Emperor Nero came into power at a young age thanks to his power hungry mother Agrippina. She married emperor Claudius, had Nero adopted and then poisoned the emperor with a plate of lovely mushrooms. Nero’s tutor Seneca did well at first so much so that his first years of rule were exemplary but Seneca was no match for Nero’s avid wives. Nero probably realised that the women in his life were outdoing him and so he proceeded to murder his wife and mother. In fact doing away with his mother took several attempts. His failed family life and his taunted aspirations as an athlete and artist drove him absolutely potty.
Much of Rome burnt down in a fire which sprang in dubious circumstances. He sped back to rome from holiday and did his best to aid the poor citizens but he soon recovered and proceeded to confiscated the land and build his own megalomaniac palace and gardens over much of it. The “vox populi” was that he intended to rename Rome “Neronia” and that the Roman citizens would soon have to relocate to the nearby city of Veii to find a home. He tried to divert attention from himself by ferociously persecuting the Christians but eventually he had little alternative but to commit suicide.
He is best remembered for the burning of Rome and possibly for having been the first and only to introduce ten horse chariots to the Circus Maximus. Republican writers had a field day with his biography and much of it was based on his hated mother’s memoirs so it is possible that some of the ill things they say about Emperor Nero are a little exaggerated.
A More Detailed Account of Emperor Nero…
In his youth Nero was tutored at first by a pair of freedmen in his aunt’s household: a barber and a dancer. It was only once his mother Agrippina made it back from exile that he was placed under the charge of the stoic Roman philosopher Seneca, who was also recalled from the exile which Caligula had inflicted upon him.
Seneca succeeded in teaching Nero the sense in a balanced form of rule so that his subjects might love him back and remember him when he might die whilst the Senators not feel their power had been unduly abused. Seneca wrote Nero’s first speech for the senate in which he announced he would restrict his rule to leadership of the army whilst Seneca and his mother Agrippina would be made responsible for the affairs of state. During these years Nero is said to have followed Augustus’ example in refusing honours and statues and contrary to what we might expect he avoided bloodshed and sentencing people to death wherever possible.
Nevertheless, Agrippina’s plans for control of the state were not satisfied, particularlly when considering Seneca’s control over Nero. Burro the captain of the Praetorian guards and Seneca warned Nero. Agrippina was angered and retaliated with a threat to undermine his power by favouring Claudius’ son Britannicus. Nero responded by having Britannicus assassinated in plain view and his Agrippina confined to her quarters.
A more in depth analysis of Nero’s character profile and early years and tuition can lend great insight into understanding the later developments…..
Nero turns Bad
Nero was now in his mid twenties and it is difficult to decide where the blame lies for the subsequent dark period of his rule. Possibly his mother’s excessive meddling, perhaps the sudden friendship with the artistic elite through Petronius or most likely his meeting with a woman called Poppea who was as power hungry as his own mother Agrippina but far younger and more beautiful.
Poppea was keen to become empress and so refocused Nero back onto his job as emperor. She also set about eliminating distracting influences such as Seneca and Agrippina: bad news. When Nero went to his mother to ask for permission to divorce from his wife, Tacitus tells us that Agrippina went as far as offering herself to him. Possibly true, possibly made up, but in that climate anyone could go potty.
Nero feared his mother and didn’t have the courage to eliminate her himself. It seems he made various attempts before actually succeeding. He also lost his mind in the process.
As well as losing his mind he also laid waste to the treasury and so it wasn’t long before he set to confiscating the wealth of any opponents he might find on his path, particularly the senators. Seneca attempted to reign Nero in but soon realised that there was little hope for him to do any good and so he retired, thus removing the last hope of sanity in the Empire.
Popular memory of Nero from then on is not flattering although one should also remember this was an age of “dog eat dog”. Nero is said to have had artistic and theatrical ambitions which was hardly in keeping with the role which had been thrust upon him by Agrippina and Poppea. By his mid to late twenties Nero was but a shadow of his former self and quite devoted to feasting rather than fasting. It wasn’t long before he had his former wife Octavia exiled and then murdered. The people of Rome were horrified.
A particularly important moment came ten years into his reign: An enormous fire burned down much of Rome. In terms of scale this event was not dissimilar to the great fire of London. Nero is said to have done much to help the citizens: Grain was sold at a heavily discounted price, the palace gardens were opened so that refugees might have somewhere to go and new buildings were constructed to provide housing. However the vox populi (the voice on the street) was that Nero had lit the fire himself and while Rome burned he had sung and played his lyre.
Nero’s marital and sentimental life with Roman women was not the most settled, clearly there are multiple reasons for this of which two significant ones include:
- Nero’s character
- His social position necessarily tended towards marriages of convenience driven by motives other than pure “love”. This was naturally accompanied with a strong temptation for extra marital relationships with concubines. This would have been the case in many upper class Roman marriages of that day and agea and certainly not unnusual for an Emperor of the Roman Empire. After all, even the aparently upright Emperor Augustus had appropriated himself of the pregnant Livia from another man.
- Nero’s difficult relationship with his mother Agrippina. In fact there were numerous rumours about an incestuous relationship with his mother who reputedly offered herself to him rather than have him married to the unscrupulous Poppaea Sabina. The fact that he ended up assassinating her confirms the relationship wasn’t the best.
As a result of the above, and of his psychological instability Nero a number of women and wives in his relatively short lifetime: His first wife was Octavia, daughter of Emperor Claudius and married at a very young age. She was finally driven to suicide/murdered and replaced by Poppaea Sabina who Nero apparently loved dearly but died whilst pregnant of their second child (the first had died within the first year of life). Poppaea was eventually replaced by the cautious Messalina who managed to outlive him and several emperors after. Out of all the women who had had close relationships with Nero, Claudia Acte – a freed slave who had formerly belonged to Octavia remained ever faithful to him though not married. She saw to Nero’s funeral at her own expense.
Historians have also given accounts of how Nero married a Eunuch who bore great resemblance to his most loved wife Poppaea and then himself acted out as wife in a marriage. Both of these events should be taken with a pinch of salt and are likely a scandalistic interpretation of Nero’s participation in cults and religions such as the cult of Cybele and that of the war goddess Bellona.
Roman historians give an unclear picture of Nero – whilst they all tend to draw a very negative picture there are many points which lead to believe in the possibility that the interpretation we are left with is actually intended to be more negative that it was in reality. After all, the senate pronounced a damnatio memoriae against him and his policies seem to have been generally in favour of the lower classes with excessive state spending at the expense of the wealthy nobility (to which class the historians tended to belong). A further filter has been applied to Nero’s memory: that of the Christians who were persecuted by him for the great fire of Rome and eventually governed the city (and the texts which have come down to us).
A dappled image does make its way through though:
- it seems Nero was much loved, at least at first, by the plebeian masses and liberti.
- He had a great deal of support from the east (perhaps because he granted Greece an unprecedented degree of freedom but also for his appreciation of their arts)
- Myths survived for many centuries that Nero would make a come-back with several would-be Nero’s appearing in later periods (see the chapter regarding Nero’s death)
However it is also clear that Nero managed to make himself a great many enemies, perhaps even more so than the average Emperor although some do seem to have inspired even greater hate (for example Emperor Elagabalus who’s corpse was left to rot in public).
- The Christians never forgave him for the unthinkable tortures they were (apparently) put through, though some of the stories which have made it down to us are perhaps a little exaggerated and one-sided in the sense that people considered criminals, whether Christians or not would have been put through much the same. It should also be remembered that in his early reign the Christians enjoyed extensive freedom to preach and go about their peaceful pursuit of religion.
- The rich patricians/senatorial class who stood to lose the most through Nero’s spend and social policies together with Nero’s increasingly despotic ruling style. This not only showed through in their later condemnation of his memory by the Senate but also in the memorable “Pisonian conspiracy” in AD65 (referred to us by Tacitus) which led 40-50 members of the upper class to be rounded up and put to death, actually the conspirators were ordered to commit suicide. His own tutor-secretary Seneca remained caught up in the affair and forced to retire/suicide.
Nero’s Later rule – “Lord of the earth and sky”
With the assassination of Nero’s mother Agrippina in 59AD Nero’s ruling model changed radically. The clemency which had characterized his earlier period was replaced by despotism and a net shift towards absolute and divine power not dissimilar to the megalomania shown by his uncle Caligula. Whilst emperors and leaders before him had gone as far as claiming descendency from deities such as Caesar with Venus or Mark Anthonyfrom Bacchus/Dionysus, Nero modeled his image directly around the Roman god Apollo, sun god, protector deity of artists.
It is from here that we have the famous enormous statue of Nero-Apollo which was commonly known as “a colossus” and later lent its name to the Flavian amphitheatre built after nero’s death by Emperor Vespasian and more commonly known as the “Colosseum”.
Nero concentrated his attention on a vision to transform Roman society with an infusion of oriental, Greek and Egyptian culture which with cities such as ancient Alexandria had become so close to Rome. For example he invested vast sums in building large athletics, theatrical and bathing infrastructure and imposed that senators should anoint themselves with oil provided at the state’s expense. Clearly a parallel with the approach of the pharaohs for example Queen Cleopatra of Egypt regularly showed herself to her people as a living Isis.
The emperor paid less attention to military affairs such as issues on the Rhine, war against the Parthians in Armenia and Boudica’s uprising in Britain which he promptly handed over to his generals.
For a more rounded understanding of how these aspects came together and Nero’s motivations it is worth looking into Nero’s character and Nero’s attitude to cults and religion: got an insecurity complex? The natural reaction is to avoid judgement by transforming yourself into a violent despotic deity, kill your mother and flatten the social strata below you. Befriend the plebeians who can but admire and obey you!
Nero’s Rome – A Great Vision
Nero’s particular character and flamboyancy coupled with his difficult heritage as last in line of a great dynasty brought him to invent and initiate a vision of Rome which went beyond all those before and after him: a transformation of Roman society along orientalised cultural paradigms which celebrated grandeur, joy-de-vivre, culture and the arts.
He himself practiced incessantly as an artist-performer. Seeing himself as a shining divinity, likened to the sun, to be applauded and adored by the plebeian masses (indeed it seems his music and theatrical compositions were not without success). He instituted a corps of personal supporters, young, strong and trained to clap at his performances with their own particular rhythm and his return from his lengthy Greek tour was in every way designed as a military triumph, donning a cloak of stars and parading to the temple of Apollo rather than that of Jupiter.
Taken superficially this rather unnusual figure of Nero emperor-artist seems utter madness, and so it is portrayed by his upper class peers and subsequent detractors. In reality it fitted with a well designed plan to change the shape of Roman society, flattening the differences between social classes and placing the emperor’s image as unique focal point. This was supported by the imperial propaganda machine intent on elevating his image and status, for example his colossal statue as Apollo or his image as sun-god on the sails covering the theatre where the Parthian Tiridates was crowned king of Armenia by Nero himself.
This vision of renewal for Roman society was accompanied with clear ideas in terms of the city itself which commentaries of the time suggest he wanted to rename “Neronia”. It was not all madness: in fact Roman architecture saw a fresh impulse, building on top of the Greek legacy but with inspiration of its own, utilising mortar and brickwork to articulate interior spaces in a hitherto unknown manner to create a totally new personal experience.
The early period of his rule, like that of his predecessor Claudius had seen relatively little construction activity, but the latter half saw the impulse of reconstruction induced by the great fire of Rome. The city, for the first time, was constructed with clear direction and urban planning to improve wellbeing of the citizens. Rules were laid out to mandate maximum height of buildings and minimum spaces between them to allow firefighters to do their job. Nero’s baths were the first of a kind and set the trend of future imperial baths. However Nero’s golden house, the “domus aurea”, cut a fine line and indeed overstepped the mark in taking over excessively large areas of the city so much so that subsequent emperors chose to destroy and return the land to civilian use. For example his lake being drained and the Colosseum being built over it by Vespasian.
In 64AD Rome experience a great fire which burnt a huge portion of the city and made little distinction between rich or poor, public or private property. Even the Forum and the imperial palace, the Domus Transitoria which unified the imperial properties on the Palatine and Esquiline hills, were affected together with the highly populated Suburra and other precincts.
The effect of the great fire was not only a physical trauma for the city itself but also for the economy. It was also a turning point in that it permitted a “fresh start”, an opportunity for Nero to make numerous reforms both bad and good.
After the city had burned Nero had much of it rebuilt, at huge expense to the Roman economy. However he utilised a significant part of the vacated land, almost a third of the city’s surface area, to build his own palace known as the Golden House (Domus Aurea). The palace was so enormous that it was in effect a small citadel and it is said that the entrance hall was so lofty that it could house a statue of the emperor some 40meters in height (120 feet). The historian Tacitus tells us that the views over the gardens and vineyards were even more beautiful than the buildings and Nero himself felt it was sufficiently grandiose to boast about.
During construction of the palace Poppea died of an abortion. Nero was deeply affected by this. It is said that whilst he walked the streets of Rome in despair he met a young man who reminded him of Poppea. He had the man castrated and then married him.
It is interesting to note that it is as a consequence of this fire that special legislation was passed in Rome in order to render the city more secure against fires. For example the use of concrete was encouraged rather than wood. Streets were also made wider, partly in order to render it more difficult for fire to spread. This was a turning point in city planning and construction and buildings such as the Colosseum and Pantheon owe something to this episode.
Nero’s Persecution of the Christians
The sense we would have today, much induced by centuries of Christian doctrine in the west, is that Nero persecuted the Christians because he had a particular issue with them as a sect and due to their beliefs. A sort of pagan reaction against the true divine revelation (Christ). That interpretation is unlikely for numerous reasons. It is more probable that the Christian persecutions were much the same as those practiced on anyone else or any other group that found itself in direct conflict with the emperor’s figure, image and propaganda. They were also an aparently good scapegoat for blame of the fire as they were generally singled out by the Roman citizenship at large as a group of foreign troublemakers.
But if we need to put our finger on a single reason we could say that Nero’s persecution of the Christians was the result of their direct competition to attract the plebeian masses around a conceptually very similar deity: the Christians putting Christ at the focus and Nero putting himself/Sun god/Mithras.
To support this view we should remember that:
- many other cults were openly practicing their faith, including monotheistic cults such as Judaism (Christianity was seen as a spinn-off Judaic sect)
- Christianity had been free to openly preach and practice its cult during the early part of Nero’s reign. The early Christian writer Tertullian tells us St. Paul had a first trial under Nero and was set free only to be executed following his second trial in 67AD during the Christian persecutions. Of course it was only later that Nero developed his egocentric vision for Roman culture.
The fact that the Christians refused to worship the emperor’s image or the other Roman gods and their insistance on criticising the Roman way of life set them apart from other citizens and attracted considerable dislike from the Roman citizenship at large. The Christians were considered as annoying foreign agents provocateurs, regularly bickering with their fellow Jews. It is not unlikely that in the midst of the chaos which surrounded the great fire of Rome more than one of the Christians would have regarded the fire as a divine sign of the end of the world or as divine punishment on the Romans for their immoral pagan ways.
Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome, someone had to take the blame and rumours were pinning them on him. He had many Christians gathered up, questioned and plied for names and declared guilty of treason. The punishment was the same as that adopted for criminals: put to death in a manner of exemplary ways, such as crucifixion, burning at the stake as human torches or even throwing them to be savaged by wild beasts and dogs. The manner in which the Christians were persecuted was so severe, even by the standard of the times, that they were pitied by many.
In conclusion, it seems likely that the interpretation of motivations and events deserves a little rebalancing:
- Nero certainly persecuted the Christians though (possibly) not with the singular severity Christian historians would suggest – “singular” being the word, as there was certainly extreme severity but not purely for the christians. It was the severity reserved for those who in the Emperor’s eyes had committed treason against his person and the state he desired to build (see Nero’s model of rule).
- Nero was quite clearly building a propagandistic machine aimed at positioning the emperor as a semi-deity: totally at odds with Christian doctrine and hence likely to attract extra criticism from them more than other cults. He was openly supporting doctrines such as Mithraism which were extremely similar to Christianity in various aspects (ie a prime mover of the stars and universe that rules all others) yet directly at odds with christianity in others.
- For example, Nero’s colossal statue, self portrait as a sun-god with rays radiating from his head would have been iconographically exactly the same as some painted images in the catacombs of Christ-sun driving the quadriga.
- Nero had a vision of Orientalising transformation of Roman society built around enjoyment of culture and the arts. His excesses, spending on his golden house, on public leisure such as Roman baths, feasts, shows and general profligacy were clearly at direct odds with Christian doctrine, particularly in their intent to capture the plebeian masses: Nero and the Christians were both after the same stock of plebeian followers.
So we can see, how Nero’s ruling model, his policies, anxiety to capture the plebeian masses, focus on himself as a deity, designs to reshape Roman culture and policies focused on lavish spending and luxury placed him in extreme contrast with Christian views and objectives, leading to him being viewed as a sort of antichrist for centuries later. Nero’s death ocurred in obscure circumstances and was strangely associated with urban myths of his spirit and his eventual return – something which the Church tried to fight for centuries. The church at Santa Maria del Popolo is a prime example of this….
The end of Nero
However Nero grew increasingly paranoid and tyrannical which lead to plots being formed against him. Many were put to death to do away with the increasing number of enemies but eventually the armies in the provinces began to revolt and his own Praetorian guard refused to protect him. The senate saw that Nero was alone and set to ensure the support of the Praetorian guard after which they sentenced him to death by whipping. On hearing this Nero preferred to commit suicide. When dying he is said to have exclaimed “what an artist dies with me!“.
Nero’s death was followed by a period of great instability known as “The year of the Four Emperors” as different parts of the Roman army and Senate wrestled to place their respective nominees on the throne. Relatively stability was reached with Emperor Vespasian.