Nero. A.D. 54-68. AE As. Rome Mint A.D. 65.
Obverse: NERO CAESAR AVG. GERM. IMP. Nero, laureate,
Reverse: PACE P. R.VBIQ. PARTA. IANVM CLVSIT. S -
C to l. and r.
of view of the front of temple of Janus, with latticed
window to r.
and garland hung across closed double doors to l
RIC 168, 309. WCN 289. BMC 232
Nero (Latin: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; 15 December 37 AD
– 9 June 68 AD) was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian
dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his
heir and successor, and acceded to the throne in 54 following Claudius'
Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade and enhancing the
cultural life of the empire, ordering theatres built and promoting athletic
games, but according to the historian Tacitus (writing one generation later)
he was viewed by the Roman people as compulsive and corrupt. During
his reign, the redoubtable general Corbulo conducted a successful war and
negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire. His general Suetonius
Paulinus crushed a revolt in Britain. Nero annexed the Bosporan Kingdom
to the empire and may have begun the First Jewish–Roman War.
In 64 AD, most of Rome was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. Suetonius,
writing a generation later claims that many Romans believed Nero himself
had started the fire, in order to clear land for his planned palatial complex,
the Domus Aurea. In 68, the rebellion of Vindex in Gaul and later
the acclamation of Galba in Hispania drove Nero from the throne.
Facing a false report of being denounced as a public enemy who was to be
executed, he committed suicide on 9 June 68 (the first Roman emperor to
do so). His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, sparking a brief
period of civil wars known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Nero's
rule is often associated with tyranny and extravagance. He is known
for many executions, including that of his mother, and the probable murder
by poison of his stepbrother Britannicus.
Nero was rumored to have had captured Christians dipped in oil and set
on fire in his garden at night as a source of light. This view is
based on the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, the main surviving
sources for Nero's reign, but a few sources paint Nero in a more favourable
light. Some sources, including some mentioned above, portray him
as an emperor who was popular with the common Roman people, especially
in the East. Some modern historians question the reliability of ancient
sources when reporting on Nero's tyrannical acts.
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero, was born on 15 December 37 in Antium
(modern Anzio and Nettuno), near Rome. He was the only son of Gnaeus
Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, sister of Emperor Caligula.
Nero's father, Gnaeus, was the son of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul
16 BC) and Antonia Major. Gnaeus was thus the grandson of Gnaeus
Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul 32 BC) and probably Aemilia Lepida on his
father's side, and the grandson of Mark Antony and Octavia Minor on his
mother's side. Thus, Nero had as his paternal grandmother Antonia
Major, and also claimed more remote descent from Antonia Minor as a great-grandson—later
grandson after Claudius adopted him.
Through Octavia, Nero was the great-nephew of Caesar Augustus. Nero's
father had been employed as a praetor and was a member of Caligula's staff
when the latter travelled to the East (some apparently think Suetonius
refers to Augustus's adopted son Gaius Caesar here, but this is not likely).
Nero's father was described by Suetonius as a murderer and a cheat who
was charged by Emperor Tiberius with treason, adultery and incest.
Tiberius died, allowing him to escape these charges. Nero's father
died of edema ("dropsy") in 39 when Nero was two.
Nero's mother was Agrippina the Younger, a great-granddaughter of Caesar
Augustus and his wife Scribonia through their daughter Julia the Elder
and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Agrippina's father, Germanicus,
was a grandson of Augustus's wife, Livia, on one side and Mark Antony and
Octavia on the other. Germanicus' mother Antonia Minor was a daughter
of Octavia Minor and Mark Antony. Octavia was Augustus' elder sister.
Germanicus was also the adopted son of Tiberius. Agrippina poisoned
her second husband Passienus Crispus, so many ancient historians also accuse
her of murdering her third husband, the emperor Claudius.
Rise to power:
Nero was not expected to become Emperor because his maternal uncle, Caligula,
had begun his reign at the age of 24 with enough time to produce his own
heir. Nero's mother, Agrippina, lost favour with Caligula and was
exiled in 39 after her husband's death. Caligula seized Nero's inheritance
and sent him to be brought up by his less wealthy aunt, Domitia Lepida,
who was the mother of Valeria Messalina, Claudius's third wife. Caligula,
his wife Caesonia and their infant daughter Julia Drusilla were murdered
on 24 January 41. These events led Claudius, Caligula's uncle, to
become emperor. Claudius allowed Agrippina to return from exile.
Claudius had married twice before marrying Valeria Messalina. His
previous marriages produced three children including a son, Drusus, who
died at a young age. He had two children with Messalina – Claudia
Octavia (born 40) and Britannicus (born 41). Messalina was executed
by Claudius in the year 48.
In 49 AD, Claudius was married for a fourth time, to Nero's mother Agrippina,
despite her being his niece. To aid Claudius politically, young Nero
was adopted in 50 and took the name Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus
(see adoption in Rome). Nero was older than his stepbrother Britannicus,
and thus became heir to the throne.
Nero was proclaimed an adult in 51 at the age of 14. He was appointed
proconsul, entered and first addressed the Senate, made joint public appearances
with Claudius, and was featured in coinage. In 53, he married his
stepsister Claudia Octavia.
Emperor (54–68 AD)
Claudius died in 54 and Nero was established as Emperor. Though accounts
vary, many ancient historians state Agrippina poisoned Claudius.
According to Pliny the Elder, she used poison mushrooms. It is not
known how much Nero knew or if he was even involved in the death of Claudius.
Suetonius wrote: "... for even if
he was not the instigator of the emperor's death, he was at least privy
to it, as he openly admitted; for he used afterwards to laud mushrooms,
the vehicle in which the poison was administered to Claudius, as "the food
of the gods," as the Greek proverb has it. At any rate, after Claudius'
death he vented on him every kind of insult, in act and word, charging
him now with folly and now with cruelty; for it was a favourite joke of
his to say that Claudius had ceased "to play the fool" among mortals, lengthening
the first syllable of the word morari, and he disregarded many of his decrees
and acts as the work of a madman and a dotard. Finally, he neglected
to enclose the place where his body was burned except with a low and mean
Nero became Emperor at the age of 17 when the news of Claudius' death was
made known, making him the youngest emperor thus far. In the first
year of his reign, he was advised, and strongly influenced, by his mother
Agrippina; by his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca; and by his Praetorian Prefect,
Sextus Afranius Burrus. His other tutors, such as Alexander of Aegae,
are less often mentioned.
Agrippina competed with Seneca and Burrus for control of the young emperor.
At first, she seems to have succeeded; on the earliest coin issues of Nero's
reign, Agrippina's face confronts that of her son, as if they are equals
or co-rulers. Agrippina resented Seneca's influence over her son
but Nero preferred Seneca's advice to his mother's. In 54, Agrippina
tried to sit down next to Nero while he met with an Armenian envoy, but
Seneca stopped her and thus prevented a scandalous breach of protocol.
Nero's friends also mistrusted Agrippina and told Nero to beware of his
Nero was reportedly unsatisfied with his marriage to Octavia and entered
into an affair with Claudia Acte, a former slave. In 55, Agrippina
attempted to intervene in favor of Octavia and demanded that her son dismiss
Acte. Nero, with the support of Seneca, resisted the intervention
of his mother in his personal affairs.
With Agrippina's influence over her son severed, she reportedly began pushing
for Britannicus, Nero's stepbrother, to become emperor. Nearly fourteen-year-old
Britannicus, heir-designate prior to Nero's adoption, was still legally
a minor, but was approaching legal adulthood. According to Tacitus,
Agrippina hoped that with her support, Britannicus, being the blood son
of Claudius, would be seen as the true heir to the throne by the state
over Nero. However, the youth died suddenly and suspiciously on 12
February 55, the very day before his proclamation as an adult had been
Nero claimed that Britannicus died from an epileptic seizure, but ancient
historians all claim Britannicus' death came from Nero's poisoning him.
Supposedly, he enlisted the services of Locusta, a woman who specialized
in the manufacture of poisons. She devised a mixture to kill Britannicus,
but after testing it unsuccessfully on a slave, Nero angrily threatened
to have her put to death if she did not come up with something usable.
Locusta then devised a new concoction that she promised would "kill swifter
than a viper."
Her promise was fulfilled after Britannicus consumed it at a dinner party
from water used to cool his wine, which had already been tasted, and succumbed
within minutes. After the death of Britannicus, Agrippina was accused
of slandering Octavia and Nero ordered her out of the imperial residence.
Matricide and consolidation of power:
Over time, Nero became progressively more powerful, freeing himself of
his advisers and eliminating possible threats and rivals. In 55,
he removed Marcus Antonius Pallas, an ally of Agrippina, from his position
in the treasury. Pallas, along with Burrus, was accused of conspiring
against the Emperor to bring Faustus Sulla to the throne.[ Seneca
was accused of embezzlement, and of having sexual relations with Agrippina.
Seneca, Pallas and Burrus were acquitted; but their subsequent influence
over Nero was much reduced.
In 58, Nero became romantically involved with Poppaea Sabina, the wife
of his friend and future emperor Otho; and in the following year, he arranged
the murder of his mother, Agrippina. Some ancient sources speculate
that the murder cleared the way for Nero's marriage to Poppaea; Agrippina,
had she lived, would have resisted Nero's divorce from Octavia. A
number of modern historians find this an unlikely motive for the murder,
as Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62. Others speculate the murder
as response to a plot by Agrippina to set Rubellius Plautus on the throne.
According to Suetonius, Nero had his former freedman Anicetus arrange a
shipwreck; but the wreck took the life of Agrippina's friend, Acerronia
Polla; Agrippina swam ashore and was executed by Anicetus, who framed her
death as a suicide.
In 62, Nero's adviser Burrus, died. Seneca was again faced with embezzlement
charges. Seneca asked Nero for permission to retire from public affairs.
Nero divorced and banished Octavia on grounds of infertility, leaving him
free to marry the pregnant Poppaea. After public protests, Nero was
forced to allow Octavia to return from exile, but she was executed shortly
after her return.
Nero was said to have kicked Poppaea to death in 65, before she could have
his second child. Modern historians, noting the likely biases of
Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, and the likely absence of eyewitnesses
to such an event, propose that Poppaea may have died after miscarriage
or in childbirth.
Accusations of treason being plotted against Nero and the Senate first
appeared in 62. The Senate ruled that Antistius, a praetor, should
be put to death for speaking ill of Nero at a party. Later, Nero
ordered the exile of Fabricius Veiento who slandered the Senate in a book.
Tacitus writes that the roots of the conspiracy led by Gaius Calpurnius
Piso began in this year. To consolidate power, Nero executed a number
of people in 62 and 63 including his rivals Pallas, Rubellius Plautus and
Faustus Sulla. According to Suetonius, Nero "showed neither discrimination
nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased" during this period.
Nero's consolidation of power also included a slow usurping of authority
from the Senate. In 54, Nero promised to give the Senate powers equivalent
to those under Republican rule. By 65, senators complained that they
had no power left and this led to the Pisonian conspiracy.
When Nero's wife Poppaea Sabina died in 65, Nero went into deep mourning.
Her body was not cremated, it was stuffed with spices, embalmed and put
in the Mausoleum of Augustus. She was given a state funeral.
Nero praised her during the funeral eulogy and gave her divine honors.
It is said that Nero "burned ten years' worth of Arabia's incense production
at her funeral.
In the beginning of 66, he married Statilia Messalina. She was already
married when she became Nero's mistress in 65 AD, with Statilia's husband
being driven to suicide in 66, so Nero could marry Statilia. She
was one of the few of Nero's courtiers who survived the fall of his reign.
In 67, Nero ordered a young freedman, Sporus, to be
castrated and then married him. According to Dion Cassius, Sporus
bore an uncanny resemblance to Sabina, and Nero even called him by his
dead wife's name.
Over the course of his reign, Nero often made rulings that pleased the
lower class. Nero was criticized as being obsessed with personal popularity.
Nero began his reign in 54 by promising the Senate more autonomy.
In this first year, he forbade others to refer to him with regard to enactments,
for which he was praised by the Senate. Nero was known for spending
his time visiting brothels and taverns during this period.
In 55, Nero began taking on a more active role as an administrator.
He was consul four times between 55 and 60. During this period, some
ancient historians speak fairly well of Nero and contrast it with his later
Under Nero, restrictions were put on the amount of bail and fines.
Also, fees for lawyers were limited. There was a discussion in the
Senate on the misconduct of the freedmen class, and a strong demand was
made that patrons should have the right of revoking freedom. Nero
supported the freedmen and ruled that patrons had no such right.
The Senate tried to pass a law in which the crimes of one slave applied
to all slaves within a household. Despite riots from the people, Nero supported
the Senate on their measure, and deployed troops to organise the execution
of 400 slaves affected by the law. However, he vetoed strong measures
against the freedmen affected by the case.
After tax collectors were accused of being too harsh to the poor, Nero
transferred collection authority to lower commissioners. Nero banned
any magistrate or procurator from exhibiting public entertainment for fear
that the venue was being used as a method to sway the populace. Additionally,
there were many impeachments and removals of government officials along
with arrests for extortion and corruption.
When further complaints arose that the poor were being overly taxed, Nero
attempted to repeal all indirect taxes. The Senate convinced him
this action would bankrupt the public treasury. As a compromise,
taxes were cut from 4.5% to 2.5%. Additionally, secret government
tax records were ordered to become public. To lower the cost of food
imports, merchant ships were declared tax-exempt.
In imitation of the Greeks, Nero built a number of gymnasiums and theatres.
Enormous gladiatorial shows were also held. Nero also established
the quinquennial Neronia. The festival included games, poetry, and
theater. Historians indicate that there was a belief that theatre
led to immorality.[ Others considered that to have performers dressed
in Greek clothing was old fashioned. Some questioned the large public
expenditure on entertainment.
In 64, Rome burned. Nero enacted a public relief effort as well as
significant reconstruction. A number of other major construction
projects occurred in Nero's late reign. Nero had the marshes of Ostia
filled with rubble from the fire. He erected the large Domus Aurea.
In 67, Nero attempted to have a canal dug at the Isthmus of Corinth.
Ancient historians state that these projects and others exacerbated the
drain on the State's budget.
The cost to rebuild Rome was immense, requiring funds the state treasury
did not have. Nero devalued the Roman currency for the first time
in the Empire's history. He reduced the weight of the denarius from
84 per Roman pound to 96 (3.85 grams to 3.35 grams). He also reduced
the silver purity from 99.5% to 93.5%—the silver weight dropping from 3.83
grams to 3.4 grams. Furthermore, Nero reduced the weight of the aureus
from 40 per Roman pound to 45 (8 grams to 7.2 grams).
Between 62 and 67, according to Plinius the Elder and Seneca, Nero promoted
an expedition to discover the sources of the Nile River. It was the
first exploration of equatorial Africa from Europe in history. However,
Nero's expedition up the Nile failed upon reaching the impenetrable Sudd
of present-day South Sudan.
The economic policy of Nero is a point of debate among scholars.
According to ancient historians, Nero's construction projects were overly
extravagant and the large number of expenditures under Nero left Italy
"thoroughly exhausted by contributions of money" with "the provinces ruined."
Modern historians, though, note that the period was riddled with deflation
and that it is likely that Nero's spending came in the form of public works
projects and charity intended to ease economic troubles.
Great Fire of Rome (64 AD)
The Great Fire of Rome erupted on the night of 18 July to 19 July 64. The
fire started at the southeastern end of the Circus Maximus in shops selling
The extent of the fire is uncertain. According to Tacitus, who was
nine at the time of the fire, it spread quickly and burned for over five
days. It destroyed three of fourteen Roman districts and severely
damaged seven. The only other historian who lived through the period
and mentioned the fire is Pliny the Elder, who wrote about it in passing.
Other historians who lived through the period (including Josephus, Dio
Chrysostom, Plutarch and Epictetus) make no mention of it in what remains
of their work.
It is uncertain who or what actually caused the fire—whether accident or
arson. Suetonius and Cassius Dio favor Nero as the arsonist, so he
could build a palatial complex. Tacitus mentions that Christians
confessed to the crime, but it is not known whether these confessions were
induced by torture. However, accidental fires were common in ancient
Rome. In fact, Rome suffered other large fires in 69 and in 80.
It was said by Suetonius and Cassius Dio that Nero sang the "Sack of Ilium"
in stage costume while the city burned. Popular legend claims that
Nero played the fiddle at the time of the fire, an anachronism based merely
on the concept of the lyre, a stringed instrument associated with Nero
and his performances. (The fiddle was not invented until the 10th
century.) Tacitus's account, however, has Nero in Antium at the time
of the fire. Tacitus also said that Nero playing his lyre and singing
while the city burned was only rumor.
According to Tacitus, upon hearing news of the fire, Nero returned to Rome
to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds.
Nero's contributions to the relief extended to personally taking part in
the search for and rescue of victims of the blaze, spending days searching
the debris without even his bodyguards. After the fire, Nero opened
his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless, and arranged for food
supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors.
In the wake of the fire, he made a new urban development plan. Houses
after the fire were spaced out, built in brick, and faced by porticos on
wide roads. Nero also built a new palace complex known as the Domus
Aurea in an area cleared by the fire. This included lush artificial
landscapes and a 30-meter-tall statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero.
The size of this complex is debated (from 100 to 300 acres). To find
the necessary funds for the reconstruction, tributes were imposed on the
provinces of the empire.
Tacitus, in one of the earliest non-Christian references to the origins
of Christianity, notes that the population searched for a scapegoat and
rumors held Nero responsible. To deflect blame, Nero targeted Christians.
He ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified
Nero enjoyed driving a one-horse chariot, singing to the lyre and poetry.
He even composed songs that were performed by other entertainers throughout
the empire. At first, Nero only performed for a private audience.
In 64 AD, Nero began singing in public in Neapolis in order to improve
his popularity. He also sang at the second quinquennial Neronia in
65. It was said that Nero craved the attention, but historians also
write that Nero was encouraged to sing and perform in public by the Senate,
his inner circle and the people. Ancient historians strongly criticize
his choice to perform, calling it shameful.
Nero was persuaded to participate in the Olympic Games of 67 in order to
improve relations with Greece and display Roman dominance. As a competitor,
Nero raced a ten-horse chariot and nearly died after being thrown from
it. He also performed as an actor and a singer. Though Nero
faltered in his racing (in one case, dropping out entirely before the end)
and acting competitions, he won these crowns nevertheless and paraded them
when he returned to Rome. The victories are attributed to Nero bribing
the judges and his status as emperor.
War and peace with Parthia:
Shortly after Nero's accession to the throne in 54, the Roman vassal kingdom
of Armenia overthrew their Iberian prince Rhadamistus and he was replaced
with the Parthian prince Tiridates. This was seen as a Parthian invasion
of Roman territory. There was concern in Rome over how the young
Emperor would handle the situation. Nero reacted by immediately sending
the military to the region under the command of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.
The Parthians temporarily relinquished control of Armenia to Rome.
The peace did not last and full-scale war broke out in 58. The Parthian
king Vologases I refused to remove his brother Tiridates from Armenia.
The Parthians began a full-scale invasion of the Armenian kingdom.
Commander Corbulo responded and repelled most of the Parthian army that
same year. Tiridates retreated and Rome again controlled most of
Nero was acclaimed in public for this initial victory. Tigranes,
a Cappadocian noble raised in Rome, was installed by Nero as the new ruler
of Armenia. Corbulo was appointed governor of Syria as a reward.
In 62, Tigranes invaded the Parthian province of Adiabene. Again,
Rome and Parthia were at war and this continued until 63. Parthia
began building up for a strike against the Roman province of Syria.
Corbulo tried to convince Nero to continue the war, but Nero opted for
a peace deal instead. There was anxiety in Rome about eastern grain
supplies and a budget deficit.
The result was a deal where Tiridates again became the Armenian king, but
was crowned in Rome by Emperor Nero. In the future, the king of Armenia
was to be a Parthian prince, but his appointment required approval from
the Romans. Tiridates was forced to come to Rome and partake in ceremonies
meant to display Roman dominance.
This peace deal of 63 was a considerable victory for Nero politically.
Nero became very popular in the eastern provinces of Rome and with the
Parthians as well. The peace between Parthia and Rome lasted 50 years
until Emperor Trajan of Rome invaded Armenia in 114.
Other major power struggles and rebellions:
The war with Parthia was not Nero's only major war but he was both criticized
and praised for an aversion to battle. Like many emperors, Nero faced
a number of rebellions and power struggles within the empire.
British Revolt of 60–61 (Boudica's Uprising):
In 60, a major rebellion broke out in the province of Britannia.
While the governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and his troops were busy capturing
the island of Mona (Anglesey) from the druids, the tribes of the southeast
staged a revolt led by queen Boudica of the Iceni. Boudica and her
troops destroyed three cities before the army of Paulinus could return,
receive reinforcements, and quell the rebellion in 61. Fearing Paulinus
himself would provoke further rebellion, Nero replaced him with the more
passive Publius Petronius Turpilianus.
The Pisonian Conspiracy of 65:
In 65, Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a Roman statesman, organized a conspiracy
against Nero with the help of Subrius Flavus and Sulpicius Asper, a tribune
and a centurion of the Praetorian Guard. According to Tacitus, many
conspirators wished to "rescue the state" from the emperor and restore
the Republic. The freedman Milichus discovered the conspiracy and
reported it to Nero's secretary, Epaphroditos. As a result, the conspiracy
failed and its members were executed including Lucan, the poet. Nero's
previous advisor, Seneca was ordered to commit suicide after admitting
he discussed the plot with the conspirators.
The First Jewish War of 66–70:
In 66, there was a Jewish revolt in Judea stemming from Greek and Jewish
religious tension. In 67, Nero dispatched Vespasian to restore order.
This revolt was eventually put down in 70, after Nero's death. This
revolt is famous for Romans breaching the walls of Jerusalem and destroying
the Second Temple of Jerusalem.
The revolt of Vindex and Galba and the death of Nero:
In March 68, Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled
against Nero's tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor
of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex's rebellion.
In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called
upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to
join the rebellion and further, to declare himself emperor in opposition
At the Battle of Vesontio in May 68, Verginius' forces easily defeated
those of Vindex and the latter committed suicide. However, after
putting down this one rebel, Verginius' legions attempted to proclaim their
own commander as Emperor. Verginius refused to act against Nero,
but the discontent of the legions of Germany and the continued opposition
of Galba in Spain did not bode well for him.
While Nero had retained some control of the situation, support for Galba
increased despite his being officially declared a public enemy ('hostis
publicus'). The prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Nymphidius
Sabinus, also abandoned his allegiance to the Emperor and came out in support
In response, Nero fled Rome with the intention of going to the port of
Ostia and, from there, to take a fleet to one of the still-loyal eastern
provinces. According to Suetonius, Nero abandoned the idea when some
army officers openly refused to obey his commands, responding with a line
from Vergil's Aeneid: "Is it so dreadful a thing then to die?" Nero
then toyed with the idea of fleeing to Parthia, throwing himself upon the
mercy of Galba, or to appeal to the people and beg them to pardon him for
his past offences "and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat
them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt". Suetonius reports
that the text of this speech was later found in Nero's writing desk, but
that he dared not give it from fear of being torn to pieces before he could
reach the Forum.
Nero returned to Rome and spent the evening in the palace. After sleeping,
he awoke at about midnight to find the palace guard had left. Dispatching
messages to his friends' palace chambers for them to come, he received
no answers. Upon going to their chambers personally, he found them
all abandoned. When he called for a gladiator or anyone else adept
with a sword to kill him, no one appeared. He cried, "Have I neither
friend nor foe?" and ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber.
Returning, Nero sought for some place where he could hide and collect his
thoughts. An imperial freedman, Phaon, offered his villa, located
4 miles outside the city. Travelling in disguise, Nero and four loyal
freedmen, Epaphroditos, Phaon, Neophytus, and Sporus, reached the villa,
where Nero ordered them to dig a grave for him.
At this time, a courier arrived with a report that the Senate had declared
Nero a public enemy and that it was their intention to execute him by beating
him to death and that armed men had been sent to apprehend him for the
act to take place in the Forum. The Senate actually was still reluctant
and deliberating on the right course of action as Nero was the last member
of the Julio-Claudian Family. Indeed, most of the senators had served
the imperial family all their lives and felt a sense of loyalty to the
deified bloodline, if not to Nero himself. The men actually had the
goal of returning Nero back to the Senate, where the Senate hoped to work
out a compromise with the rebelling governors that would preserve Nero's
life, so that at least a future heir to the dynasty could be produced.
Nero, however, did not know this, and at the news brought by the courier,
he prepared himself for suicide, pacing up and down muttering Qualis artifex
pereo ("What an artist dies in me"). Losing his nerve, he first begged
for one of his companions to set an example by first killing himself.
At last, the sound of approaching horsemen drove Nero to face the end.
However, he still could not bring himself to take his own life but instead
he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to perform the task.
When one of the horsemen entered, upon his seeing Nero all but dead he
attempted to stop the bleeding in vain. Nero's final words were "Too
late! This is fidelity!" He died on 9 June 68, the anniversary
of the death of Octavia, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii
Ahenobarbi, in what is now the Villa Borghese (Pincian Hill) area of Rome.
With his death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended. The Senate, when
news of his death reached Rome, posthumously declared Nero a public enemy
to appease the coming Galba (as the Senate had initially declared Galba
as a public enemy) and proclaimed Galba the new emperor. Chaos would
ensue in the year of the Four Emperors.
According to Suetonius and Cassius Dio, the people of Rome celebrated the
death of Nero. Tacitus, though, describes a more complicated political
environment. Tacitus mentions that Nero's death was welcomed by Senators,
nobility and the upper class. The lower-class, slaves, frequenters
of the arena and the theater, and "those who were supported by the famous
excesses of Nero", on the other hand, were upset with the news. Members
of the military were said to have mixed feelings, as they had allegiance
to Nero, but were bribed to overthrow him.
Eastern sources, namely Philostratus II and Apollonius of Tyana, mention
that Nero's death was mourned as he "restored the liberties of Hellas with
a wisdom and moderation quite alien to his character" and that he "held
our liberties in his hand and respected them."
Modern scholarship generally holds that, while the Senate and more well-off
individuals welcomed Nero's death, the general populace was "loyal to the
end and beyond, for Otho and Vitellius both thought it worthwhile to appeal
to their nostalgia."
Nero's name was erased from some monuments, in what Edward Champlin regards
as an "outburst of private zeal". Many portraits of Nero were reworked
to represent other figures; according to Eric R. Varner, over fifty such
images survive. This reworking of images is often explained as part
of the way in which the memory of disgraced emperors was condemned posthumously
(see damnatio memoriae). Champlin, however, doubts that the practice
is necessarily negative and notes that some continued to create images
of Nero long after his death.
The civil war during the year of the Four Emperors was described by ancient
historians as a troubling period. According to Tacitus, this instability
was rooted in the fact that emperors could no longer rely on the perceived
legitimacy of the imperial bloodline, as Nero and those before him could.
Galba began his short reign with the execution of many allies of Nero and
possible future enemies. One such notable enemy included Nymphidius
Sabinus, who claimed to be the son of Emperor Caligula.
Otho overthrew Galba. Otho was said to be liked by many soldiers
because he had been a friend of Nero's and resembled him somewhat in temperament.
It was said that the common Roman hailed Otho as Nero himself. Otho
used "Nero" as a surname and reerected many statues to Nero. Vitellius
overthrew Otho. Vitellius began his reign with a large funeral for
Nero complete with songs written by Nero.
After Nero's suicide in 68, there was a widespread belief, especially in
the eastern provinces, that he was not dead and somehow would return.
This belief came to be known as the Nero Redivivus Legend.
The legend of Nero's return lasted for hundreds of years after Nero's death.
Augustine of Hippo wrote of the legend as a popular belief in 422.
At least three Nero imposters emerged leading rebellions. The first,
who sang and played the cithara or lyre and whose face was similar to that
of the dead emperor, appeared in 69 during the reign of Vitellius.
After persuading some to recognize him, he was captured and executed.
Sometime during the reign of Titus (79–81), another impostor appeared in
Asia and sang to the accompaniment of the lyre and looked like Nero but
he, too, was killed. Twenty years after Nero's death, during the
reign of Domitian, there was a third pretender. He was supported
by the Parthians, who only reluctantly gave him up, and the matter almost
came to war.
In his book The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius describes
Nero as "about the average height, his body marked with spots and malodorous,
his hair light blonde, his features regular rather than attractive, his
eyes blue and somewhat weak, his neck over thick, his belly prominent,
and his legs very slender."
The history of Nero's reign is problematic in that no historical sources
survived that were contemporary with Nero. These first histories
at one time did exist and were described as biased and fantastical, either
overly critical or praising of Nero. The original sources were also
said to contradict on a number of events. Nonetheless, these lost
primary sources were the basis of surviving secondary and tertiary histories
on Nero written by the next generations of historians. A few of the
contemporary historians are known by name. Fabius Rusticus, Cluvius
Rufus and Pliny the Elder all wrote condemning histories on Nero that are
now lost. There were also pro-Nero histories, but it is unknown who
wrote them or for what deeds Nero was praised.
The bulk of what is known of Nero comes from Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius
Dio, who were all of the senatorial class. Tacitus and Suetonius
wrote their histories on Nero over fifty years after his death, while Cassius
Dio wrote his history over 150 years after Nero's death. These sources
contradict on a number of events in Nero's life including the death of
Claudius, the death of Agrippina, and the Roman fire of 64, but they are
consistent in their condemnation of Nero.
A handful of other sources also add a limited and varying perspective on
Nero. Few surviving sources paint Nero in a favourable light.
Some sources, though, portray him as a competent emperor who was popular
with the Roman people, especially in the east.
Cassius Dio (c. 155–229) was the son of Cassius Apronianus, a Roman senator.
He passed the greater part of his life in public service. He was
a senator under Commodus and governor of Smyrna after the death of Septimius
Severus; and afterwards suffect consul around 205, and also proconsul in
Africa and Pannonia.
Books 61–63 of Dio's Roman History describe the reign of Nero. Only
fragments of these books remain and what does remain was abridged and altered
by John Xiphilinus, an 11th-century monk.
Dio Chrysostom (c. 40–120), a Greek philosopher and historian, wrote the
Roman people were very happy with Nero and would have allowed him to rule
indefinitely. They longed for his rule once he was gone and embraced
imposters when they appeared: Indeed the truth about this has not
come out even yet; for so far as the rest of his subjects were concerned,
there was nothing to prevent his continuing to be Emperor for all time,
seeing that even now everybody wishes he were still alive. And the
great majority do believe that he still is, although in a certain sense
he has died not once but often along with those who had been firmly convinced
that he was still alive.
Epictetus (c. 55–135) was the slave to Nero's scribe Epaphroditos.
He makes a few passing negative comments on Nero's character in his work,
but makes no remarks on the nature of his rule. He describes Nero
as a spoiled, angry and unhappy man.
The historian Josephus (c. 37–100) accused other historians of slandering
The historian Josephus (c. 37–100), while calling Nero a tyrant, was also
the first to mention bias against Nero. Of other historians, he said:
"But I omit any further discourse about these affairs; for there have been
a great many who have composed the history of Nero; some of which have
departed from the truth of facts out of favour, as having received benefits
from him; while others, out of hatred to him, and the great ill-will which
they bore him, have so impudently raved against him with their lies, that
they justly deserve to be condemned. Nor do I wonder at such as have
told lies of Nero, since they have not in their writings preserved the
truth of history as to those facts that were earlier than his time, even
when the actors could have no way incurred their hatred, since those writers
lived a long time after them.
Though more of a poet than historian, Lucanus (c. 39–65) has one of the
kindest accounts of Nero's rule. He writes of peace and prosperity
under Nero in contrast to previous war and strife. Ironically, he
was later involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Nero and was executed.
Philostratus II "the Athenian" (c. 172–250) spoke of Nero in the Life of
Apollonius Tyana (Books 4–5). Though he has a generally bad or dim
view of Nero, he speaks of others' positive reception of Nero in the East.
Pliny the Elder:
The history of Nero by Pliny the Elder (c. 24–79) did not survive.
Still, there are several references to Nero in Pliny's Natural Histories.
Pliny has one of the worst opinions of Nero and calls him an "enemy of
Plutarch (c. 46–127) mentions Nero indirectly in his account of the Life
of Galba and the Life of Otho, as well as in the Vision of Thespesius in
Book 7 of the Moralia, where a voice orders that Nero's soul be transferred
to a more offensive species. Nero is portrayed as a tyrant, but those
that replace him are not described as better.
Seneca the Younger:
It is not surprising that Seneca (c. 4 BC–65), Nero's teacher and advisor,
writes very well of Nero.
Suetonius (c. 69–130) was a member of the equestrian order, and he was
the head of the department of the imperial correspondence. While
in this position, Suetonius started writing biographies of the emperors,
accentuating the anecdotal and sensational aspects.
The Annals by Tacitus (c. 56–117) is the most detailed and comprehensive
history on the rule of Nero, despite being incomplete after the year 66.
Tacitus described the rule of the Julio-Claudian emperors as generally
unjust. He also thought that existing writing on them was unbalanced:
"The histories of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius and Nero, while they were in
power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written
under the irritation of a recent hatred."
Tacitus was the son of a procurator, who married into the elite family
of Agricola. He entered his political life as a senator after Nero's
death and, by Tacitus' own admission, owed much to Nero's rivals.
Realising that this bias may be apparent to others, Tacitus protests that
his writing is true.
In 1562 Girolamo Cardano published in Basel his Encomium Neronis, which
was one of the first historical references of the Modern era to portray
Nero in a positive light.
Nero in Jewish and Christian tradition
At the end of 66, conflict broke out between Greeks and Jews in Jerusalem
and Caesarea. According to the Talmud, Nero went to Jerusalem and
shot arrows in all four directions. All the arrows landed in the
city. He then asked a passing child to repeat the verse he had learned
that day. The child responded, "I will lay my vengeance upon Edom
by the hand of my people Israel" (Ez. 25,14). Nero became terrified,
believing that God wanted the Temple in Jerusalem to be destroyed, but
would punish the one to carry it out. Nero said, "He desires to lay
waste His House and to lay the blame on me," whereupon he fled and converted
to Judaism to avoid such retribution. Vespasian was then dispatched
to put down the rebellion.
The Talmud adds that the sage Reb Meir Baal HaNess, Rabbi Meir or Rabbi
Meir Baal HaNes (Rabbi Meir the miracle maker) was a Jewish sage who lived
in the time of the Mishna a prominent supporter of the Bar Kokhba rebellion
against Roman rule. He was considered one of the greatest of the
Tannaim of the third generation (139-163). According to the Talmud,
his father was a descendant of the Roman Emperor Nero who had converted
to Judaism. His wife Bruriah is one of the few women cited in the
Gemara. He is the third most frequently mentioned sage in the Mishnah.]
Roman and Greek sources nowhere report Nero's alleged trip to Jerusalem
or his alleged conversion to Judaism. There is also no record of
Nero having any offspring who survived infancy: his only recorded child,
Claudia Augusta, died aged 4 months.
Non-Christian historian Tacitus describes Nero extensively torturing and
executing Christians after the fire of 64. Suetonius also mentions
Nero punishing Christians, though he does so because they are "given to
a new and mischievous superstition" and does not connect it with the fire.
Christian writer Tertullian (c. 155–230) was the first to call Nero the
first persecutor of Christians. He wrote, "Examine your records.
There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine".
Lactantius (c. 240–320) also said that Nero "first persecuted the servants
of God"; as does Sulpicius Severus. However, Suetonius writes that,
"since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus,
he [emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome" ("Iudaeos impulsore Chresto
assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit"). These expelled "Jews" may have
been early Christians, although Suetonius is not explicit. Nor is
the Bible explicit, calling Aquila of Pontus and his wife, Priscilla, both
expelled from Italy at the time, "Jews".
Martyrdoms of Peter and Paul:
The first text to suggest that Nero ordered the execution of an apostle
is a letter by Clement to the Corinthians traditional dated to around 96
A.D. The apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, a Christian writing from
the 2nd century says, "the slayer of his mother, who himself (even) this
king, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved
have planted. Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands"
was interpreted to mean Nero.
Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275–339) was the first to write explicitly
that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. He states
that Nero's persecution led to Peter and Paul's deaths, but that Nero did
not give any specific orders. However, several other accounts going
back to the 1st century have Paul surviving his two years in Rome and travelling
to Hispania, before facing trial in Rome again prior to his death.
Peter is first said to have been crucified upside-down in Rome during Nero's
reign (but not by Nero) in the apocryphal Acts of Peter (c. 200).
The account ends with Paul still alive and Nero abiding by God's command
not to persecute any more Christians.
By the 4th century, a number of writers were stating that Nero killed Peter
The Sibylline Oracles, Book 5 and 8, written in the 2nd century, speak
of Nero returning and bringing destruction. Within Christian communities,
these writings, along with others, fueled the belief that Nero would return
as the Antichrist. In 310, Lactantius wrote that Nero "suddenly disappeared,
and even the burial place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be
seen. This has led some persons of extravagant imagination to suppose
that, having been conveyed to a distant region, he is still reserved alive;
and to him they apply the Sibylline verses", Lactantius maintains that
it is not right to believe this.
In 422, Augustine of Hippo wrote about 2 Thessalonians 2:1–11, where he
believed Paul mentioned the coming of the Antichrist. Though he rejects
the theory, Augustine mentions that many Christians believed that Nero
was the Antichrist or would return as the Antichrist. He wrote, "so that
in saying, 'For the mystery of iniquity doth already work,' he alluded
to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist."
Some modern biblical scholars such as Delbert Hillers (Johns Hopkins University)
of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the editors of the Oxford
& Harper Collins Study Bibles, contend that the number 666 in the Book
of Revelation is a code for Nero, a view that is also supported in Roman
Catholic Biblical commentaries.
The concept of Nero as the Antichrist is often a central belief of Preterist
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