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Nero, the fifth Roman Emperor, is usually regarded as completely incompetent and is credited with the downfall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Unfortunately, there is really very little historical evidence that can counteract this common perception of the last Julio-Claudian. His reign was characterised by his self-absorption, his killing of everyone around him and the civil war which followed his death — the first civil war that Rome had seen for a century.
Nero was born as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, in 37 AD. His father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, belonged to an old Roman family; his mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the daughter of Augustus' grandson Germanicus and as such was a member of the Imperial line. Though young Domitius was born into a prosperous family, his luck didn't last long, for Caligula, who was then Emperor, banished Agrippina to a distant island in 39 AD. When the senior Domitius died a year later, Caligula was then able to seize all his property, leaving the son with nothing to inherit. He lived with his mother in exile, which was not the most comfortable of situations.
When Caligula died and Claudius was made Emperor in 41 AD, he recalled Agrippina from exile — she was his niece, so he felt well-disposed towards her and saw fit to pay for her son's education. In 49 AD, Claudius went a step further and married Agrippina1. Feeling that a more direct approach to young Domitius' education was necessary, Claudius appointed the Stoic philosopher Seneca as his tutor. In 50, he also formally adopted the boy, requiring that he take the name Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. This meant that Nero would take precedence in the succession over Britannicus, Claudius' son with a previous wife. However, as Nero was directly descended from the Imperial line, there were few complaints. He was subsequently married to Claudius' daughter Octavia, which further legitimised his claim.
Rise to Power
In around 54, Claudius began to talk of honouring Britannicus and involving the child in the public sphere. Agrippina, worried that her son's chances as Claudius' heir would be jeopardised, poisoned Claudius with a plate of mushrooms. Nero, as planned, became the next Emperor.
As Nero was only 16 at the time of his ascension to the throne, his mother acted as Regent. She clearly wanted to use him as a puppet for furthering her own gains, but Nero was more interested in the advice of Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect2. Agrippina grew sufficiently disgruntled to support Britannicus' claim for some time, but this rival was promptly poisoned, most likely at a dinner party hosted by Nero and on Nero's orders. Thus it was that Nero's claim was even more firmly established.
The positive influence of Burrus and Seneca resulted in five very stable and well-managed years; Nero appeared to have attained a level of popularity never managed by Claudius. But this didn't last long, as Nero soon came of age and struck out on his own.
Tigellinus and Poppaea
The first problems arose when Nero became infatuated with and carried on an affair with Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his friend Otho3. Nero was expressing his annoyance with his mother's constant intrusion in public affairs, and it was Poppaea who urged him to have her assassinated. After repeated attempts, including trying to have her 'accidentally' drowned and hiring alleged 'robbers' to attack her, Agrippina the Younger was finally killed in 59.
In 62, Burrus died and Seneca retired; the new Praetorian Prefect was a man called Tigellinus. Tigellinus had already been in trouble with Caligula for having affairs with some of the prominent ladies in the Imperial court and he proved to have a bad influence (or perhaps just a lack of restraint) on Nero. In the same year, Nero determined to have Octavia murdered so that he could marry Poppaea. This move was subject to widespread disapproval and without Seneca and Burrus to hush it up and put a more favourable spin on it, Nero's popularity declined sharply.
Nero was still young and impressionable. He needed experienced advisers who could assist him in the process of managing an empire. Tigellinus, however, only encouraged Nero to have fun. Nero's life soon came to be made up entirely of sexual exploits and public performances.
Nero the Artiste
Nero fancied himself an expert at the lyre and a talented actor and athlete. He often staged musical, dramatic or athletic contests in which he himself competed. He also required many senators to participate — something which became hugely unpopular. As in Shakespeare's time, performing was regarded as something that the 'proper' gentleman just wouldn't stoop to. So not only were Nero's performances frowned upon, it was with great reluctance and only in fear of their lives that the senators participated.
The particular problem was that Nero was in fact quite poor at all these diversions. Everyone, of course, told him that he was an excellent musician, but legend has it that the screeching of his lute caused pregnant women to begin labour, not to mention making several audience members deaf. When he attended the Olympics in 67, the Games were rigged so that he won a large number of awards, despite having fallen out of his chariot while competing in the chariot-racing event.
The Great Fire of Rome
Nero's next major disaster — and possibly his most famous — came in 64 with Rome's Great Fire. The fire, which burned for nine days, destroyed much of the city, especially the wooden structures inhabited by the working classes. It is said that 'Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned', but that expression in fact originates in the 17th Century — the Romans didn't play violins. However, the historians Suetonius and Tacitus report that, instead of taking charge and attempting to put a stop to the disaster, Nero stood on the roof of his palace and sang a song called 'The Capture of Troy'.
After the fire was finally contained, Nero appropriated a large section of land where all the buildings had burned down to build a gigantic, extravagant palace for himself. It was known as the Domus Aurea, or 'House of Gold'. The comparison of this palace to the simple commoners' housing (which had been rebuilt), in addition to Nero's apparent inactivity at the time of the fire, caused people to think that Nero had deliberately started the fire in order to gain land for his palace.
The scandal surrounding the fire brought with it a sharp decline in Nero's public approval. He attempted to win back favour by finding scapegoats on which to blame the fire: the Christians, who were at the time a small religious sect or cult, not unlike followers of ancient gods like Mithras or Isis. Christians were tortured and killed in huge numbers: they were crucified, burned alive or thrown to wild animals. All of these were public events watched by many people as a form of entertainment. Rumour has it that Nero once illuminated a night-time garden party with a bonfire of burning Christians.
The End of Nero's Reign
Nero revived the practice of treason executions and denunciations, meaning that upstanding citizens could be executed or forced to commit suicide on very little evidence. The end result was that anyone whom Nero took against would be sent a note asking him to kill himself, this being considered more honourable than public execution. Among those who killed themselves were Nero's former tutor, Seneca, and a senator called Gaius Calpurnius Piso, who had actually been involved in a plot to overthrow Nero. Many war heroes, senators and other upstanding citizens and their families met their ends this way.
There was also a food shortage in Rome which Nero did nothing to prevent — he was in Greece at the time, competing in the Olympics and showing off his musical 'talent'. He was now unpopular with the upper and working classes alike and the forced suicide of the incredibly popular general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo did nothing to improve matters. Revolts were springing up elsewhere in the Empire and it was becoming difficult to keep the peace.
In 68 AD things came to a head, as a Spanish Roman called Servius Sulpicius Galba announced that he would depose Nero. He paid off the Praetorian Guard who subsequently defected to his side; the Senate, seeing where the military power was now located, thought it safe to declare Nero a public enemy. Nero finally got the message that he was hated and on 9 June his secretary helped him to kill himself. His last words were Qualis artifex pereo!, translated as 'What an artist the world loses [with my death]!'
Nero had not named a successor; in any case, Rome was in too much turmoil for the rules to be observed. A quick succession of Emperors came to the throne in 68: first Galba, who had instigated the revolt; then Otho, Poppaea's former husband; and then Vitellius before Vespasian established control. Vespasian proved to be a competent ruler, but the Augustan Age was gone and, although Rome would encounter many lunatics and self-centred men like Caligula and Nero, and indeed some relatively intelligent rulers such as Claudius, it would never return to the Republic that Augustus had promised.