Perhaps the most infamous of Rome’s emperors, Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 A.D.) ruled Rome from 54 A.D. until his death by suicide 14 years later. 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!”
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.