Dark brown bronze head of the emperor Nero, with hollow eyes. He looks up to the top right corner. There is dramatic lighting on the bust with lots of shadow which gives a haunting and enigmatic look.

10 questions about the emperor Nero… and some curious answers

By Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

Publication date: 24 May 2021

The name Nero is synonymous with tyranny, but what do we really know about the infamous Roman emperor?

Mary Beard asks 10 questions to search for the truth behind the myth.

10 questions about the emperor Nero… and some curious answers

After 2,000 years most people still recognise the name Nero, emperor of Rome between AD 54 and 68. He is remembered as a monster and sadist with a chilling list of crimes to his name, from burning down his own capital city to sleeping with his mother and murdering many of his close relatives.

But what was Nero really like?

That's an almost impossible question to answer. Romans told very tall stories about their emperors in general (like the stories we tell about celebs and royals, usually without the murder), and the Roman rulers who came after Nero found it very useful to exaggerate his faults, to show how much better they were. And, of course, a bad emperor always makes for more exciting history than a good one. We can never see through all this to the real emperor. But we can bust some myths and confirm others.

So here are 10 questions and answers to shine a light on different sides of Nero, starting with the 'Great Fire of Rome' which destroyed large parts of the city in AD 65.

Restored marble sculpture of Nero's head with beard and curly short hair
Famous for centuries, this is still the most-illustrated portrait of Nero. However, only a small part of the face is ancient, the rest of the sculpture is a restoration from the 1660s, relying on hostile accounts by ancient writers. It skillfully translates them into a compelling but misleading image of Nero as a tyrant. Marble, AD 50–100 (with later restorations). Roma, Musei Capitolini; Archivio fotografico dei Musei Capitolini. © Roma, Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali. Photo © Zeno Colantoni.

1. Did Nero really 'fiddle while Rome burned'?

This is the most famous story about him: as Rome blazed, the emperor enjoyed the spectacle while he played his lyre (his 'fiddle' as later ages put it). It remains a favourite with modern cartoonists. When they want to show a politician not caring about some national disaster, they dress him up in a toga, put a laurel wreath on his head and a lyre in his hands, with flames behind. Everyone from Barack Obama to Gordon Brown and Donald Trump has had the Nero treatment. But is the original story true?

Actor in black robe and crown holding lire looking into distance
Peter Ustinov plays Nero in Quo Vadis, 1951. The character of Nero plays the lyre as Rome burns. Courtesy of the Everett Collection.

Opinions differ. But it's not impossible. One writer, not long after the event, describes how Nero watched the blaze from the outskirts of the city, singing to his lyre (though another claims he was actually 60 kilometres away at the time). But the singing doesn't mean that he didn't care. It is clear that after the disaster, he organised efficient relief operations, opening his own palaces for shelter and paying for emergency food supplies. And he introduced new fire regulations, insisting on a maximum height for buildings and the use of non-flammable materials.

2. But what about the rumour that he actually started the fire?

That is almost certainly false. It goes back to the fact that he used some of the parts of the city destroyed in the blaze to build himself a vast new palace, called his 'Golden House' or Domus Aurea, complete with a revolving dining room (archaeologists may have found traces of this) and a pleasure lake where the Colosseum now stands. It was notorious at the time. One graffito ran 'Romans escape, the whole city has become one man's house'. But there is no evidence at all that he torched the city in order to build the palace. Nero himself actually blamed the Christians, as a radical new sect, and had many of them horribly put to death (some burnt alive, others torn to pieces by animals).

Stretch of water with boats and large villa with statues in the background
Nero's Domus Aurea drew inspiration from luxury villas, many of which were around the Bay of Naples. Fresco of a landscape with architectures and boats, Pompeii, AD 1–37. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

3. Did he really murder his mother Agrippina?

Almost certainly, yes. Agrippina, the fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, was one of those powerful women in Rome who were probably blamed for many more crimes than they actually committed. It is commonly believed that she schemed to get Nero onto the throne instead of Claudius' own son, and that at first, she had a huge influence over the young emperor who was only 16 at the start of his rule. It is from this influence of mother over son that the lurid, and entirely unproven, tales of incest arose. Things changed as he grew up, and in his early twenties, Nero was determined to break free of his mother by any means – so he had her dispatched by a palace hit squad. But the whole story was wildly embellished, including a bizarre first attempt to stage an 'accident' in a specially constructed collapsible boat (which supposedly failed because, while the boat did collapse, Agrippina turned out to be a strong swimmer!)

Green (chalcedony) portrait bust of young woman, lower nose missing
Portrait bust of the younger Agrippina, the mother of Nero. 37–39 AD.

4. What about all the other family murders?

There was his step-brother Britannicus who dropped down dead at dinner, said to have been poisoned by Nero. His first wife Octavia, the emperor Claudius' daughter, was put to death so he could marry his second wife Poppaea (who was sent, so it was alleged, Octavia's severed head almost as a wedding present). Poppaea herself did not survive long. Nero was rumoured to have kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant with their second child and she died shortly after.

Marble sculpture of head of woman with long hair and headress
Marble portrait, possibly of Nero's wife Poppaea Sabina. Rome, Italy, AD 50–68. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura  ̶  Museo Nazionale Romano.

There is no letting Nero off the hook for all of these crimes. It is not really a good defense to say that murder was a common weapon in the brutal world of Roman power politics, or that Octavia was not entirely the innocent victim she has been assumed to be (there are hints of factional struggles in the palace, with Octavia siding with Agrippina). But there has always been a tendency to pin on Nero any sudden death that took place close to the centre of power, whether there is any evidence or not. Britannicus may just have been a victim of illness rather than poisoning. Who knows?

5. So, was he popular with anyone?

Yes. Outside the city of Rome, he went down well with the people of Greece (he granted them their 'freedom', which amounted to an enormous tax break). Inside the city itself, he most likely had support among the ordinary people. The problem here is that most of our evidence comes from the writing of the upper class, who had their own (snobbish and self-interested) ideas of how an emperor should behave and tended to think of generosity to the poor as buying popularity from the 'rabble'. We would now think differently.

Helmet with grille of linked circles to protect the face, and a broad brim
Bronze gladiator helmet, Pompeii, Italy, 1st century AD. Nero and other Julio-Claudian emperors funded gladiatorial games in order to win public support.

Beyond the relief measures after the fire, Nero sponsored public works, entertainments and shows and gave cash handouts, as well as having 'the common touch' with ordinary people. For years after he died, his tomb was decorated with flowers. Some people wanted to remember him.

And now for a few more curious points to fill in the picture…

6. Was Nero really a 'medal winner' at the Olympic games?

Yes, he was – except back then you won wreaths not medals. In AD 67 he competed in the Olympic 10-horse chariot race (the ancient equivalent of Formula One). There were, unsurprisingly, plenty of cheating allegations. One account even says he fell out of the chariot during the race, got back in, but gave up before the end – and was still claimed the winner.

7. Why did Nero send an expedition into the continent of Africa?

This expedition is mentioned by several Roman writers who differ on the reasons for it. Some thought he was scouting for a possible invasion. Others imagined it was scientific exploration to discover the source of the river Nile. Nero's tutor Seneca (later one of Nero's victims) put it down to the emperor's 'love of truth'. It was probably a bit of both, but it started a European imperialist fascination with the river's source that lasted into the 19th century.

8. Did Nero have any particular pastimes?

Mostly performing on stage, but he is also said to have enjoyed exploring the city's night-life incognito – as later royals have done, right down to the present British royal family. It was, of course, turned against him, especially when he got involved in drunken brawls. After one nasty confrontation, he apparently decided that it was wiser to take an armed guard with him.

Seated actor (left), woman crouching (right) looking at painting
Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy, AD 30–40. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

9. How did Nero die?

It was an almost poignant end in AD 68. The armies had turned against him and he was deserted by the senior palace officials. Only his slaves and ex-slaves stayed loyal, helping him to take his own life, and taking his body away for burial. By lucky chance the original tombstones of two of these people have been found – Epaphroditus who guided the hands of Nero with the dagger, and Ecloge, his old nurse who buried him. They are a precious link with the real people around the emperor, beyond myth and hype.

Rectangular cast with Latin inscription carved
Inscription from the tomb of Epaphroditus, Nero's secretary. Cast of original from AD 69–96. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura  ̶  Museo Nazionale Romano

10. But did he really die in AD 68?

Some Romans thought not. Uncannily, like Elvis Presley, claims soon surfaced that he was still alive somewhere. In fact, over the next couple of decades, at least three 'false Neros' appeared to take back the throne. This is another hint at his popularity with some, for surely no-one would seek power by claiming to be an emperor that everyone detested.

Most of the stories and 'facts' referred to here come from Suetonius, Life of Nero and Tacitus, Annals (a history of Rome between AD 14 and 68), both written in the early second century AD. You can find translations of both online.

Chart the rise and fall of the emperor Nero and make up your own mind about him in Nero: the man behind the myth (27 May – 24 October 2021).

Buy the beautifully illustrated exhibition book in our online shop.

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