Nero is one of Rome's most infamous rulers, notorious for his cruelty, debauchery and eccentricity.
But was he really the tyrant that history has painted him to be? Nero exhibition curator Francesca Bologna goes in search of the real Nero.
Who was Nero?
Nero was the 5th emperor of Rome and the last of Rome's first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians, founded by Augustus (the adopted son of Julius Caesar). Nero is known as one of Rome's most infamous rulers, notorious for his cruelty and debauchery. He ascended to power in AD 54 aged just 16 and died at 30. He ruled at a time of great social and political change, overseeing momentous events such as the Great Fire of Rome and Boudica's rebellion in Britain. He allegedly killed his mother and two of his wives, only cared about his art and had very little interest in ruling the empire.
But what do we really know about Nero? Can we separate the scandalous stories told by later authors from the reality of his rule?
Most of what we know about Nero comes from the surviving works of three historians – Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. All written decades after Nero's death, their accounts have long shaped our understanding of this emperor's rule. However, far from being impartial narrators presenting objective accounts of past events, these authors and their sources wrote with a very clear agenda in mind. Nero's demise brought forward a period of chaos and civil war – one that ended only when a new dynasty seized power, the Flavians. Authors writing under the Flavians all had an interest in legitimising the new ruling family by portraying the last of the Julio-Claudians in the worst possible light, turning history into propaganda. These accounts became the 'historical' sources used by later historians, therefore perpetuating a fabricated image of Nero, which has survived all the way to the present.
Birth and early years
Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December AD 37.
He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger. Both Gnaeus and Agrippina were the grandchildren of Augustus, giving Nero Augustus' great, great grandson a strong claim to power.
Nero was only two years old when his mother was exiled and three when his father died. His inheritance was taken from him and he was sent to live with his aunt. However, Nero's fate changed again when Claudius became emperor, restoring the boy's property and recalling his mother Agrippina from exile.
Aged 13 – adoption
In AD 49 the emperor Claudius married Agrippina, and adopted Nero the following year. It is at this point that Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. In Roman times it was normal to change your name when adopted, abandoning your family name in favour of your adoptive father's. Nero was a common name among members of the Claudian family, especially in Claudius' branch.
Nero and Agrippina offered Claudius a politically useful link back to Augustus, strengthening his position.
Claudius appeared to favour Nero over his natural son, Britannicus, marking Nero as the designated heir.
Aged 16 – emperor
When Claudius died in AD 54, Nero became emperor just two months before turning 17.
As he was supported by both the army and the senate, his rise to power was smooth. His mother Agrippina exerted a significant influence, especially at the beginning of his rule.
Aged 21 – Agrippina's murder
The Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio all claim that Nero, fed up with Agrippina's interference, decided to kill her.
Given the lack of eyewitnesses, there is no way of knowing if or how this happened. However, this did not stop historians from fabricating dramatic stories of Agrippina's murder, asserting that Nero tried (and failed) to kill her with a boat engineered to sink, before sending his men to do the job.
Agrippina allegedly told them to stab her in the womb that bore Nero, her last words clearly borrowed from stage plays.
It is entirely possible, as claimed by Nero himself, that Agrippina chose (or was more likely forced) to take her own life after her plot against her son was discovered.
Aged 23 – Boudica's revolt
Early in his rule, Nero had to contend with a rebellion in the newly conquered province of Britain.
In AD 60–61, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe led a revolt against the Romans, attacking and laying waste to important Roman settlements. The possible causes of the rebellion were numerous – the greed of the Romans exploiting the newly conquered territories, the recalling of loans made to local leaders, ongoing conflict in Wales and, above all, violence against the family of Prasutagus, Boudica's husband and king of the Iceni.
Boudica and the rebels destroyed Colchester, London and St Albans before being heavily defeated by Roman troops. After the uprising, the governor of Britain Suetonius Paulinus introduced harsher laws against the Britons, until Nero replaced him with the more conciliatory governor Publius Petronius Turpilianus.
Aged 24 – execution of Octavia
The marriage between Nero and Octavia, aged 15 and 13/14 at the time, was arranged by their parents in order to further legitimise Nero's claim to the throne. Octavia was the daughter of the emperor Claudius from a previous marriage, so when Claudius married Agrippina and adopted her son Nero, Nero and Octavia became brother and sister. In order to arrange their marriage, Octavia had to be adopted into another family.
Their marriage was not a happy one. According to ancient writers, Nero had various affairs until his lover Poppaea Sabina convinced him to divorce his wife. Octavia was first exiled then executed in AD 62 on adultery charges. According to ancient writers, her banishment and death caused great unrest among the public, who sympathised with the dutiful Octavia.
No further motives were offered for Octavia's death other than Nero's passion for Poppaea, and we will probably never know what transpired at court. The fact that Octavia couldn't produce an heir while Poppaea was pregnant with Nero's daughter likely played an important role in deciding Octavia's fate.
Aged 26 – Great Fire of Rome
On 19 July AD 64, a fire started close to the Circus Maximus. The flames soon encompassed the entire city of Rome and the fire raged for nine days. Only four of the 14 districts of the capital were spared, while three were completely destroyed.
Rome had already been razed by flames – and would be again in its long history – but this event was so severe it came to be known as the Great Fire of Rome.
Later historians blamed Nero for the event, claiming that he set the capital ablaze in order to clear land for the construction of a vast new palace. According to Suetonius and Cassius Dio, Nero took in the view of the burning city from the imperial residence while playing the lyre and singing about the fall of Troy. This story, however, is fictional.
Tacitus, the only historian who was actually alive at the time of the Great Fire of Rome (although only 8 years old), wrote that Nero was not even in Rome when the fire started, but returned to the capital and led the relief efforts.
Aged 27 – death of Poppaea
Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio all describe Nero as being blinded by passion for his wife Poppaea, yet they accuse him of killing her, allegedly by kicking her in an outburst of rage while she was pregnant.
Interestingly, pregnant women being kicked to death by enraged husbands is a recurring theme in ancient literature, used to explore the (self) destructive tendencies of autocrats. The Greek writer Herodotus tells the story of how the Persian king Cambyses kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach, causing her death. A similar episode is told of Periander, tyrant of Corinth. Nero is just one of many allegedly 'mad' tyrants for which this literary convention was used.
Poppaea probably died from complications connected with her pregnancy and not at Nero's hands. She was given a lavish funeral and was deified.
Aged 28 – the Golden Day
Centred on greater Iran, the Parthian empire was a major political and cultural power and a long-standing enemy of Rome. The two powers had long been contending for control over the buffer state of Armenia and open conflict sparked again during Nero's rule. The Parthian War started in AD 58 and, after initial victories and following set-backs, ended in AD 63 when a diplomatic solution was reached between Nero and the Parthian king Vologases I.
According to this settlement Tiridates, brother of the Parthian king, would rule over Armenia, but only after having travelled all the way to Rome to be crowned by Nero.
The journey lasted 9 months, Tiridates' retinue included 3,000 Parthian horsemen and many Roman soldiers. The coronation ceremony took place in the summer of AD 66 and the day was celebrated with much pomp: all the people of Rome saw the new king of Armenia kneeling in front of Nero. This was the Golden Day of Nero's rule.
Aged 30 – death
In AD 68, Vindex, the governor of Gaul (France), rebelled against Nero and declared his support for Galba, the governor of Spain. Vindex was defeated in battle by troops loyal to Nero, yet Galba started gaining more military support.
It was at this point that Nero lost the support of Rome's people due to a grain shortage, caused by a rebellious commander who cut the crucial food supply from Egypt to the capital. Abandoned by the people and declared an enemy of the state by the senate, Nero tried to flee Rome and eventually committed suicide.
Following his death, Nero's memory was condemned (a practice called damnatio memoriae) and the images of the emperor were destroyed, removed or reworked. However, Nero was still given an expensive funeral and for a long time people decorated his tomb with flowers, some even believing he was still alive.
After Nero's death, civil war ensued. At the end of the so-called 'Year of the Four Emperors' (AD 69), Vespasian became emperor and started a new dynasty: the Flavians.
Was Nero a tyrant?
Nero was a young ruler trying to negotiate his position within a relatively new and unstable political system, one where monarchical (the emperor) and republican (the senate) elements sat side by side. While the emperor surpassed all in terms of power and authority, the outward appearance of monarchy had to be avoided. Emperors therefore needed to recognise, at least formally, the role of the senate. This traditional council, to which belonged only the members of the aristocracy, had long played an important role in the government of Rome. With the Civil War and the end of the Republic, however, senatorial power was severely weakened.
Nero, like other emperors before and after him, often clashed with the senate, his superior authority at odds with the views of this traditional aristocratic assembly that was slowly but irrefutably losing power. Nero was depicted as a mad tyrant by ancient historians belonging to the senatorial elite, but we should keep in mind that they were far from impartial. It is not surprising that members of this group, when writing about Nero, were keen on representing him in the worst possible light.
However, when we consider the lower classes, quite a different picture emerges. A number of graffiti found in Rome hail Nero and his name is the most commonly found on the walls of the city, more than any other Julio-Claudian emperor or of the Flavians that came after him.
If we turn to Rome, we see how his actions benefited the people of the capital. Nero built magnificent public baths and, through the construction of a grand covered market and the improvement of the connections between Rome and its harbour, he made sure that his people would have had access to food. Not only did Nero ensure that the people's essential needs were met, he also provided them with entertainment venues such as a now lost wooden amphitheatre. The new building regulations he introduced after the Great Fire also drastically improved the living conditions of the people of Rome.
You can read more about Rome in the first century AD in our historical city travel guide blog.
It is difficult to fully appreciate what common people thought of Nero, as they left very few traces. The partisan views of the Roman elite ended up shaping our understanding of the past.
'Bad' emperors in Roman history
Based on ancient historians' accounts, we would have a hard time deciding who was the worst Roman emperor. Was it Caligula, who allegedly wanted to make his horse a consul and thought of himself as a god? Or the autocratic Domitian, who feared conspiracies against him and executed or exiled many leading citizens of the time? Maybe the cruel Commodus, who fancied himself a new Hercules and fought as a gladiator in the arena? Caracalla is also a good candidate: he had his own brother murdered so he could rule alone and he wiped out all of his opponents.
Nero was only one of many 'bad' emperors to be described as tyrannical, ruthless, and aspiring to be considered as gods. The similarity of these allegations should not come as a surprise, considering they were all made by dissatisfied senators to slander their political enemies. Even Augustus, epitome of the good emperor as he might be, did not have a spotless reputation. His rise to power was a bloody one, as testified by the proscription list he signed with Mark Antony and Lepidus, with whom he governed Rome at the time.
How do we judge then? Is senseless cruelty worse than calculated ruthlessness? And how can we tell fact from fiction, since what we know of these emperors comes from sources that are anything but impartial?
Decide for yourself whether Nero was a tyrant or the victim of vicious propaganda: take a look at the exhibition highlights from Nero: the man behind the myth, which ran from 27 May to 24 October 2021.
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