Roman emperor Nero, named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus at birth, ruled more than 2,000 years ago. He was born Dec. 15, 37 A.D., not long after Pontius Pilate had Jesus nailed to the cross between two thieves.
I recall hearing that while Rome was burning, Nero was playing the fiddle. Fake news, maybe. So I sought the truth. According to the ancient biographer Suetonius, Nero was the son of the first Roman emperor’s only daughter, and his ancestors were not what you would call hospitable folks. His grandfather enjoyed “violent gladiator games,” and his father was “irascible and brutal.”
His father, Domitus, had apparently been involved in a political scandal of some kind and died in 40 when Nero was 3. Before that, Nero’s mother Agrippina had her own scandal and was a “suspect of adultery with her brother-in-law.” Quite a group running things back then, replete with
banishments, power grabs, and plots to take control—even
Just the kind of environment for someone to seize control of the government. His great uncle Claudius took Nero’s mother for his fourth wife and added Claudius to his name “to mark the adoption.” And so he became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and entered public life as an adult at 14 years old.
While there were differing accounts about how Claudius died in 54, most folks think Nero’s mother Agrippina helped to make sure her son would become the emperor. So with a little manipulation, Nero rose to power.
All reports from ancient writers say Nero was quite extravagant in his construction projects and the way he spent the country’s funds and left the provinces ruined. But historians today take a different view, believing that Nero was really interested in making things better with public works projects and charity—which took lots of cash and seems likely for someone leading his country to make it great. Still, Nero’s policies were deemed “well-meant but incompetent notions.” Like a failed initiative to abolish taxes in an effort to help the people.
At only 16 years old when he became emperor in 54, Nero had no experience in governing. His tutor, Seneca, is said to have written his first speech before the Senate, and his mother has been reportedly to have “meant to rule through her son.” While she was doing that, they say she got even with her political rivals and murdered three of them. How’s that for taking care of business?
Nero followed in his mother’s footsteps by getting rid of people who didn’t share his beliefs. He was also said to be having an affair with a slave girl, and he poisoned his half-brother Britannicus because his mother sided with him when she saw Nero was following his own mind. That got her exiled from the palace.
Later, he had his mother killed, possibly because of her disapproval of his affair with Poppaea Sabina while she was still married. Regardless, Agrippina was no more. The modern scholar Miriam Griffiths suggests things go really went downhill after her death and says, “Nero lost all sense of right and wrong and listened to flattery with total credulity.”
Prior to this, his relationship with the Roman Senate had been relatively good. But scholar Jurgen Malitz writes, “Nero abandoned the restraint he had previously shown because he believed a course supporting the Senate promised to be less and less profitable.”
He divorced another of his wives, Octavia, on grounds of infertility, banished her, and when there were public protests, he accused her of adultery and executed her and married again in 64, the same year The Great Fire of Rome erupted. That was the night of July 18-19 when a large number of mansions, residences and temples were burned. The fire lasted a week, destroying three of 14 Roman districts and severely damaging seven more.
Differing accounts of the cause have described it as an accident, a plot of Nero’s or simply “unsure.” Some said the plot was because of Nero’s dislike of the ancient construction, and he wanted to build his own lush palace and a “30-meter-tall statue of himself, the colossus of Nero.” So he accused the Christians of starting the fire and had many arrested and brutally executed by “being thrown to the beasts, crucified and being burned alive.”
More than 2,000 years later, scholars and historians continue to research and argue whether Nero started the fire, sang and played the fiddle while Rome burned. But Nero ruled his kingdom for several years and did pretty much what he wanted and nobody touched him.
By 65, though, there was a conspiracy against Nero, with many wanting to “rescue the state” from him and restore the republic. But he got wind of it and executed its leaders. Even his old adviser, Seneca, was accused, but denied being involved. Nevertheless, he was ordered to commit suicide.
Then some said Nero kicked his next wife, Poppaea, to death before she had her second child. Other historians suggest she may have had a miscarriage and died.
Later, his tax policies caused a rebellion. The rebel leader lost the battle and committed suicide, while the followers of Nero’s commander wanted him to be emperor. He wouldn’t act against Nero, but others stepped up, and his army officers refused to obey him.
He couldn’t leave Rome, the palace guard left and most friends abandoned him. At this point he wanted someone to kill him. But he couldn’t find anyone, and reportedly cried out, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran to throw himself in the Tiber River but couldn’t do it.
A friend offered a villa outside Rome, and some of Nero’s loyalists accompanied him in disguise. Once there, he ordered them to dig a grave for him. He knew the Senate had declared him a public enemy and planned to execute him by beating him to death. The Senate hoped to find a compromise, but Nero didn’t know that and prepared to commit suicide. He begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself.
When he heard horses approaching, and knew they were coming for him, he pressed his private secretary to kill him. But Nero finally got the job done, becoming the first emperor to do so. One of the horsemen tried to stop the bleeding, but was too late.
His last words were reported to be, “Too late. This is fidelity.”
That was June 9, 68 A.D., almost 1,950 years ago. What a time in which to have lived in such a place!