Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68) was the last of the Julio-Claudian line of Roman emperors. His erratic personal and public life caused numerous revolts and uprisings and set the scene for the ascension of the military emperors.
Born in Latium a few months after the death of the emperor Tiberius, Nero was the son of Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina. Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus and therefore the great-grand-daughter of Augustus; and after the death of Ahenobarbus and a brief second marriage, she wedded the emperor Claudius. A powerful and clever woman, she persuaded her new husband to disown his own son, Britannicus, name Nero as his successor and heir, and give his daughter, Octavia, in marriage to her son in A.D. 50.
The future emperor was given an excellent education in the classical tradition; under the tutelage of the philosopher Seneca, Nero was schooled in Greek, philosophy, and rhetoric. When Claudius died in 54 (some say he was poisoned by Agrippina), the 17-year-old Nero appeared before the Senate, delivered a panegyric in honor of the dead emperor, and was proclaimed by the Senate as the new ruler of Rome.
Nero and His Mother
In the beginning, Nero's rule was relatively peaceful; Agrippina's desire to control the empire through her son was tempered by the advice and counsel which Seneca and Burrus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, gave the young emperor. Agrippina became angered as she saw her influence over Nero wane, and the estrangement between them grew when Nero became involved with Acte, a freedwoman, and threatened to divorce Octavia. Although divorce was averted, Nero, in spite of his mother's objections, began living openly with Acte as his wife.
Meanwhile, the Senate, to which Nero had promised on his accession a full restoration of the republic, was governing, but poorly without any powerful leader to guide it. Agrippina, who saw her son increasingly neglect the imperial duties and devote himself to the imperial pleasures, turned to Britannicus and threatened Nero by supporting the former's claims to the throne. However, Britannicus died suddenly (perhaps murdered by Nero) toward the end of 55. Agrippina then began to stir up opposition to Nero, and the Emperor retaliated by banishing her. In 58 the final and disastrous breach between mother and son came. Nero, who had by this time abandoned Acte, became enamored of Poppaea Sabina, a young woman of noble birth who was married to Otho, a noted member of the Roman aristocracy.
The Emperor now proposed to marry Poppaea, but two things stood in his way: adverse public opinion over a divorce of Octavia, and his mother, Agrippina. Agrippina's opposition was removed by her murder in 59, and public horror at the crime was diverted by a successful campaign against the Parthians and the conquest of Armenia, as well as the quelling of revolt in Britain.
Decline into Hedonism
With Agrippina now out of the way, Nero's dissipated and profligate nature began to reveal itself. Partly to satisfy his own desire and partly to win the support of the Roman people, the Emperor spent money freely on spectacles and circuses and initiated great public works in Rome. He encouraged competitions in music, singing, dance, and poetry, in which the himself took part. In 62 Burrus died, and the final restrictions on the Emperor were removed. Seneca retired from the court, and Tigellinus took Burrus's place. Nero divorced Octavia on grounds of adultery, exiled her, and later had her killed. Shortly after, he married Poppaea.
Nero now seemed to take increasing delight in flaunting the traditions and ideals of Rome. In 64 he appeared on the public stage as a singer, but the scandal that this act might have caused was averted by a great calamity: the fire which burned for 10 days in July of 64, thoroughly destroying three-quarters of the city. Although Nero seemingly did everything he could to mitigate the effect of the disaster— opening public buildings to the homeless, building temporary shelters, providing food against the possibility of famine—rumors quickly spread as to the cause of the fire. Suetonius and Dio Cassius positively assert that Nero himself started the conflagration, but Tacitus admits that he was not able to prove the truth of this accusation. Although in all probability the fire was an accidental catastrophe, rumors that the fire was purposely set were so rife that it was necessary to find a guilty party. The blame was laid at the door of the Christians, and the first large-scale persecution against this new and secret sect began.
Destruction of most of the city gave Nero an opportunity to fulfill his ambition of building a more glorious Rome. This project, however, required capital, and in order to gain it Nero reinstituted condemnations and confiscations on grounds of treason; he took money from the temples, sold public offices and contracts, raised taxes, and devalued the currency.
The reaction to this policy was a conspiracy led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a Roman aristocrat. Among the members of the plot were a number of knights and senators, the poet Lucan, and Nero's old tutor, Seneca. Its purpose was to kill Nero and apparently then make Piso emperor. The plan was discovered quite by accident, and the leading conspirators, as well as many other noted Romans (especially those with money and property), were condemned and killed. It was during that same year that the Emperor's pregnant wife died, after having been kicked in the stomach by her husband.
Last of the Julio-Claudian Emperors
The following year Nero went to Greece, and while he entertained himself with dramas, circuses, and contests, the affairs of the empire worsened. The revolt which was to lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem broke out in Judea. In Gaul the governor of the province himself led an insurrection against Rome. Although this revolt was quickly crushed, the man who crushed it, the governor of Germania Superior, was proclaimed emperor on the battlefield. Soon after, Galba, commander of the Spanish legions, joined the revolt.
Galba was now declared a public enemy, but Nero was lacking the support of the Senate and the army; the Senate pronounced the sentence of death against him, and Galba was proclaimed the new emperor of Rome. In June 68, when he learned of the events in Rome, Nero committed suicide. The last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the line which had in effect created the concept of the Roman Empire, was dead.
Further Reading on Nero Claudius Caesar
Ancient sources for Nero are Dio Cassius and Suetonius. Modern treatments of the Emperor are Bernard William Henderson, The Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero (1903), and the relevant chapters in Guglielmo Ferrero and Corrado Barbagallo, A Short History of Rome: The Empire (1919).
Additional Biography Sources
Bradley, K. R., Suetonius' Life of Nero: an historical commentary, Bruxelles: Latomus, 1978.
Griffin, Miriam T. (Miriam Tamara), Nero: the end of a dynasty, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 1984.
Reflections of Nero: culture, history, & representation, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Shotter, D. C. A. (David Colin Arthur), Nero, London; New York: Routledge, 1996.
Walter, Gerard, Nero, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 1957.