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Bust of Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome
5th Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign: 13 October 54 – 9 June 68 (13 years)
Predecessor: Claudius, grand-uncle and stepfather
Spouse: Claudia Octavia, Poppaea Sabina, Statilia Messalina, Sporus
Issue: Claudia Augusta
Full name: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
House: Julio-Claudian Dynasty
Father: Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus
Mother: Agrippina the Younger
Born: 15 December 37, Antium (modern Anzio and Nettuno), Italy
Died: 9 June 68 (aged 30) Outside Rome
Burial: Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, Pincian Hill, Rome
Religion: Roman Paganism
Nero (/ˈnɪəroʊ/; Latin: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; 15 December 37 – 9 June 68) 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 succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death.
Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade and enhancing the cultural life of the Empire. He ordered theatres built and promoted athletic games. 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 began the First Roman-Jewish War.
In 64 AD, most of Rome was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome, which many Romans believed Nero himself had started 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.
He is infamously known as the Emperor who "fiddled while Rome burned". He was rumored to have had captured Christians dipped in oil, and then 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 surviving 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, the future 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 Maior, 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' 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 to 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
Coin issued under Claudius celebrating young Nero as the future emperor, c. 50.
Nero was not expected to become Emperor because his maternal uncle, Caligula, had begun his reign at the age of 25 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 married 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)
Nero and Agrippina. Agrippina crowns her young son Nero with a laurel wreath. She carries a cornucopia, symbol of fortune and plenty, and he wears the armour and cloak of a Roman commander, with a helmet on the ground at his feet. The scene refers to Nero's accession as emperor in 54 AD and is dated before 59 AD when Nero had Agrippina murdered.
An Aureus of Nero and his mother, Agrippina, c. 54.
Claudius died in 54 and Nero, taking the name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, 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 wall."
Nero became Emperor at 17 when the news of Claudius' death was made known, the youngest emperor until that time. Ancient historians describe Nero's early reign as being strongly influenced by his mother, Agrippina, his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and the Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, especially in the first year. Other tutors were less often mentioned, such as Alexander of Aegae.
Very early in Nero's rule, problems arose from competition for influence between Agrippina and Nero's two main advisers, Seneca and Burrus.
In 54, Agrippina tried to sit down next to Nero while he met with an Armenian envoy, but Seneca stopped her and prevented a scandalous scene (as it was unimaginable at that time for a woman to be in the same room as men doing official business). Nero's friends also mistrusted Agrippina and told Nero to beware of his mother.
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 set.
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
Coin of Nero and Poppaea Sabina
Over time, Nero became progressively more powerful, freeing himself of his advisers and eliminating rivals to the throne. 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 having relations with Agrippina and embezzlement. Seneca succeeded in having himself, Pallas and Burrus acquitted. According to Cassius Dio, at this time, Seneca and Burrus reduced their role in governing from careful management to mere moderation of Nero.
In 58, Nero became romantically involved with Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his friend and future emperor Otho. Reportedly because a marriage to Poppaea and a divorce from Octavia did not seem politically feasible with Agrippina alive, Nero ordered the murder of his mother in 59. A number of modern historians find this an unlikely motive as Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62.
Additionally, according to Suetonius, Poppaea did not divorce her husband until after Agrippina's death, making it unlikely that the already married Poppaea would be pressing Nero for marriage. Some modern historians theorize that Nero's execution of Agrippina was prompted by her plotting to set Rubellius Plautus on the throne. According to Suetonius, Nero tried to kill his mother through a planned shipwreck, which took the life of her friend, Acerronia Polla, but when Agrippina survived, he had her executed and framed it as a suicide. The incident is also recorded by Tacitus.
In 62, Nero's adviser, Burrus, died. Additionally, 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 also was reported to have kicked Poppaea to death in 65 before she could have his second child. However, modern historians, noting Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio's possible bias against Nero and the likelihood that they did not have eyewitness accounts of private events, postulate that Poppaea may have died because of complications of miscarriage or 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.
Coin showing Nero distributing charity to a citizen. c. 64–66.
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 rule.
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 because water plants had clogged the river, denying Nero's vessels access to the 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 flammable goods.
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. (There were no fiddles in 1st-century Rome.) 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 and burned.
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 Parthian Empire c. 60. Nero's peace deal with Parthia was a political victory at home and made him beloved in the east.
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 Armenia.
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
A plaster bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
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 Paullinus 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 Paullinus could return, receive reinforcements, and quell the rebellion in 61. Fearing Paullinus 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
Nero, Sestertius with countermark "X" of Legio X Gemina.
Obv: Laureate bust right.
Rev: Nero riding horse right, holding spear, DECVRSIO in exergue; S C across fields.
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 to Nero.
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. The prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus, also abandoned his allegiance to the Emperor and came out in support for Galba.
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 freedman, 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" which translates to English as "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 (The Senate had initially declared Galba as a public enemy) and proclaimed him 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.
Apotheosis of Nero, c. after 68. Artwork portraying Nero rising to divine status 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 blond, 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 Nero.
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 mankind."
Plutarch (c. 46–127) mentions Nero indirectly in his account of the Life of Galba and the Life of Otho. 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 BEC–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 and religion
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, a prominent supporter of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Roman rule, was a descendant of Nero.
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.