Nero: Cowardly Tyrant to the End in Ancient Rome
The emperor Nero (ruled A.D. 54-68) was the son of Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, and of Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus Caesar, and sister of Caligula. Nero’s original name was L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, but after the marriage of his mother with her uncle, the emperor Claudius, he was adopted by Claudius A. D. 50, and was called Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Claudius had a son, Britannicus, who was three or four years younger than Nero.
Nero was born at Antium, a favourite residence of many of the Roman families, on the coast of Latium on the 15th of December A. D. 37 (comp. Suet. Nero 100.6, ed. Burmann; Tac. Ann. 12.25, ed. Oberlin, and the notes in both). Shortly after his adoption by Claudius, Nero being then sixteen years of age, married Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messallina. Among his early instructors was Seneca. Nero had some talent and taste. He was fond of the arts, and made verses; but he was indolent and given to pleasure, and had no inclination for laborious studies. His character, which was naturally weak, was made worse by his education; and when he was in the possession of power he showed what a man may become who has not been subjected to a severe discipline, and who in a private station might be no worse than others who are rich and idle.
On the death of Claudius, A. D. 54, Agrippina, who had always designed her son to succeed to the power of the Caesars, kept the emperor’s death secret for a while. All at once the gates of the palace were opened, and Nero was presented to the guards by Afranius Burrhus, praefectus praetorio, who announced Nero to them as their master. Some of them, it is said, asked where was Britannicus; but there was no effort made to proclaim Britannicus, and Nero being carried to the praetorian camp, was saluted as imperator by the soldiers, and promised them the usual donation. The senate confirmed the decision of the soldiers, and the provinces quietly received Nero as the new emperor. (Tac. Ann. 12.69; D. C. 61.1, &c.)
Nero showed at the commencement that he had not all the acquirements which the Romans had been accustomed to see in their emperors. His public addresses were written by Seneca, for Nero was deficient in one of the great accomplishments of a Roman, oratory. The beginning of his reign was no worse than might be expected in an illeducated youth of seventeen; and the senate were allowed to make some regulations which were supposed to be useful (Tac. Ann. 13.4). The affairs of the East required attention. The Less Armenia was given to Aristobulus, a Jew, and son of Herodes, king of Chalcis. Sophene was given to Sohemus.
The follies and crimes of Nero were owing to his own feeble character and the temper of his mother. This ambitious woman wished to govern in the name of her son, and she received all the external marks of respect which were due to one who possessed sovereign power. Seneca and Burrhus exerted their influence with Nero to oppose her designs, and thus a contest commenced which must end in the destruction of Agrippina or her opponents. Nero began to indulge his licentious inclinations without restraint, and one of his boon companions was an accomplished debauchee, Otho, who afterwards held the imperial power for a few months. Nero assumed the consulship A. D. 55, with L. Antistius Vetus for his colleague. The jealousy between him and his mother soon broke out into a quarrel, and Agrippina threatened to join Britannicus and raise him to his father’s place. Nero’s fears drove him to commit a crime which at once stamped his character and took away all hopes of his future life. Britannicus, who was just going to complete his fourteenth year, was poisoned by the emperor’s order, at an entertainment where Agrippina and Octavia were present. Nero showed his temper towards his mother by depriving her of her Roman and German guard; but an appearance of reconciliation was brought about by the bold demeanour of Agrippina against some of her accusers, whom Nero punished. (Tac. Ann. 13.19–22.)
In A. D. 57 Nero was consul for the second time with L. Calpurnius Piso as his colleague, and in A. D. 58, for the third time with Valerius Messalla. Nero, who had always shown an aversion to his wife Octavia, was now captivated with the beauty of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his companion Otho, a woman notorious for her dissolute conduct. Otho was got out of the way by being made governor of Lusitania, where he acquired some credit, and passed the ten remaining years of Nero’s life.
The affairs of Armenia, which had been seized by the Parthians, occupied the Romans from the beginning of Nero’s reign, and Domitius Corbulo was sent there to conduct the war. This vigorous commander re-established discipline among the troops. The chief struggle commenced A. D. 58, with Tiridates, who had been made king of Armenia by the Parthian king Vologeses, who was his brother. Corbulo was ambitious to make the Roman arms again triumphant in the countries in which L. Lucullus and Cn. Pompeius had once acquired military fame. After some attempt at negotiation, Corbulo prosecuted the war with great activity. He took and destroyed Artaxata, the capital of Armenia; and afterwards, marching to the town of Tigranocerta, which the Romans had formerly captured under Lucullus, he took this strong place also, or, according to other accounts, it surrendered like Artaxata (Tac. Ann. 13.41, 14.24). The capture of Tigranocerta took place A. D. 60, and the Romans were now complete masters of Armenia. The affairs of the Rhenish frontier were tolerably quiet in the early part of Nero’s reign. The Roman soldiers, under Paullinus Pompeius on the lower Rhine, were employed in finishing the embankments which Drusus had begun sixty-three years before for checking the waters of the river; and L. Vetus formed the noble design of uniting the Arar (Saone) and Moselle by a canal, and thus connecting the Mediterranean and the German Ocean by an uninterrupted water communication, through the Rhone and the Rhine. But the mean jealousy of Aelius Gracilis, the legatus of Belgica, frustrated this design.
Nero’s passion for Poppaea was probably the immediate cause of his mother’s death. Poppaea aspired to marry the emperor, but she had no hopes of succeeding in her design while Agrippina lived, and accordingly she used all her arts to urge Nero to remove out of the way a woman who kept him in tutelage and probably aimed at his ruin. That Agrippina might have attempted to destroy her son, or at least to give the imperial power to some new husband of her choice, is probable enough; and it is a significant fact, that we find her own head and that of Nero on the same face of a medal, and that at the beginning of his reign she was hardly prevented from assuming the discharge of the imperial functions (Tac. Ann. 13.5). After an unsuccessful attempt to cause her death in a vessel near Baiae, she was assassinated by Nero’s order (A. D. 59), with the approbation at least of Seneca and Burrhus, who saw that the time was come for the destruction either of the mother or the son (Tac. Ann. 14.7). The death of Agrippina was communicated to the senate by a letter which Seneca drew up, and this servile body, with the exception of Thrasea Paetus, returned their congratulations to the emperor, who shortly after returned to Rome. But though he was well received, he felt the punishment of his guilty conscience, and said that he was haunted by his mother’s spectre (Suet. Nero 34). A great eclipse of the sun happened during the sacrifices which were made for the death of Agrippina, and there were other signs which superstition interpreted as tokens of the angler of the gods (D. C. 61.16, ed. Reimarus, and the note). Nero drowned his reflections in fresh riot, in which he was encouraged by a band of flatterers. One of his great passions was chariot-driving, and he was ambitious to gain credit as a musician, and actually appeared as a performer on the theatre. At the same time his extravagance was exhausting the finances, and preparing the way for his ruin, though unfortunately it was still deferred for some years.
In A. D. 60, Nero was consul for the fourth time with C. Cornelius Lentulus for his colleague. There was a comet in this year, which then, as in more recent times, was considered to portend some great change. In this year Tigranes was settled as king of Armenia, and the Roman commander Corbulo, leaving some soldiers to protect him, retired to his province of Syria. The fear of Nero now induced him to urge Rubellius Plautus, who belonged to the family of the Caesars through his mother Julia, the daughter of Drusus, to leave Rome. Plautus was a man of good character, and Nero considered him a dangerous rival. He retired to Asia, where he was put to death two years after by Nero’s order (Tac. Ann. 14.22; D. C. 62.14). In A. D. 61, the great rising in Britain under Boadicea took place, which was put down by the ability and vigour of the Roman commander Suetonius Paullinus.
The praetor Antistius was charged with writing scandalous verses against Nero, and he was tried under the law of majestas, and only saved by Thrasea from being condemned to death by the senate. Antistius was banished, and his property made public. Fabricius Veiento, who had written freely against the senate and the priests, was convicted and banished from Italy. His writings were ordered to be burnt, the consequence of which was they were eagerly sought after and read : when they were no longer forbidden they were soon forgotten, as Tacitus remarks (Ann. 14.49), and his remark has much practical wisdom in it. The death of Burrhus (A. D. 62) was a calamity to the state. Nero placed in command of the praetorian troops, Fennius Rufus and Sofonius Tigellinus: Rufus was an honest inactive man; Tigellinus was a villain, whose name has been rendered infamous by the crimes to which he urged his master, and those which he committed himself. Seneca, who saw his credit going, wisely asked leave to retire; and the philosopher, who could not approve of all Nero’s excesses, though his own moral character is at least doubtful, left his old pupil to follow his own way and the counsels of the worst men in Rome.
Nero was now more at liberty. In order that he might marry Poppaea, he divorced his wife Octavia, on the alleged ground of sterility, and in eighteen days he married Poppaea. Not satisfied with putting away his wife, he was instigated by Poppaea to charge her with adultery, for which there was not the slightest ground, and she was banished to the little island of Pandataria, where she was shortly after put to death. According to Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 14.64) Octavia was only in her twentieth year; her unhappy life and her untimely death were the subject of general commiseration.
The affairs of Armenia (A. D. 62) were still in a troubled state, and the accounts of the historians of the period are not very clear. The Parthians again invaded Armenia, and Tiridates attempted to recover it from Tigranes. It seems to have been agreed between Vologeses and Corbulo that Tiridates should have Armenia, and that hostilities should cease. But the ambassadors whom Vologeses sent to Rome, returned without accomplishing the object of their mission, and the war against the Parthians in Armenia was renewed under L. Caesennius Paetus. But the incompetence of the general caused the ruin of the enterprise, and he was forced to sue for terms to Vologeses, and to consent to evacuate Armenia (Tac. Ann. 15.16; D. C. 62.21). In the following year Corbulo came to terms with Tiridates, who did homage to the portrait of Nero in the presence of the Roman commander (Tac. Ann. 15.30), and promised that he would go to Rome, as soon as he could prepare for his journey, to ask the throne of Armenia from the Roman emperor. The town of Pompeii in Campania was nearly destroyed in this year by an earthquake. Poppaea gave birth at Antium to a daughter, who received the title of Augusta, which was also given to the mother. The joy of Nero was unbounded, but the child died before it was four months old.
The origin of the dreadful conflagration at Rome (A. D. 64) is uncertain. It is hardly credible that the city was fired by Nero’s order, though Dion and Suetonius both attest the fact, but these writers are always ready to believe a scandalous tale. Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 15.38) leaves the matter doubtful. The fire originated in that part of the circus which is contiguous to the Caelian and Palatine hills, and of the fourteen regiones of Rome three were totally destroyed, and in seven others only a few halfburnt houses remained. A prodigious quantity of property and valuable works of art were burnt, and many lives were lost. The emperor set about rebuilding the city on an improved plan, with wider streets, though it is doubtful if the salubrity of Rome was improved by widening the streets and making the houses lower, for there was less protection against the heat. Nero found money for his purposes by acts of oppression and violence, and even the temples were robbed of their wealth. With these means he began to erect his sumptuous golden palace, on a scale of magnitude and splendour which almost surpasses belief. The vestibule contained a colossal statue of himself one hundred and twenty feet high (Suet. Nero 100.31; Martial, Spect. Ep. 2). The odium of the conflagration which the emperor could not remove from himself, he tried to throw on the Christians, who were then numerous-in Rome, and many of them were put to a cruel death (Tac. Ann. 15.44, and the note of Lipsius).
The tyranny of Nero at last (A. D. 65) led to the organisation of a formidable conspiracy against him, which was discovered by Milichus, a freedman of Flavius Scevinus, a senator and one of the conspirators. The discovery was followed by many executions. C. Calpurnius Piso was put to death, and the poet Lucan, a vile flatterer of Nero (Pharsal 1.33, &c.), 1 had the favour of being allowed to open his veins. Plautius Lateranus was hurried to death without having time allowed to embrace his children. It is not certain if Seneca was privy to the conspiracy: Dion, of course, says that he was. It is probable that some proposals might have been made to him by the conspirators, and it is probable that he declined to join them. However this may be, the time was come for Nero to get rid of his old master, and, with his counsellors Poppaea and Tigellinus near him, he sent Seneca orders to die. The philosopher opened his veins, and, after long suffering, he was taken into a bath or vapour room, which stifled him. It seems that Seneca died about the time when the conspiracy was discovered ; Lucan and others died after him. The senate was assembled, as if they were going to hear the results of a successful war, and Tigellinus was rewarded with the triumphal ornaments. (Tac. Ann. 15.72.)
The death of Poppaea came next. Her brutal husband, in a fit of passion, kicked her when she was with child, and she died of the blow. Her body was not burnt, but embalmed and placed in the sepulchre of the Julii. Nero now proposed to marry Antonia, the daughter of the emperor Claudius and his sister by adoption, but she refused the honour, and was consequently put to death. Nero, however, did marry Statilia Messallina, the widow of Vestinus, whom he put to death, because he had married Messallina, with whom Nero had cohabited.
The catalogue of the crimes of Nero makes the greater part of his life, but his crimes show the character of the man and of the times, and to what a state of abject degradation the Roman senate was reduced, for the senate was made the instrument of murder. The jurist C. Cassius Longinus was exiled to Sardinia. L. Junius Silanus Torquatus, a man of merit, L. Antistins Vetus, his mother-in-law Sextia, and his daughter Pollutia, the wife of Rubellius Plautus, were all sacrificed. Virtue in any form was the object of Nero’s fear. For some reason or caprice the emperor gave a large sum, which we may assume was public money, to rebuild Lugdunum (Lyon), which had suffered by a fire; and the town showed its gratitude, by espousing his cause when he was deserted by every body. The grant, however, was made some years after the conflagration.
In the reign of Nero (A. D. 66) Apollonius of Tvana visited Rome, and, though he was accused of magic, he had the good luck to escape. Nero now became jealous of the philosophers, and Musonius Rufus, a Roman eques and a stoic philosopher, was banished by the emperor. The fragment of the sixteenth book of the Annals of Tacitus concludes with the account of the death of Annaeus Mella, the father of Lucan, and C. Petronius, a man of pleasure, but probably not the author of the Satyrica. Nero, as Tacitus says (Ann. 16.21), now attacked virtue itself in the persons of Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus. The crime of Thrasea was his virtue: the charge against him was that he kept away from the senate, and by his absence condemned the proceedings of that body. The senate condemned him to die, but he had the choice of the mode of death, and he opened his veins. Soranus was rich, and that made part of his crime. He was condemned with his young daughter Servilia, who had without his knowledge consulted the fortune-tellers to know what would be her father’s fate. (Tac. Ann. 16.30, &c.) With the death of Thrasea, who, as the blood flowed from his veins, declared it to be a libation to Jupiter the Liberator, the fragment of the sixteenth book of Tacitus ends, and the fate of the despicable tyrant has not been transmitted to us in the words of the indignant historian, who himself is compelled to apologise for his tedious record of crimes and bloodshed. (Tac. Ann. 16.16.)
The time chosen for the death of Thrasea and Soranus was that when Tiridates was preparing to make his entry into Rome. The Armenian king came by land to Rome with his wife and his children. The provinces that he passed through had to support the expense of his numerous train. He entered Italy from Illyricum, and was received by Nero at Naples, before whom he fell on his knees, and acknowledged him as his lord. Tiridates was conducted to Rome, where he humbled himself before Nero in the theatre, who gave him the crown .of Armenia and permission to rebuild Artaxata (D. C. 63.6). Tiridates went home by way of Brundusium. Vologeses was invited to Rome by Nero to go through the’ same ceremony, but he declined the honour, and suggested that if Nero wished to see him he should come to Asia. (D. C. 63.7.)
Nero formed some plans for extending the empire, and various expeditions were talked of, but Nero was not a soldier: he had not even that Roman virtue. In the latter part of this year he visited Achaea with a great train, to show his skill to the Greeks as a musician and charioteer, and to receive the honours which were liberally bestowed upon him. While Nero was in Achaea, Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, sent him intelligence of his defeat by the Jews, who were in arms; on which Nero sent Vespasian, the future emperor, to carry on the war against them, and Mucianus to take the administration of Syria.
In the year A. D. 67 Nero was present at the Olympic games, which had been deferred from the year 65 in order that so distinguished a person might be present. To commemorate his visit he declared all Achaea to be free, which was publicly proclaimed at Corinth on the day of the celebration of the Isthmian games. But the Greeks paid dear for what they got, by the price of every thing being raised in consequence of Nero’s visit; and they witnessed one of his acts of cruelty, in putting to death, at the Isthmian games, a singer whose voice drowned that of the imperial performer. (Lucian, Nero, vol. iii. p. 642, ed. Hemst.) Nero also paid a visit to Delphi, and got a kind of indirect promise of a long life; but other matters reported about this visit are somewhat confusedly told by different authorities. He also designed a canal across the Isthmus, which was commenced with great parade, and Nero himself first struck the ground with a golden spade. The works were carried on vigorously for a time, but were suspended by his own orders. While Nero was in Greece he summoned Corbulo there in an affectionate letter, but, on the old soldier arriving at Cenchreae, Nero sent orders to put him to death, which Corbulo anticipated by stabbing himself. Thus perished a man who had served the empire and the emperor faithfully, and whose military talent and integrity entitled him to the name of a genuine Roman. (Dion. 63.17.)
Nero had left Helius a freedman in the administration of Rome, with full power to do as he pleased, which power he abused. Helius, foreseeing the mischief that was preparing for his master, wrote to request him to return to Rome, and finally he went to Greece to urge his departure. Nero left Greece probably in the autumn of A. D. 67. He entered Rome in triumph, as befitted an Olympic victor, through a breach made in the walls, riding in the car of Augustus, with a musician at his side; and he displayed the numerous crowns that he had received in his Grecian visit. Music, chariot driving, and the like amusements, occupied this foolish man until, as Tillemont naively remarks, the rising in Spain and Gaul gave him other occupation.
Silius Italicus, the poet, and Galerius Trachalus were consuls A. D. 68, the last year of Nero’s life. The storm that had long been preparing broke out in Gaul, where Julius Vindex, the governor of Celtica, called the people together, and, pointing out their grievances, and pourtraying the despicable character of Nero, urged them to revolt. Vindex was soon at the head of a large army, and he wrote to Galba, who was governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to offer his assistance in raising him to the imperial power. Galba at the same time learned that Nero had sent orders to put him to death, on which he made a public harangue against the crimes of Nero, and was proclaimed emperor; but he only assumed the title of legatus of the senate and the Roman people. Nero was at Naples when he heard of the rising in Gaul. which gave him little concern, and he went on with his ordinary amusements. At last he came to Rome, where he heard of the insurrection of Galba, which threw him into a violent fit of passion and alarm, but he had neither ability nor courage to organise any effectual means of resistance. The senate declared Galba an enemy of the state; and Nero, for some reason or other, deprived the two consuls of their office, and made himself sole consul. This was his fifth consulate. Possibly he had some vague idea of putting himself more distinctly at the head of affairs with the title of sole consul, which Cn. Pompeius had once enjoyed before him and C. Julius Caesar.
Verginius Rufus, governor in Upper Germany, a man of ability and integrity, was not favourable to the pretensions of Galba. Rufus first marched against Vindex, and was supported by those parts of Gaul which bordered on the Rhine; the town of Lyon, with others, declared against Vindex. Verginius laid siege to Vesontio (Besanqon), and Vindex came to relieve it. The two generals had a conference, and appear to have come to some agreement; but, as Vindex was going to enter the town, the soldiers of Verginius, thinking that he was about to attack them, fell on the troops of Vindex. The whole affair is very confused; but the fact that Vindex perished, or killed himself, is certain. The soldiers now destroyed the statues of Nero, and proclaimed Verginius as Augustus; but he steadily refused the honour, and declared that he would submit to the orders of the senate. The death of Vindex discouraged Galba, who was beginning to lose all hopes, when he received intelligence from Rome that he was recognised as the successor of Nero.
A famine at Rome, and the exertion that Nero was making to raise money, hastened his ruin. Nymphidius Sabinus, who was now praefectus praetorio with Tigellinus, taking advantage of a rumour that Nero was going to fly to Egypt, persuaded the troops to proclaim Galba. Nero was immediately deserted. He escaped from the palace at night with a few freedmen, and made his wav to a house about four miles from Rome, which belonged to Phaon, one of his freedmen, where he passed the night and part of the following day in a state of agonising terror. His hiding-place being known, a centurion with some soldiers was sent to seize him. Though a coward, Nero thought a voluntary death better than the indignities which he knew were preparing for him; and, after some irresolution, and with the aid of his secretary Epaphroditus, he gave himself a mortal wound when he heard the trampling of the horses on which his pursuers were mounted. The centurion on entering attempted to stop the flow of blood, but Nero saying, “It is too late. Is this your fidelity?” expired with a horrid stare.
The body of Nero received funeral honours suitable to his rank, and his ashes were placed in the sepulchre of the Domitii by two of his nurses and his concubine Acte, who had won Nero’s affections from his wife Octavia at the beginning of his reign. (Tac. Ann. 13.12; Suet. Nero 50.) Suetonius, after his manner, gives a description of Nero’s person, which is not very flattering: the “cervix obesa” of Suetonius is a characteristic of Nero’s bust. (Lib. of Entertaining Knowledge, Townley Gallery, vol. ii. p. 28.)
In his youth Nero was instructed in all the liberal knowledge of the time except philosophy; and he was turned from the study of the old Roman orators by his master Seneca. Accordingly, he applied himself to poetry, and Suetonius says that his verses were not made for him, as some suppose, for the biographer had seen and examined some of Nero’s writing-tablets and small books, in which the writing was in his own hand, with many erasures and cancellings and interlineations. He had also skill in painting and modelling. Though profuse and fond of pomp and splendour, Nero had apparently some taste. The Apollo Belvedere and the Fighting Gladiator, as it is called, by Agasias, were found in the ruins of a villa at Antium, which is conjectured to have belonged to Nero. (See Thiersch, Ueber die Epochen der Bildenden Kunst, &c. p. 312, 2d ed.)
Nero’s progress in crime is easily traced, and the lesson is worth reading. Without a good education, and with no talent for his high station, he was placed in a position of danger from the first. He was sensual, and fond of idle display, and then he became greedy of money to satisfy his expenses; he was timid, and by consequence he became cruel when he anticipated danger; and, like other murderers, his first crime, the poisoning of Britannicus, made him capable of another. But, contemptible and cruel as he was, there are many persons who, in the same situation, might run the same guilty career. He was only in his thirty-first year when he died, and he had held the supreme power for thirteen years and eight months. He was the last of the descendants of Julia, the sister of the dictator Caesar.
There were a few writers in the time of Nero who have been preserved-Persius the satirist, Lucan, the author of the Pharsalia, and Seneca, the preceptor of Nero. The jurists, C. Cassius Longinus, after whom the Sabiniani were sometimes called Cassiani, and Nerva, the father of the emperor Nerva, lived under Nero. (Tac. Ann. xiii.xvi.; Suet. Ner.; Dio Cass. lxi.-lxiii. ed. Reimarus. All the authorities for the facts of Nero’s life are collected by Tillemont, Histoire des Empereurs, vol. i.).
From A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, by William Smith (London: John Murray, 1848), now in the public domain.