Encyclopedia Britannica

fifteenth edition


History has branded the Roman emperor Nero with the reputation of being a monster of cruelty and has also credited him, on doubtful evidence, with the burning of Rome and the first persecution of the Christians. His appalling family background, stained as it was with incest and murder, no doubt accounted for his instability of character. This displayed itself in the unbounded vanity that caused him to nurse artistic and histrionic pretensions that seriously undermined his imperial dignity and helped to bring about his early death and, with it, the extinction of the Julio-Claudian line, which had descended from Julius Caesar. Proclaimed when he was not yet 17, he was the first boy emperor.

Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in AD 37 in Rome. His father died in about AD 40, and Nero was brought up by his mother, Agrippina the Younger, great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustinus. After poisoning her second husband, Agrippina incestuously became the wife of her uncle, the emperor Claudius, and persuaded him to favor Nero for the succession, over the rightful claim of his own son Britannicus, and to marry his daughter Octavia to Nero. Having already helped to bring about the murder of Valeria Messalina, her predecessor as the wife of Claudius, in 48 and ceaselessly pursuing her intrigues to bring Nero to power, Agrippina eliminated her opponents among Claudius’ palace advisers, probably had Claudius himself poisoned in 54, and completed her work with the poisoning of Britannicus in 55. Earlier, Nero had passed his childhood under the menace of the mentally deranged emperor Caligula (Gaius Caesar), his mother’s brother, until Caligula was murdered and succeeded by Claudius.

Promising start. Brought up in this kind of atmosphere, Nero might well have begun to behave like a monster upon his accession as emperor in 54 but, in fact, behaved quite otherwise. When he was required to sign a death warrant for the first time, he cried « Why did they teach me how to write? » The testimony of his contemporaries depicts Nero at this time as a handsome young man of fine presence but with soft, weak features and a restless spirit, entirely under the influence of his terrifying mother, whom he censured and feared while he adored her. His first speech to the Senate was universally praised as heralding a new Golden Age. Up to the year 59 his biographers cite only acts of generosity and clemency on his account. Indeed, the measures he instigated were those of a wise and virtuous man: he forbade contests in the circus involving bloodshed, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes, and accorded permission to slaves to bring civil complaints against unjust masters. He pardoned writers of epigrams against him and even those who plotted him again, and secret trials were few. More independence was granted to the Senate. The law of treason was dormant: Claudius had put 40 senators to death, but, between the murders instigated by Agrippina in 54 and the year 62, there were no like incidents in Nero’s reign. He inaugurated competitions in poetry, and in athletics as counter-attractions to gladiatorial combats. He saw to it that assistance was provided to the city that had suffered disaster and at the request of the Jewish historian Josephus gave aid to the Jews. In all this, he was pursuing an intention that the philosopher Seneca, his old tutor and now his adviser, considered as mad – to remain innocent of any crime.

Artistic pretensions and religious mania. Although it must be admitted that his nocturnal rioting in the streets was a scandal as early as 56, the emergence of real brutality in Nero can be fixed in the 35-month period between the putting to death of his mother at his orders in 59 and his similar treatment of his wife Octavia in June 62. He was led to the murder of Agrippina by her insanity and her fury et seeing her son slip out of her control, to the murder of Octavia by his having fallen in love with Poppaea Sabina, the young wife of the senator (and later emperor) Otho, and by his fear that his repudiated wife was fomenting disaffection in court and among the populace. He married Poppaea in 62, but she died in 65, and he subsequently married the patrician lady Statilia Messalina.

Nero gave rein to inordinate artistic pretensions. He fancied himself not only as a poet but also as a charioteer and lyre player, and in 59 or 60 began to give public performances; later he appeared on the stage, and the theatre furnished him with the pretext to assume every kind of role. He dreamed of abandoning the empire in order to fulfill his poetical and musical gifts, saying « They would adore in me what I am ». But this puerile ambition took hold of him: « No one has known all that a prince could do », he said, desiring now to create God. This form of insanity was nethertheless in keeping with the messianic spirit of the age: all peoples – Jews, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, and even Indians and Chinese – were waiting for the new god. From about 63 or 64 Nero was drawn to preachers of novel cults, to Zoroastrian mages, esoteric Judaists, to such men as the Gnostic magician Simon Magus, the Neopythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana, and perhaps even to St. Paul, who is depicted in a fresco from the Palatine Chapel conversing with the Emperor. His predecessors Caligula and Claudius had shown interest in Eastern religions, but Nero was to go further than they did. Obsessed by the misery-religion symbols of the sea and the fish, he became a devotee of the Syrian virgin-mother Atargatis, to whom the fish was sacred, then of the virgin-mother Juno-Canathos; the ecstasy that seized him in the Temple of Vesta in 64 showed that there was no limit to his bizarre delirium. Taking advantage of the fire that ravaged Rome in that year, he had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and built the most prodigious palace that a man had ever consecrated to the new god – the fabulous Golden House, which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. During the fire Nero was at his villa at Antium 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Rome and therefore cannot be held responsible for the burning of the city. Nor, despite the apocryphal additions made centuries later to the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and to the Nero of Suetonius, the Roman biographer and antiquarian, should he be charged with the first persecution of the Christians, because there were then so few Christians in Rome. Paul had just arrived in the city, and the Jews were anxious to learn from the Apostle the nature of this new sect, proof enough that no one had yet told them about it. Nero corresponded with Tiridates, the Armenian prince, and learned the religion of Mithra from him. He gave himself up to debauches and vice but also imposed the wearing of the white toga and had the floral festivals of the Field of Mars transformed into sacred proceedings.

The approaching end. The imperial government had had some success in the east. Their general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, was able to impose an advantageous settlement on Armenia, which had long chafed under Roman suzerainty. Rome now recognized the Armenian ruler Tiridates, but he was now compelled to come to Rome to receive his crown from Nero. This secured Armenia as a buffer state against Parthia, Rome’s implacable foe in the east. Nevertheless, the provinces were increasingly uneasy, for they were oppressed by exactions to cover the imperial court’s extravagance. A revolt in Britain was headed by Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) in 60 or 61, and an insurrection in Judaea lasted from 66 to 70. Nero had many antagonists by this time. The great conspiracy of the Piso family in 65 reveals the diversity of his enemies – senators, knights, officers, and philosophers.  The Emperor did not give way to panic; the slaves kept him out of danger by warning him of plots hatching among their masters. And he did not altogether abandon his lenient attitude. Out of 41 conspirators, only 18 died (including Seneca and the poet Lucan), either by order or from fear; the others were exiled or pardoned. At the end of the year 66 he undertook a long visit to Greece, the « country of the gods », which was to keep him away from Rome for 15 months, and during his absence he entrusted the consulate to one of his freedmen. He freed Greek cities in honor of their glorious past, suppressed the pagan gods, and went everywhere garbed and ascetic, barefoot and with flowing hair. He returned to Rome to establish there the worship of Apollo in his manifestation as the dolphin god, to free slaves, and in his own way to instruct the young nobles, to distribute money among the people, and to surround himself with « priests of the sea » (followers of Neptune.

In the four months following his return (from February to June of 68) these delirious actions aroused the enmity not only of the Christian Jews, who called him the Antichrist, but also of the Senate and the patricians, whom he insulted openly, and especially the great Roman families who had been dispossessed by him. Even the soldiers of the legions were scandalized to see the descendant of Caesar publicly act the parts of ancient Greek heroes and re-create in Greek fashion the legend of a savior born of a virgin-mother (Canathos). « I have seen him on stage », Gaius Julius Vindex, the legate who rebelled against him, was to say, « playing pregnant women and slaves to be executed. »

At the news of revolts brewing throughout the empire – that of the principal governor Servius Sulpieius Galba in Spain, the rebellion of Vindex at Lyons in Gaul (France), and others on the eastern frontier – Nero only laughed. Instead of taking action, he composed hymns and had hydraulic organs made. Arming his priestesses with light shields, he said « I have only to appear and sing to have peace once more in Gaul ». Meanwhile, the legions made Galba emperor, and the Senate condemned Nero do die a slave’s death: on a cross and under the whip. The Praetorian Guard, his palace guard, abandoned him, and his freedmen left to embark on the ships he kept in readiness at Ostia, the port of Rome. He was obliged to flee the city. According to Suetonius, he stabbed himself in the throat with a dagger, and his Christian mistress Acte buried him piously in a white sheet in conformity with his wishes.  According to another version (recounted by Tacitus and almost certainly fiction) he reached the Greek islands, where the following year (69) the governor of Cythnos (modern Kithnos) recognized him in the guise of a red-haired prophet and executed the sentence passed by the Senate.

The emperors Otho and Aulus Vitellius honored his memory, and the people adored images of Nero for 20 years. The historians Plutarch and Josephus protested against the « calumnies that soiled his memory », but all in vain. Trajan and subsequent Roman emperors execrated his memory, destroyed his works, including the Golden House, as well as the many works in which Lucan, Plutarch, Rusticus, and many other writers commemorated the period of his reign. Under these emperors, Tacitus, Suetonius, and later Dio Cassius wrote the biographies of Nero known today. Lastly, the Christian Church, triumphant under the emperor Constantine I the Great, furthered the legend of Nero as a monster and even added to it in the 15th century by drawing upon the apocrypha of Sulpicius Severus, a Christian ascetic and historian of the early 5th century, to transform Nero into Antichrist, the first executioner of Christians.

Jean-Charles Pichon



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