Ancient Rome was full of huge personalities. Just like in modern times, there are people in power who do their job and aren’t really all that entertaining, while others are so bold and inflammatory that we can’t stop talking about them. It was the same for Rome–maybe even more so.
Rulers came and went, but a select few were so infamous that we’re fascinated by them still today. We all know names like Caesar and Caligula, but Nero is one that has some severe notoriety, too.
One of Rome’s most notorious emperors, Nero Claudius Caesar was the ruler of Rome for 14 years before he lost the throne by taking his own life. Nero was politically violent, debaucherous, and persecuted Christians heavily throughout his reign. He loved music, too, so much so that the legend persists that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
When it comes to ancient history, fact, and fiction can get mixed up easily, so it’s worth taking a deeper look at the history of Nero to see just how evil he really was. Did Nero do all the terrible things he’s associated with, or is his popular history just more juicy rumors?
Nero’s Early Life and Ascension
Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD, young Nero was the son of Agrippina the Younger, the highly motivated sister of an ever more notorious Emperor, Caligula. His father died when he was quite young, but Agrippina had plans to make sure that her son had a father. And not just any father would do. Nero’s mother wanted an Emperor to raise her son.
She married Emperor Claudius when Nero was 13, and it was at this point that Lucius took the name that he’s best known for–Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. With this marriage, Emperor Claudius adopted young Nero, and made him his heir.
It wasn’t just this marriage that made Nero a fitting heir to the throne, though. Not only was Caligula his uncle, but Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus. She sealed Nero’s place as the future Emperor by arranging his marriage to Claudius’s daughter, Nero’s step-sister, Claudia Octavia, at the age of 16.
His childhood and teenage years were, by all accounts, convoluted and bloody. His mother was said to have killed his father with the intent of marrying the Emperor, mirroring the unimaginable cruelty that Nero would enact on his wives in the future.
Emperor Claudius Dies, Nero Rises to Power
In the year 54 AD, Emperor Claudius died suddenly. His death was shrouded in mystery, but again, the blame was believed to be on Agrippina. Sources suggest that the murderous mother of Nero fed her royal husband poisoned mushrooms, anxious for her son to take the throne.
There was one little issue that could have thwarted Agrippina’s plans–Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus–Emperor Claudius’s natural son.
Britannicus was younger than Nero, but as Claudius’s biological son, his claim to the throne was strong. When his father passed, there were stirrings that Britannicus should be the one to succeed him, not Nero. Close to the time of his death, Claudius had begun talking about Britannicus being elevated from boy to man, and at the same time, being named the true heir to the throne.
Agrippina was not thrilled with this prospect. She had spent much of her life positioning her son to be emperor, so when Claudius died not soon after, it was clear to many that his wife might have been involved in his demise. But at that point, it didn’t matter. Britannicus was still a boy, and Nero was the heir.
Once Claudius was dead, Nero ascended the throne and became Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
Nero’s Early Reign
Nero was 17, the youngest to ever hold the throne, so he leaned heavily on a number of advisers during his early years as Emperor. At first, it seemed that Nero would be a generous ruler, encouraging the sharing of power with the senate and trying to bad controversial practices such as capital punishment. At the same time, he was somewhat uninterested in his role as emperor and preferred to pursue his own interests.
Agrippina was more than happy to pull the strings in the background and basically rule in Nero’s stead. But much to her disappointment, there were others that held Nero’s ear, too–philosopher Seneca and the prefect Burrus.
Seneca disliked Agrippina immensely, and he encouraged the young Nero to rely less on his manipulative mother and instead rule under his own power. Instead, Nero gravitated to using his power to satisfy his own desires, preferring to leave the ruling to Seneca and Burrus.
It was here that the well-meaning Nero began to change, and the first threads of his violent reign showed themselves.
The Death of Britannicus, Agrippina, and Octavia
Nero was slowly but surely slipping out of Agrippina’s control, and after a lifetime of bloody, violent work to get her son onto the throne, his indifference to her drove her to madness. In a sudden turn of events, Agrippina began to champion her stepson Britannicus as the true heir to the throne. This proved to be deadly for Britannicus, who soon died under suspicious circumstances just like his father.
At this time in his rule, Nero was still focused on her personal pleasures, and in the pursuit of this, took a lover in a slave Claudia Acte. Still raging at the loss of control over her son, Agrippina drew attention to this fling and Nero’s later affair with Poppaea Sabina, siding with Octavia.
Furious, Nero was said to have ordered the death of his once-beloved mother. First, he tried to have her drown on a collapsible boat, but when this plot proved futile, Agrippina was instead stabbed to death in her own home. Agrippina had achieved her ultimate goal–putting her dear son on the throne–but it had cost her sanity, and eventually, her life.
Next to fall under Nero’s violent hand was his own wife, Claudia Octavia. Once he grew tired of Acte, Nero fell desperately in love with the wife of his friend Rufrius Crispinus. The woman’s name was Poppaea Sabina, and Nero wanted her badly enough to get Octavia out of the way.
First, Empress Octavia was simply banished. Unsatisfied with this result, it’s said that Nero ordered her bound and her wrists slit before she was thrown into a steam bath to suffocate.
With the death of his wife, Nero had eliminated all of his closest family–his stepbrother, wife, and mother–and would have to rely even more on his advisors. Soon enough, he married Poppaea Sabina, and Nero shifted into the next phase of his reign.
The Great Fire of Rome and the Persecution of Christians
At this point in Nero’s life, he was somewhat more independent than he had ever been. So far, his politics had gone over well with the public, and it was clear that he genuinely wanted the best for Rome in the beginning. He enacted reforms on tax collectors and allowed slaves to file complaints about cruel owners, among other practices that made him popular among the people.
While it’s true that Seneca and Burrus were more responsible for these measures than Nero himself, he was still seen as a competent ruler in his early years. After the death of his mother and first wife, though, things started to go off the rails for Nero.
Drunk on his newfound independence, Nero threw himself into what he considered his real passion in life–the arts. Nero considered himself a phenomenal singer and lyre player, and would often perform in front of his subjects.
Nero also considered himself a decent chariot driver, and when public games began to be held every five years in Rome, he trained himself and competed alongside everyone else. These flights of fancy appeared harmless from the outside, but they took Nero away from his real duties as the Emperor.
Nero had a chance to prove himself when, on June 19, AD 64, a devastating fire swept across the city. The blaze started in the shops that circled Circus Maximus, and since most of the Circus itself and the shops were made from wood, the fire quickly intensified and began to spread throughout the city.
The Great Fire of Rome burned for nine days, where three of Rome’s fourteen districts were obliterated and seven more were terribly damaged. It was during this time that the rumor of Nero standing on the roof of his palace, playing the lyre or “fiddle” while his empire burned, spawned.
Now, it’s thought that this was just a story told to cast Nero in an even worse light. But really, this story isn’t even needed to make the Emperor look bad. He did plenty to garner that reputation all on his own.
After the fire was out, the Roman citizens were looking for someone to blame. At first, attention turned towards their lackadaisical Emperor, but Nero had a better scapegoat in mind. Instead, he blamed members of the young Christian church for the fire.
Brutal justice was rendered upon these innocent Christians, and they were persecuted and executed in the most horrific of ways. One account notes that the Christians were executed by being thrown to beasts, crucified, and even burned alive.
Before the fire and the persecution of the Christian religion, Nero could be viewed as somewhat negligent, hedonistic, and ineffective. The question is–was Nero intentionally cruel?
There were still signs that Nero might have been maligned by historians and not the monster he is portrayed to be. Oddly enough, the same historian who reported his persecution of the Christians also noted his generosity towards his own people after the fire.
One account by historian Tacitus places Nero in the city of Antium when the fire occurred, and the emperor returned to organize a relief effort. Tacitus also states that Nero paid, from his own money, for bodies and debris to be removed. Nero was said to have opened his palaces for those displaced by the fires, offering relief to his subjects in their time of greatest need.
After the great fire, Nero led the reconstruction of Rome. New homes were built from stone and brick, and Nero also had a new palace built for himself, too. The fire had destroyed so much that the cost to rebuild the city was astronomical. The rebuild emptied the city treasury, and taxes had to be raised in order to pay for it.
Emperor Nero’s Later Years and Death
By this point, in AD 65, Burrus had died and Seneca had retired, leaving Nero on his own with advisors that he didn’t trust nearly as much. During this time, a conspiracy to unseat Nero from the throne was thwarted and blamed on previous advisor Seneca, who was forced to commit suicide.
In the same year, Nero was reported to have kicked his pregnant wife Poppaea to death, killing both her and the child. It’s debated that this murder even happened, or if was hearsay. Other historians believe that Poppaea died in childbirth, and she was given a state funeral with divine orders Nero mourned his wife greatly, and would later have a young boy who resembled Popppea castrated and then wed the boy as if he was a bride.
This wasn’t the end of the hardships faced by Nero, either. Rome was suffering, and Nero couldn’t handle the crumbling of his empire. To escape the revolts and assassination attempts, Nero took an extended vacation to Greece.
There, he indulged in his beloved arts and chariot rides. He even drove a chariot in the Olympic games, leading a life of pleasure and gluttony once more. When he returned to Rome, another revolt was building, and the Senate was overtaken. Even his Praetorian Guards left his side, and Nero was declared an enemy of Rome.
Even to the end, Nero showed cowardice and ego. He fled, but his attempt was futile, and he knew that death was on his doorstep. Not wanting to be executed, Nero prepared to take his own life. He paced the halls, lamenting not his failed rule, but instead, the fact that the world would lose such a brilliant artist. In his last hours, Nero was heard crying to himself, “What an artist dies in me!”
Even then, Nero could not take his own life. His last act was to force his secretary, Epaphroditus, to kill him. With Nero’s death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty was over, as well as the reign of one of Rome’s most infamous rulers, Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
“How Nasty Was Nero, Really?”