The figure of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (that’s a lot of men to live up to!) persists to this day as one synonymous with great arrogance, sadistic cruelty, dire morals, extravagance and a great passion for the Hellenistic arts. The Roman emperor with which I have been always been most fascinated was born in the winter of A.D. 37, became emperor in A.D. 54 and, as the walls began to close in, took his own life 14 years later, catapulting Rome into political pandemonium. His legend boasts a catalogue of absurd evils; their perpetrator a villain that you simply could not dream up. Or could you? While many accounts attest to Nero’s depravity and failings as a Roman emperor in great detail, they also suggest that such an infamous depiction, whilst firmly rooted in truth, was subject to bias and literary elaboration. Nero seemingly surpasses the simplistic ‘good/evil’ dichotomy, making him, like all ‘bad boys’, a rather complex guy.
Perhaps the first consideration when analysing the sources available on Nero, is determining the influence of bias in these ancient accounts. Many years separated writer from subject, even Suetonius, being born in the Year of the Four Emperors (A.D. 69: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian) in which brief chaos followed Nero’s fall, cannot write from first hand account. While the historians who wrote the surviving accounts of Nero were not censored for fear of retribution by the emperor, it would not be baseless to assume that their accounts were influenced by an understanding of how they themselves would have prevailed under Nero. The historians who wrote about emperors were the elite of Roman society; Tacitus and Cassius Dio were senators and Suetonius was of the equestrian class, meaning that they would have found themselves directly at the mercy of these rulers. Tacitus recounts Nero’s harsh response to the Pisonian conspiracy in A.D. 65, where the families of the accused were unable to publicly mourn their dead having to instead ‘address[ing] their thanks to the gods’! (Annals XV 15.71) The example of the senator Julius Montanus (in Dio, Roman History LXI, 9.4), driven to take his own life, is also indicative of the climate of fear, and by extension hostility, established by Nero amongst the aristocracy.
Nero’s evils are explored extensively in literary material- everything from personal vices to murderous acts are detailed. Indeed, most of Suetonius’ Life of Nero can be seen as a portrait of misconduct, made all the more evident when he announces in 19.3 that following his narrative on Nero’s acts that remain ‘beyond criticism’ he will now proceed to list ‘his shameful and criminal deeds’. Nero treated no one kindly, it seems. Links of blood, marriage or tutelage could all be severed at the slightest impulse. This is gruesomely evidenced by the protracted torture exacted on his first wife Octavia, leading to her eventual demise, and the musings of all three ancient historians over whether he kicked his second spouse, the pregnant Poppaea Sabina, to death- something neither we nor they can possibly know. However, what does seem to be widely accepted is the hand that Nero had in the death of his aged mentors: ‘He drove his tutor Seneca to suicide’ and ‘He sent poison to Burrus’ (Suet. Nero, 35.4).
Throughout Roman History, LXI, Dio references Nero’s capability for slaughter in less detailed terms, his narrative portraying the man as a calculating monster, rather than chaotically unhinged. It also appears an accepted fact that Nero was responsible for his mother Agrippina‘s death, and Suetonius details a number of elaborate schemes and theatrical attempts on her life: ‘he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom…loosening its panels’ and ‘he devised a collapsible boat, to destroy her by shipwreck.’ (Nero, 34.1). Cassius Dio reflects on the impact of Nero’s act of matricide-perceived as all the more vicious due to her integral role in his rise to power- commenting that ‘people paid him reverence in public, but in private…they tore his character to shreds.’ (Dio. Roman History, LXI, 16) Suetonius writes of how ‘he was hounded by his mother’s ghost and by the whips and blazing torches of the Furies.’ (Suet. Nero, 34.4) alluding to the tragic figure of Orestes from Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Alston states that such an act ‘surely demands psychological rather than a political explanation’ – supporting the notion of him, often explored in modern portrayals, as a darkly unbalanced man unable to deal with the stresses of his complex political duties.
The role of rumour in Nero’s character assassination is perhaps the most important component of his Antichrist status. Arguably, Nero’s most infamous crime is that of ‘fiddling while Rome burned’ (A.D. 64: The Great Fire of Rome), and indeed no account of Nero is complete without the acknowledgment of this audacious report. Nero supposedly ‘climbed on to the palace roof, from which there was the best overall view of the greater part of the fire and, assuming the garb of a lyre player, sang “The Capture of Troy” (Dio. Roman History, LXII, 18). Suetonius similarly reports this as fact, Nero apparently ‘exulting’ in ‘the beauty of the flames’ (Nero, 38) Tacitus is more careful with this accusation, calling it a ‘report’: ‘at the very moment that Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage and…had sung the destruction of Troy’ (Annals, XV, 39), and stresses that the rumour was potent enough to undermine the swift relief measures Nero ordered.
Whether Nero was indeed an arsonist, in addition to all his other faults, seems debatable, and modern historians, such as Scullard, acknowledge this. However, Nero’s capacity for sadism was only further evidenced by his violent scapegoating of the reviled Christians, and such intense persecution most likely did little but confirm Nero’s guilt in the minds of the Roman people. Even Nero’s extensive efforts with the scenic games and athletic entertainment, the perfect tool for swaying public opinion, seemed to only further alienate the populace by their degree of bloodthirstiness. The ancient accounts, in particular Suetonius’, seem to portray Nero as a figure of inevitable chaos, destined to bring about destruction to the city- with ambiguous and impractical anecdotes such as Seneca’s supposedly prophetic dream confirming Nero’s cruelty (‘[he] soon proved the dream prophetic by revealing the cruelty of his disposition at the earliest possible opportunity’, Nero 7). Likewise, even the less fantastical Cassius Dio, alludes to astrological phenomena in predicting Nero’s murder of Agrippina, also stating that ‘Domitius, the father of Nero, foresaw clearly enough his son’s future depravity and licentiousness… declar[ing]: “It is impossible for any good man to be sprung from me and this woman.” (Roman History, LXI, 2.3) Extensive rumours engulfed Nero, ranging from incestuous relations with his mother to generally abominable sexual habits (even by Roman standards…) adding to his established crimes and eccentricities, such as the frequent enrolment of freedmen, Greeks and ‘Orientals’ in high office, that continually estranged him from the Senate and aristocracy.
However, ancient historians also documented Neronian acts that demonstrated a capability for magnanimity. His prompt and extensive responses to the Great Fire of Rome (A.D. 64) in providing ‘relief to the homeless and fugitive populace’ record him as ‘open[ing] the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa…his own Gardens…and a number of extemporized shelters’ and the fiscally sensitive decision to lower the price of grain ‘to three sesterces.’ is also detailed by Tacitus ( Annals, XV 15.39). The military successes of Rome in its provinces can be interpreted as an example of positive foreign policy under Nero, in particular the truce sustained with Parthia and the suppression of the revolt of the Iceni in Britain, with a ceasefire achieved with Nero’s installation of a more placatory governor, Turpillianus.
Furthermore, the literary material available unanimously suggests that Nero’s initial reign was calm and relatively unsullied- with Suetonius writing that he invoked Augustus (another young but eventually deified emperor) as a model (Nero, 10). Modern historical thought for the most part agrees that Nero’s propensity for excess, theatrics and cruelty were tapered by the trinity of figures that shadowed the young emperor; the indomitable ‘Best of Mothers’ Agrippina and the influential Seneca and Burrus, and their eventual murders are ‘seen as leading directly to the degeneration of Nero’s regime.’ (Alston) Nero was moulded by his mother, and by mentors she had approved and personally elevated, with many accounts portraying her as ruthless in her opportunism for Nero; ‘She at once set to work to consolidate her position by eliminating possible family rivals’ (Salmon). Nero, already possessing the ugly vice of jealousy and displaying an intolerance of rivals, is repeatedly shown to display this same poor regard for human life in the face of his own ambitions or desires, suggesting his character was to some extent inevitable in light of his origins and influences.
Ultimately, so many colourful and wide-ranging accusations, flung at a single man, seem for the most part to be based in truth. The many whispers of his misconduct, while remaining impossible to truly validate, only gained such momentum and immortality because of the extent of his confirmed sins. Furthermore, his habit of countering unpopularity or dissent with frenzied despotism only further facilitated the hostility felt toward him on all levels of Roman citizenry. Ancient accounts, in line with a tendency to perceive character as fixed, frequently paint Nero as a man whose fall was inevitable from birth, a figure so ludicrous and extreme, that prophecies and dramatic revelations are required to make any sense of him at all. While in modern accounts, although often prejudged by his many failings and crimes, Nero seems to be viewed as more nuanced; an inherently flawed and violent man but also a mentally ill individual whose obsessive love of the arts surpassed his governmental responsibilities. Both stances are perhaps best mirrored by his most famous hour in legend: The Great Fire of Rome. While engaging in generous relief efforts following the destruction, as rumours of his manic ‘fiddling’ persisted, he further sabotaged himself by beginning to construct the Domus Aurea, a golden monument honouring himself, amid the scorched ruins.
O Nero, you were a man consumed and ultimately destroyed by paranoia, vanity and greed…but you’ll always be my favourite emperor.
Cassius Dio, Roman History. Tr. Cary, E.
Suetonius, The Life of Nero. Tr. Rolfe, J.C.
Tacitus, Annals, Book XV. Tr. Jackson, J.
Alston, R. (1998) Aspects of Roman History AD 14-117.
Grant, M. (1970) Nero.
Griffin, M. T. (1987) Nero: The End of a Dynasty.
Salmon, Edward T. (1989) A History of the Roman World from 30 B.C. to A.D. 138.
Scullard, H.H. (1998) From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68.