Imagine, for a moment, that you could travel backwards through time and give your sixteen year old self the powers of a God. Imagine placing the lives and fates of millions into your trembling teenage hands. Would the result be a happier world, a utopia? Or would the result be catastrophe for everyone involved, including your younger self? In October, 54 AD, the Roman Empire made this little thought experiment a terrifying reality. They elevated an emotionally unstable 16 year old boy to the position of emperor. That boy’s name? Nero.
The last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Nero transformed the greatest empire the world had ever seen into a playground for his darkest desires. He had his own mother murdered, ordered Christians burned alive for entertainment, and indulged in perversions so shocking they’d make the Marquis de Sade blush. Yet he died beloved by Rome’s commoners, and convinced he was the greatest artist who had ever lived. Join us today as we investigate the life of the most infamous Roman of all.
If you were to take a quick glance at the background of Nero, you might assume the emperor had a childhood of unparalleled luxury.
Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on December 15, 37 AD, Nero was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: AKA the dudes who had been ruling Rome for decades.
His mother, Julia Agrippina –commonly known as Agrippina the Younger – was a direct descendant of the first emperor, Augustus. His uncle was the current emperor, Caligula. His great-uncle was Claudius.
But while that might sound like a ticket to life on Roman easy street, Nero’s mother Agrippina could have told him differently. The Julio-Claudians enjoyed nothing more than fratricide.
The rot had started way, way back when Agrippina herself was just a girl, growing up with her brother Caligula.
As you’ll know if you’ve already watched our Caligula video, Agrippina’s dad was a popular general who was in line for the imperial throne. So, naturally, Agrippina’s adopted grandfather, the emperor Tiberius, had him poisoned in 19 AD.
It was just the first in a long line of Julio-Claudian family murders.
Jump ahead to 37 AD. Tiberius is dead and Agrippina’s brother Caligula inherits the throne.
At first, things were fine. It was during this period of calm Agrippina gave birth to Nero.
But then Caligula had one of his trademark cuckoo moments and decided Agrippina was plotting to kill him. So he took all her property and banished her to a tiny island where she could have no contact with her son.
Dumped with a random aunt, young Nero was forced to make do with a dancer as a tutor.
If that sounds actually kinda OK, jut know that dancers, actors and poets were considered the lowest of the low in Roman society, no better than prostitutes.
It seems likely Nero’s aunt felt there was no point wasting good money on a boy who might not live long anyway.
Knowing Caligula’s paranoia, it’d be a miracle if Nero reached his fifth birthday.
Thank Jupiter, that miracle happened.
On 24 January, 41 AD, the elite Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula, stabbing him to death outside the Palatine Games. They then marched straight to Claudius and declared him the new emperor.
There was a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment at the start of this video where we mentioned that Claudius was Nero’s great uncle.
Well, that meant Agrippina was Claudius’s niece.
And, unlike Tiberius or Caligula, Emperor Claudius was all about not killing his relatives.
No sooner had Claudius taken the throne then he recalled Agrippina from her exile.
At last reunited with her son Nero, Agrippina swore she would never again be left at the mercy of her cruel and capricious relatives. That meant getting her wealth back. That meant building her own powerbase.
But how was a penniless widow meant to do that in a patriarchal society like Rome?
You leave that to Agrippina.
First, Agrippina pressured her uncle to find her a husband, so Claudius forced a consul to marry her.
Next, Agrippina poisoned that consul and inherited all his wealth.
Then came 48 AD, and Claudius’s execution of his wife. Barely was her body cold than Agrippina was seducing the emperor’s advisor and giving him an excellent plan. Why didn’t Claudius just marry Agrippina?
The proposal was dressed up as a way of uniting the two Julio-Claudian branches and ending fratricides once and for all.
But really, it was just an excuse for Agrippina to get closer to power while Claudius got to live out his creepy incest fantasies.
On January 1, 49 AD, Agrippina became empress. One year later, Claudius adopted her son, Nero.
In ten short years, Agrippina had taken herself and Nero from pariahs to the heart of imperial Rome. They had money, power.
But never forget that Agrippina was from a family that prided itself on killing useless members.
And what use did empress Agrippina now have for her uncle Claudius?
Where the Monster was Nurtured
Come 51 AD, all was not well in Rome’s imperial palace.
That same year, Agrippina had pressured Claudius into naming Nero his co-heir, alongside the emperor’s natural son Britannicus.
With Nero suddenly in line for half the throne, Claudius’s advisors were taking a closer look at him.
They didn’t like what they saw.
By now a teenager, Nero was a sulky, spoiled brat who would rather spend his time learning to play the lyre than learning how to rule.
Worse still, the boy was developing a cruel streak. One by one, people started to wonder if they might not have another Caligula on their hands.
Yet they were powerless to stop Agrippina building her son’s powerbase.
In 53 AD, Agrippina forced Nero into marriage with Claudia Octavia, a daughter of Claudius.
When we say “forced”, we really mean it. Claudia Octavia was being perused by another suitor at the time. Agrippina wrecked that courtship and drove the suitor to suicide.
Yet even this marriage of convenience wasn’t enough to convince Agrippina that she was safe, that another Caligula wouldn’t come along and drive her into poverty again.
The only way to do that would be to make herself answerable to no-one.
On 13 October, 54 AD, Emperor Claudius suddenly died.
Ancient sources speculate that Agrippina bribed the emperor’s taster and slipped him poisoned mushrooms. Whether that’s true or not, the results were the same.
Control of the empire went to Claudius’s heirs: Nero and Britannicus.
Or rather, it should have.
At the moment Claudius died, only Nero was old enough to be considered an adult. Britannicus was still a child, legally incapable of ruling.
So when Agrippina presented Nero alone to the Praetorian Guard and asked them to salute their new emperor, there was nothing Britannicus could do.
Aged only 16, Nero was elevated to sole ruler of the world’s most powerful empire.
Let’s take a second to imagine how Agrippina must have felt that day.
Against all the odds, she’d overcome a childhood of tragedy and an adulthood of exile to install herself at the heart of Rome.
She’d murdered her second husband. She’d manipulated and killed an emperor. And now her son was on the throne.
We hope Agrippina savored that moment. Really, we do. Because it wasn’t destined to last long.
Just as his mother had started to wonder if she really needed Claudius, the new Emperor Nero was starting to wonder if he really needed Agrippina.
Before long, Agrippina found herself being slowly pushed out the corridors of power.
Determined to fight, the wily murderess tried to ally herself with Britannicus, only for Nero to have his stepbrother poisoned.
Not long after, Agrippina was moved out the palace to a little villa on the outskirts of Rome.
Even the precious marriage she’d secured for Nero with Claudia Octavia was destroyed, as Nero took up instead with Poppaea Sabina.
As a last ditch effort, Agrippina made overtures to Nero’s cousin, suggesting they could depose the teenage emperor together.
But Agrippina’s luck had already run out.
In early 59 AD, Nero had Agrippina board a boat that was designed to sink and drown her. When she managed to survive the grueling swim to shore, her son simply ordered her stabbed to death.
It’s said that as she realized what was about to happen, Agrippina pointed at her womb and screamed “Stab me there, where the monster had been nurtured!”
Julia Agrippina died on March 23, 59 AD. After the news leaked out, Nero half-assedly tried to tell everyone it had been a suicide.
But no-one in Rome was under any illusions.
The young emperor had broken the greatest taboo, killing his own mother.
Claudius’s advisors had been wrong. Nero wasn’t the next Caligula.
He was something much, much worse.
The Artistic Emperor
You probably have a mental checklist prepared for the rest of this video.
Fiddling as Rome burns: check. Persecuting the Christians: check.
Well, don’t worry, we’ll get to those dubious highlights.
But before we tell you about Nero the Crazy Emperor, we’ve got to tell you about Nero the Insanely Popular Emperor.
That’s right: popular. For all his name may now be synonymous with decadence, Nero started his reign actually being quite a cool sorta dude.
Prior to Agrippina’s death, Nero had banned secret trials, cracked down on corruption, and handed powers back to the Senate.
He also slashed taxes, banned capital punishment, granted more rights to slaves, banned animal bloodsports, and tried to phase out gladiatorial combat and replace it with Greek wrestling.
So popular were these measures, the great emperor Trajan would later declare Nero’s first five years the greatest reign in Roman history.
Here we finally reach one of the contradictions surrounding Nero. Despite all the mad stuff he did, he was beloved by his subjects.
Nero had a common touch other Roman elites lacked. After his death, a whole generation of ambitious provincials would claim to be Nero’s heirs as a shortcut to popularity.
Why, then, do we only hear about the bad stuff?
Maybe because the common folk didn’t write the histories. Neither did the ambitious provincials, but the monied, Roman elite.
And those guys couldn’t stand the way Nero debased his office.
The issue was that, unlike Augustus, Tiberius, or Caligula, Nero had never wanted to be emperor. It was Agrippina who had schemed him into the palace, into power.
The other reluctant emperor, Claudius, had at least been old enough to understand the responsibilities of office.
Nero was young enough to understand the responsibilities of office could kiss his Roman ass.
Not long after Agrippina’s death, Nero talked openly about giving up the throne to become a full time poet.
But the power that came with being a living God was simply too much fun, so instead Nero began to live an artist’s life parallel to his imperial one.
The young emperor spent his spare time partying in brothels, carousing with actors, hanging out with lowlifes. He liked to get drunk and appear onstage in theaters, sometimes in female roles.
Remember: the Romans thought artists were lower than sex workers. Seeing Nero indulge his artistic side for them was like seeing the Queen of England dance naked for cash in an Amsterdam brothel.
Although given what happened next, a better monarchial comparison might be Henry VIII.
In 62 AD, Nero’s mistress Poppaea Sabina became pregnant. Since Nero was still married to the popular Claudia Octavia, this caused a scandal.
So Nero divorced Claudia and banished her into exile, an underhand move that was about to get even more underhanded.
When the people of Rome protested her banishment, Nero had his ex-wife murdered.
It was the second time he’d killed a close relative and, just as with Agrippina, Nero vaguely made out like it had been a suicide.
In reality, it was yet another bloodstain on the artist-emperor’s hands.
It wouldn’t be the last.
Let the Mother Burn
By July 18, 64 AD, Emperor Nero’s initial popularity was in terminal nosedive.
The same year Nero had Claudia murdered, the Praetorian Guard prefect Burrus had died. A natural moderate, he’d kept the emperor’s darkest desires in check.
So what did Nero do? He replaced him with a guy called Tigellinus who thought the best thing the emperor could do with his dark desires was let them loose.
That meant orgies. Bloody purges of the elite. Even fewer hecks given about respecting the office of emperor.
Come that hot July of 64 AD, the people of Rome were fed up with their emperor and ready to believe anything about him.
Into this tinderbox of resentment came a very real spark.
The causes of the Great Fire of Rome are lost to history. All we know is that, on July 18, a conflagration swept through the Eternal City.
At the time, Rome was a collection of wooden shacks that had been thrown up without any central plan. So when the inferno got going, it really got going.
The fire burned for a week. By the time it fizzled, three of the city’s districts had been destroyed, and the imperial palace itself had been damaged.
And what was Emperor Nero doing while all this destruction took place?
That’s absolutely… Wrong.
Yep, the one thing everyone knows about Nero, that he fiddled as Rome burned, turns out to be total bunk. Nero wasn’t even in the city at the time.
Far from regarding the fire as a source of amusement, Tacitus tells us Nero raced back to the Rome and spearheaded the relief efforts. He even let hundreds of those left homeless by the disaster stay in the imperial palace.
This kinda raises the question: why do we all think Nero fiddled as Rome burned?
Two reasons. One involves a building, the other a Jewish cult.
Let’s tackle the building first. Once the fire was over, Nero pledged to rebuild Rome grander than before. In most respects, he succeeded, constructing a new city with streets wide enough to hinder future fires.
However, he also decided to build a massive palace atop the rubble. A palace that included a 120ft tall statue of himself.
For a Roman public that was already leaning anti-Nero, this was too much.
Rumors started to swirl that Nero had set the fire himself, specifically so he could build his stupid palace. Panicked, Nero decided he needed to find someone else to blame fast.
His chosen scapegoats were a Jewish sect known as the Christians.
In 64 AD, Rome’s Christians were a small cult, comprising of non-citizens, refugees, and Greek-speaking outsiders.
Like foreigners, refugees, and immigrants sadly discover all too frequently, that made them perfect targets.
On Nero’s orders, prominent Christians were tortured until they confessed to starting the fire. Nero then set about having all of them rounded up and gruesomely executed.
Unlike the tale of the Nero fiddling, all the stories you’ve heard about his torture of the Christians are true.
Christians really were torn apart by wild animals. Nero really did have them burned alive to illuminate his garden parties.
Perhaps it’s no wonder early Christians came to seriously hate Nero. There’s a theory that the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation was meant to symbolize the emperor.
But it wasn’t just the Christians who disliked Nero’s persecution.
The extreme tortures inflicted were disturbing even by Roman standards. In the Senate and the Praetorian Guard, people began to whisper to one another that maybe things were getting out of hand. That it was time to get rid of their arsonist emperor.
They hadn’t counted on just how hard to kill Nero would turn out to be.
The Horrors of Love
When people want to prove just what a monster Nero was, they usually point to his actions in 64 AD: allegedly letting Rome burn, and actually slaughtering the Christians.
Really, they should point to the emperor’s antics the following year.
If 64 AD was Nero at his most misunderstood, 65 AD was Nero at his psychotic peak.
It started when the Senate plot against Nero was discovered. What followed was a purge that saw 23 conspirators forced to commit suicide, among them the philosopher Seneca.
But if 23 dead doesn’t sound so bad, know that this was just the warm up act.
In the wake of the conspiracy, Nero brought back the treason trials that had been such a feature of Tiberius and Caligula’s rules.
Kangaroo courts that convicted and executed people on a whim, the treason trials were infamous for being an underhand way for the emperor to get rid of anyone he didn’t like. And Nero in 65 AD had an enemies list longer than War and Peace.
Yet even this bloodshed doesn’t compare to Nero’s cruelest act that year.
At some point that summer, Nero got in a blazing row with his wife, Poppaea Sabina. Remember her? The mistress who got pregnant, causing Nero to murder his previous wife?
Well, Poppaea probably should have realized that ordering your wife’s assassination isn’t a great sign of mental stability.
According to Tacitus, Nero, mad with rage, kicked Poppaea to death. The poor girl was pregnant at the time, and Nero made sure to aim his vicious kicks at her swollen stomach.
In the aftermath of this brutal double murder, Nero went insane.
He had Poppaea stuffed and embalmed and her corpse deposited in a mausoleum so he could visit it whenever he wanted.
Freakier still, Nero caught sight of a 13 year old boy a few weeks later who was the spitting image of his murdered wife.
Known as Sporus, this unlucky boy was kidnapped by Nero’s men and castrated. Nero then forced Sporus to dress in clothes belonging to the dead Poppaea, and married him in a bizarre service.
After that, Sporus could be seen, dressed and acting like the dead empress, sat at Nero’s side as the deranged emperor kissed and fondled him.
If this wasn’t already creepy enough, Nero himself took to wearing a Poppaea mask when he performed onstage, embodying the girl whose life he’d so viciously snatched away.
Yet even as he drifted into Norman Bates territory, Nero didn’t lose his common touch.
The next year, 66 AD, he left on a tour of Rome’s eastern provinces, effectively giving himself a year’s break from running the empire.
But rather than react to this creepy murderer the way the elites in Rome had, those in the east acted like Nero was an ancient rock star.
The thing was, Nero knew how to play a crowd.
In Greece, he dressed like an ascetic, with bare feet and flowing hair, and took an active interest in the country’s new religions.
Wherever he went, he granted towns “free city” status, ensuring the inhabitants celebrated him.
He was so popular that he even took part in the Olympic Games. Unsurprisingly, he won every event he entered.
It seems Nero himself felt being in the east was a form of freedom. He began appearing on stage more and more, often playing the roles of pregnant women. When word got back to Rome, upper society was more scandalized than ever.
But Nero was wrong if he thought he could just keep violating norms and doing whatever the hell he felt like.
The emperor didn’t know it yet, but his days on this earth were already numbered.
“What an Artist Dies in Me”
In early 68 AD, Nero sent an order to the governor of Gaul, a guy called Vindex, telling him to raise local taxes.
It was just one of many such orders Nero was in the habit of sending out to fund his lavish lifestyle. But this time something was different.
Nero didn’t know it, but Vindex was at breaking point.
Fed up with endlessly having to raise taxes on Gaul, Vindex snapped when he saw Nero’s latest demand. He took up arms and declared himself in rebellion against the emperor.
But then he did a funny thing. He declared allegiance to the popular governor of Spain, a guy named Galba.
This was funny because Galba was very much not in rebellion. When he heard of Vindex’s declaration, he freaked out and declared himself for Nero.
But just hearing Vindex mention Galba was enough to send Nero’s paranoia into overdrive. He had both men declared enemies of Rome.
Realizing he was doomed either way, Galba went “ah, screw it” and declared he was in rebellion after all.
Unfortunately for Nero, a popular governor leading a rebellion was exactly the news Rome had been waiting for.
As news of Galba’s revolt hit, the Praetorian Guard came out in support of him. As did the Senate. As did a huge swathe of the army.
As did… well, everyone.
On the night of June 9, 68 AD, Nero woke up to find his palace empty. Sensing the end was near, everyone had deserted the emperor.
As Nero ran through the empty, cavernous rooms, he screamed first for help, and then for someone to kill him.
When no voices came in reply, Nero is said to have wailed “have I neither friend nor foe?”
But the emperor was wrong.
He had plenty of foes.
Across the city, the Senate had called an emergency meeting. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, they declared Nero an enemy of Rome and dispatched soldiers to finish him off.
But Nero was no longer in his palace.
Accompanied by a handful of slaves and one freedman, Nero had fled to a darkened villa four miles outside the Eternal City.
Had he been able to make it to the east of the empire, where he was still popular, he may have stood a chance.
But that chance slipped through his fingers, and now there was only one way this could end.
As the soldiers closed in on his hiding place, Nero is said to have started muttering to himself “what an artist dies in me!” He demanded his slaves kill him, but to no avail.
Finally, with the soldiers right outside and dawn finally breaking, Nero snatched a dagger from someone and plunged it deep into his own throat. The soldiers stormed in to find the emperor knelt on the floor, his tunic soaked with blood.
With what we imagine must have been an unhinged grin on his face, Nero supposedly delivered one last, immortal line to the men sent to kill him:
Emperor Nero died that morning, unloved and alone, a pariah to his people.
With his death, the Julio-Claudian line that had ruled Rome since it became an empire was snuffed out. The fratricidal family that had given the world the highs of Augustus and the lows of Caligula would produce no more emperors.
But if anyone was expecting Nero’s death to herald an era of stability, they were in for a rude awakening.
In the wake of Nero’s suicide, Galba was made emperor. But he ruled a mere six months before being assassinated.
Galba’s death would plunge the empire into chaos. 69 AD would see four emperors come and go before the dust settled and Vespasian claimed the throne.
But all of that is for another video. What of Nero? What of the man we came here to discuss?
Although he’s infamous today as the most decadent emperor, you could argue that Nero wasn’t the worst.
Sure, he did some terrible, inhuman things. But even his cruelest acts weren’t the outright sadism of Caligula, as much as they were the lashings out of an angry teenage boy who never mentally grew up.
It’s true that Nero was a nasty man and an unhinged pervert. But it’s also true that his badness is sometimes exaggerated. He never fiddled while Rome burned. The first years of his rule were even something of a golden age.
While it’s fitting that we remember the awful, vicious side of Nero, it’s also worth remembering that history is more nuanced than it often appears.
Nero was deranged, but hopefully in our video today we’ve shown there was more to him than simply being Rome’s crazy emperor.
BBC In Our Time Nero special: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0004cp7
Pisonian Conspiracy: https://historycollection.co/pisonian-conspiracy-beginning-end-emperor-nero/
Nero as an artist: https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/nero-s-poems-0170000