The reign of Emperor Nero

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Roman class society and government during the EmpireEmperor Nero's model of rule

A fourth century historian, Aurelius Victor, quoted Emperor Trajan as saying that Nero's first quinquennium (first five years of rule) were so effective that the reign of no other emperor could compare. This view is immediately at odds with the common view of this violent and egocentric emperor - which immediately leads us to ask two fundamental questions:

i. Was Nero's rule really as bad as we are led to believe (or indeed is the evidence we have somehow coloured by judgement of the generations of historians before us?)

ii. what might have made the big difference in approach between Nero's first quinquennium and the later model of rule?

Answering these two questions requires us to look at numerous aspects of this emperor's period of rule, including Nero's character profile, Nero's vision for Rome and of course the evidence we have to hand.

Buying power from the praetorian guards

Nero’s power came as a result to the coup-d’etat which was so perfectly orchestrated:

  • by his mother Agrippina who had him adopted as next in imperial line ahead of her husband’s own son Britannicus, followed by the murder of her husband Emperor Claudius.
  • by his tutor Seneca
  • by Burrus head of the Pretorian guard.
  • The story goes that Claudius’ death was kept secret for a sufficiently long time to have Nero presented to the Pretorian guard each of whom was paid a handsome sum of 15000 sesterces to support and defend the nomination of the new emperor. His opening speech to the Senate was written for him by Seneca. It gave great promise of being inspired by Augustan values, of striking a balance between Senatorial prerogatives and needs of the people. A model (according to Seneca’s own philosophy) of balance between the needs of a Prince for his people and the needs of the Senatorial class.


    Nero’s policies

    Nero’s policies were often balanced in favour of the plebeian lower classes – something which historians ascribe to his personal desire to be popular but may well also have much to do with his tutor Seneca’s own moralising socialist tendency or indeed Nero's early childhood rearing by a couple of liberti in his aunt’s household. Deeper understanding of his policies and objectives is a fundamental key to understanding Nero’s reign in a more balanced way.

    With Seneca’s guidance Nero started along the political lines of Augustus: promising the Senate a broader degree of autonomy than they had enjoyed during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. However over time there was a definite shift in approach to a more oriental-authoritarian-deity style coinciding with the period when he suffered an attempt on his own life and eliminated those who had supported to early years such as his mother Agrippina, Burrus, Seneca and others who he replaced with other dark characters such as Tigellinus and Poppaea Sabina.

    It is interesting to consider the possibility that the shift in Nero’s approach was the result of a desire to implement reform which were largely opposed by the rich senatorial class and nobility. So whilst historians (largely made up of educated nobles) have handed us a rendition based around Nero’s personal excesses it could be that in reality Nero’s reforms involved public spending in favour of broader society but at great costs to the upper classes.


    Nero’s Good Actions

    Tacitus tells us that when he took on his early role of consul Nero:

    1. introduced legislation to limit fees of lawyers,
    2. protected the rights of freedmen (liberti),
    3. ensured that tax collection was not unduly harsh on the poor
    4. removal of government officials who were abusing their position to extort money
    5. began to introduce legislation to cut and remove taxes also with the intention of lowering food prices.
    6. When Rome burned in the great fire of 64AD he implemented a substantial relief effort, opened the grounds to his palace to give refugees somewhere to stay and substantially rebuilt the city with its first ever (real) urban plan.
    7. He restored a degree of liberty in the Greek provinces

    Nevertheless, his desire to please the masses as well as the numerous public works he began cost the state treasury and ancient Rome’s economy hugely. Disasters such as the great fire of Rome and subsequent rebuilding of the city forced the first devaluation of Roman currency which then continued through to the fall of the Roman empire.

    Nero’s rather unusual character (when compared to his kinsmen) shows through in two major ways:

    Nero surrounded himself with people and supporters who tended to be of far weaker status than himself whilst doing away with those who threaten his status.

    As is outlined in the analysis of Nero’s character we come to have an idea of his major issue: How could Nero compete with so many amazingly successful and illustrious ancestors such as Caesar, Augustus, Germanicus and others whilst at the same time being visibly of a different stock ie freckled and red bearded like his Ahenobarbi parental side? How could he put up with the continued reproach of his mother, so loved by the German legions? Even his name as adoptive son of Emperor Claudius, "Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus" was in honour of his maternal grandfather.

    This resulted in a tendency to create relationships clearly biased "in his favour" in order to avoid direct confrontation, judgement and refusal. This can be achieved by raising his own personal power (becoming more autocratic) as well as by surrounding himself with people weaker than himself or at any rate people likely to applaud him such as liberti, plebeians or lovers of the arts. The praise of upper class critics such as Petronius Arbiter ("judge of taste") would have been the greatest pleasure for him.

    Nero's crimes have been treated separately in the article regarding Nero's character profile.

    Creating a new framework of values for the Roman People (essentially an Oriental model)

    Nero’s personal distaste for war and conquest as opposed to the arts was fundamental in defining his actions and policies as an emperor. Nero’s vision for Rome and the Romans (he certainly didn’t lack vision!) therefore flew in the face of the values that overbearing ancestors might have stood for: The emperor himself being acclaimed for composing plays and music. Senators, high ranking citizens and even women involved in public circus entertainment for the enjoyment of the plebeian masses. Not to mention his highly scenic "triumph" a full traditional triumph parade to celebrate his return into Rome from his sporting and artistic tour of Greece: Clearly a cultural vision which flew in the face of traditional Roman morality (and Roman law).

    A passage from Suetonius (Life of Nero, 11,12 below) gives a sense of Nero’s desire to please the masses and receive their acclaim. Interestingly it also makes direct reference to his open encouragement of social class intermingling through inclusion of senators, knights and women in public displays of all kinds, on the one hand to raise the pitch of the displays whilst on the other in an evident effort to flatten the structure of Roman society downwards, it is unclear whether it be driven by his personal desire for supremacy or an inspired need for reform of social structure (and eventually wealth distribution), or most simply, given his young age at the time, inspired by a desire to make good his personal participation and love and of the arts in spite of its being at odds with the upper classes traditional sense of what socially acceptable (see ancient roman entertainment and the writings/decree of the jurist Gaius Ateius Capito in AD19).

    11: "He gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales, chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays, and a gladiatorial show. At the first mentioned he had even old men of consular rank and aged matrons take part. For the games in the Circus he assigned places to the knights apart from the rest, and even matched chariots drawn by four camels. At the plays which he gave for the "Eternity of the Empire," which by his order were called the Ludi Maximi, parts were taken by several men and women of both the orders; a well known Roman knight mounted an elephant and rode down a rope….. Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms."

    12: "These plays he viewed from the top of the proscenium. At the gladiatorial show, which he gave in a wooden amphitheatre, erected in the district of the Campus Martius within the space of a single year, he had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Even those who fought with the wild beasts and performed the various services in the arena were of the same orders. He also exhibited a naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it….

    …. Then he went down into the orchestra among the senators and accepted the prize for Latin oratory and verse, for which all the most eminent men had contended but which was given to him with their unanimous consent; but when that for lyre-playing was also offered him by the judges, he knelt before it and ordered that it be laid at the feet of Augustus' statue."

    The same passage also reminds us of Nero’s young age:

    "….At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta, he shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol."

    Nero’s new ruling model was a symptom of the end.

    There is some pathos in the consideration that Nero was at least seemingly attempting to set Roman social equilibrium more in favour of broader society at the expense of the Senatorial class but that the means by which he went about it was a first symptom of the ailments which constituted the eventual fall of Rome.

    The period between 62-63AD can in some ways be regarded as one of the first symptoms of the change of Roman society and of the eventual fall of the Roman empire: the first devaluation of Roman coinage, Nero’s approach to religion, Nero’s ruling model based around his figure as a living deity and his desire to retain the support of the masses put him in sharp contrast with the Senatorial class, the military as well as the early Christians who eventually came out as winners in shaping the new model of Roman society. He sought to blame the Christians for the great fire of Rome and subsequently persecuted them even for their refusal to consider any divinity other than their own one God.

    Though we can’t necessarily pin a personal fault on Emperor Nero as having initiated the decline and fall of the Roman empire; failing economy, social imbalance and rising Christianity were all significant elements which characterized his reign through to the fall of Rome.

    Nero was the second Roman emperor to be put into power thanks to support from the Roman army which was strongly aligned with his mother Agrippina and supported by his Pretorian guards  (Emperor Claudius his adoptive father had also reached power thanks to Praetorian support and protection): a trend which was to continue the year after him with Otho, Galba, Vitellius and Vespasian who were themselves military generals. Vespasian was an exception as the only Emperor to be followed by his natural son (Titus).

    Concluding remark

    Whilst courageous and in many aspects even inspired, Nero’s shift of vision and his personal bet placed on pleasing the public masses (with copious public spending) was clearly the "wrong" bet in terms of his personal success. His affirmation of "self" as autocratic deity, coupled with unsustainable levels of spending to put such vision into practice was the wrong bet. The Senate and Military classes were clearly the ones which were best placed to hold the knife by the handle at the time…. And they did! (see section on Emperor Nero’s death).

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    You might also have a look at what it was to be emperor or "imperator". A list of roman emperors.  A glimpse at famous romans like emperor Nero and scaevola "the left handed".

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    "Emperor Nero's ruling style" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia September 2011 for