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- This article deals with the Roman emperor Nero. For other meanings, see Nero (disambiguation).
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (15 December 37–9 June 68), born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also called (50 - 54 AD) Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, was the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. On February 25, 50 he became heir to the then-Roman Emperor, his grand-uncle and adoptive father Claudius, as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus. He succeeded to the throne on October 13, 54. In 66 he added the prefix Imperator to his name. In 68 Nero was deposed. His death was reportedly the result of suicide assisted by his scribe Epaphroditos (Greek for "lovely" and "charming").
Sources on Nero
Before discussing Nero's life, it should be noted that the primary sources on Nero may not be reliable. These works were mainly written by Suetonius and Tacitus, both of whom were of senatorial rank. Their description of the events of Nero's reign are suspect because Nero was known to persecute Roman Senators. Thus, some of the wild stories about the reign of Nero may be nothing more than exaggerations.
His father was grandson to an elder Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Aemilia Lepida through their son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was also great-grandson to Mark Antony and Octavia through their daughter Antonia Major.
His mother was the namesake of her own mother Agrippina the elder who was granddaughter to Octavia's brother Caesar Augustus and his wife Scribonia through their daughter Julia Caesaris and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. His maternal grandfather Germanicus was himself grandson to Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia, adoptive grandson to her second husband Caesar Augustus, nephew and adoptive son of Tiberius, son of Drusus through his wife Antonia Minor (sister to Antonia Major) and brother to Claudius.
Birth under Caligula
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born on December 15, 37. At the time he was not expected to ever become Augustus. His maternal uncle Caligula had only started his own reign on March 16 of that year at the age of 25. His predecessors Octavian and Tiberius had lived to become 76 and 79 respectively. Providing that Caligula lived long enough to match them, he could produce his own heirs.
Lucius would come to the attention of his uncle soon after his birth. Agrippina reportedly asked her brother to name the child. This would be an act of favor and would mark the child as a possible heir to his uncle. However Caligula only offered to name his nephew Claudius after their lame and stuttering uncle, apparently implying that he was as unlikely to become Augustus as Claudius.
The relationship between brother and sister would soon apparently improve. A prominent scandal early in the new reign was Caligula's particularly close relationship to his three sisters Drusilla, Julia Livilla and Agrippina. All three are featured with their brother in Roman currency of the time. The three women seem to have gained his favor and likely some amount of influence. The writings of Josephus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius report on their reputed sexual relationship with their brother, considered typical by Egyptian and incest by Roman standards. Drusilla's sudden death in 38 would apparently only serve to ensure this belief. She was reportedly Caligula's favorite and was consequently buried with the honors of an Augusta. Caligula proceeded in having her deified, the first woman in Roman history to achieve this honor.
Lucius had then become the son of an influential and notorious woman. But she would soon lose her position by her brother. Caligula had remained childless. His closest male relatives at the time were his brothers-in-law Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (husband of Drusilla), Marcus Vinicius (husband of Livilla) and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (husband of Agrippina). They were the likely heirs should Caligula die early. However, after the death of his wife, Lepidus apparently lost his chances, though not his ambitions, to succeed his brother-in-law.
In September, 39 Caligula left Rome with his escort, heading north to join his legions in a campaign against the Germanic tribes. The campaign had to be postponed for the following year due to Augustus' preoccupation with a conspiracy against him. Reportedly Lepidus had managed to become lover to both Agrippina and Livilla, apparently seeking their help in gaining the throne. Consequently he was immediately executed. Caligula also ordered the execution of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus , the popular Legate of Germania Superior, and his replacement with Servius Sulpicius Galba. However, it remains uncertain whether he was connected to Lepidus' conspiracy. Agrippina and Livilla were soon exiled to the Pontian islands. Lucius was presumably separated from his mother at this point.
Lucius' father died of dropsy in 40. Lucius was now effectively an orphan with an uncertain fate under the increasingly erratic Caligula. His luck would change again the following year. On January 24, 41 Caligula, his wife Caesonia Milonia , and their infant daughter Julia Drusilla were murdered by a conspiracy under Cassius Chaera. The Praetorian Guard helped Claudius gain the throne. Among his first decisions was the recalling of his nieces from exile.
Agrippina was soon remarried to the wealthy Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. He died between 44 and 47, and Agrippina was reportedly suspected of poisoning him in order to inherit his fortune. Lucius was the only heir to his now wealthy mother.
Adoption by Claudius
Ten-year-old Lucius was still considered unlikely to ever gain the throne. Claudius, 57 years old at this point, had reigned longer than his predecessor and arguably more effectively. Claudius had already had three marriages. He had married Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina as a private citizen. He was married to Valeria Messalina as an Augustus. They had two children, Britannicus (born 41) and Octavia (born 42). Messalina was still only 25 years old and likely to produce more heirs.
However, Messalina was executed in 48, accused of conspiring against her husband. The ambitious Agrippina soon set her sights upon replacing her deceased aunt. On January 1, 49 she became the fourth wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar Drusus. The marriage would last for five years.
Early in year 50 the Roman Senate offered Agrippina the honorable title of Augusta, previously only held by Livia (14 - 29). On February 25, 50 Lucius was officially adopted by Claudius as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus (see adoption in Rome). Nero was older than his adoptive brother Britannicus and effectively became heir to the throne at the time of his adoption.
Claudius honored his adoptive son in several ways. Nero was proclaimed an adult in 51 at the age of 14. He was appointed proconsul, entered and first addressed the Senate, made joint public appearances with Claudius, and was featured in coinage. In 53 he married his adoptive sister Octavia.
Claudius died on October 13, 54 and Nero was soon established as Augustus in his place. He was 17 years old, the youngest Emperor yet. Historians generally consider Nero to have acted as a figurehead early in his reign. Actual decisions were likely to have been left at the more capable hands of his mother Agrippina the younger (who might have poisoned Claudius to his death), his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and the praefectus praetorianus Sextus Afranius Burrus. The first five years under Nero became known as examples of fine administration, even resulting in coining the term "Quinquennium Neronis".
The matters of the Empire were handled effectively and the Senate enjoyed a period of renewed influence in state affairs. However problems would soon arise from Nero's personal life and the increasing competition for influence among Agrippina and the two male advisors. Nero was reportedly unsatisfied with his marriage and tended to neglect Octavia. He entered an affair with Claudia Acte, a former slave, in 55 AD. Agrippina attempted to intervene in favor of Octavia and demanded that her son dismiss Acte. Burrus and Seneca, on the other hand, chose to support their charge's decision.
Nero resisted the intervention of his mother in his personal affairs. With her influence over her son declining, Agrippina turned to a younger candidate for the throne. Fifteen-year-old Britannicus was still legally a minor under the charge of Nero but was approaching legal adulthood. Britannicus was a likely heir to Nero and ensuring her influence over him could strengthen her position. However the youth died suddenly on February 12, 55. His proclamation as an adult had been set for February 13. The timing suggests poisoning. Burrus is suspected to have been involved in this murder. As Nero grew angrier of Agrippina’s unofficial rule through him, he began to plot his own mother’s murder by justifying his tactics by claiming she was conspiring against him which was not the case (“Agrippina the Younger” n.p.). Agrippina's power soon further declined while Burrus and Seneca jointly became the most influential men in Rome.
A series of scandals
While his advisors took care of affairs of state, Nero surrounded himself with a circle of favorites. Roman historians report nights of drunken revelry and violence while more mundane matters of politics were neglected. Among his new favorites was Marcus Salvius Otho. By all accounts Otho was as dissolute as Nero but served as a good and intimate friend to him. Some sources even consider them to be lovers. Otho would soon introduce Nero to a woman who would marry first the favorite and then the Emperor. Poppaea Sabina was described as a woman of great beauty, charm, and wit. Gossip of Nero, Otho, and Poppaea being parts of a love triangle can be found in many sources (Plutarch Galba 19.2-20.2; Suetonius Otho 3.1-2; Tacitus two versions: Histories 1.13.3-4; Annals 13.45-46; and Dio Cassius 61.11.2-4).
By 58, Poppaea had been established in her position as the favorite mistress of Nero. The following year (59) would mark a turning point in the reign of Nero. Nero and/or Poppaea reportedly machinated the murder of Agrippina. Seneca attempted to convince the Senate that she was orchestrating a conspiracy against her son, but the reputation of the Emperor was damaged beyond repair by this case of matricide. Otho was soon also removed from the imperial environment, and sent to Lusitania as governor.
The next turning point would be the year 62, for several reasons.
The first of them would be a change of guard in his advisors. Burrus died and Seneca asked Nero for permission to retire from public affairs. Their replacement as praetorian praefect and counselor respectively was Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus . He had been exiled in 39 by Caligula on charges of adultery with both Agrippina and Livilla. He had been recalled from exile by Claudius and had later managed to become a favorite of Nero (and, reputedly, a lover). Along with Poppaea he was considered to hold greater influence with the Augustus than Seneca ever could. In 62 Burrus died and Seneca retired; Nero remained without his counselors; a few months later he married Poppaea. One theory suggests that Poppaea attempted, in those four years (58-62), to separate Nero from his counselors and friends; in this case, what happened to Burrus and Seneca may not have been casual.
The second significant event of the year was the divorce of the Emperor. Nero was now twenty-five years old, had reigned for eight years, and had yet to produce an heir. When Poppaea became pregnant, Nero finally decided to marry his mistress, but his marriage to Octavia had to be dissolved before doing so. At first he resorted to accusing her of adultery. However, Nero had already gained a reputation for this offence while Octavia was reputed to be an example of virtue. Some testimony was needed against her, but torturing one of her slaves only produced the famous declaration of Pythias reporting the genitalia of Octavia to be cleaner than the mouth of Tigellinus. Nero proceeded to declare the divorce on grounds of infertility, leaving him free to marry Poppaea and wait for her to give birth. However, the sudden death of Octavia on June 9, 62 resulted in incidents of public protest.
One of the earliest effects of Tigellinus' advancement was the introduction of a series of treason laws; numerous capital sentences were carried out. During the year Nero executed two of his few remaining relatives:
- Gaius Rubellius Plautus. His mother Claudia Julia was granddaughter to Tiberius and Vipsania Agrippina through their son Julius Caesar Drusus. She was also granddaughter to Drusus and Antonia Minor through their daughter Livilla.
- Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix. He was a grandson to Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Antonia Major through their daughter Domitia Lepida. He was also maternal half-brother to Messalina. He had married Claudia Antonia, only daughter of Claudius and Aelia Paetina.
On the night July 18 to July 19, 64 the Great fire of Rome erupted. The fire started in densely populated areas like the Suburra , in which had been built the insulae, sort of modern condominiums on 3 or 4 floors, made of wood. Nero was reportedly vacationing in his native Anzio but had to return in haste. The fire burned for a week. Rumour circulated that Nero had played his lyre and sang, on top of Quirinal Hill, while the city burned. (Tacitus, Ann. XV; Suetonius, Nero XXXVIII; Dio Cassius, R.H. LXII). Over the years, this turned to a legend that Nero had fiddled as Rome burned, an impossible act as the fiddle had not yet been invented. The same accounts depict him opening his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless and arranging for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors. However, Nero lost his chances at redeeming his reputation when he immediately produced plans of rebuilding Rome in a monumental -- and less inflammable -- style.
The confused population was searching for scapegoats and soon rumors held Nero responsible. The motivation attributed to him was intending to immortalize his name by renaming Rome to "Neropolis". Nero had to engage in scapegoating of his own and chose for his target a small Eastern sect called Christians. He ordered known Christians to be thrown to the lions in arenas, while others were crucified in large numbers. It is a possibility that some parts of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament describes the Antichrist as similar to Nero, and may have been written by Christians to express bitterness over Nero's bloody repression of the sect.
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian, has preserved a record of this affair. We quote the following from his Annals (XV.44):
- "And so, to get rid of this rumor, Nero set up [i.e., falsely accused] as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Nero’s scapegoats (the Christians) were the perfect choice because it temporarily relieved pressure of the various rumors going around Rome” (“Nero” n.p.). Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome.... Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed; then, on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of [their] hatred for the human race. Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual."
It is entirely unknown who or what was the cause of the fire. Although our ancient sources (and scholars) favor Nero as the arsonist, it is worth pointing out that fires were common in ancient Rome. His famous Domus Aurea was part of his rebuilding plan.
Nero the artist and the widower
In 65 Nero was involved in another scandal, considered more serious by the people of that era, than it would be now. It was considered shameful for a Roman emperor to appear as a public entertainer, acting, singing and playing his lyre.
Hated by many citizens, with an increasing list of political enemies, Nero started to appreciate his loneliness, when in 65 he discovered the Pisonian conspiracy (named after Gaius Calpurnius Piso, who intended to take his place) and the involvement of old friends like Seneca in the plot. Conspirators were forced into suicide.
In addition, Nero ordered that Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, a popular and valuable general, commit suicide because of the mere suspicion of new threats. This decision moved military commanders, locally and in the provinces, to start planning a revolution. Also at about this time, according to tradition, Nero personally ordered the crucifixion of Saint Peter and, later, the beheading of Saint Paul.
In 66 Poppaea died, supposedly by the hand of Nero himself. The emperor left for Greece, in 67, where he amused his hosts with other artistic performances, while in Rome Nymphidius (a colleague of Tigellinus, taking the place of one of the Pisonian conspirators) was collecting the support of praetorians and senators.
Back in Rome after the tournée, Nero found quite a cold atmosphere; Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, revolted, and this brought Nero to a paranoid hunt for eventual threats; in this state of mind he ordered the elimination of any patrician with suspect ideas. His (once) faithful servant Galba, governor of Iberia (Portugal and Spain), was one of those dangerous nobles, so he ordered his death. Galba, lacking an alternative choice, declared his loyalty to the Senate and the People of Rome (Senatus Populusque Romanus: SPQR), no longer recognising Nero's power. Moreover, he started organising his own campaign for the empire.
As a result, Lucius Clodius Macer, legate of the legion III Augusta in Africa, revolted and stopped sending grain to Rome. Nymphidius corrupted the imperial guard, which turned against Nero on the promise of financial reward by Galba.
The Senate deposed Nero, who committed suicide on June 9, 68. It is said that he uttered these last words before stabbing himself in the neck: "What an artist the world is losing in me!" With his death, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty came to an end. Chaos ensued in the Year of the four emperors.
Depictions in later legends
A Jewish legend contained in the Talmud (tractate Gittin 56B) claims that Nero shot four arrows to the four corners of the earth, and they fell in Jerusalem. Thus he realized that the Lord had deciced to allow the Temple to be destroyed. He also requested a Jewish religious student to show him the Bible verse most apropriate to that situation, and the young boy read to Nero Ezekiel's prophecy about God's revenge on the nation of Edom (Ezekiel 25). Nero thus realized that the Lord will punish him for destroying his Temple, so he fled Rome and converted to Judaism, to avoid such retribution.
Depictions in fiction
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