Nero (A.D. 37-68) became emperor of the Roman Empire after the death of his adopted father, the Emperor Claudius, in A.D. 54. The last ruler of what historians call the “Julio-Claudian” dynasty, he ruled until he committed suicide in June, A.D. 68.
Famously known for the apocryphal story that he fiddled while Rome burned in a great fire, Nero has become one of the most infamous men who ever lived. During his rule, he murdered his own mother, Agrippina the Younger; his first wife, Octavia; and allegedly, his second wife, Poppaea Sabina. In addition, ancient writers claim that he started the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64 so that he could re-build the city center.
Yet, despite the numerous charges that have been levelled by ancient writers, there is evidence that Nero enjoyed some level of popular support. He had a passion for music and the arts, an interest that culminated in a public performance he gave in Rome in A.D. 65. Also, while he was blamed for starting the fire, he took it upon himself to organize relief efforts, and ancient writers make other allusions to acts of charity that he performed.
“He let slip no opportunity for acts of generosity and mercy, or even for displaying his affability,” wrote the otherwise critical Suetonius in the 2nd century A.D. (translation by J. C. Rolfe).
Recently, a newly translated poem has been published, and it depicts Nero in a positive light. It tells of the deification of his dead wife Poppaea Sabina, concluding with her watching over Nero from the heavens. Scholars were surprised to discover that the text, which proclaims Nero a man “equal to the gods,” dates to about two centuries after Nero’s death, suggesting that some individuals in the Roman Empire held a favorable view of him long after his death.
Nero was born in Antium, in Italy, on Dec. 15, A.D. 37, to his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father, a former Roman consul, died when he was about 3 years old, and his mother was banished by the Emperor Caligula, leaving him in the care of an aunt. His name at birth was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus.
After the murder of Caligula in January A.D. 41, and the ascension of Emperor Claudius shortly afterward, mother and son were reunited. His ambitious mother would go on to marry Claudius (who was also her uncle) in A.D. 49, and she saw to it that he adopted her son, giving him a new name that started with “Nero.” His tutors included the famous philosopher Seneca, a man who would continue advising Nero into his reign, even writing the proclamation explaining why Nero killed his mother.
The newly adopted son would later take the hand of his stepsister, Octavia, in marriage, and become Claudius’ heir apparent, the emperor choosing him over his own biological son, Britannicus (who died shortly after Nero became emperor).
After the death of Claudius in A.D. 54 (possibly by being poisoned with a mushroom), Nero, with the support of the Praetorian Guard and at the age of 17, became emperor. In the first two years of Nero’s reign, his coins depicted him side by side with his mother, Agrippina.
She “managed for him all the business of the empire … she received embassies and sent letter to various communities, governors and kings …” wrote Cassius Dio who lived A.D. 155-235 (translation from the book "Nero Caesar Augustus: Emperor of Rome" by David Shotter, Pearson, 2008).
Killing his mother
Nero and his mother appear to have had a falling out within about two years of his becoming emperor. Her face stopped appearing on Roman coins after A.D. 55, and she appears to have lost power in favor of Nero’s top advisers, Seneca and Burrus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard who advised him on military affairs.
Officially, the reason given for Nero’s orders to kill his own mom in A.D. 59 was that she was plotting to kill him. Whatever the reasons, Nero knew that he was making a decision that could come back to haunt him. “This was a crime that will have caused revulsion in the Roman world, for the mother was that most sacred of icons within the Roman family,” writes David Shotter, a professor of history at Lancaster University, in his book.
Nero, not trusting his Praetorian Guard to carry out the killing, ordered naval troops to sink a boat that she would be sailing on. This first attempt failed, with his mother swimming to shore. Nero then ordered the troops to do the job directly.
Tacitus (A.D. 56-120) wrote that when the troops came to kill her, she told them if “you have come to see me, take back word that I have recovered (from the sinking boat), but if you are here to do a crime, I believe nothing about my son, he has not ordered his mother’s murder” (translation from the book "Nero" by Jürgen Malitz, Blackwell Publishing, 2005).
Nero, much to his relief, found his actions applauded. The senators said that they believed his life was at risk and congratulated him on killing his own mom. Seneca himself wrote Nero’s report on the murder to the Senate.
Killing his first wife
His marriage to Octavia was not a happy one. She gave him no heir, and the two were estranged by A.D. 62. In that year, he divorced her then accused her of adultery and killed her.
Nero may have taken the step of killing her as a way to protect his position as emperor. As Shotter notes, a large part of Nero’s legitimacy as emperor was based, not only on the fact that he was the adopted son of Claudius, but that he was married to his daughter.
Suetonius writes that “after several vain attempts to strangle her, he divorced her on the ground of barrenness, and when the people took it ill and openly reproached him, he banished her besides; and finally he had her put to death on a charge of adultery that was so shameless and unfounded, that when all who were put to the torture maintained her innocence, he bribed his former preceptor Anicetus to make a pretended confession that he had violated her chastity by a stratagem,” (translation by J. C. Rolfe).
Marriage to Poppaea
Nero would go on to marry the already pregnant Poppaea Sabina in that same year, and she would give birth to their daughter (who lived only about three months) in January, A.D. 63. He took the death of their infant daughter hard and had the baby deified.
In A.D. 65, while Poppaea was pregnant again, she died. Ancient writers say Nero killed her with a kick to the belly. However, the newly deciphered poem from Egypt casts doubt on this, showing Poppaea in the afterlife wanting to stay with Nero.
"The poet is trying to tell you [that] Poppaea loves her husband and what it implies is this story about the kick in the belly cannot be true," said Paul Schubert, a professor at the University of Geneva and the lead researcher who worked on the text, in an interview with LiveScience at the time. "She wouldn't love him if she had been killed by a kick in the belly."
The Great Fire of Rome
On the night of July 18, A.D. 64, a fire started in the Circus Maximus that would burn out of control, leaving little of the city untouched. At the time it occurred, Nero was at Antium but immediately returned to Rome to oversee relief efforts.
While ancient writers tend to blame Nero for starting the fire, this is far from certain. Much of Rome was made with combustible material and the city was overcrowded.
After the flames died down Nero apparently tried to cast blame on the Christians, at the time a fairly small sect. “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace,” wrote Tacitus (translation from Jürgen Malitz’s "Nero"). “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.”
While it is not known whether Nero started the fire, he did take advantage of the space it cleared. He started work on a new palace called the Domus Aurea (golden palace), which was said, at the entranceway, to have included a 120-foot-long (37 meters) column that contained a statue of him.
Bloodshed in the empire
Nero’s rule would have its share of bloodshed in places throughout the empire. In Britain, in A.D. 60, the Iceni Queen Boudicca (also spelled Boudica or Boudicea) rose in rebellion after she was flogged and her daughters raped by Roman soldiers. Her husband, King Prasutagus, had made a deal with Claudius that would see him rule as a client-king. Upon his death in A.D. 59, the officials appointed by Nero ignored it, seizing Iceni land.
At first, Boudicca was successful, overrunning a number of Roman settlements and military units. “At Camulodunum and Londinium the results of the Boudican revolt may be compared, on a smaller scale, with those of the volcanic eruptions that smothered Pompeii and Herculaneum,” writes researchers Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin in their book, "Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen" (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Ancient sources say that Nero considered evacuating the island, but this proved unnecessary as the Roman commander on the island Gaius Suetonius Paulinus massed a force of 10,000 men and defeated Boudicca at the Battle of Watling Street.
Britain wasn’t the only place where Rome had military trouble during Nero’s reign. In the east, Rome fought, and essentially lost, a war with Parthia, having to give up plans to annex the kingdom of Armenia, which served as a buffer between the two powers. Additionally a rebellion in Judea in A.D. 67, near the end of Nero’s reign, would eventually lead to the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the destruction of the Second Temple. One effect of this was the abandonment of Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found stored in nearby caves.
Journey to Greece
Not all of Nero’s dealings throughout the empire ended in violence. In A.D. 66, Nero, a lover of Greek culture, embarked on a trip to Greece, which had been under Roman control for about two centuries by his time.
Shotter writes that Nero took part in several Greek festivals, taking home 1,808 first prizes for his artistic presentations. The Greeks also agreed to postpone the Olympic Games by one year so that Nero could compete in them. That wasn’t all they agreed to do, to the “athletic contests were added for the first time artistic competitions, which included singing and acting, for Nero’s sake,” writes Edward Champlin in his book "Nero" (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).
“In one dangerous race, he fell out of his chariot, but the Hellenic Judges in charge of the games nevertheless granted him the wreath of victory: he rewarded these traditionally unpaid officials with one million sesterces.”
Shotter notes that Nero was so happy with the results of his trip to Greece that he rewarded the Greeks their “freedom,” essentially tax exemption.
By A.D. 68, the problems Nero faced had piled up. He had killed his mother, first wife and, by some accounts, his second. Additionally, the rebuilding of Rome, not to mention the construction of his “golden palace,” was putting a financial strain on the empire. This forced him to raise taxes wherever he could and even take religious treasures.
“Nero took votive offerings from temples in Rome and Italy as well as hundreds of cult statues from temples in Greece and Asia, after the fire of Rome in A.D. 64,” writes Richard Duncan-Jones in his book "Money and Government in the Roman Empire" (Cambridge University Press, 1995), who also notes that Nero reduced the size of the coins Rome minted.
Nero’s support began to crumble. Sotter writes that in April of 64, a Roman governor in Gaul named Gaius Iulius Vindex renounced Nero and declared his support for Galba, then in Spain, for emperor. Although Vindex committed suicide after his forces were defeated by German legions in May, it was enough to undo Nero.
Not long afterward, the Praetorian Guard, the force charged with guarding the emperor himself, renounced their support for Nero and the now former emperor was declared an enemy of the people by the Senate on June 8. The following day, he committed suicide. His last words were said to be “what an artist dies in me!” Shotter notes that his long-time mistress Acte was by his side and “ensured Nero a decent burial in the family tomb of the Domitii on the Pincian Hill in Rome.”
The emperor is dead
After Nero's death, the Roman Empire plunged into chaos as a succession of short-lived emperors tried to gain control of the empire. Sotter notes that Nero still had a considerable deal of popular support and one of these emperors, Otho, even renamed himself “Nero Otho” in his honor.
Champlin writes that people also refused to believe that Nero was actually dead. “Many believe that Nero did not kill himself in June of 68,” he writes. “As Tacitus (the ancient writer) admits, various rumors circulated about Nero’s death and, because of them, many believed or pretended to believe that he was still alive.”
Sotter also notes this, writing that “the decades that followed Nero’s death saw a number of appearances in the East of imposters (or false Nero’s),” a sign that some in the Roman Empire still approved of the man who, today, is known so infamously. [Related: History's Most Notorious and Elusive Bad Guys]