The Life of Nero by Suetonius

Executive summary

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD. He was the fifth Roman emperor and the final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, reigning from 54 AD until his suicide in 68, aged just 33.

He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, one of the daughters of Germanicus and sister to the emperor Gaius (Caligula). After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Germanicus’ brother Claudius – who was Agrippina’s uncle – took the throne. Claudius took his niece as his fourth wife in 49 AD.

A year later Claudius was persuaded by Agrippina to adopt her son, Lucius Domitius, and make him his heir. Nero was 13 when he was adopted. When Claudius died (in October 54) it was widely believed that Agrippina poisoned him to ensure her son succeeded to the throne before Claudius’s biological son by his third wife, Britannicus, came of age and presented a more natural successor. A year later, Nero had Britannicus murdered to secure his position.

Nero was 17 when he came to the throne. In the early years of his reign Nero was advised and guided by his mother Agrippina, his tutor Seneca the Younger, and his praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus and ruled moderately and well. But he soon sought to rule independently and to rid himself of restraining influences. His power struggle with his mother was eventually resolved when he had her murdered in 59. Both the murder of Britannicus and Agrippina have elements of farcical ineptitude (see below).

Nero was popular with the members of his Praetorian Guard and lower-class commoners in Rome and its provinces. He organised lavish games, he periodically gave money to the people, he carried out modernising building works. But he was deeply resented by the Roman aristocracy.

The historically closest sources we have – Suetonius in his Lives and Tacitus in his Annals – describe Nero as tyrannical, self-indulgent, and debauched. But then, they were all written under the aegis of the dynasty which succeeded the Julio-Claudians – the Flavians – and so, to some extent, represent propaganda for that dynasty with the aim of rubbishing the emperors which came before.

After his increasingly debauched, spendthrift and reckless rule alienated the aristocracy, Nero was declared a public enemy by the Roman Senate, and forced to flee Rome to a country estate where he committed suicide at the age of 33.

Nero’s death led to chaos as three military commanders vied for supremacy, in what came to be called the Year of Four Emperors, AD 69, the rivals being Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.

I’ve reviewed Suetonius’s biographies of the four emperors who preceded Nero, namely Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius and along the way given several summaries of Suetonius’s approach. This is to give a brisk overview of his subject’s biography before moving on to look at specific areas of the emperor’s person – his appearance, family history and relationships, personality, quotes, the omens which surrounded his birth and death, and much other gossip and scandal.

Suetonius’s life of Nero is 57 (short) chapters long. It can be divided into five sections or parts:

  • the first five chapters describe Nero’s male forebears among the Ahenobarbi family
  • chapters 6 to 19 describe ‘Nero’s less atrocious acts’, many actually deserving praise
  • then, at chapter 20, Suetonius lets rip and commences a lurid account of Nero’s ‘follies and crimes’
  • chapters 40 to 49 give a long drawn-out description of his moral collapse following the revolt in Gaul, his abandonment by servants and friends, his flight from Rome and suicide
  • 50 to 57 describe his funeral and the aftermath

Suetonius’s life of Nero

The first five chapters describe Nero’s make forebears from the Ahenobarbi family:

  • Nero’s great-great-great grandfather, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, when tribune of the commons in 104 BC, was enraged at the priests for choosing someone else as pontifex maximus, so he transferred the right of filling vacancies in the priesthoods from the colleges themselves to the people in the Tribal Assembly (the law was subsequently repealed by Sulla). Having defeated the Allobroges and the Arverni in his consul­ship, he rode through the province on an elephant, attended by a throng of soldiers, in a kind of triumphal procession
  • His son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (98 to 48 BC), when consul in 54 BC, tried to deprive Caesar of the command of the armies in Gaul. The senate appointed him to succeed Caesar as governor of further Gaul and when Caesar invaded Italy in 49, he was the only one of the aristocratic party who showed any energy or courage, organising the defense of Corfinium. When Corfinium was taken Caesar characteristically granted him clemency but he rejoined the aristocratic party. He was killed at the battle of Pharsalus and is mentioned in one of Cicero’s speeches as a principled example of the old Republic.
  • He left a son, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (died 31 BC) who was beyond all question better than the rest of the family. He was condemned among those involved in Caesar’s assassination and so went to join Brutus and Cassius. Upon their defeat he surrendered the republican fleet to Mark Antony. This Ahenobarbus successively held all the highest offices including consul in 32 BC. When the civil war between Augustus and Anthony broke out, he was appointed one of Antony’s lieutenants, but defected to Octavian just a few days before the decisive battle of Actium. Although Antony was upset by this betrayal, he still sent him all his gear, his friends and his attendants. (This incident is described in Plutarch’s Life of Anthony, chapter 63.) He died just a few days later.
  • Gnaeus had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (49 BC to 25 AD) who was later well known for being named in Augustus’ will as the purchaser of his goods and chattels. He won the insignia of a triumph in the war in Germany. He gave a gladiatorial games so cruel that Augustus admonished him. He married Antonia the Elder (niece of emperor Augustus) and had a son:
  • This man, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (2 BC to 41 AD) was widely hated: while on the staff of Gaius Caesar out East he murdered one of his own freedmen for refusing to drink as much as he ordered. In a village on the Appian Way, suddenly whipping up his team, he purposely ran over and killed a boy. In the Roman Forum he gouged out the eye​ of a Roman knight for being too outspoken in chiding him. When praetor he defrauded the victors in the chariot races of their prizes. Just before the death of Tiberius he was charged with treason, adultery and incest with his sister Lepida, but escaped owing to the change of rulers. Domitius married his first cousin once removed, Agrippina the Younger, Caligula’s sister, after her thirteenth birthday in 28. He was far older than her at the time. Tiberius arranged the marriage. Nine years later his son by Agrippina, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was born.

6. Nero was born at on 15 December 37, nine months after the death of Tiberius. When shown the baby his father is supposed to have remarked that ‘any child born to him and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger’. At the age of three Nero’s father died but his fellow heir Gaius seized all the property.

He had a troubled upbringing in this cursed family. First Gaius banished his mother so that young Domitius was brought up in relative poverty in the house of his aunt Lepida, who assigned him as tutors a dancer and a barber. But when Claudius became emperor, in 41, he restored to Nero his father’s legacy added to it, and recalled his mother from exile.

There is a widely attested legend that Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, came to regard the boy Nero as a rival to her own son, Britannicus, and so sent assassins to murder him, and that they were at the cradle when they were scared away by a snake which suddenly appeared from under his pillow. [A clear copy of the legend of Hercules strangling snakes as a baby.]

[After Claudius had Messalina executed, in 48 AD, for bigamously marrying the senator Gaius Silius and plotting against him, he proceeded to take this same Agrippina as his fourth wife, despite her being his niece, marrying her on New year’s Day 49. At this point Domitius became Claudius’s step-son and Agrippina persuaded Claudius to formally adopted him as his son and heir. This was when the boy was given an entirely new name, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.]

7. Domitius/Nero was ten years old when he was adopted by Claudius and assigned the senator and writer Annaeus Seneca as tutor. He almost immediately began a campaign to discredit Britannicus and his surviving relatives.

Nero entered public life aged just 14, reviewing march pasts of the army, pleading the cause of towns with cases before Claudius, appearing as a judge. When he turned 16 (in 53), Nero married Claudius’s daughter (i.e. his own step-sister), Claudia Octavia. He gave games and a beast-baiting in the Circus.

8. Nero was just 17 when the death of Claudius was announced. Most commentators think Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina because she was worried Britannicus would soon come of age and Claudius would change his mind and make his biological son heir. Nero was hailed emperor on the steps of the Palace, carried in a litter to the praetorian camp, made a brief address to the soldiers, and proceeded to the Senate House where he was awarded all manner of honours.

9. He started off with displays of filial duty, giving Claudius a magnificent funeral then paying the highest honours to the memory of his father Domitius. He left to his mother the management of all public and private business. He often rode with her through the streets in her litter. He curried favour with the Praetorian Guard, such a key player in Roman politics since it had been consolidated by Sejanus, by establishing a colony for them at Antium and building a harbour there at great expense.

10. Nero proclaimed he would model his rule on Augustus. He was conspicuously generous. He abolished some taxes and lowered others. popularity. He lowered rewards paid to informers. He distributed a largess of 400 sesterces to the commons and granted the poorest senators a salary. Like Augustus he had a good memory and greeted men of all ranks by name. Wise and popular moves.

11. Nero gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales,​ chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays and a gladiatorial show. He organised races for chariots drawn by four camels. At the Great Festival (Ludi Maximi) he organised a series of plays devoted to the eternity of the Empire.

12. At the gladiatorial show Nero had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he did compel 400 senators and 600 Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Some were forced to fight with the wild beasts or perform various services in the arena. He arranged a huge naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it. And numerous dances which were a kind of ballet based on legendary themes (the life of the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus).

He inaugurated the ‘Neronia’, a festival of competitions in music, gymnastics and horsemanship, modelled on the Greek ones. Nero recited his own poetry and was unanimously awarded the prize for oratory. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta he shaved his chin for the first time, to the accompaniment of a great sacrifice of bullocks, and put the wispy hairs in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it to the Capitoline Jupiter.

13. Suetonius describes the elaborate ceremonial surrounding the entrance of Tiridates, king of Armenia, into Rome and his obeisance before Nero on a sumptuously decorated platform and then again, in the Theatre. After which Nero to great applause closed the doors of the temple of Janus to signify that the whole empire was at peace.

14. Nero held four consul­ships.

15. Nero was secretive about deciding law cases, insisting on being given full written explanations of both sides of a case and retiring to consider them in private. He began to tamper with the constitution. He refused to admit the sons of freedmen to the senate. He began to appoint consuls for six months instead of the customary 12. He conferred the triumphal regalia even on men of the rank of quaestor, as well as on some of the knights, and sometimes for other than military services. When he sent speeches to be read to the senate he did so via consuls instead of the quaestors, as had been customary.

16. Nero introduced a new style of architecture to Rome, building porches out in front of houses and apartment blocks whose flat roofs allowed fires to be fought. He considered extending the city walls as far as the port of Ostia and to bring the sea from there to Rome by a canal.

During his reign many abuses were put down. Sumptuary laws limited private expenditures. Expensive public banquets were replaced by a distribution of grain. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition. He ended the licence afforded to chariot drivers, of being able to walk down the street cheating and robbing the people. All pantomime actors and their hangers-on were expelled from the city.

17. Nero made many legal reforms including promulgating protection against forgers, preventing will writers from adding clauses benefiting themselves, and that customers should pay a fixed and reasonable fee for the services of their lawyers.

18. Nero showed no interest in extending the bounds of the empire and considered withdrawing the army from Britain and only changed his mind because it would have diminished the memory of his adoptive father, Claudius. Two minor territorial extensions occurred when the kingdom of Pontus was ceded to Rome by its king, Polemon, and when part of the Alps reverted to Roman control on the death of its king, Cottius.

19. Nero planned two foreign tours but cancelled one to Alexandria after bad omens. He went to Greece where he proposed building a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, going so far as to breaking ground with a mattock and to carrying off a basket­ful of earth upon his shoulders before an audience of the Praetorian Guard. He also prepared for an expedition to the Caspian Gates, after enrolling a new legion of raw recruits of Italian birth, each six feet tall, which he grandly called ‘the phalanx of Alexander the Great.’

Chapter 20 marks a dividing point in the biography. Up to this point Suetonius had listed Nero’s respectable and positive achievements, many of which deserved praise. But from this point onwards, Suetonius announces that he will catalogue Nero’s ‘follies and crimes’.

Nero the performer

20. Nero enjoyed music. As soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest lyre-player of the day, made him perform over successive nights over dinner, and then began to take lessons. And perform the exercises required, namely: lying on his back with a slab of lead on his chest; using enemas and emetics to keep down his weight; refrained from eating apples and other fruits considered damaging to the health (!) Despite all this his voice remained weak and husky.

Nero made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake. He was impressed by the rhythmical clapping of crowds from Alexandria and commissioned some knights and 5,000 commoners to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause. They were divided into ‘the bees’ (who made a loud humming noise), ‘the roof-tiles’ (who clapped with hollow hands) and ‘the bricks’ (who clapped with flat palms). They were ordered to attend all Nero’s performances and applaud loudly after his performance. You could tell them by their thick hair, splendid dress, and the absence of rings on their left hands. The knights who led them were paid 400 gold pieces for each performance.

21. Nero repeated the Neronian games so he could sing at them. ​He arranged it so the crowd clamoured to hear him, dropped his name into the urn to take pot luck along with everyone else, but made sure he was called and then came forward, attended by prefects of the Praetorian Guard carrying his lyre, had an ex-consul announce him and then performed the song of Niobe until late in the afternoon.

He toyed with performing opposite professional actors in public shows. He did actually perform in tragedies, taking the parts of mortals and gods, sometimes even goddesses, wearing masks modelled on his own, or women’s masked based on his lover of the moment. He performed in ‘Canace in Childborth’, ‘Orestes the Matricide’, ‘The Blinding of Oedipus’ and the ‘Frenzy of Hercules’. There’s a story that , the last of these plays, a young recruit, seeing the emperor in rags and fetters, dashed forward to his assistance. [Like so many Roman anecdotes, a bit too good to be true.]

22. Nero was obsessed with horse racing from an early age and played with toys of chariots and horses. Once in power, he attended every race day and made no secret of his wish to have the number of races and prizes increased.

He desperately wanted to drive a chariot himself and, after practicing in the privacy of his own grounds, made a public appearance at the Circus Maximus (when one of his freedmen replaced the magistrate who usually took the job of dropping the napkin to start the race).

He went to Greece because all the cities which held musical competitions had swiftly adopted the sycophantic practice of awarding the emperor top prize. He declared that ‘the Greeks were the only ones who had an ear for music and that they alone were worthy of my efforts.’

So he took ship to Greece and immediately on arriving at Cassiope gave his first recital before the altar of Jupiter Cassius, and then went the round of all the contests.

23. During his visit to Greece Nero used his power to make the Greeks hold competitions between the usual intervals and introduced a musical competition into the Olympic Games. When his advisers told him he was needed back at Rome he angrily told them he had to remain performing in Greece until he had proved himself worthy of Nero.

No one was allowed to leave a theatre when Nero was performing. So Suetonius shares comic stories of women giving birth to children there, some secretly dropping down from the back wall, some even feigning death in order to be carried out. He sucked up to his rivals, praising them to their faces but badmouthing them behind their backs. When they were particularly good performers, he bribed them to sing badly. He addressed the judges in deferential terms but was surprisingly nervous before each performance.

24. Nero took the competitions very seriously, scrupulously observing the rules most scrupulously, never daring to clear his throat nor wipe the sweat from his brow with his arm (both actions which lost the competitor points). To obliterate the memory of all other victors in games​ he had their statues and busts taken down and placed in public lavatories.

Nero drove a chariot in many places. At Olympia he drove a ten-horse team, a novelty. He fell from the chariot, had to be helped back into it and failed to complete the course, but he received the prize just the same. The judges weren’t stupid. On his departure he presented the entire province with freedom​ and gave the judges Roman citizen­ship and money. He announced these gifts in in person during the Isthmian Games, standing in the middle of the stadium.

25. Arriving back at Naples, Nero ordered part of the wall to be razed so he could ride white horses through the gap, as was customary with victors in the sacred games.​ He entered Antium, then Albanum and finally Rome in the same manner. In Rome he rode in the same chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic wreath, the Pythian wreath in his right hand. Other wreaths were borne before him with placards describing where he won them, what he sang, who the competition was. He processed through the city to the cheers of the adoring crowd and the accompaniment of lavish sacrifices.

He placed the victor’s wreaths above the couches in his sleeping quarters and set up several statues of himself playing the lyre, and had a coin struck with the same image.

[What an extraordinary travesty and mockery of the military triumphs of the preceding centuries.]

In order to preserve his voice, Nero never addressed the soldiers except by letter or in a speech delivered by others, he never did anything for amusement or in earnest without a voice trainer by his side, to warn him to spare his vocal organs and hold a handkerchief to his mouth. He made friends or enemies according to how enthusiastically they applauded him.

Delinquent behaviour

26. Meanwhile, Nero performed his first acts of wantonness, lust, extravagance, avarice and cruelty in secret. Some might say boys will be boys, but this was the true Nero coming out.

When night fell, he took a cap or wig and went from tavern to tavern, roaming the streets performing pranks, but these weren’t harmless. He used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers. He broke into shops then sold the loot openly in the market. After he was beaten almost to death by a senator whose wife he had maltreated, he thenceforth had a squad of tribunes follow him at a distance and unobserved.

He attended the theatre in the upper part of the proscenium. When fights broke out on stage (fighting with stones and broken benches) Nero himself threw many missiles at the people and even broke a praetor’s head.

Lavish feasts

27. Slowly Nero’s decadent behaviour became more overt and entrenched. His feasts lasted from noon till midnight with breaks for a swim in a warm bath or, if it was summer, into snow-cooled water. Sometimes he drained the artificial lakes in the Campus Martius or the Circus and held banquets there, including prostitutes and dancing girls as guests.

Whenever he cruised down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, he had rows of temporary brothels set up along the shore, where married women, pretending to be inn-keepers, solicited him to come ashore. [This is the kind of story which seems superficially colourful but as soon as you think about the practicalities, seems wildly impractical.]

He forced his friends to hold lavish banquets: one friend spent 4 million sesterces on a banquet where everyone wore turbans were distributed, another spent even more on a rose dinner.

Sex

28. Not satisifed with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin, Rubria. Then he tried to marry the freed-woman Acte by bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth.

He tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castrating him and then went through a marriage ceremony with him, dowry, bridal veil and all, took him back to the palace attended by a huge crowd and lived with him as man and wife. This gave rise to a joke that the world would have been a better place if Nero’s father had taken that kind of wife.

Nero dressed this Sporus in all the finery of an empress and took him everywhere with him in his litter, kissing him openly in public.

It was no secret that he lusted after his mother. it was said that only her enemies held him back, fearing that she would gain such control over him that her power would be absolute. So Nero added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look just like Agrippina. Others said that they had incestuous relations whenever he rode in a litter with his mother; you could tell by the stains when he emerged.

29. Nero ran through every type of obscenity and invented new ones. He devised a game in which he dressed in the skin of wild animals, was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women who were bound to stakes. When he had worked himself up to a frenzy he was ‘finished off’ by his freedman Doryphorus.

In fact he got this Doryphorus to marry him, as he had married Sporus, and on their ‘wedding night’ imitated the screams and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered. Like perverts, abusers, wife beaters and misogynists everywhere, he thought all men were secretly just like him, but kept their vices hidden.

Extravagance

30. Nero believed money should be lavished on riotous extravagance. He thought it the mark of a true gentleman to waste and squander. He admired his uncle (his mother Agrippina’s brother, Gaius aka Caligula) because in less than four years he ran through the huge fortune it had taken Tiberius 30 years to amass.

He spent 8,000 gold pieces a day on King Tiridates and on his departure from Rome gave him more than a million. He gave the lyre-player Menecrates and the gladiator Spiculus houses and estates worthy of men who had celebrated triumphs. He was equally generous to the monkey-faced usurer Paneros and later on, had him buried with almost regal splendour.

Nero never wore the same garment twice. He staked 4,000 gold pieces on each throw of the dice. When he went fishing he used a golden net. It was said that he never made a journey with less than a thousand carriages. His mules were shod with silver and their drivers clad in wool from Canusium. He was attended by outriders with jingling bracelets and trappings.

Building works

31. Nero’s wastefulness was most on show in his architectural projects. He built a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called ‘The Passageway’. After it burned down, he had it rebuilt and named it the Golden House.

The entrance hall was large enough to hold a statue of himself 120 feet high. The triple-pillared colonnade ran for a mile. A huge lake was surrounded with buildings designed to represent entire cities and by a landscaped garden containing ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodland, where every type of domestic animal roamed at large.

Parts of the house were inlaid with gold and studded with precious jewels. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory. The panels could be drawn back to rain down dried flowers or perfume. The main banqueting hall was circular and its roof revolved day and night in time with the sky.

When this enormous luxury palace was completed he uttered some immortal words which can go down as the motto for every sybarite and decadent ever since: ‘Good. Now at last I can begin to live like a human being!’

He also began a covered bath, surrounded by colonnades, which stretched from Misenum to Lake Avernus. The plan was to divert all the hot springs in the Baiae region to feed it. Another grand project was to build a ship canal from Avernus all the way to Ostia, 160 miles long and wide enough for two quinqueremes to pass. Prisoners from all over the empire were to be brought in to build it.

He was led on to these wild extravagances by the promises of a Roman knight, who declared that the enormous wealth which queen Dido had taken with her in her flight from Tyre was hidden away in huge caves in Africa and could be easily recovered.

32. When this hope, inevitably, proved false, Nero found himself destitute, discovered that he didn’t even have enough money for the soldiers’ pay or veterans benefits. So he found himself forced to resort to false accusations and robbery. He increased taxes and excises. He seized the estates of anyone rich who died without leaving him enough in their will, and fined lawyers who wrote unsatisfactory wills.

Any man whose words or deeds left him exposed to accusation by an informer was accused of treason. He recalled the lavish gifts he had given to the Greek cities. He decoyed marketeers into buying amethystine or Tyrian dyes (both illegal under the sumptuary laws) then closed them all down and seized their goods. Once he spotted an aristocratic lady wearing this illegal colour at one of his recitals and had her dragged off, stripped off her clothes, but also of her estates.

When he appointed magistrates his instructions were simple: ‘You know my needs; let us leave no-one with any possessions.’ In the end he was forced to strip temples of their gifts and melted down the images of gold and silver, among them the household gods of Rome itself. (Galba, soon afterwards, had them all recast and restored).

Murdering Claudius

33. Claudius himself was the first victim of Nero’s murderous career, for even if Nero wasn’t directly involved in his uncle’s poisoning, he knew all about it, as he later admitted. For he used to mockingly praise mushrooms (the dish by which Claudius was poisoned) as ‘the food of the gods’. After the initial phase of filial duty was over, he took to openly insulting Claudius as stupid and cruel. He joked that he hoped Claudius wasn’t still ‘playing the fool’ in heaven. Nero annulled many of Claudius’s edicts on the ground that he was a doddering old idiot.

Murdering Britannicus

Nero attempted to poison Britannicus for two reasons: a) trivially, he was jealous that Britannicus’s voice was better than his b) he worried that, as he grew up, the people would come to prefer the natural son of Claudius to him, the adoptive one. The Suetonius gives what purports to be a detailed account of how Nero commissioned an arch-poisoner named Locusta to kill his half-brother and, when it didn’t work, flogged her with his own hand. He forced her to devise a stronger and stronger poison, which they tried on a goat – it took 5 hours to work, so he had her reduce it further, and try on a pig, which died on the spot.

That night at dinner Nero administered it to Britannicus who dropped dead at the very first taste. Nero assured the horrified guests that Britannicus was having an epileptic fit but the next day had him hastily buried in a pouring rainstorm, without any ceremony. He rewarded Locusta for her services with a large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils to study the art of poison.

Murdering Agrippina

34. The over-watchful, over-protective eye that his mother, Agrippina the Younger, shone on Nero eventually proved more than he could bear. At first he tried to intimidate her by threatening to retire to Rhodes (as his grandfather Tiberius had done 60 years earlier). He then deprived her of all honours, even of her Roman and German guard. He forbade her to live with him and drove her from the Palace.

He bribed men to annoy her with lawsuits while she remained in the city, and after she had retired to the country, to pass her house by land and sea and break her rest with abuse and mockery. At last, terrified by her violence and threats, he determined to have her life, and after thrice attempting it by poison and finding that she had made herself immune by antidotes, he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom, contriving a mechanical device for loosening its panels and dropping them upon her while she slept.

When this leaked out through some of those connected with the plot, he devised a collapsible boat, to destroy her by shipwreck or by the falling in of its cabin. Then he pretended a reconciliation and invited her in a most cordial letter to come to Baiae and celebrate the feast of Minerva​ with him. He then instructed his captains to wreck the galley in which she had come, by running into it as if by accident. So she had to return to Bauli in the craft he offered her. He saw her off in high spirits, then spent the night anxiously waiting for news.

When he learned that the ship had foundered, alright, but Agrippina had escaped by swimming, he had a dagger thrown down beside her freedman who had brought the news, and ordered that he had made an attempt on his life. The freedman was promptly arrested, tortured, admitted being part of a plot to assassinate the emperor, his mother was part of it, and so she too was executed, giving out that she had tried to assassinate him but then committed suicide when she learned the plan had failed. He is said to have travelled to her house and handled her limp limbs, assessing her looks, between swigs of wine.

However, her memory haunted him and gave him bad dreams. He told confidants that he was hounded by his mother’s ghost and by the whips and blazing torches of the Furies. He even had rites performed by Persian magicians, in an effort to summon her shade and entreat it for forgiveness.

Then he murdered his aunt, Domitia Lepida. He visited her when she was confined to her bed with constipation and ordered her doctors to poison her, seizing her property before she was cold, suppressing her will, that nothing might escape him.

Nero’s wives

35. Besides Octavia Nero later took two wives, Poppaea Sabina, daughter of an ex-quaestor and married to a Roman knight, and then Statilia Messalina. To take Statilia he had to murder her husband Atticus Vestinus while he held the office of consul.

He soon grew tired of living with Octavia. He made several attempts to strangle her, then divorced her on the ground of barrenness. This was unpopular, so then he banished her. And finally he had her put to death on a charge of adultery that was so shameless and unfounded, that even when her slaves were tortured they refused to validate it.

Nero dearly loved Poppaea, whom he married twelve days after his divorce from Octavia, yet he caused her death by kicking her when she was pregnant and ill, because she had scolded him for coming home late from the races.

There is no kind of relation­ship that he did not violate in his career of crime. He put to death Antonia, daughter of Claudius, for refusing to marry him after Poppaea’s death, charging her with an attempt at revolution. He treated in the same way all others who were in any way connected with him by blood or by marriage.

Among these was the young Aulus Plautius, whom he forcibly defiled before his death, saying ‘Let my mother come now and kiss my successor,’ implying that Agrippina had loved Plautius and that this had roused him to hopes of the throne.

Rufrius Crispinus, a mere boy, his stepson and the child of Poppaea, he ordered to be drowned by the child’s own slaves while he was fishing, because it was said that he used to play at being a general and an emperor.

He banished his nurse’s son Tuscus, because when procurator in Egypt, he had bathed in some baths which were built for a visit of Nero’s.

He drove his tutor Seneca to suicide, although when the old man often pleaded to be allowed to retire and offered to give up his estates, Nero had sworn most solemnly that he was wrong to suspect him and that he would rather die than harm him.

He sent poison to Burrus, prefect of the Guard, in place of a throat medicine which he had promised him. The old and wealthy freedmen who had helped him first to his adoption and later to the throne, and aided him by their advice,​ he killed by poison, administered partly in their food and partly in their drink.

36. Two conspiracies against Nero’s life were uncovered. The earlier and more dangerous of these was that of Piso at Rome; the other was set on foot by Vinicius at Beneventum. The conspirators made their defence in fetters, some voluntarily admitting their guilt, some saying they were doing a favour to man so steeped in evil as Nero. The children of those who were condemned were banished or put to death by poison or starvation: a number are known to have been murdered all together at a single meal along with their tutors and attendants.

37. After this Nero showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whoever he pleased on any pretext whatever. Salvidienus Orfitus was charged with having let to certain states as headquarters three shops which formed part of his house near the Forum; Cassius Longinus, a blind jurist, with retaining in the old family tree of his house the mask of Gaius Cassius, the assassin of Julius Caesar; Paetus Thrasea with having a sullen expression.

To those ordered to die he never granted more than an hour’s respite, and to avoid any delay, he brought physicians who were ordered to ‘attend to’ such as lingered – that was the phrase he used for killing them by opening their veins.

Puffed up by success, Nero boasted that no prince had ever known the power he, Nero, now enjoyed. He broadly hinted that he would not spare the senate, but would one day blot out the whole order from the State and hand over the rule of the provinces and command of the armies to the Roman knights and his freedmen.

He even made vows ‘for himself and the people of Rome’, leaving the senate out of the traditional formula.

The great fire of Rome

38. Displeased with the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city. Some granaries near the Golden House, whose location he desired, were demolished and set on fire. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs.

An immense number of common dwellings, houses of great military leaders along with all their treasures and insignia, along with the temples of the gods, and ancient monuments of historical interest, all went up in flames. Nero watched the fire from the tower of Maecenas​, exulting in ‘the beauty of the flames’ and sang the entire ‘Sack of Ilium’ in his regular stage costume.

He set out to profit from the disaster so, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost, he allowed no one to approach the ruins of their own property so he could loot them. And he demanded such exorbitant contributions from the provinces for the rebuilding that he nearly bankrupted them.

39. Disaster was added to disaster. A plague killed 30,000. In Britain two important towns were sacked and great numbers of citizens and allies were butchered. (The towns were Camulodunum [Meldon] and Verulamium [St. Albans]. According to the historian Xiphilinus, 80,000 perished).

A Roman army was defeated in Armenia and Syria was all but lost.

The Gaulish revolt

40. After the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off, and the first steps began in Gaul. Gaul at that time was governed by Julius Vindex as propraetor who now rose against the emperor, sending him a series of increasingly abusive messages. When he heard of the Gaul rebellion, at first Nero was delighted, thinking this would give him the opportunity to fleece the rebellious provinces. When it escalated, he did his best to ignore it.

41. At last a series of insulting edicts of Vindex prompted him to address the senate (but only by letter) to avenge him and the state. When more urgent despatches reached Antium Nero finally repaired to the capital. But here he didn’t address either the senate (in the House) or the people (in the Forum) but invited some of the leading men to his house where, after a hasty consultation about Gaul, he spent the rest of the day exhibiting a new type of water-organ.

42. But when news arrived that the Roman governor Galba was leading a revolt in Spain, Nero fainted. When he regained consciousness, Nero abandoned hope, tearing his robe, declaring that it was all over with him. But instead of taking active steps to quell the rebellions he continued his luxurious habits and whenever good news arrived from the provinces, he gave lavish feasts and composed comic songs about the leaders of the revolt.

43. At the start of the revolt Nero made wild and characteristically brutal plans. He planned to depose all army commanders and all provincial governors and have them all executed, then massacre all exiles everywhere and kill all the Gauls then present in Rome.

[What this clearly demonstrates is Nero’s inability to manage the subtlety and detail of individual men with individual grievances. Augustus and Tiberius knew their officials, knew their strengths and weaknesses and allegiances, knew how to manage them, play them off against each other, keep their ambition under control. In fact they knew that that’s what being Roman emperor consisted of – unending man management, of army leaders, provincial governors, and the jockeying factions in the Senate. Caligula and Nero didn’t understand this and had no interest in it. If anyone stood in their way they just had them killed. Which explains Nero’s blunt, sweeping and ineffective response to the revolts.]

Maybe Suetonius exaggerates when he said Nero also considered poisoning the entire senate and setting Rome on fire again. You feel the heavy hand of Flavian propaganda in such tales. Or maybe they were popular rumours. But they testify to Nero’s inability to manage specific rebel leaders and situations with anything approaching subtlety or intelligence.

Instead, Nero dismissed the two consuls and appointed himself sole consul. He left a feast leaning on the shoulders of his comrades, and declaring that all he need do was confront the rebellious army and fall to his knees weeping for them to realise they loved him and asking forgiveness. Next day he would be dancing and singing hymns of praise, so he was just off to compose a few in preparation.

44. In preparing for his campaign Nero was mainly concerned with finding enough wagons to carry all his musical instruments, and arranging for all his concubines to have male haircuts and be issued with Amazonian axes and shields.

He issued a general conscription which was largely ignored so compelled every household to contribute a certain number of slaves and part of their incomes. All tenants of private houses and apartments had to pay a year’s rent to the Treasury.

45. This aroused bad feeling against Nero which was compounded when he profited from the high cost of grain. A rumour went round that while the people were starving a ship had arrived from Alexandria, bringing sand for the court wrestlers. Graffiti, slogans and angry jokes at his expense proliferated.

46. Nero was frightened by bad dreams, auspices and omens. He dreamed:

  • that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands
  • that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness
  • that he was covered with a swarm of winged ants
  • that a Spanish horse he was fond of was changed into an ape
  • that the doors of the Mausoleum (built to house the dead of the royal family) flew open and a voice called him to enter
  • on the Kalends of January the city gods toppled over and in front of the assembled people the keys of the Capitol could not be found

In his last public appearance as a singer he performed ‘Oedipus in Exile’ which ends with the line:

Wife, father, mother drive me to my death.

Seeing as how he had murdered his (adoptive) father, Claudius, his own mother (Agrippina the Younger), had his first wife Octavia murdered then kicked to death Poppaea.

47. When word came that the other armies had revolted, Nero tore up the dispatches, pushed over his table, smashing his favourite ‘Homeric’ cups, ordered some poison from the arch-poisoner Locusta, to keep with him, and went into the Servilian gardens, where he tried to induce the tribunes and centurions of the Guard to accompany him in his flight. They refused.

He considered other plans: to go as a suppliant to the Parthians; or to Galba; or to appear to the people on the rostra, dressed in black, and beg for pardon for his past offences. Maybe they would allow him the prefecture of Egypt. Afterwards a speech composed for this purpose was found in his writing desk, but it is thought that he didn’t dare deliver it for fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.

Next morning Nero awoke to discover his guard of soldiers had abandoned him. He sent for his friends but no-one replied. He roamed round the palace but doors were bolted, no-one answered his calls. Back at his rooms he found even the caretakers had absconded, taking his bed linen and the box of poison.

He called for the gladiator Spiculus​ or any other trained executioner to put an end to him, but none came and he ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber.

48. But Nero abandoned that plan and said he needed to go somewhere quiet to gather his thoughts. His freedman Phaon suggested his villa in the suburbs, just four miles away. So Nero pulled on a faded cloak, covered his head, and set off on horseback accompanied by just four attendants, one of whom was Sporus.

The short journey was eventful, with a mild earthquake and a flash of lightning; then shouting from an army camp in favour of Galba. Then his horse took fright at the smell of a corpse which had been thrown out into the road.

They arrived at Phaon’s villa and made their way through brambles to the back door. Nero scooped water from a pool, quipping that this was ‘Nero’s own special brew.’ Once inside the villa he sank down on a couch with a common mattress, over which an old cloak had been thrown. Though suffering from hunger and renewed thirst, he refused some coarse bread which was offered him, but drank a little lukewarm water.

49. At last, as it became clear his enemies were closing in, Nero bad his servants dig a grave and assemble wood for a pyre. As he watched this being done he wept and said again and again: ‘What an artist the world is losing!’

Then a runner brought a letter from Phaon announcing that he had been declared a public enemy by the senate and that, when caught, he would be punished ‘in the ancient style’. When he asked what that meant, his servants told him it meant the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a fork​ and then beaten to death with rods.

Terrified, Nero seized two daggers but couldn’t bring himself to use them. He ordered one of his slaves to set an example by killing himself, but none of them would. He reproached himself for his cowardice, lamenting that this sordid end didn’t become the great artist Nero at all.

Then they heard a troop of cavalry approaching up the road to arrest him and, with the help of his private secretary, Epaphroditus, he stabbed himself in the throat. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in. As this centurion placed a cloak to the wound, Nero gasped: ‘Tool ate! But what loyalty!’ Then he died.

Burial

50. Nero was buried at a cost of 200,000 sesterces and laid out in white robes embroidered with gold, which he had worn on the Kalends of January. His ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens.

51. Nero was about average height, his body was marked with pimples and smelt bad. His hair was light blond, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes blue and somewhat weak. His neck was thick and squat, his belly prominent and his legs very slender.

His health was good. For all his riotous excess he was only ill three times during the fourteen years of his reign, and even then not enough to give up wine or any of his usual habits.

He was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls, and during the trip to Greece let it grow long and hang down behind.

He often gave audiences in an unbelted silk dressing gown and slippers.

52. When a boy he studied the usual liberal arts except philosophy which his mother Agrippina told him was no subject for a future ruler.

His tutor Seneca kept him from reading the early orators in order to make himself appear better to the boy, so Nero turned to poetry. He wrote poetry easily, with great facility. Some people claimed that he passed off other writer’s work as his own but “notebooks and papers have come into my possession which contain some of Nero’s best-known poems in his own handwriting. Many erasures and cancellations as well as words substituted above the lines, prove that he was neither copying nor dictating but are written just as people write when they are thinking and composing.”

[a) what an extraordinary thought, that Suetonius had before him on the table the actual notebooks of Nero; b) Have any of Nero’s poems survived?]

Nero also took more than an amateur’s interest in painting and sculpture.

53. But Nero’s dominant characteristic was his thirst for popularity and his jealousy of anyone who caught the public eye for any achievement whatsoever. Not content with singing, playing the lyre and chariot racing, he studied and practised wrestling constantly, watching contests from right next to the ring.

It is said that he planned to emulate the exploits of Hercules and had had a lion specially trained so he could safely face it naked in the amphitheatre and, in front of the whole population of Rome, kill it with a club or even strangle it with his bare hands.

54. Towards the end of his reign Nero publicly vowed that if he retained his power, he would celebrate his victory by giving a performance on the water-organ, the flute, and the bagpipes, and that on the last day he would appear as an actor and dance ‘Vergil’s Turnus’. Some claim he had the actor Paris put to death because he saw him as a dangerous rival.

55. Nero’s obsession with immortality and undying fame made him name many places and things after himself: he renamed the month of April Neroneus and was tempted to rename Rome Neropolis.

56. Nero despised all cults except that of the Syrian goddess Atagarsis but he eventually changed his mind even about her and urinated on her image. He came instead to have a superstitious belief which he kept to the end: for an unknown commoner sent him the gift of a little image of a girl as a protection against plots. As it happened a plot was revealed immediately afterwards so Nero took to worshipping this little image as if she were a powerful goddess and sacrificed to her three times a day.

57. Nero died at the age of 31, on the anniversary of the murder of Octavia. Such was the public rejoicing that the public ran through the streets wearing liberty caps​ and cheering. Yet for a long time afterwards, some secret admirers garlanded his tomb with spring and summer flowers and had statues made of him which they placed on the rostra wearing his characteristic fringed toga.

Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent envoys to the senate to renew his alliance, asked that honour be paid to the memory of Nero. In fact, Suetonius tells us that 20 years later, when he was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared in Parthia claiming to be Nero and such was the power of his name to Parthian ears that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him to the Romans only with great reluctance.


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography.

Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy

There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide

In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

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