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Emperor Nero

Updated on September 18, 2017

Nero, or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (his name before it was changed to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus following his adoption by Claudius), (37-68 CE), the last Juilo-Claudian ruler of Rome, has quite a reputation and there are many rumors swirling about who he was what he may have done. There is some basis in truth for some of these rumors, but there are also many which are completely fabricated.

He did have his own mother, Agrippina the Younger, executed five years into his rule, even though it is thought that she may have been a major influence in his rise to power and contributed much to how Rome was governed for the first years of his rule.

Agrippina, the sister of Caligula, was a ruthless woman, marrying her own uncle, Claudius, for power, convincing him to adopt her son, and taking measures to ensure her power, and later that of her son’s power, had little competition ( Scramuzza (1940) pp. 91–92. See also Tac. Ann. XII 6, 7; Suet. Claud. 26.; Tacitus, Annals XII.25). She managed to convince Claudius to name Nero as his heir, rather than his own son, and it was only later that he had second thoughts about it. He began to prepare his own son, Brittanicus, for the throne. It was around this time that many historical sources claim that Agrippina poisoned Claudius, making it easy for Nero to rise to power(Tacitus, Annals XII.66; Cassius Dio, Roman History LXI.34; Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Claudius 44; Josephus is less sure, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.8.1).

Nero himself preferred to promote culture, raising taxes on the middle and upper class in order to build theatres and hold athletic competitions.

He attempted to give the Apameans a tax reprieve after they suffered an earthquake, and to Bologna, a colony in the north, after a fire (Osgood, Josiah (2011). Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88181-4.).

On July 18 or 19, 64, the Great Fire of Rome began. Some believe the fire was planned so that Nero would have room to build the Domus Aurea (Suetonius • Vita Neronis". penelope.uchicago.edu.) It completely destroyed three districts and severely damaged another seven of the total fourteen roman districts (Scullard, H. H (2011). From the Gracchi to Nero: a history of Rome 133 B.C. to A.D. 68. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-58488-3.;Tacitus, Annals, XV.40).

Nero blamed Christians for the start of the fire, causing many to be executed. Whether he had reasons to believe this claim or whether it was to distract from the fact that he planned it, as some claim, is still a matter of debate.

To address the claim that Nero started the fire personally, there are accounts of Nero being in Antium at the time of the fire, and if this is true (as Tacitus claims it is), would disprove at least the accusation that he himself started the fire. Admittedly, this does not absolve him of the accusation that he planned the fire, only that he started it.

The other claim was that Nero played the fiddle, or violin, as the fire burned. This could not be true, as the fiddle was not invented until the 16th century, by which time Nero had been long dead, having committed suicide in 68 CE.

After the fire, Nero did personally fund a relief effort, with some sources claiming that he personally spent time sifting through debris looking for victims of the fire. He did shelter people left homeless by the fire in his palace, and provided food to the survivors (Tacitus, Annals, XV.39)

He rebuilt the areas the fire impacted with brick and further distance between domiciles (Tacitus, Annals, XV.43). He did construct his Domus Aurea through the imposition of tributes on Roman provinces Tacitus, Annals, XV.45).

The accusations are serious and disturbing, but it begs the question, if Nero was so hated and so evil, why was he so popular among common people and the military (Tacitus, Histories I.5.)? Shouldn’t these groups have been celebrating his death along with the nobility? A belief, called the Nero Redivivus Legend, spread that Nero never actually died and people began waiting for his return (Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Nero 57; Tacitus, Histories II.8; Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVI.19). This belief prevailed for hundreds of years, and there were at least three people claiming to be Nero reborn, who were subsequently revealed and executed.

© 2017 Heather Carlson

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