Looking into Emperor Nero‘s character profile, psychology and personality can help us understand his actions and behaviour. It also helps us to question some of the interpretations which historians have passed down to us.
The diagram below gives an idea of how the various aspects within Nero’s life might interlink. Whilst observing the diagram it’s also interesting to consider Nero’s psychology: not an easy profile to build.
Nero’s psychological profile could have looked something as follows:
Nero’s psychology as an Emperor-leader is fundamentally flawed more than anything because of his early abandonment or loss of his parents (mother exiled and father died shortly after). His desire to be loved (by his mother/father) turns into anxiety and insecurity – a need to be loved rather than judged which unfortunately didn’t sit well with either his pedigree made of great generals and emperors nor with his power hungry mother Agrippina who was unlikely to have the inclination for caring and tender love.
So, Nero grows up with a need for “love” and personal recognition and a deep fear of judgement, abandonment and refusal.
We might deduce that he was hence “insecure” and that he overcame this insecurity by (over) exercising his power to impose himself. Such an insecure person would tend to surround him or herself with people who are of weaker character and submissive, which apparently flies in the face of his divorcing the compliant Octavia and replacing her with a single minded figure like Poppaea till we remember he killed her, with a kick in the belly, just like his mother was killed with a stab in the belly.
Classifying Emperor Nero’s character
An interesting approach to defining Emperor Nero’s psychology and character can be to use a modern framework like the Myers-Briggs model (based on Carl Jung’s theory) and placing Nero on the map: We suggest he was possibly an “ISFP” like current VIPs such as Marilyn Monroe, David Beckham, Michael Jackson, Eminem and others. The “ISFP” character something like the following :
|Emperor Nero’s Personality Profile: “ISFP” – Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, Perceptive.Peaceful and easygoing people who enjoy taking things at an easy pace and live the day. Tends to be quiet and reserved and interact with a select number of close friends with whom he is considerate, caring and devoted. An aesthete who likes to focus on details and immediate situations with a keen sense for detecting small variations in their environment and people about them. Introverted, ISFP’s tend to prefer to allow others to direct their lives. ISFP men would perhaps find much in common with women than men.
Under stress a number of other facets would show through: responding acutely to the needs of others even to the point of creating a conflict with their own personal needs. The shadow self can also draw the ISFP type to considering “what if” situations to form a vision which takes them away from the difficulties of the present: combining experience of the present with relived experiences and emotions of the past.
This might be simplified into saying that from an amiable character they might turn to being expressive and aggressive when under duress.
The above approach immediately leads us to consider Emperor Nero, not so much as a free agent who “suddenly” and inexplicably turned into a bad guy, but rather as an amiable, perhaps weak, character who was placed into an untenable situation and who’s history has been possibly painted in a darker shade than necessary by the same upper class elite who because of him had risked losing prestige, power and wealth, aided and abetted by the Christian religion which took over the running of the city (and the selective conservation of it’s written history).
Emperor Nero’s overbearing mother Agrippina – seed of a “Psycho” Norman Bates situation?
Nero was undoubtedly heavily influenced by an overbearing mother who placed him into a public position he hadn’t desired, to act as her puppet. Rebellion against such a situation could only lead to heavy internal and moral anxieties as well as putting his own life at evident risk: much the same as that of his step-father Claudius who Agrippina poisoned to enable Nero’s own access to the imperial throne.
Perhaps, when considering Nero’s psychological profile, we could even guess that his mother’s destructive influence went further back in years and to his need for love and appreciation whilst she likely gave him harsh judgement and little attention.
Within this context it is difficult to reconcile the early Nero who as newly pronounced Emperor had to sign his first death warrant and reputedly “wished he had never learned to write” lies in direct contrast with many of the later actions he took, including ordering the murder of his own mother.
We might combine this situation with:
- his early intentions to apply Seneca’s doctrines of “good government”
- his own personal attachment to the plebeian classes
- see his infancy, brought up by a barber and a dancer
- his relationships with liberti (freedmen and women),
- his love of the arts and shows at the circus
Nero’s propensity to support the plebeian classes, possibly coupled with the need to govern the state’s failing economy led to an inclination for policies and taxation which might work against the rich upper classes in order to redress the balance of Roman society. A society in which Roman laws, the Roman economy, Roman trade and wealth were obviously biased in favour of the Senatorial class (plebeians were out of jobs and forced to live off social security).
An idea of what living in Rome at the time of Nero may have been like can be had from the great works of Martial who arrived in Rome from Spain during the last years of Nero’s reign and came to bemoan the degree of corruption both during and after the reign of Nero. He had a good view of the situation by virtue of his good connections with his fellow writers/countrymen Quintilian, Lucan and Seneca though their implication in the failed Pisonian conspiracy forced him to take his own independent path.
Seneca’s model of rule failed to maintain a structured relationship between Emperor and Senatorial class whilst Nero shifted from a Roman-Stoic model across to an oriental monarchical model.
Is it surprising that after his death the senate voted to strike out his records (acta) as a tyrant?
There’s a good chance that Emperor Nero was essentially in a cul-de-sac, much the same as his predecessors had been with little resort in terms of re-establishing any economic balance but to “rob” the rich classes by fair means or foul and to fight for personal survival by murdering any pretenders to the throne. Clearly illegal activities, not dissimilar to the paradoxical situation which Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus had driven themselves into as a prelude to the social wars.
This concoction would certainly be sufficient to drive anyone mad: to recklessly live the day much as his own natural predisposition and inclination would have had him do anyway.
We can therefore easily imagine that the truth about Emperor Nero lies somewhere in the middle, and short of the colorful accounts of (upper-class) historians such as Suetonius (Equestrian) and Tacitus (Senator).
Emperor Nero’s Crimes
It is interesting to read Suetonius’ account of Nero’s illdoings and decide for yourself where and how the truth might have been stretched a little….. (Suetonius, Nero, 27-29)
XXVII. Little by little, however, as his vices grew stronger, he dropped jesting and secrecy and with no attempt at disguise openly broke out into worse crime.
Sometimes too he closed the inlets and banqueted in public in the great tank, in the Campus Martius, or in the Circus Maximus, waited on by harlots and dancing girls from all over the city.
He also levied dinners on his friends, one of whom spent four million sesterces for a banquet at which turbans were distributed, and another a considerably larger sum for a rose dinner.
XXVIII. Besides abusing freeborn boys and seducing married women, he debauched the vestal virgin Rubria. The freedwoman Acte he all but made his lawful wife, after bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth.
He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies
That he even desired illicit relations with his own mother, and was kept from it by her enemies who feared that such a relationship might give the reckless and insolent woman too great an influence, was notorious, especially after he added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look very like Agrippina.
XXIX…. by his freed man Doryphorus; for he was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus…
I have heard from some men that it was his unshaken conviction that no man was chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most of them concealed their vices and cleverly drew a veil over them; and that therefore he pardoned all other faults in those who confessed to him their lewdness.
The list of accusations against Nero goes on to include the murder of his own mother Agrippina, his step brother Germanicus, Octavia his first wife, Burrus the head of the Praetorian guards and others. Some had made the mistake of getting in his the way of his plans for social restructuring, be it by simple opposition, or because their wealth was cherished by the Emperor or for having attempted to thwart him through assassination.
This deserves to be offset with what we learn of Nero’s “good” actions and his early policies and tempered with what we know of Nero’s attitude to other cults and religions beyond Rome’s traditional deities.
Nero’s childhood, education and character
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (later known as “Nero”) was born on the 15th December 37AD. He was the only child of the ruthlessly ambitious and domineering Agrippina Minor (Julia Agrippina) and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (Ahenobarbus meant “Red Beard” or “copper beard”).
Through his mother he was more or less directly related to all the emperors that had preceded him from Julius Caesar, through Augustus (great great grandfather), Tiberius (adoptive great grandfather), Caligula (uncle) and Claudius (step father as well as great uncle). Furthermore his mother was daughter of Germanicus – a favourite of emperor Augustus, adoptive son of Tiberius and next in line for the throne (but murdered).
Nero’s physical appearance was more of his father’s line than his mother’s and perhaps his character also. At the very least we can say he lacked the military ambitions and qualities which Agrippina might have considered worthy of their lineage, his personal interests being more inclined towards the arts.
When Nero was two years old his mother was exiled by her brother emperor Caligula and so the child was looked after by his paternal aunt Domitia Lepida (“the elder”) of the Ahenobarbus line, granddaughter of Mark Anthony. He later did away with her through a laxative overdose in order to take her property.
When Nero was three he also lost his father.
At 3 years of age the scene therefore seemed set for Nero: living with his aunt, looked after by her servants. Nero’s education was handed to two liberti (freed slaves) called Anicetus and Berillus: a dancer and a barber.
The situation changed somewhat when Nero was 13 years old: his mother Agrippina was recalled from exile by emperor Claudius, her uncle. On returning she had the philosopher-statesman-rhetor (public speaker) Seneca recalled from exile and named as Nero’s tutor, teaching him a broad range of culture including philosophy, morals, the arts, rhetoric, law etc. This is a highly significant point from two aspects:
- Seneca certainly had a strong influence on Nero’s upbringing and character, whether positively or negatively is a strong matter of debate!
- Agrippina’s choice of Seneca is intriguing. It was possibly motivated by a desire to win popular support since Seneca was known for his inclination towards policies in favour of broader society. It is unclear however whether Seneca and Agrippina remained in strong agreement once Nero was on the throne.
So with Claudius’ rise to power, Nero’s mother’s situation was completely turned around. Nero inherited his late father’s estate whilst his mother entered into a second marriage of convenience with a rich and influential politician: ex husband of her sister in law (ie Nero’s aunt). We can imagine Nero’s difficult situation at this point, relatively positive in terms of social standing and wealth, relatively sorry in terms of maternal and paternal care. Perhaps a “typical” situation of an extremely rich kid with a broken up family. This situation was made harder for the boy by the political intrigue which surrounded his everyday life: it appears that the rivalry between his mother and Claudius’ debauched wife Messalina once put Nero’s life at risk of assassination if it hadn’t been for a snake which crawled out from under his bed and scared the assassins away.
Nero’s character is a regular matter of debate. We’ve taken a stab at suggesting a Myers-Briggs profile as “ISFP”: Introverted, Sensing, Felling, Perceptive sharing characteristics perhaps more common to women than men. An aesthete which you might compare to famous characters such as Michael Jackson or Eminem until of course he came to be under particular pressure with no way out at which point his character showed darker sides.
His tragic family situation, his definitely overpowering mother “a-la-psycho” couple with what was perhaps a weak character to begin with gave rise to a degree of instability. Lying and escape from reality would have been the norm in order to win some attention and loving care which would slowly turn into hate for his beautiful yet unloving and domineering mother who wouldn’t understand his love for the arts and popular acclaim from his fans rather than warfare. He wanted to be loved, he wanted to be a star (of the stage).
The negative aspects of his character were made that much deeper once his mother married Emperor Claudius, becoming empress and having her son Lucius adopted at which point we can imagine his every whim becoming an order for those around him and rendering it all the harder to distinguish true friend from foe.
Nero’s sense of morality:
A great influence in Nero’s behaviour and decisions was his own sense of “morality” which was influenced by many factors:
- on the one hand he had clear evidence from his early teenage when his mother became Empress with emperor Claudius that he could readily access most if not all whims and get away with it.
- From Seneca’s writings we notice however that, at least at first, he abhorred the thought of killing or harming others – “How I wish I had never learned to write” was his quote when signing his first death warrant.
- The passage above by Suetonius also remarks how Nero avoided violence; his early exhibitions avoided killing anyone, including criminals (though it goes on to describe his being spattered by blood on a later occasion!).
So by and large we can also imagine Nero, possibly weak in confidence and personal esteem, spoilt and used to having his whims attended to but also with a strong sense of morality and opposed to shedding blood. This was clearly in direct contrast with the needs of his new role as Emperor which soon required him, with Seneca’s, Burro’s and Agrippina’s support, to do away with numerous opponents who were accustomed to all means in order to achieve their ends. Clearly a recipe for deep psychological disorder!