At only sixteen years old, Nero was the youngest emperor to date, succeeding his step-father Claudius in 54 AD. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, intended to rule Rome through her son, with the coins issued in the first years of his reign bearing her face rather than Nero’s. When Agrippina’s influence quickly became overshadowed by that of Nero’s tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca and the Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afrianus Burrus, Agrippina threatened to form a faction against her own son to champion Britannicus, Nero’s step-brother. In response, Nero was prompted to poison Britannicus at a dinner and organise a ship-wreck to kill Agrippina. Unfortunately, Nero’s wives were treated no better than his first two victims. It has been said that Nero killed his first wife, Claudia Octavia and presented her decapitated head to his second, Poppaea Sabina, who he allegedly proceeded to kick to death after an argument (although modern historians have since brought to question how eyewitnesses could have been present at the event).
The Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD is perhaps the event that is most inextricably bound to Nero’s reputation, as the account of the mad Emperor singing ‘The Sack of Troy’ in full costume while the city burned has since become legendary. Although Nero’s immediate use of the space the fire left behind to build his Domus Aurea (Golden Palace) was upheld by Suetonius as being indicative of a motive to accuse him of ordering the fire himself, this has since been considered an unlikely premise. In fact, Tacitus doesn’t only suggest that the fire could well have been an accident, but even describes Nero immediately returning to Rome from Antium to organise a relief effort, personally searching for victims through the debris and opening his palace up to the homeless. However, before I fall into the trap of presenting too benign an impression of Nero, his subsequent scapegoating of the early Christian community for starting the fire was particularly cruel, as he subjected them to being eaten alive by wild animals, crucified and even set alight to be used as candles.
Nero’s reign oversaw a number of provincial rebellions and threats of war to put his foreign policy to the test, including Boudicca’s uprising in Britain, a Jewish revolt in Judaea and a war with Parthia over the succession to the Armenian throne. Although these foreign conflicts were successfully resolved, Nero’s most significant threats throughout his reign came from the Senate, who increasingly viewed him as despotic and tyrannical. The so-called Pisonian conspiracy in 65 AD was led by the eponymous Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who intended to have the Emperor assassinated and then be escorted to the Praetorian Camp to become proclaimed Emperor by the new Praetorian Prefect, Faenius Rufus, a collaborator in the conspiracy. Although it was exposed and the participants either killed or exiled, the hatred directed towards Nero from the ruling classes persisted, reached a climax when Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis joined forces with Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, and marched their legions onto Rome. The wheels were set in motion for Nero’s death.
In 68 AD, amid the loss of support from the Praetorian Guard, Nero fled Rome with a small entourage of ex-slaves to a friend’s villa. There, upon hearing that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, Nero ordered a grave to be dug for him and killed himself. His last words of ‘qualis artifex pereo’ (‘what an artist dies in me’), alluded to his proclivity for singing and public performance that earned him the ire of Roman elite. With Nero dead, the Julio-Claudian family was finally exhausted after 85 years of supremacy, and with it went dynastic stability. With the support of the Praetorian Guard, the aforementioned Servius Sulpicius Galba became Emperor, kickstarting the infamous Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) in which Galba, Otho and Vitellus each rose to and fell from power amid a chaotic series of civil wars until order was finally restored by Vespasian and the establishment of the Flavian dynasty.
Although Suetonius and Cassius Dio both describe general rejoicing and Roman citizens running through the streets wearing liberty caps, there is too much evidence that Nero was immensely popular amongst the Roman people for these accounts to be taken at face value. For one thing, two of the four Emperors who reigned in the tumultuous year that followed Nero’s death, Otho and Vitellus, made deliberate efforts to restore the memory of Nero, with the former re-erecting many of his statues, and the latter commencing his reign with an elaborate funeral for him. Such efforts would only have been worthwhile within the context of the civil wars of 69 AD if Nero’s memory was sufficiently popular to generate support amongst the common people.
So popular was the memory of Nero amongst swathes of the Roman population, in fact, that a legend that he had not died and would return surfaced shortly after his death and was taken advantage of by at least three impostors. Having said this, beloved as Nero was amongst the lower-classes and the Eastern provinces, he was reviled and despised by the Senate and the upper-classes. Even more so was he loathed by the contemporary Christian community for his cruelty against them, a hatred which was preserved in the scholarship of Christian theologians’ centuries later, some of whom even retrospectively considered him to be the Beast from the Book of Revelation, with the code 666 supposedly being a cryptic reference to his name.