31 BC-AD 476. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Suetonius. (2003). The twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Classics.