Born in 37 AD and reigning for more than 13 years from 54 AD till his death in 68 AD, Nero was a Roman Emperor who is infamous for his insane acts and the horrible ways in which he carried out the persecution of Christians. He is also attributed for initiating the Great Fire of Rome and then playing the Lyre while the city burned but most probably didn’t carry out these acts. Know more about the life, family, reign, executions of his mother and others, and the ultimate demise and death of Nero, one of the most infamous emperors of ancient Rome.

 

#1 He was the son of the sister of Emperor Caligula

Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15th December 37 AD in Antium, near Rome. He was the only son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, consul of Rome, and his wife Agrippina the Younger, sister of another infamous emperor Caligula. When Nero’s father was congratulated on having a son, he reportedly said that nothing “produced by me and Agrippina could possibly be good for the state or the people”. After a failed plot by Agrippina to murder Caligula, she was exiled by her brother in 39 AD. Nero’s father Domitius died in 40 AD. Caligula was murdered in January 41 making Claudius, Agrippina’s uncle, the Roman emperor. Claudius allowed Agrippina to return from exile.

Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbo
Bust of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbo, father of Nero

 

#2 Nero became the youngest Roman emperor in 54 AD

After poisoning her second husband, Agrippina married her uncle, Emperor Claudius, in 49 AD. It was the fourth marriage of Claudius and he had had his previous wife Messalina executed in 48 AD. In 50 AD, at the age of 13, Nero was adopted by Emperor Claudius and took the name by which he is famous, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Being older than his stepbrother Britannicus, Nero became heir to the throne. In 53 AD, Nero married Claudia Octavia, his stepsister and daughter of Claudius with Messalina. Claudius died in 54 AD. Many ancient historians believe he was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina. Claudius’s death made Nero Emperor of Rome in 54 AD, before he had turned 17. He was the youngest ever Roman emperor till that time.

Sculpture of Nero being crowned Emperor by Agrippina
Sculpture of Agrippina crowning her young son Nero emperor of Rome in 54 AD

 

#3 He had his mother Agrippina executed

The initial reign of Nero was influenced by his mother Agrippina and advisors Seneca the Younger and Sextus Afranius Burrus. Nero was unsatisfied with his marriage to Octavia and began an affair with Poppaea Sabina, wife of his friend and future emperor Otho. Agrippina opposed this affair. Over time, Seneca and Burrus gained prominence over Nero’s mother and encouraged Nero to step out of her shadow. Agrippina responded by promoting her stepson Britannicus as the true heir to the throne. Britannicus died in February 55 under dubious circumstances. He was most probably poisoned by Nero. In 59 AD, Nero ordered the execution of his mother.

Agrippina the Younger
Bust of Agrippina, mother of Nero

 

#4 Nero castrated a former slave and married him

Nero divorced and banished his first wife Octavia on grounds of infertility and adultery. He later had her executed in June 62 AD. Nero married Sabina in 62 AD. The couple had a daughter who died in infancy. Sabina died in 65 AD reportedly due to Nero kicking her in her belly during her second pregnancy. In early 66 AD, Nero married Statilia Messalina after forcing her husband to commit suicide. In 67 AD, Nero ordered the castration of Sporus, a former slave. He then married him, which noted historian Cassius Dio claims was, because Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Nero’s dead former wife Sabina.

Bust of Poppaea Sabina
Bust of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife

 

#5 His early reign was marked by political generosity and power sharing

Bust of Emperor Nero
Bust of Emperor Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome

In the early years of his reign, when Nero was influenced by above mentioned advisors, he had a reputation of political generosity and power-sharing with the Senate. He curtailed corruption, forbade bloodshed in circus, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes and allowed slaves to bring complains to him against their unjust masters. Nero also encouraged competition in poetry and theatre over gladiator competitions. The rise of brutality and insanity in Nero probably started around the time of his execution of his mother. He began pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle marked by lavish self-indulgence and tyranny.

#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.

 

#7 His playing the Lyre during Great Fire of Rome might not be true

In July 64 AD, Rome was devastated by a fire which is said to have burnt for six days and is known as the Great Fire of Rome. Nero’s role in the fire is a subject of controversy with differing accounts. Some sources hold him responsible for initiating the fire supposedly to create room for his planned palatial complex. A popular story even says that he stood on the roof of his palace and played the Lyre during the fire. The evidence for these claims cannot be established with certainty and other sources also report that Nero was at Antium, 35 miles (56 km) from Rome, at the time of the fire and that he organized measures to contain the fire and provide relief for refugees.

Nero playing the Lyre during the Great Fire of Rome
An illustration of Nero playing the Lyre as Rome burns during the Great Fire of Rome

 

#8 Nero is most infamous for his persecution of Christians

Whatever was the role of Nero in the Great Fire of Rome, many among the Roman populace did hold him responsible for initiating the fire. Nero responded by blaming members of the newly established Christian religion for the disaster, who were already blamed by people for engaging in many wicked practices. This led to Roman Empire’s first persecution of Christians; the act for which Nero is most infamous. Nero was brutal in his persecutions. He condemned some to be dressed in animal skin and torn apart by dogs. It is also said that he had captured Christians dipped in oil and set on fire in his garden at night as a source of light.

Nero's Christian Torches
Nero’s Torches – Painting depicting Nero and his guests watching the execution of Christians

 

#9 Nero’s death was caused due to a revolt led by Servius Sulpicius Galba

Bust of Roman emperor Galba
Bust of Roman emperor Galba, Nero’s successor

The Roman economy suffered due to Nero’s grand reconstruction of Rome. The instability of the empire was furthered by revolts in Britain and Judea and conflicts with Parthia. In 65 AD, there was a plot to assassinate Nero but it was discovered and the conspirators executed. In March 68 AD, Gaius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. He recruited another governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, and told him to declare himself emperor. As the rebellion spread, support for Galba increased. On a false report of the Senate planning to beat him to death, Nero decided to commit suicide. Unable to commit the act himself, Nero asked his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to end his life. He thus died on June 9, 68 AD after reigning over the Roman Empire for more than 13 years.

#10 A legend said that Nero would return from dead as Antichrist

The revolt against Nero sparked a series of civil wars which for a time threatened the survival of the Roman Empire. Nero was followed by Galba who was to be first emperor in the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors. The death of Nero brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had ruled the Roman Empire from the time of its formation under Augustus in 27 BC. Due to the troubled time after his death, Nero might have initially been missed but with time his legacy suffered and he is mostly portrayed as an insane ruler and a tyrant. Such was the fear of his persecutions that there was a legend for hundreds of years among Christians that Nero was not dead and would somehow return as Antichrist.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I read a conspiracy somewhere that Nero did not in fact die that day but his best friend, a Greek look alike sacrificed himself instead allowing Nero to escape to France and then the middle east. So those rumours of resurrection may not be entirely basless

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