Nero - Olympics, Accomplishments and Fate

Nero - Olympics, Accomplishments and Fate

Perhaps the most infamous of Rome’s emperors, Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 A.D.) ruled Rome from 54 A.D. He is best known for his debaucheries, political murders, persecution of Christians and a passion for music that led to the probably apocryphal rumor that Nero “fiddled” while Rome burned during the great fire of 64 A.D.

Nero’s Murderous Path to Power

Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero took his familiar name when he was adopted at age 13 by his great-uncle, the emperor Claudius (his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, had died when the future emperor was only 2). Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, had married Claudius after arranging the death of her second husband and was the driving force behind her son’s adoption. She arranged for Nero to wed Claudius’ daughter Octavia in 53, further sidelining the emperor’s son Britannicus. Upon Claudius’ sudden death in 54—classical sources suggest Agrippina fed him poisoned mushrooms—the 17-year-old Nero ascended the throne.

In his first five years as emperor, Nero gained a reputation for political generosity, promoting power-sharing with the Senate and ending closed-door political trials, though he generally pursued his own passions and left the ruling up to three key advisers—the Stoic philosopher Seneca, the prefect Burrus and ultimately Agrippina.

Eventually Seneca encouraged Nero to step out from his domineering mother’s shadow. She turned against him, promoting her stepson Britannicus as the true heir to the throne and protesting Nero’s affair with his friend’s wife Poppaea Sabina. But Nero had learned his mother’s lessons well: Brittanicus soon died under dubious circumstances, and in 59, after a failed plot to drown her in a collapsible boat, Nero had Agrippina stabbed to death in her villa. The empress Octavia was exiled and executed, and in 62 Nero and Poppaea were married. Three years later, in what the Roman historian Tacitus described as “a casual outburst of rage,” Nero killed Poppea with a single kick to her belly.

Nero: The Artist and the Fire

Following his mother’s death, Nero gave himself fully to his longstanding artistic and aesthetic passions. At private events beginning in 59, he sang and performed on the lyre and encouraged members of the upper classes to take dancing lessons. He ordered public games to be held every five years in Rome and trained as an athlete himself, competing as a charioteer. His most lasting artistic legacy, though, was his re-creation of Rome following the fire that destroyed most of the city.

Early in the morning of June 19, 64 a blaze broke out in the shops around the Circus Maximus and quickly spread throughout the city. Over the next nine days, three of Rome’s 14 districts were destroyed and an additional seven were severely damaged. Several classical sources place Nero on the roof of his palace during the fire, dressed in stage garb and singing from the Greek epic “The Sack of Ilium.” Rumors quickly circulated that the emperor had started the fire to clear land for an expanded palace complex on the Palatine Hill.

Whatever responsibility he actually bore for the disaster, Nero deflected attention by blaming members of the fledgling Christian religion for the fire. He ordered all manner of creative and brutal persecutions: Some were condemned to be dressed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs, while others were burned to death in nighttime pyres that provided light for the emperor’s garden parties.

Nero exhausted the Roman treasury rebuilding the city around his 100-acre Domus Aurea (“Golden House”) palace complex. At its center he commissioned a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself, the Colossus Neronis.

Nero’s Decline and Fall

By the final years of his Nero’s rule, the Roman Empire was under great strain. Reconstruction costs in Rome, revolts in Britain and Judea, conflicts with Parthia and rebuilding expenses in the capital forced him to devalue the imperial currency, lowering the silver content of the denarius by 10 percent. In 65 a high-level conspiracy to assassinate the emperor emerged, leading Nero to order the deaths of a prefect and several senators and officers. The emperor’s old advisor Seneca was caught up in the affair and forced to commit suicide.

With things falling apart at home, Nero took an extended tour of Greece, where he gave himself to music and theatrical performance, drove a chariot in the Olympic games, announced pro-Hellenic political reforms and launched an expensive and futile project to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Corinth.

Upon his return to Rome in 68, Nero failed to respond decisively to a revolt in Gaul, prompting further unrest in Africa and in Spain, where the governor Galba declared himself legate of the Senate and Roman People. Soon the Praetorian Guard declared allegiance to Galba, and the Senate followed suit, declaring Nero an enemy of the people.

Nero attempted to flee, but upon learning that his arrest and execution were imminent, he took his own life. Fifty years later, the historian Suetonius reported Nero’s final lament: “What an artist dies in me!”

Nero’s Legacy

In the centuries followed his reign, the name Nero would become a byword for debauchery, misrule and anti-Christian persecution. In the short term, his demise marked the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, which had ruled Rome since 27 B.C. It would be 30 years before Rome had another emperor, Trajan, who would rule as long as Nero had. Nero’s death was followed by the chaotic “Year of the Four Emperors,” which the Roman historian Tacitus described as “a period rich in disasters … even in peace full of horrors.” So while many of Nero’s contemporaries celebrated his death, others looked back on the pomp and celebrations of his reign with nostalgia.

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Nero - Olympics, Accomplishments and Fate - HISTORY

I n the year 66 AD the Jews of Judea rebelled against their Roman masters. In response, the Emperor Nero dispatched an army under the generalship of Vespasian to restore order. By the year 68, resistance in the northern part of the province had been eradicated and the Romans turned their full attention to the subjugation of Jerusalem. That same year, the Emperor Nero died by his own hand, creating a power vacuum in Rome. In the resultant chaos, Vespasian was declared Emperor and returned to the Imperial City. It fell to his son, Titus, to lead the remaining army in the assault on Jerusalem.

Roman Centurian
The Roman legions surrounded the city and began to slowly squeeze the life out of the Jewish stronghold. By the year 70, the attackers had breached Jerusalem's outer walls and began a systematic ransacking of the city. The assault culminated in the burning and destruction of the Temple that served as the center of Judaism.

In victory, the Romans slaughtered thousands. Of those sparred from death: thousands more were enslaved and sent to toil in the mines of Egypt, others were dispersed to arenas throughout the Empire to be butchered for the amusement of the public. The Temple's sacred relics were taken to Rome where they were displayed in celebration of the victory.

The rebellion sputtered on for another three years and was finally extinguished in 73 AD with the fall of the various pockets of resistance including the stronghold at Masada.

". the Jews let out a shout of dismay that matched the tragedy."

Our only first-hand account of the Roman assault on the Temple comes from the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Josephus was a former leader of the Jewish Revolt who had surrendered to the Romans and had won favor from Vespasian. In gratitude, Josephus took on Vespasian's family name - Flavius - as his own. We join his account as the Romans fight their way into the inner sanctum of the Temple:

". the rebels shortly after attacked the Romans again, and a clash followed between the guards of the sanctuary and the troops who were putting out the fire inside the inner court the latter routed the Jews and followed in hot pursuit right up to the Temple itself. Then one of the soldiers, without awaiting any orders and with no dread of so momentous a deed, but urged on by some supernatural force, snatched a blazing piece of wood and, climbing on another soldier's back, hurled the flaming brand through a low golden window that gave access, on the north side, to the rooms that surrounded the sanctuary. As the flames shot up, the Jews let out a shout of dismay that matched the tragedy they flocked to the rescue, with no thought of sparing their lives or husbanding their strength for the sacred structure that they had constantly guarded with such devotion was vanishing before their very eyes.

Most of the slain were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, and they were butchered where they were caught. The heap of corpses mounted higher and higher about the altar a stream of blood flowed down the Temple's steps, and the bodies of those slain at the top slipped to the bottom.

When Caesar failed to restrain the fury of his frenzied soldiers, and the fire could not be checked, he entered the building with his generals and looked at the holy place of the sanctuary and all its furnishings, which exceeded by far the accounts current in foreign lands and fully justified their splendid repute in our own.

As the flames had not yet penetrated to the inner sanctum, but were consuming the chambers that surrounded the sanctuary, Titus assumed correctly that there was still time to save the structure he ran out and by personal appeals he endeavored to persuade his men to put out the fire, instructing Liberalius, a centurion of his bodyguard of lancers, to club any of the men who disobeyed his orders. But their respect for Caesar and their fear of the centurion's staff who was trying to check them were overpowered by their rage, their detestation of the Jews, and an utterly uncontrolled lust for battle.

Most of them were spurred on, moreover, by the expectation of loot, convinced that the interior was full of money and dazzled by observing that everything around them was made of gold. But they were forestalled by one of those who had entered into the building, and who, when Caesar dashed out to restrain the troops, pushed a firebrand, in the darkness, into the hinges of the gate Then, when the flames suddenly shot up from the interior, Caesar and his generals withdrew, and no one was left to prevent those outside from kindling the blaze. Thus, in defiance of Caesar's wishes, the Temple was set on fire.

While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.

Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.

There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail. Peraea and the surrounding hills, added their echoes to the deafening din. But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings.

The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives."

Josephus' account appears in: Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982) Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).

Early life

Nero was born in Antium, in Italy, on Dec. 15, A.D. 37, to his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father, a former Roman consul, died when he was about 3 years old, and his mother was banished by the Emperor Caligula, leaving him in the care of an aunt. His name at birth was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus.

After the murder of Caligula in January A.D. 41, and the ascension of Emperor Claudius shortly afterward, mother and son were reunited. His ambitious mother would go on to marry Claudius (who was also her uncle) in A.D. 49, and she saw to it that he adopted her son, giving him a new name that started with “Nero.” His tutors included the famous philosopher Seneca, a man who would continue advising Nero into his reign, even writing the proclamation explaining why Nero killed his mother.

The newly adopted son would later take the hand of his stepsister, Octavia, in marriage, and become Claudius&rsquo heir apparent, the emperor choosing him over his own biological son, Britannicus (who died shortly after Nero became emperor).

After the death of Claudius in A.D. 54 (possibly by being poisoned with a mushroom), Nero, with the support of the Praetorian Guard and at the age of 17, became emperor. In the first two years of Nero&rsquos reign, his coins depicted him side by side with his mother, Agrippina.

She “managed for him all the business of the empire … she received embassies and sent letter to various communities, governors and kings …” wrote Cassius Dio who lived A.D. 155-235 (translation from the book "Nero Caesar Augustus: Emperor of Rome" by David Shotter, Pearson, 2008).


Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 13 are attributed to Paul, and approximately half of another, Acts of the Apostles, deals with Paul’s life and works. Thus, about half of the New Testament stems from Paul and the people whom he influenced. Only 7 of the 13 letters, however, can be accepted as being entirely authentic (dictated by Paul himself). The others come from followers writing in his name, who often used material from his surviving letters and who may have had access to letters written by Paul that no longer survive. Although frequently useful, the information in Acts is secondhand, and it is sometimes in direct conflict with the letters. The seven undoubted letters constitute the best source of information on Paul’s life and especially his thought in the order in which they appear in the New Testament, they are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The probable chronological order (leaving aside Philemon, which cannot be dated) is 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Romans. Letters considered “Deutero-Pauline” (probably written by Paul’s followers after his death) are Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are “Trito-Pauline” (probably written by members of the Pauline school a generation after his death).

Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia Minor. His birthplace, Tarsus, was a major city in eastern Cilicia, a region that had been made part of the Roman province of Syria by the time of Paul’s adulthood. Two of the main cities of Syria, Damascus and Antioch, played a prominent part in his life and letters. Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, he was active as a missionary in the 40s and 50s of the 1st century ce . From this it may be inferred that he was born about the same time as Jesus (c. 4 bce ) or a little later. He was converted to faith in Jesus Christ about 33 ce , and he died, probably in Rome, circa 62–64 ce .

In his childhood and youth, Paul learned how to “work with [his] own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:12). His trade, tent making, which he continued to practice after his conversion to Christianity, helps to explain important aspects of his apostleship. He could travel with a few leather-working tools and set up shop anywhere. It is doubtful that his family was wealthy or aristocratic, but, since he found it noteworthy that he sometimes worked with his own hands, it may be assumed that he was not a common labourer. His letters are written in Koine, or “common” Greek, rather than in the elegant literary Greek of his wealthy contemporary the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, and this too argues against the view that Paul was an aristocrat. Moreover, he knew how to dictate, and he could write with his own hand in large letters (Galatians 6:11), though not in the small, neat letters of the professional scribe.

Until about the midpoint of his life, Paul was a member of the Pharisees, a religious party that emerged during the later Second Temple period. What little is known about Paul the Pharisee reflects the character of the Pharisaic movement. Pharisees believed in life after death, which was one of Paul’s deepest convictions. They accepted nonbiblical “traditions” as being about as important as the written Bible Paul refers to his expertise in “traditions” (Galatians 1:14). Pharisees were very careful students of the Hebrew Bible, and Paul was able to quote extensively from the Greek translation. (It was fairly easy for a bright, ambitious young boy to memorize the Bible, and it would have been very difficult and expensive for Paul as an adult to carry around dozens of bulky scrolls.) By his own account, Paul was the best Jew and the best Pharisee of his generation (Philippians 3:4–6 Galatians 1:13–14), though he claimed to be the least apostle of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22–3 1 Corinthians 15:9–10) and attributed his successes to the grace of God.

Paul spent much of the first half of his life persecuting the nascent Christian movement, an activity to which he refers several times. Paul’s motivations are unknown, but they seem not to have been connected to his Pharisaism. The chief persecutors of the Christian movement in Jerusalem were the high priest and his associates, who were Sadducees (if they belonged to one of the parties), and Acts depicts the leading Pharisee, Gamaliel, as defending the Christians (Acts 5:34). It is possible that Paul believed that Jewish converts to the new movement were not sufficiently observant of the Jewish law, that Jewish converts mingled too freely with Gentile (non-Jewish) converts, thus associating themselves with idolatrous practices, or that the notion of a crucified messiah was objectionable. The young Paul certainly would have rejected the view that Jesus had been raised after his death—not because he doubted resurrection as such but because he would not have believed that God chose to favour Jesus by raising him before the time of the Judgment of the world.

Whatever his reasons, Paul’s persecutions probably involved traveling from synagogue to synagogue and urging the punishment of Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah. Disobedient members of synagogues were punished by some form of ostracism or by light flogging, which Paul himself later suffered at least five times (2 Corinthians 11:24), though he does not say when or where. According to Acts, Paul began his persecutions in Jerusalem, a view at odds with his assertion that he did not know any of the Jerusalem followers of Christ until well after his own conversion (Galatians 1:4–17).

Paul was on his way to Damascus when he had a vision that changed his life: according to Galatians 1:16, God revealed his Son to him. More specifically, Paul states that he saw the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1), though Acts claims that near Damascus he saw a blinding bright light. Following this revelation, which convinced Paul that God had indeed chosen Jesus to be the promised messiah, he went into Arabia—probably Coele-Syria, west of Damascus (Galatians 1:17). He then returned to Damascus, and three years later he went to Jerusalem to become acquainted with the leading apostles there. After this meeting he began his famous missions to the west, preaching first in his native Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:17–24). During the next 20 years or so (c. mid-30s to mid-50s), he established several churches in Asia Minor and at least three in Europe, including the church at Corinth.

During the course of his missions, Paul realized that his preaching to Gentiles was creating difficulties for the Christians in Jerusalem, who thought that Gentiles must become Jewish in order to join the Christian movement. To settle the issue, Paul returned to Jerusalem and struck a deal. It was agreed that Peter would be the principal apostle to Jews and Paul the principal apostle to Gentiles. Paul would not have to change his message, but he would take up a collection for the Jerusalem church, which was in need of financial support (Galatians 2:1–10 2 Corinthians 8–9 Romans 15:16–17, 25–26), though Paul’s Gentile churches were hardly well off. In Romans 15:16–17 Paul seems to interpret the “offering of the Gentiles” symbolically, suggesting that it is the prophesied Gentile pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem, with their wealth in their hands (e.g., Isaiah 60:1–6). It is also obvious that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles made a political bargain not to interfere in each other’s spheres. The “circumcision faction” of the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 2:12–13), which argued that converts should undergo circumcision as a sign of accepting the covenant between God and Abraham, later broke this agreement by preaching to the Gentile converts both in Antioch (Galatians 2:12) and Galatia and insisting that they be circumcised, leading to some of Paul’s strongest invective (Galatians 1:7–9 3:1 5:2–12 6:12–13).

In the late 50s Paul returned to Jerusalem with the money he had raised and a few of his Gentile converts. There he was arrested for taking a Gentile too far into the Temple precincts, and, after a series of trials, he was sent to Rome. Later Christian tradition favours the view that he was executed there (1 Clement 5:1–7), perhaps as part of the executions of Christians ordered by the Roman emperor Nero following the great fire in the city in 64 ce .

The Life and Reign of Nero

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarus was born at Antium on December 15, 37 AD, the son of Gnaeus Ahenobarus and Agrippina the younger — the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina, the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus. By 48 AD, Agrippina the Younger had married her Uncle, Emperor Claudius and in 50 AD, the ailing Emperor adopted his great-nephew as his son. Lucius Domitius now became Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. Just three years later, after the death of Claudius, he became Emperor Nero, after superseding Claudius&rsquos natural son, Britannicus.

The first five years of Nero&rsquos reign were relatively benign. The young emperor seemed intent on becoming a second Augustus and made a great speech to the Senate acknowledging their authority — minting coinage bearing the stamp of senatorial authority to reinforce his words. Nero also deified his predecessor Claudius and made a show of merciful rule by avoiding the death penalty as much as possible. However, behind the scenes, the cracks were beginning to show, and Nero started to remove anyone in perceived opposition to him. In 55 BC he murdered his adopted brother Britannicus after growing tensions with Agrippina led her to shift her attention to the young Prince. Agrippina followed in 59BC, and finally, in 62 AD, Nero murdered first wife Octavia and her elder sister.

Then in 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome broke out. The conflagration lasted for nine days and wiped out much of the city. Nero provided emergency help and shelter for the dispossessed — but he also appropriated vast swathes of public land which he turned into a lavish palace and gardens — the so-called Golden House of Nero. These advantages to Nero led to rumours that the Emperor was the arsonist. So Nero responded by looking for other scapegoats to satisfy the mob in the form of Rome&rsquos Christian population who he cruelly persecuted.

The Apostles Paul and Peter confront Simon Magus before Nero, Renaissance fresco in Florence by Filippino Lippi, c1482. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Nero&rsquos reputation amongst the elite began to plummet — although he remained popular with the people. The disastrous Boudiccan Revolt and war with Parthia did little to bolster the emperor&rsquos reputation. Nor did the Emperor&rsquos excesses. In 65Ad, a plot to replace Nero arose which he learned of and thwarted. However, the foiled coup only made Nero worse and widespread executions followed, including the poet Lucan and the emperor&rsquos old tutor, Seneca. Nero even turned on his old friend Petronius, author of the Satyricon. His murderous madness finally culminated in him kicking his pregnant wife, Poppaea, to death.

In the aftermath, Nero abandoned Rome and spent a happy two years touring Greece, competing in athletic and musical contests — including the Olympic games — and basking in the adoration of his Hellenistic subjects. However, in January 68AD, the emperor&rsquos extended foreign holiday came to an abrupt close when Helios, the freedmen he had left governing Rome, advised Nero to return to Rome quickly — or lose the purple. Nero complied — but it was too late. A famine in the city, caused by Nero cutting grain supplies had lost him the support of the populace, but worse still, Nero had lost the support of the army. They now supported a new imperial candidate, the governor of Spain, Galba. By early June 68 AD, Nero&rsquos end was in sight. The Senate declared him a public enemy on June 9th, 68 AD. However, by the time they made the declaration, the Emperor had fled Rome.

Emperor Nero: the tyrant of Rome

Nero, the fifth and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, used the resources of the mighty Roman Empire for his own indulgences and no one could stop him. Jonny Wilkes profiles one of top candidates for the uneviable title of 'Rome’s worst ruler'

This competition is now closed

Published: June 9, 2020 at 11:05 am

Nero: a name that has come to embody the human capacity for cruelty, debauchery, even evil. The inauspicious honour of being Rome’s most notorious ruler – a hotly contested title – is often bestowed to the fifth emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, for killing his stepbrother, his mother and two of his wives. And that only takes care of his family life.

In less than 14 years, he brought Rome to the brink of collapse. He ignored his rule in favour of hedonistic and depraved pursuits, almost bankrupted the empire to pay for his palace and persecuted Christians so barbarically that he has been regarded by another, more hateful name, the Antichrist. This is the Nero that emerges from the surviving documents of Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio.

While these men wrote long after his death and hardly with an agenda to preserve his reputation – which explains the generally debunked claims of fiddling while Rome burned and having an incestuous relationship with his mother – they recounted tales of such salacious and immoral deeds that they have endured. A handful of historians may attempt to re-evaluate his legacy, but Nero will always be the megalomaniacal, murderous tyrant.

Emperor Nero biography

Full name: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus)

Born: 15 December AD 37

Died: 9 June AD 68

Reign: October AD 54 – 9 June AD 68

Predecessor: Claudius

Successor: Galba

Notable family: Agripinna the Younger (mother)

Famous for: being the fifth and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty supposed incest with his mother allegedly playing the fiddle while Rome burned persecuting Christians general tyranny, depravity and debauching, and a spate of murders – including those of his mother and two wives.

Nero’s early life and family

The future Nero, born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December AD 37 in Antium, near Rome, had not been destined to be emperor. Nor did his personal ambition drive him to the throne. It was his mother, Agrippina the Younger, who became the overbearing influence on him, especially as his father had died. A dangerous combination of cunning, intelligence and ruthlessness, she survived exile under her older brother, Caligula, only to come back consumed with the aim of reaching the pinnacle of power.

Shortly after dispatching her second husband with poison, Agrippina seduced and married Emperor Claudius, her uncle. She eliminated rivals and charmed Claudius into adopting the 13-year-old Nero as his heir, at the expense of his own son Britannicus. Her machinations also saw his daughter Octavia married to Nero in AD 53. All that remained was to wait for Claudius to die, which came conveniently soon afterwards in October AD 54, supposedly helped along by Agrippina and a plate of poisoned mushrooms.

Not yet 17, Nero had become emperor with Agrippina by his side, firm in the belief that she could rule through him. For a while, she may have been right as unusual coins from early in his reign depict a bust of Nero facing his mother, suggesting the two ruled as equals. An unwanted consequence of her tight hold over Nero, though, would be the later claims that mother and son committed incest, with reported sightings of them kissing sensuously in public. Even for someone of Nero’s reputation, however, this is strongly thought to be a rumour too far.

What was Nero like as emperor?

For all of her scheming, Agrippina didn’t much enjoy her time at the centre of the world. Nero preferred the counsel of his more liberally minded tutor, Stoic philosopher Seneca, and the prefect of his Praetorian Guard, Burrus. Under their guidance, the following five years could actually be described as progressive – a word not often attributed to Nero. He granted the Senate greater independence, tackled corruption, cut taxes, ended secret trials, banned capital punishment and decreed that slaves could bring civil complaints against their masters.

In reality, the people had Seneca and Burrus to thank for these policies. To Nero, his position afforded him nothing more than the freedom to indulge in his true passions – the arts (he wanted to be a musician and actor, and bring poetry, theatre and singing to the people) and the fulfilment of personal pleasures. Disguising himself, he spent nights stalking the streets of Rome with friends, drinking, frequenting brothels and brawling. Ignoring Octavia and a marriage that bored him, he fell for a former slave, who he later left for Poppaea Sabina, the wife of a senator.

LISTEN: How much do you know about the Julio-Cluadian dynasty? Historian Tom Holland discusses the extraordinary lives of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero

Was Nero a tyrant?

Nero grew bolder, and Agrippina’s control shrank, until she turned on her son to champion Britannicus instead. That move proved both her undoing and the beginning of several formative, blood-soaked years for the emperor.

The first to die was Britannicus, on the day before he became an adult in AD 55. Although Nero claimed his step-brother succumbed to an epileptic seizure, historical records suggest poison had been added to his glass of wine. Next to go would be Agrippina herself in AD 59. Nero wanted her death to look like an accident so, according to Suetonius, came up with the idea of a booby-trapped boat, which would fall apart in the water. In a final show of her domineering personality, she survived the sinking and swam to shore, so Nero had to send assassins to finish the job at her villa. As the killers surrounded her, swords raised, she allegedly showed them her belly and exclaimed “Strike here, for this bore Nero”.

Then in AD 62, Nero lost those remaining figures who had managed to keep him in check. Burrus died – his replacement, a cruel man named Tigellinus, served with particular malice – while Seneca retired from public affairs. Nero found himself in absolute power for the first time, wholly untethered from any control or need to temper his behaviour. So when he wanted to marry his mistress Poppaea, he divorced and exiled Octavia on a trumped-up charge of adultery. When this caused outrage in Rome, he had her executed and her head presented to his new wife.

Rather than use this power to rule or even conquer new lands, Nero still dreamed of being an artist, cheered by an adoring public. He played the lyre, wrote poetry and sang, but Romans considered the idea of an emperor performing on stage as the ultimate disgrace, demonstrating a disrespectful and scandalous lack of dignity. Nero either didn’t care or craved the adulation too much. He forced people to watch his performances without letting them leave, which, Suetonius wrote, led some to pretend they had died so they would be carried out of the theatre.

Perhaps this innate desire to be adored inspired his actions during the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. The six-day blaze reduced much of the world’s most powerful city to ashes, destroying or damaging an estimated ten of the 14 districts, and left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. Far from ‘fiddling while Rome burned’ – an overly repeated and dubious creation of the historical accounts – Nero had been at Antium, around 30 miles away, when the fire began.

Did Emperor Nero really play the fiddle while Rome burned?

On hearing the news, he rushed back to the city to coordinate relief efforts, which included opening his private gardens as shelter and providing food. Yet no sooner had he seemingly displayed this rare example of pragmatic leadership, Nero couldn’t help but ruin it, and to such an extent that rumours of him actually being responsible for starting the fire began circulating, and have persisted ever since.

By quickly taking advantage of land cleared by the flames to begin construction of an extravagant palace complex, the Domus Aurea (Golden House), Nero gave many Romans reason to wonder whether that had been his intention all along. He needed to pass the blame, and he found his scapegoat in a small religious group that had been growing in Rome for a generation – the Christians. On Nero’s orders, they endured the most horrific methods of persecution, from torture and whipping to being dressed in animal skins and set upon by wild dogs. Nero apparently delighted in having men crucified in his garden, coated in wax and set alight to act as candles at his parties.

Violence and depravity became constant in Nero’s life, and resulted in the death of another wife. Suetonius wrote that, in AD 65, the emperor kicked the pregnant Poppaea to death after being scolded for spending too much time at the races. Grief-stricken, Nero then became fixated on a boy named Sporus, who bore a resemblance to his murdered wife, had him castrated and married him.

How did Nero almost ruin Rome?

Meanwhile, his megalomaniacal need to see the Golden House completed threatened to bankrupt the state treasury. Spanning 100 to 300 acres, the complex boasted gold-leaf-covered rooms and a lavish banqueting hall with a revolving ceiling that sprayed perfume on revellers below. Outside, the centrepiece was a 30-metre high colossus of Nero. Paying for it had proved beyond the capability of even the empire. Nero raised taxes, seized valuables from temples and squeezed Rome’s richest. When that wasn’t enough, he devalued the currency, reducing the weight and purity of the silver denarius coins.

Much like its leader, the empire looked increasingly unstable. There had been a revolt in Britain (he almost evacuated the island during Boudica’s uprising in AD 60 rather than trust his armies to defeat it), long conflicts in Parthia, an insurrection in Judea and an assassination plot uncovered in Rome. The purge of the Pisonian conspiracy in AD 65 – which intended to replace Nero with statesman Gaius Calpurnius Piso – claimed senators, army officers, aristocrats and even Seneca.

Alternate history: what if Boudica had defeated the Romans?

Having overcome this threat and with discontent lingering, Nero left Rome, essentially renouncing his rule. For a year or so he took a hedonistic tour of Greece, competing in artistic competitions (where he ‘won’ 1,808 first prizes) and the Olympic Games. He almost died after being thrown from his chariot, but still won all his events. He, reluctantly, returned – just in time to see his reign come crashing down.

How did Nero die?

Nero did not consider it a serious danger when Gaius Julius Vindex, a governor in Gaul, rebelled in AD 68. “I have only to appear and sing to have peace once more in Gaul,” he allegedly declared. But then another governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba in northern Spain, joined the revolt and declared himself emperor, inspiring more to rise up. The Senate declared Nero a public enemy and, once the Praetorian Guard abandoned him, he knew it was the end.

The 30-year-old emperor-turned-enemy of Rome fled the city, with nowhere to run or hide. On 9 June AD 68, he gave orders to the few men still with him, including his ‘wife’ Sporus, to dig a grave for him, while he prepared to commit suicide.

However, for a man who had killed so many, dispatching himself wasn’t such an easy task. He asked someone else to go first, to set an example, before begging his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to help drive the blade home. Nero – murderer, thief, sadist, tyrant – wanted to be remembered as something else. His final words were: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!”

What were Emperor Nero’s greatest crimes?

What are the villainous deeds on the ruthless ruler’s rap sheet – as written in the historical accounts – that have made him so despised?

Persecuting Christians

Nero’s atrocities against Christians in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome demonstrated just how brutal and violent he could be. He devised elaborate ways to cause untold suffering, including crucifying his victims upside down and turning them into human candles for his garden. For his persecution, Nero has been described as the Antichrist. It was common in antiquity for letters and numbers to be transferable – and when ‘Nero Caesar’ is written in Hebrew, it can be turned into the figure 666, the number of the Beast.

If not for Agrippina, Nero would never have become emperor – yet every mother should know when it’s time to let go. He planned a bizarre assassination attempt involving a self-sinking boat, but she survived, so Nero had to use the flimsy excuse that she might seek revenge to justify sending his guards to kill her.

Killing two wives

Move over Henry VIII. Nero divorced his first wife, Ocatavia, had her banished and then executed, all so he could marry his mistress. Three years later, however, Poppaea died too – supposedly when Nero kicked her in her belly while she was pregnant.

To pay for his gargantuan palace, Nero went to extreme lengths to squeeze all he could out of the empire. He had the temples raided, the silver currency devalued and there are reports of him forcing the richest people in Rome to leave their properties to him in their wills, before he made them commit suicide.

Despite having overtaken his younger stepbrother as Claudius’s heir, Nero decided to eliminate the teenage rival Britannicus once and for all. According to Roman historian Suetonius, he turned to a woman named Locusta to administer poison into his drink at a dinner party – avoiding the food tasters by spiking not the warmed wine, but the water used to cool it.

Sexual debauchery

He may not have had relations with his mother, as the rumours claimed, but Nero’s tastes were certainly depraved. Suetonius wrote, “Virtually every part of his body had been employed in filthy lusts.” He goes on to say that Nero devised a game where he disguised himself in the pelt of a wild animal and attacked the private parts of men and women tied to stakes.

When Nero saw the boy Sporus, he was so struck by how much he looked like his dead wife that he had him castrated and arranged a wedding ceremony, complete with dowry and bridal veil.

What were Emperor Nero’s greatest accomplishments?

Fire fighting

When Rome went up in flames in AD 64, it has been said that Nero took an active role in helping his people – he arranged food deliveries and let his gardens be used by the homeless.

Able administration

The first five years of Nero’s reign was defined by effective government policies – mainly down to his advisers – which benefitted the poor and reduced corruption.

A patron of the arts

A keen musician and actor, Nero built theatres, encouraged poetry and singing, and created festivals for artistic and athletic endeavours.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

What was the impact of the Emperor Nero on the Roman Empire?

Roman history was noted for having very many ‘bad’ emperors. One of the most notorious was Nero. He was the last of the Julian-Claudian dynasty and became infamous for his artistic pretensions, hedonism, and great cruelty. There are many myths about Nero, and this often obscured the reality of his reign.

Nero was a crucial figure in the history of Rome. He was the last of his dynasty, and his death ushered in a period of instability. His death led to a period of civil war that was the first in almost one hundred years. Nero was the first to persecute Christians, and he set a precedent for that religion's persecution that was to continue off and on for almost three centuries.


Augustus had brought peace to the Roman Empire, and during his reign, he amassed a range of powers. He made himself in effect the first Emperor. [1] Romans feared instability after his death, and they accepted his step-son, Tiberius, as his successor. [2] This established the hereditary principle for Imperial succession, and the Julian-Claudian's became the de-facto royal house of the Empire. Tiberius, who is often portrayed as a depraved and bloody old man, was a competent leader. He reformed the system of governance and tax-collection, and his rule was mild.

By the time of his death, the hereditary principle was established, and his nephew Gaius (Caligula) became Emperor. [3] Caligula's four years in power were bizarre and bloody. After his assassination, he was succeeded by Claudius. While often portrayed as something of a fool, he showed at times that he was a capable leader. He ordered the conquest of Britain and also annexed much of modern-day Morocco for his empire. [4]

In the first century AD, the Empire was at its zenith. There had been peace for several decades, and the borders were relatively secure. The majority of provincials were loyal to the Empire, and they were increasingly Romanized. The economy of the Empire was generally good. There was also a great cultural flourishing, and poets such as Ovid and writers such as Petronius produced masterpieces of Latin literature that are still read. This was the Empire that Nero inherited. [5]

The life and reign of Nero

It is important to note that there are no surviving contemporary records of Nero, and many of the remaining accounts are quite possibly biased. Nero was born in 37 AD. His parents were Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a member of one of the most powerful Roman families, and Agrippina the Younger, sister of Emperor Caligula. He was a grant-nephew of Augustus and, therefore, a member of the Julian-Claudian family. Nero was not viewed as a future emperor at the time of his birth. [6]

During his uncle Caligula's reign, his mother fell from favor, and his family was persecuted. His father died (of natural causes), and his mother was exiled. Nero’s fortunes changed with the assassination of his uncle Caligula. Claudius became Emperor, and after a disastrous marriage, he married Agrippina the Younger, his niece. [7]

She persuaded Claudius to make her son Nero his heir and married the daughter of Claudius from his first marriage. It is widely believed that Agrippina, probably with the help of Nero, poisoned Claudius. Nero became Emperor in 54 AD at the age of seventeen. [8] His mother was a domineering woman, and it is believed that she manipulated her young son to advance her own interests.

The first five years of Nero’s reign were seen as generally positive. The government was in the hands of two experienced ministers, one of whom was the writer Seneca the Younger and the Burrus. [9] Agrippina the Younger vied for control of the empire with Seneca and his colleague, but they remained in control. In 55 B.C, Nero wanted to control the Empire, and he had Seneca and Burrus dismissed. Later, he killed his mother as he grew tired of her constant efforts to dominate him and control the Empire. [10] Nero’s changed after he murdered his the ancient sources. He morphed into a grotesque tyrant.

Nero murdered any senator who opposed him. His personal life was bizarre, and he married one of his male slaves. Nero was passionate about the games, and he personally participated in the Olympic games in Greece. [11] The Emperor also considered himself to be first and foremost an artist. He at first performed his work in private but then publicly performed his work in Greece. Nero also acted on the stage. This scandalized the Roman elite, who considered actors to be a little better than prostitutes. The sight of Nero acting was appalling to them.

Nero was also paranoid about plots, and he killed anyone he suspected of being a threat. While Nero was very unpopular with the elites, he was popular with the poor. He reformed the judicial and taxation system and made it fairer. Nero also built gymnasiums and baths in Rome that were open to ordinary Romans. The population of Rome and elsewhere in the Empire revered the Emperor and saw him as their protector. According to Suetonius, the emperor was ‘carried away by a craze for popularity, and he was jealous of all who in any way stirred the feeling of the mob.’ [12] The philosopher Epictetus argued that Nero was an insecure, immature, and unhappy man and needed acclaim. [13]

Nero was also a lavish builder, and some sources say that he left the treasury bankrupt. In contrast, others argued that his spending was part of an economic policy to revive a stagnant economy. In 66 AD, a great fire destroyed much of Rome. [14] The cause of the fire is not known. It may have been accidental or arson. Elites blamed Nero for the fire, and he was accused of clearing Rome for his building projects.

By 68 AD, Nero had begun to raise taxes, and there were many reports of growing discontent among the elite. While in the east, a major Jewish Revolt and the Romans were expelled from much of Judea. In 68 AD, Vindex in Gaul revolted but was later put down by the Roman legions. [15] Finally, the Roman army grew weary of Nero even though he was a member of the House of Julius Caesar and Augustus. [16]

In Spain, Galba and the Spanish legions revolted. This revolted was welcomed by the elites in Rome. [17] Galba set sail for Rome and Nero attempted to rally his forces. However, he had alienated the elite, and he was quickly abandoned. Nero was forced to flee with some of the slaves but later committed suicide. He ordered on of his slaves to cut his throat. [18] Nero remained popular with the poor, and after his death, Rome became incredibly unstable because three separate pretenders who claimed to be the Roman Emperor.

The Year of the Four Emperors and the end of the Julian-Claudian dynasty

Nero’s reign and his death destabilized the Empire. His low tax policy, combined with his lavish spending, had led to an economic recession. He had also alienated the elites in Rome and elsewhere. He had also failed to provide a strong government, as is evident in the revolt of Vindex in Gaul and the Jewish Revolt. In the aftermath of his death, unlike that of his unstable uncle Caligula, there was no living male member of the Julian-Claudian line. [19]

The Julian-Claudian family had killed many of their relatives, and after the death of Nero, who had no sons, there was no legitimate claimant to the throne. This left the army as the power broker, and in the year after Nero's deaths, legions fought each other for control of the Empire. [20] The year 69 AD is often known as the year of the ‘Four Emperors.’ In that year, four men, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, declared themselves emperor. Vespasian emerged as the victor and established the Flavian dynasty. [21]

Nero ended the Julian-Claudian dynasty. His death left a power vacuum that destabilized the Empire and led to competing generals to fight a series of civil wars. Nero’s reign forced the Roman army's re-emergence into state politics for the first time in a century. The year 69 AD was important as it showed that the army could both make and unmake an emperor. [22]

Nero and the Christians

Nero was the first Roman Emperor to persecute the small sect of Christians actively. They had grown greatly since the crucifixion of Jesus. They had established themselves in Rome and attracted many adherents. They were not popular with other groups, and their beliefs were treated with suspicion. After all confessed followers of Jesus, they were lawfully executed by the Roman governor of Judea. [23] In 69 AD, a great fire swept through Rome and caused general unrest in the city. Nero accused Christians of starting the fire to shift blame away from himself. [24]

According to Tacitus, he was very eager to quell rumors that he was responsible for the fire ‘ consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called "Christians" by the populace.’ [25] Nero established a precedent whereby an Emperor could declare the Christians to be public enemies. Nero’s and later persecutions were to shape Christianity's nature, but it did not stop its spread. The many martyrs created by the persecutions only strengthened the faith, and it eventually became the state religion of the Empire in the later 4th century AD.

Nero’s policies in the East

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Nero was a far more active Emperor than many gave him credit for at the time and since. He was particularly interested in the East. Still, his record -was mixed. Nero attempted to permanently annex the Bosphoran Kingdom in the Crimea but his successors reversed this and were content to have it as a client kingdom. Nero fought a war with Parthia. He appointed a commoner to lead the Roman armies and he managed to inflict several defeats on the Parthians. [26]

Nero turned the strategic kingdom of Armenia into a client kingdom, which allowed him to secure the borders with Parthia. He also obliged the Parthians to hand over some legion ‘eagles’ or standards that had been captured. Nero’s success against the Parthians meant that the Eastern frontier was at peace for several decades. [27]

However, during his reign, Judea's administration was poor and contributed to the great Jewish Revolt (66-71 AD). The Jews believed Nero was a ‘tyrant.’ [28] Perhaps his most lasting legacy was his generally pro-Greek policies in the Eastern half of the Empire. He granted ‘liberties’ to many Greek cities in the eastern portion of his empire. This led them to become economically successful and culturally vibrant. [29] This partly explains why unlike the west that the east did not succumb to Romanization but remained very much influenced by Hellenic culture. Later emperors such as Hadrian imitated Nero’s policies towards the Greek cities.


Nero is regarded as either a mad or outright evil Emperor. He was undoubtedly cruel and committed many crimes. However, he was also an important figure in the history of Rome. Nero was the first Emperor to persecute Christians, and many other Emperors were to follow his example. He also had some successes in the east, especially against the Parthians, and he did much to promote Hellenic culture in the eastern provinces.

He was the last of the Julian-Claudian dynasty, and his death led to a series of bloody civil wars. This period of instability led to the army determining who should be emperor. This was one of the most important legacies of Nero, the re-emergence of the legions as a political force, something that Augustus and his heirs had prevented for several decades.

#6 He nearly died while participating in the Olympic Games

Following the death of his mother, Nero became deeply involved in his artistic and aesthetic passions. At first, he sang and performed on the lyre in private events but later began performing in public to improve his popularity. He strived to assume every kind of role and trained as an athlete for public games which he ordered to be held every five years. As a competitor in the games, Nero raced a ten-horse chariot and nearly died after being thrown from it. He also competed as an actor and singer. Although he faltered in the competitions, being the emperor he won nevertheless and then he paraded in Rome the crowns he had won.

Family and Upbringing of Nero

Nero Claudius Caesar (originally Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus) was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, sister of the future emperor Caligula, in Antium, on December 15, A.D. 37. Domitius died when Nero was 3. Caligula banished his sister, and so Nero grew up with his paternal aunt, Domitia Lepida, who chose a barber (tonsor) and a dancer (saltator) for Nero's tutors. When Claudius became emperor after Caligula, Nero's inheritance was returned, and when Claudius married Agrippina, a proper tutor, Seneca, was hired for young Nero.

Before he left Rome, Nero tried to bribe the officers of the Praetorian guards to help him. There reply was not encouraging. &ldquoIs it so terrible a thing to die?&rdquo one reputedly asked the emperor. Following this rejection, the desperate Nero considered his options. One was to flee to Parthia while another was to wait and throw himself on the mercy of the advancing Galba. Nero even toyed with the idea of publicly petitioning the Roman people for the Prefecture of Egypt —but gave the idea up when he realised he was likely to be torn apart.

The night of June 8th must have passed uneasily for Nero. However, the next day was far worse. The ex-emperor awoke to discover his bodyguard had left him. So, gathering his remaining four servants — one of which was a gladiator named Sporus — and fled Rome barefoot and in disguise for the villa of his freedman Phaon, just four miles outside Rome. Nero then passed the next few hours vacillating over his death. When his servants begged him to avoid ignominious execution by committing suicide, appeared decided and ordered them to dig him a grave. However, while they did so, he wandering around bewailing his fate and muttering &rdquo Dead! And so great an artist!'&rdquo

Then a letter arrived, and Nero learned the Senate had declared him a public enemy. The letter also stated that the Senate had decreed the ex-emperor should be captured and brought to Rome for execution &ldquoancient style.&rdquo This meant that Nero was to be stripped naked and, with his head secured in a wooden fork, publicly flogged to death. The news sent Nero into a frenzied panic. He snatched up two daggers and tried the points as if to kill himself —only to throw down again, protesting the time of his death had not yet come.

Death of Nero by Vasiliy Smirnov, 1888. The State Russian Museum &ndash Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Nero then changed his mind again and asked Sporus to mourn him. He then begged for one of his remaining servants to set him an example by killing themselves first. The next moment, increasingly erratic emperor was berating himself for his cowardice. Suetonius records how witnesses stated he bewailed &ldquoHow ugly and vulgar my life has become,&rdquo before turning on himself, saying &ldquoCome pull yourself together.&rdquo

Hooves from a troop of cavalry approaching the villa to arrest Nero finally decided the matter. Rather than face execution, the cornered Nero chose to end his own life. He made his companions promise to bury him respectably. Then he took up the dagger. However, Nero couldn&rsquot quite summon the courage to plunge the knife home himself — his secretary Epaphroditus had to help him stab himself in the throat. The arresting centurion arrived just in time to catch the emperor&rsquos last breath, but despite his outlaw status, respected Nero&rsquos last wishes. Galba&rsquos freedman Icelus cremated the emperor in the gold-embroidered robes he had last worn in Greece. His ashes, however, were placed amongst those of his father&rsquos family the Domitii on the Pincian Hill rather than amongst the other Julio-Claudians.

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