NERO (54 - 68 AD)



For the first five years of of his reign, Nero's excesses were kept in check by his mother, and his advisers. After arranging for the murder of his mother Agrippina, he was able to indulge his desires to the full - a fire in Rome may not have been started on his orders, and almost certainly not by the Christians, but he used the opportunity to persecute members of the latest eastern cult to establish itself in Rome, and build a magnificent palace (the Domus Aurea) for himself. His increasingly erratic behaviour led first to an attempted coup, and finally to a successful one, by the veteran Galba. Nero committed suicide.


Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus: born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus at Antium in AD 37, son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, consul in AD 32, and Agrippina, sister of Caligula, who then married Crispus Passienus and, later, in AD 49, her uncle Claudius. Became emperor in AD 54. Married [1] Octavia, daughter of Claudius; [2] Poppaea Sabina (one daughter, Claudia Augusta, who died in infancy); [3] Statilia Messalina. Committed suicide 9 June AD 68.

Nero was artistic, sporting, brutal, weak, sensual, erratic, extravagant, sadistic, bisexual - and latterly almost certainly deranged. He was 16 when his mother secured for him the office of emperor, by having him presented to the troops as their candidate and by promising what was now the customary bonus. Shortly afterwards the only other possible contender, Claudius’s son Britannicus, was dead, almost certainly poisoned. During the early years of his reign, Nero was kept in hand by his tutor, the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and by Africanus Burrus, praetorian prefect, who between them managed to persuade him to withdraw, and forget, a proposal to abolish all indirect taxation. They also averted attempts by Agrippina to exert imperial influence, until Nero took as his mistress Poppaea, wife of Marcus Salvius Otho, whom Nero now dispatched to be governor of Lusitania.


Agrippina. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

Agrippina sided with Nero’s wife, Octavia. Nero retaliated with a series of grotesque attempts to murder his mother, including the construction of a collapsible boat, which was meant to deposit her in the Bay of Naples. She swam ashore. Finally, in AD 59 he sent a man to her house, who clubbed and stabbed her to death.

Nero as Apollo

Wall painting from one of five dining rooms in a first-century AD luxury inn at Moregine, believed to have been built for Nero. This figure of Apollo with a lyre has a face which may be intended to be his. When Nero sang in public, accompanying himself on the lyre, no-one was allowed to leave the auditorium. There are tales of women giving birth during a Nero recital, and of men pretending to die and being carried out as if to burial. (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus)

Burrus died in AD 62. When Seneca retired soon afterwards, Nero became totally subject to corrupt and evil advisers, and indulged to the exclusion of everything else his passions for sport, music, preposterous parties, and murder. Having divorced Octavia in AD 62 and then had her executed on a trumped-up charge of adultery, he married Poppaea, now divorced, and then kicked her to death, it is said when she complained at his coming home late from the races.

Poppaea (?)

Marble bust, c. AD 54 - 68, believed to be of Poppaea. She is said to have been a “god-fearer”, a Jewish worshipper who attended synagogue services without being a full proselyte, and to have intervened with Nero in favour of a deputation of priests from Jerusalem. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

In AD 64 fire ravaged Rome for six days on end, leaving only four of its fourteen districts undamaged. An unauthenticated report that Nero sang and played his lyre while the city burned made people suspicious of the relief measures he initiated. Nor was faith in his motives increased when he used a vast tract of land razed by the fire on which to build his “Golden Palace”, a huge luxury complex set in rambling pleasure gardens designed for his amusements.

Domus Aurea

Reconstruction of the domed octagonal hall built for Nero’s new palace. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1970)

When rumours of arson surfaced again, Nero, looking around for scapegoats, found them in members of the latest religious sect, Christianity, many of whom were rounded up and torn to death by dogs or crucified as a public spectacle.

In AD 65 there was a genuine conspiracy to assassinate Nero; when it was discovered there was terrible retribution in which Seneca and his nephew, the poet Lucan, died. People whom Nero suspected, or disliked, or who merely aroused the jealousy of his advisers were sent a note ordering them to commit suicide.

Finally the tide of organized revolt gathered pace. In AD 68, one of the governors in Gaul, Gaius Julius Vindex, himself Gallic-born, withdrew his oath of allegiance to the emperor and encouraged the governor of northern and eastern Spain, Galba, a hardened veteran of 71, to do the same. Vindex’s troops were suppressed by legions who marched in from Germany, and Vindex committed suicide.

Galba, having informed the senate that he was available if required to head a government, waited. The senate, obviously relieved that someone else was prepared to take responsibility, declared Nero a public enemy and sentenced him to death by flogging. Nero thought of flight, dithered, and then killed himself with the help of his secretary.


Bust of Nero, with half-beard. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Nero graffito

Graffito! Caricature of Nero signed “Tullius Romanus, soldier”, found in the substructures of the imperial residence on the Palatine Hill. (From Rodolfo Lanciani, The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome 1897: VRoma: Barbara McManus)


Nero, a digital reconstruction. (Richard Sebring)


Pen portrait of Nero

“He was of average height, fair-haired, with features that were pretty rather than handsome, weak blue eyes, a fat neck, pot belly, skinny legs, and a body which smelt and was covered with spots. . . . He was so insensitive about his appearance that he used to wear his hair in rows of curls, and when he was on his Greek trip he let it grow down his back. He usually appeared in public in a dressing-gown without a belt, a scarf round his neck, and no shoes.” (Suetonius, Nero 51)

Believe it or not:

When, after the great fire in Rome, Nero had residential areas rebuilt at his own expense to a proper grid pattern, with broad streets and open spaces, people complained that they missed the cool shade of the old, narrow alleys and the towering, ramshackle apartment blocks.