Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68) is one of the most notorious Roman Emperors. As a megalomaniac, he was convinced that he was a fantastic ruler, lover, athlete, actor, poet and singer. The Romans, however, soon tired of being locked in theatres, forced to listen to Nero's ceaseless verses and songs.
Nero was born on December 15, 37 as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, son of
Agrippina the Younger (15-59) and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (†40). Nero's grandfather, another Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (†48 BC), had been a savage and heartless man. His animal shows and gladiatorial contests were so bloody that the Emperor Augustus rebuked him. Nero's father, Gnaeus, was even worse.
Once, he deliberately rode down a child on the Appian Way just for fun.
He also murdered someone for refusing to drink as much as he ordered and another time he gauged out someone's eyes for criticising him. He was generally engaged in drunken, adulterous debauchery and had an incestuous relationship with his sister Domitia Lepida (†54). Nero's mother, the ambitious Agrippina, had had a traumatic childhood
In 39 AD, Agrippina and her sister Julia Livilla (18-±41) were exiled to the tiny Pontian Islands by their brother, the Emperor Caligula. When Nero was only three years old, his notorious father died of dropsy. Subsequently, Caligula had Agrippina's property confiscated and as a result she and Nero lived in poverty. According to Suetonius, Nero's tutors on the islands were a dancer and a barber.
Agrippina (to the right) was recalled by the next emperor, her clumsy uncle Claudius (10 BC-54 AD), in 41 AD. He was married to Domitia Lepida's daughter Messalina (±20-48). Back in town, Agrippina managed to persuade the rich Passienus Crispus to divorce his wife and marry her. When he died shortly afterwards, Agrippina became a rich widow. In 48, the Empress Messalina was executed after cuckolding her elderly husband in public and the Emperor Claudius vowed never to marry again. Agrippina, however, managed to convince her uncle
As a boy, Nero already joined in the Game of Troy during the shows in the circus. He also enjoyed horse races. In 49 AD Agrippina appointed the stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (±5-65) as Nero's tutor. Nero's aunt, Domitia Lepida, was also involved in Nero's upbringing, until 53 AD, when Agrippina managed to have her sentenced to death on charges of witchcraft. Agrippina also convinced Claudius to adopt Nero as his heir over his own son, Britannicus (41-55)1. Soon afterwards, Agrippina falsely accused the fiancé of Claudius' daughter Octavia (±42-±62) of incest with his sister. Claudius, who deeply loved his daughter, broke off the engagement and then the ex-fiancé committed suicide2. Thus, Agrippina arranged Nero's betrothal to his stepsister. In 53, they were married. Having assured her son the throne, Agrippina had her 64-year-old husband-uncle most likely poisoned with mushrooms in 54 AD3.
Nero was of average height with light blond hair, set in rows of curls. His features were regular, his neck over-thick and his belly prominent. The first five years of young Nero's reign under the tutelage of Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus (†62) were quite prosperous, but soon Nero turned to a life of excess, seeking luxury and debauchery. He did not love his wife, Octavia, and took the servant Acte as his mistress. Burrus and Seneca hoped she would wean Nero away from his dominant mother. Soon Agrippina became jealous
Agrippina was transferred to a separate residence in 55 AD. She also disappeared from the coinage, which had previously borne both her and Nero's image. Acte's influence, however, soon faded as she was replaced by the love of Nero's life, the notorious, amber-haired
Kiefer and Zachs propose the hypothesis that the immoral Agrippina had an incestuous relationship with her son6. It could explain Agrippina's fury, when Nero took a mistress. Tacitus wrote: "But Agrippina complained with womanly jealousy and rage that she had a freedwoman for a rival, a maid for a daughter-in-law, and so forth. She could not wait for her son's repentance or his satiety; the more scandalous her accusations, the hotter was his passion, till at last he gave way completely to his love and, throwing off allegiance to his mother, put himself in the charge of Seneca." Poppaea is supposed to have called Nero "a mother's boy". Suetonius remarked that Nero chose a prostitute
With his mother out of the way, Nero, like Caligula, began his trips in disguise to the seedy parts of the city, beating up passers-by. When in 62 Burrus died and Seneca retired, the ruthless playboy Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus (†68), one of Agrippina's ex-lovers, became the new Praetorian Prefect. He shared in Nero's debaucheries. Soon Nero banished his gentle wife Octavia to the isle Pandateria7. There her wrists were cut in pretence of suicide. After Poppaea's divorce8, Nero married Poppaea in 62 AD.
According to Tacitus, Poppaea had great beauty and sophistication, but no morals. On January 21, 63, Poppaea gave birth to a daughter, Claudia, who survived only four months. When Poppaea was expecting another child in 65, Nero, in a rage, kicked her in the belly. She died afterwards and her beautiful body was embalmed. Nero's remorse and grief were intense, until his eye glanced upon a young man, Sporus, who much resembled Sabina Poppaea in looks. Nero had him castrated and went through a marriage ceremony with him. He dressed Sporus in fine clothes normally worn by an Empress and gave him the nickname "Sabina". He took him in his own litter through Rome, kissing him amorously now and then. Nero married another former slave
By then, Nero had become a megalomaniac. Treason trials were resumed and taxes were raised, while wealthy men had their estates confiscated. Nero's love for the theatre and of chariot racing became obsessive. He cherished his voice and would lie down with lead weights on this chest to strengthen his diaphragm. The Romans waried of being locked in theatres, forced to listen to Nero's ceaseless verses or songs. He held literary festivals in 60 and 65 AD and at them he recited part of his epic "Troica" about the Trojan War. He liked to sing his own compositions while accompanying himself musically. In his private circus and theatre, he started performing as a charioteer and actor. He also used to patronise young talents, but later became aggressively jealous of their success.
The great fire of Rome in July 64 added to Nero's growing unpopularity. Unproven rumours9 spread that he had started the fire himself to clear space for his palace. According to Tacitus, Nero chose to blame the small Christian community for the fire and had many of them burned alive. This persecution of Christians has made Nero notorious, but, to his contemporaries, his harassment of a tiny Jewish sect would have seemed insignificant. After the fire, Nero enthusiastically started planning the rebuilding of the destroyed parts of Rome with his megalomanical Golden House as its crowning feature. It was a complex of palaces and pavilions in a landscape with an artificial lake and a gigantic bronze statue of Nero. The palace was revolutionary in concept and design. In it the combination of rubble with cement was used for the first time, creating vaulted domes
It is difficult to determine to what extent Nero was mentally unbalanced. Although there were aspects of his life that seem psychopathic in their nature, his love for Poppaea and the nightmares he suffered after murdering his mother, suggest that he was not a psychopath. He may have been a schizophrenic. His behaviour may partly have been hereditary, but it was probably intensified by the irregularities in the decisive years of his childhood. He had no father figure to look up to and his mother practically smothered him, which may have resulted in a mother-complex. The absolute power corrupted
A conspiracy to murder Nero during the Circensian Games in 65 AD was betrayed and as a result 13 people were exiled and 19 died, among them Seneca. The following year, Nero travelled to Greece in order to compete in the major Greek festivals at Olympia and Delphi. He bribed the judges and, as usual, the audience was forbidden to leave their seats while he was performing. Naturally, he carried off all the prizes10. In January 68 he made a spectacular return to his capital.
In the spring revolts started in the over-taxed provinces. Nero's removal was demanded. The senate declared him to be a public enemy and condemned him to be flogged to death. Tigellinus was seriously ill at the time and Nero lost his nerve. He did not realise that he still commanded wide popular support among the common people. He wanted to flee on a ship, but his guards refused to help him. Around midnight he found himself abandoned even by the palace attendants. When the soldiers came to arrest him on June 9, Nero stabbed himself in the neck. His private secretary then finished Nero's clumsy suicide attempt. Suetonius writes that Nero uttered the words: "What an artist dies with me!" 11. The faithful Acte had him buried in the family tomb of the Domitii in the Pincian Hills. His third wife, Statilia Messalina, outlived Nero12. His male lover Sporus fled from Rome and committed suicide the following year.
Copyright © 2002, 2007 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 Brittannicus and Octavia were children of Messalina, whose scandalous sex life made people question Claudius' paternity.
2 He was lucius Junius Silanus and, like Nero, he was a great-great-grandson of the Emperor Augustus.
3 In later years, Nero used to get laughs by referring to mushrooms as "food of the gods".
4 Tacitus mentions the story that Nero had sexual intercourse with Brittannicus before poisoning him, because he was a handsome boy.
5 It was quite common for a young Roman to have sexual relations with a handsome male slave until his marriage.
6 Zacks mentions "stains on his clothes" as proof of intercource with his mother in a litter.
7 Octavia had refused to consent to a divorce.
8 Poppaea was married to Otho (32 BC-69 AD), who became Emperor for some months in 69 AD.
9 Nero was in Antium, when the fire began.
10 Nero was even granted the prize for the Olympic chariot-race, although he fell out of his chariot.
11 "Qualis artifex pereo!"
12 In 69 the Emperor Otho, Poppaea's former husband, intended to become Statilia Messalina's sixth husband, but he was deposed before he could marry her.