Nero (Latin: IMPERATOR-NERO-CLAVDIVS-CAESAR-AVGVSTVS-GERMANICVS), born December 15, 37 and died June 6, 68, was the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Julius-Claudian dynasty; he reigned from 54 to 68.
Nero acceded to the throne on October 13, 54, upon the death of his great uncle and adoptive father Claudius, emperor of Rome.
Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash
In 66, he added the title Imperator to his name. He was dispossessed of his power in 68 and committed suicide assisted by his scribe Epaphroditos.
Historians continue to debate Nero’s alleged madness today.
The primary sources relating to Nero should be read with caution. His life was reported by the historian Suetonius in his De vita duodecim Caesarum libri (The Life of the Twelve Caesars) and by Tacitus in the annals.
Both Suetonius and Tacitus had the rank of senator. Their descriptions of the events of Nero’s reign are suspicious since it is known that Nero persecuted the Roman senators of the years 65-66, after the discovery of two conspiracies.
Therefore, some of the exalted accounts of Nero’s reign could not be more than exaggerations.
Born in Antio, Nero is the only son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, sister of Caligula.
The paternal grandparents
* Lucio Domicio Ahenobarbus: son of Cneis Domicio Ahenobarbus the Elder and Aemilia Lepida
* Antonia Major: daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia (sister of Augustus and grandniece of Julius Caesar)
The maternal grandparents
* Germanic: son of Drusus (son of Tiberius Nero and Livia, and brother of Tiberius) and Antonia Minor (sister of Antonia Major). Germanicus is the brother of Claudius; he is also the adopted grandson of Augustus and then the adopted son of his uncle Tiberius.
* Agripina la Vieja: daughter of Agrippa and Julia (daughter of Augustus and Scribonia)
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born on December 15, 1937.
His maternal uncle Caligula had just begun to reign on March 16 of that year, at the age of 25.
His predecessors, Octavio and Tiberius, had lived to be 76 and 79 years old respectively. If Caligula lived as long as they did, he could expect a succession by his own descendants.
It is said that Lucio attracted his uncle’s attention shortly after his birth, when his mother Agripina asked her brother to choose the child’s name.
This would have been a gesture of favor and would have marked the boy as a possible heir to his uncle, but Caligula only gave his nephew the name Claudius, implying that he had little chance of becoming an emperor like Claudius.
The relationship between brother and sister seems to have improved very quickly. One scandal that marked the beginning of Caligula’s reign was his particularly close relationship with his three sisters Drusilla, Julia Livilla and Agrippina.
All three were represented with their brother on the coins of the time. All three women seem to have earned his favor and have probably gained influence.
The writings of Flavius Josephus, Suetonius, Dion Cassius report that they had an incestuous relationship with their brother.
Drusilla’s rapid death in ’38 only reinforced this suspicion. She was said to be Caligula’s favorite; she was buried with the honors of an empress.
Caligula even deified her, making her the first woman in Roman history to obtain this honor.
Lucius thus became the son of an influential and famous woman. But he could quickly lose the influence he had over his brother.
Caligula did not yet have any children. His closest male relatives were his brothers-in-law Marco Aemilio Lepido (husband of Drusilla), Marco Vinicius (husband of Livilla) and Gneo Domicio Ahenobarbo (husband of Agrippina).
They were the probable heirs in case of Caligula’s premature death. However, after the death of his wife, Lepidus seemed to have lost all opportunity, but not all ambition, to succeed his brother-in-law.
In September 39, Caligula left to join his legions in the campaign against the Germanic tribes.
The campaign had to be postponed to the following year because of the emperor’s fears of a conspiracy against him.
Within a year, he was working in pottery. Lepidus had managed to become Agrippina and Livilla’s lover, apparently seeking their help to win the throne. For this he was immediately executed.
Caligula also ordered the execution of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, the popular legacy of Upper Germany, and his replacement by Servius Sulpicius Galba.
However, it is not yet known if it was connected to the Lepidus conspiracy. Agrippina and Livilla were relegated to the Pontian Islands. Probably Lucius was separated from his mother at that time.
Lucio’s father died of dropsy in 40. Now Lucius was an orphan and his destiny was uncertain, under the reign of a more and more capricious Caligula.
He was lucky the following year: on January 24, 1941, Caligula, his wife Cæsonia Milonia, and his daughter Julia Drusilla were killed by a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaera.
The Praetorian Guard helped Claudius to ascend the throne. One of his first decisions was to withdraw his nieces from exile.
Agrippina soon married the rich Caius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. Her husband died between the age of 44 and 47, and it was suspected that Agrippina had poisoned him to inherit her immense fortune. Lucius was the only heir of his mother, who had become rich.
Lucius, at the age of ten, had very little chance of occupying the throne. Claudius, who was 57 years old at that time, had reigned longer, and probably more effectively, than his predecessor.
Claude had already been married three times. He had married Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina when he was a private citizen.
Emperor, he had married Valeria Messalina. The couple had two children, Britannicus (n. 41) and Octavia (n. 40). Messalina was only 25 years old and could give her other heirs.
However, Messalina was executed in 1948, accused of conspiracy against her husband. The ambitious Agrippina quickly planned to replace her aunt by marriage. On January 1, 49, she became the fourth wife of Claudius Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar Drusus. The marriage lasted five years.
In the early 1950s, the Roman Senate offered Agrippina the honorary title of Augustus, which Livia had been the only one to bring before her.
On February 25, 50, Lucio was officially adopted by Claudio under the name of Nero Claudio Cesar Druso.
Nero was older than his adopted brother, Briton, and this adoption made him the official heir to the throne.
Claude honored his adopted son in many ways. Nero was emancipated at 51, at the age of 14.
He was appointed proconsul, entered the Senate, made his first speech there, appeared publicly with Claude, and was represented on the coins. In 53, he married his adopted sister, Octavia.
The early years of the emperor
Claudius died of poisoning on October 13, 54, and Nero was soon appointed emperor in his place.
He was only 17 years old. Historians agree that Seneca played the role of a figurehead at the beginning of his reign.
The important decisions were probably left in the more capable hands of his mother Agrippina the Younger (who may have poisoned Claudius herself), his guardian Seneca, and the prefect of the praetorium Sextus Afranius Burrus.
The first five years of Nero’s reign became known as examples of good administration, which even led to the issue of a series of coins celebrating the five-year Neronis period.
The affairs of the empire were handled efficiently and the Senate enjoyed a period of renewed influence in the affairs of state.
However, problems soon arose over Nero’s personal life and the growing competition for influence between Agrippina and the two councillors.
Everyone knew that Nero was disappointed in his marriage and was cheating on Octavia. He took Claudia Acte, a former slave, as his mistress in ’55. Agrippina tried to intervene on Octavia’s behalf and demanded that her son be dismissed from Acte. Burrus and Seneca chose to support their protégé.
Nero resisted his mother’s intervention in his personal affairs. As her influence over her son diminished, Agrippina turned to a younger candidate for the throne.
British, at the age of fifteen, was still legally a minor and under Nero’s care, but was approaching the age of majority.
The British were a possible successor to Nero, and establishing their influence over him could strengthen Agrippina’s position.
But the young man died suddenly on February 12, 55. His coming of age had been set for February 13.
The coincidence of the dates suggests that he was poisoned. Burrus is suspected of involvement in the murder.
Nero increasingly rebelled against Agrippina’s rule, and began to contemplate the murder of his own mother.
He justified his intentions by stating that she was conspiring against him. Agrippina’s power continued to decrease rapidly, while Burrus and Seneca became the two most influential men in Rome.
A series of scandals
While his advisors were dealing with state affairs, Nero surrounded himself with a circle of relatives.
Roman historians report nights of debauchery and violence, while the more mundane affairs of politics were neglected. Marcus Salvius Otho was among these new favorites.
In every sense, Otho was as libertino as Nero, but he became as intimate as a brother.
Some sources even consider them to have been lovers. It is said that Otto introduced Nero to a woman who first married the favorite and then the emperor.
Poppaea (Poppaea Sabina) was described as a woman of great beauty, charm and intelligence.
Rumors of a love triangle between Nero, Otto and Poppaea can be found in many sources.
In 58, Poppaea had secured its position as Nero’s favorite. The following year (59) was a turning point in Nero’s reign.
Nero and/or Poppaea are said to have organized the assassination of Agrippina. Although Seneca tried to convince the Senate that he was conspiring against his son, the emperor’s reputation was hopelessly tarnished by this case of matricide. Otto was soon expelled from the imperial entourage and sent to Lusitania as governor.
The next turning point was the year 62, for several reasons.
The first one was a change in his advisors. Burrus died and Seneca asked Nero’s permission to withdraw from public affairs.
His replacement in the positions of prefect and praetorian advisor was Tigellin. He was exiled in 1939 by Caligula, accused of adultery with Agrippina and Livilla.
He had been called out of exile by Claudius, and then managed to become a close associate of Nero (and perhaps his lover).
With Poppaea, he would have had a greater influence on the emperor than Seneca did. A few months later, Tigellin married Poppaea.
One theory suggests that Poppaea tried during these four years (58-62) to keep Nero away from his advisors and friends; if this is true, what happened to Burrus and Seneca may not have been by chance.
The second major event of the year was the divorce of the emperor. Nero, who was then 25 years old, had reigned for eight years and had no heir.
When Poppaea became pregnant, Nero decided to marry his mistress, but his marriage to Octavia had to be annulled first. He began by accusing her of adultery.
But Nero had already earned a reputation for infidelity, while Octavia was known to be a paragon of virtue.
Testimony was needed against him, but the torture of one of his slaves only produced Pythias’ famous statement that Octavia’s vulva was cleaner than Tigellinus’ mouth.
Nero obtained a divorce on the grounds of infertility, allowing him to marry Poppaea and wait for her to give birth to an heir. The sudden death of Octavia on June 9, 1962 caused public unrest.
One of the quick effects of Tigellinus’ appointment was the enactment of a series of laws against treason; many death sentences were executed.
In the course of that year, Nero had two of the remaining members of his family executed:
* Gaius Rubellius Plautus His mother Claudia Julia was the granddaughter of Tiberius and Vipsania Agrippina. She was also the granddaughter of Drusus and Antonia Minor.
* Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix He was the grandson of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Antonia Major. He was also the maternal half-brother of Messalina. He had married Claudia Antonia, the only daughter of Claudio and Aelia Paetina.
The great fire of Rome
In early 63, Poppaea gave birth to a daughter: Claudia Augusta. Nero celebrated the event, but the child died four months later. Nero still didn’t have an heir.
On July 19, 1964, the great fire of Rome broke out. The fire started in the stores around the Great Circus.
Nero was then on vacation in his hometown of Antio, but had to return in a hurry.
The fire burned for six days. There was a rumor that Nero had been playing the lyre and singing at the top of the Quirinal while the city was burning.
The same stories describe an emperor opening his palaces to give shelter to the homeless and organizing food distribution to prevent starvation among the survivors.
But Nero lost all possibility of restoring his reputation by making public his plans to rebuild Rome in a monumental (and less flammable) style too quickly.
The disoriented population was looking for scapegoats, and soon rumors spread that Nero was responsible.
It was believed that his motivation was to immortalize his name by renaming Rome Neropolis.
It was important for Nero to offer another object to this need to find a culprit.
He chose to target a religion that was taking up more and more space, and whose members he enjoyed persecuting, that of Christians.
He ordered that Christians be thrown to the lions in the sands, while others were crucified in large numbers.
Tacitus tells us the story of this episode
“Human prudence had ordered everything that depended on its advice: soon it was thought that the gods bent to the gods, and the Sibylline Books were opened.
From what was read there, prayers were addressed to Vulcan, Ceres and Proserpina: the Roman ladies implored Juno, first in the Capitol, then in the nearest sea, where water was drawn to spray the walls of the temple and the statue of the goddess, and the women who now married celebrated veils and religious vigils.
But no human means, imperial generosity, or atoning ceremonies could silence the public outcry that accuses Nero of having ordered the burning.
To silence these rumors, he offered other culprits, and inflicted the most refined tortures on a class of men hated for their abominations and whom the vulgar called Christians.
This name comes to them from Christ, who under Tiberius was given to torment by the procurator Pontius Pilate.
Repressed for a moment, this execrable superstition overflowed again, not only in Judea, where it had its origin, but in Rome itself, where all infamies and horrors of the world flowed and found followers.
First of all, those who confessed their sect were captured; and in their revelations, countless others, who were much less convinced of fire than of hatred for the human race.
Some were covered with animal skins and were eaten by dogs, while others died on crosses, or were covered with flammable materials, and when the day stopped shining, they were burned instead of the torches.
Nero lent his gardens for this show, and at the same time gave games to the Circus, where he sometimes mixed with the people dressed as coachmen, and sometimes drove a cart.
And so, although these men were guilty and deserved the ultimate rigors, hearts were open to compassion, thinking that it was not for the public good, but for one’s cruelty, that they were immolated. »
According to some defenders of the non-historicity of Jesus, this text is a medieval forgery.
They argue that even the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea is not aware of the massacre. This thesis has not attracted the attention of historians.
To this day, the cause of the fire is still unknown. Although ancient sources (and scholars) lean towards an incendiary Nero, it must be remembered that fires were frequent in ancient Rome.
The famous Domus aurea was part of the reconstruction project imagined by Nero.
According to Max Gallo, Neron was not the cause of the fire, but may not have intervened and taken any action against him.
Nero, the artist and the widower
In the year 65, Nero was involved in another scandal, taken more seriously by the people then than now.
It was considered degrading for a Roman emperor to appear as a public entertainer, acting, singing and playing the lyre.
Hated by many citizens, with a growing list of political enemies, Nero began to appreciate his loneliness, when in 65 he discovered the Conspiracy of Piso and the participation of old friends like Seneca in the plot. The conspirators were forced to commit suicide.
In addition, Nero ordered Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, a popular and brave general, to commit suicide, after vague suspicions of treason.
This decision prompted the military commanders of Rome and the provinces to consider organizing a revolution.
In 65, Poppaea died, probably at the hands of Nero himself. The emperor went to Greece in 67, where he entertained his guests with artistic performances, while in Rome the prefect of the Praetorian Nymphidius Sabinus sought the support of the praetorian guards and the senators.
Back in Rome after the “tour”, Nero found a chilling atmosphere; Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gaul in Lyon, rebelled, and this led Nero to a paranoid search for any possible threat. In this spirit, he ordered the elimination of any patrician with suspicious ideas.
Galba, his (once) faithful servant, governor of Hispania (Spain), was one of these dangerous nobles.
Therefore, he ordered their execution. Galba, who had no choice, swore allegiance to the Senate and the People of Rome, no longer recognized Nero’s power. In addition, he began to organize a campaign to take the head of the empire.
As a result, Lucius Clodius Macer, legatee of the Third Augustinian Legion in Africa, rebelled and stopped sending wheat to Rome. Nymphidius corrupted the imperial guard, which turned against Nero with the promise of a financial reward from Galba.
The Senate dismissed Nero, who committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat on June 6, 1968.
With his death, the Julius-Claude dynasty came to an end. The Senate voted his damnatio memoriae, cursing his memory. Several civil wars followed in 69, the year of the four emperors.
Events during Nero’s reign
* In 55: British, Claudius’ son, dies without it being known whether his death is to be attributed to Nero, who wishes to perfect his foundation in the empire, or whether the cause is “the disease of the gods” (epilepsy).
* In 59: Nero has his mother Agripina the Younger murdered.
*In 64: Great fire of Rome.
* 64-64: First persecution of Christians accused of being responsible for the fire
* In 66: Jewish revolt in Judea
Historical views of Nero
In modern times, in the West, Nero is placed by many as a symbol of everything that the ancient Rome had of more monstrous, relying on the texts of Suetonius, frequently a peddler of gossip, and of Tacitus, increased by the attacks of Christian authors, and crowned by works of fiction like Quo Vadis.
The “monstrosities” that were immobilized were, in addition to the family murders, the burning of Rome and the persecution of Christians. However, Nero’s real guilt in the great fire of Rome is an accusation that historians no longer believe.
Moreover, no anti-Christian laws were officially enacted during his reign: there was indeed persecution, but only located in Rome.
In Nero’s defense, it can be indicated that he was in Antioch at the time of the fire in Rome in 1964.
This fact can be presented as proof of his innocence, as well as the fact that the collections he cared about were burned there.
The persecution of Christians was perhaps later a political option to appease the Roman plebeians who needed culprits.
Modern historians are more measured in their judgment of Nero. They also observe that during his reign, the Empire was correctly administered, his monetary reform that revalued the denarius benefited the business community, and gave an important impulse to artistic developments in the field of architecture and decorative arts.