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Uneasy Lies the Laurel Wreath:
A Guide to One of Rome’s Most Unstable Emperors
by Colette Milligan
Nero, Rome’s fifth emperor, and the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, has been remembered as one of Rome’s most infamous and cruel leaders. He is the man believed to have executed his own mother, to have organized the Great Fire of Rome, and to have fiddled while Rome burned down around him. But does Nero deserve his unflattering legacy? To what degree has his life been reshaped by those who disliked him and by the changing tide of political favor?
Nero’s story is far more complicated than it appears on the surface. Though directly related to Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, through his mother, Agrippina, Nero was not expected to become the emperor himself. It was presumed that his uncle, the equally reviled emperor Caligula, would have sons of his own to serve as heirs. However, a combination of murder and good fortune paved Nero’s path to power.
The massively unpopular Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, the group of bodyguards tasked solely with protecting the emperor. They were assisted by members of the Senate, who were likely motivated by a desire to reinstate the Republic. The Praetorian Guard apparently did not share this desire, and they threw their support behind Claudius, Caligula’s uncle, thereby making Claudius the next emperor. This sudden change of events inched Nero closer to his eventual role as emperor, since Claudius would later wed his mother, despite the fact that she was his own niece.
That marriage was a purely political one, intended to help secure Claudius’ newfound position as emperor. Agrippina seemed the most advantageous match Claudius could have made; she was descended from Augustus, making her seemingly loyal to his interests, and she had a son, Nero, who was old enough to serve as his heir, if necessary. At that time, Claudius’ only heir was his young son Britannicus, who was too young to rule.
After his marriage to Agrippina, Claudius named Nero and Brittanicus as his joint heirs. In hindsight, this political union with Agrippina proved fatal for Claudius. If ancient accounts are to be believed, Agrippina poisoned Claudius in 54 AD, most likely in an attempt to protect her son’s position as one of Claudius’ heirs, since Claudius appeared to have been distancing himself from Nero in the time leading up to his murder.
With Claudius now out of the picture, only the 13-year-old Britannicus stood in Nero’s way to absolute power. Britannicus was still too young to rule alongside Nero at that point, so he remained in the background during the time immediately following his father’s death. Britannicus was not destined to rule alongside Nero, however. Cracks in the relationship between Nero and Agrippina had already begun to show, and in response to her now tenuous relationship with her son, Agrippina began to shows signs of favoring Britannicus.
Reportedly threatening to help Britannicus overthrow Nero, Agrippina once again revealed herself to be a pivotal player in Rome’s political arena. According to sources written long after his death, Nero was forced to take action to protect his rule from his mother’s threat, and therefore poisoned Britannicus the day before his 14th birthday, the age at which he would have been considered an adult. Whether or not Nero was actually responsible for Britannicus’ death is uncertain, but his demise was certainly advantageous and convenient for Nero, whose power was now greatly solidified by the lack of a legitimate challenger to his rule.
Despite these rather unsavory circumstances, Nero was, at this point of time, actually quite popular in Rome, and he had not yet cultivated the infamous reputation with which he later became associated. The common people in particular viewed him with favor. Throughout his rule, Nero maintained a good relationship with Rome’s lower classes, likely because his interests in theater and spectacle supported their livelihood and provided them with the entertainment that they craved. He also pushed for lower taxes and reduced fines, further pleasing the lower classes. The nobility and upper classes, particularly the members of the Senate, were decidedly less enthusiastic towards Nero, and were far from saddened by his death.
Now that his circuitous route to power has been established, let us now consider the most outrageous allegations which have been made against Nero, and see if he is deserving of that nefarious reputation.
The allegation: Nero murdered his mother. Agrippina died in the year 59; her death has since been shrouded with mystery. Nero has been repeatedly implicated in her death, and he supposedly felt so guilty over his involvement that he was frequently visited by her in his nightmares.
The evidence: The relationship between Nero and his mother was constantly rocky during his reign, and their discord is undisputed. Agrippina threatened to jeopardize Nero’s power on more than one occasion, and Nero had forced her out of her home, sending her to live outside of Rome.
Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio (all of whom, it should be noted, lived and wrote after Nero’s death) record various assassination attempts against Agrippina ordered by Nero. Tacitus’ account suggests that Nero carefully planned the murder of his mother, rejecting several options which he found too difficult. He finally settled upon a collapsable boat, which would cause his mother to drown in an apparent boating incident.
Despite the ingenuity of the plan, Agrippina survived and swam to shore, prompting Nero to send three assassins to finish the job. Suetonius, who is roughly contemporary with Tacitus, also alleges that Nero built a collapsable boat in order to murder his mother. Suetonius claims that Nero only devised this floating death trap after failing three times to have Agrippina poisoned.
Cassius Dio, writing much later, perpetuates the boat story, and his account more or less agrees with that of Tacitus; most likely this historian was using the account of Tacitus as source material.
The defense: There are few theories which exonerate Nero of this crime. His defense primarily rests on the potential unreliability of the extant sources, which are not contemporary and which were written during the years following Nero’s downfall. They are, therefore, heavily influenced by the rampant anti-Neronian sentiments which surfaced and took root after his death. Considering how exceedingly hostile the political climate of the time was towards Nero, one must conclude it was unlikely that any historian would come forward with an alternative theory absolving the accused Nero.
The verdict: Hung jury.
The details of Agrippina’s murder are likely highly embellished, and may bear no resemblance to the actual course of events. While it appears that no one other than Nero had the motive, means, and opportunity to a greater degree, too much of the evidence against him comes from sources which are not entirely reliable.
The allegation: Nero burned Rome down. On a windy July night, Rome suffered one of its most devastating fires. The fire spread quickly through Rome’s densely packed streets, completely destroying three of Rome’s fourteen districts, and only leaving four unscathed. The Great Fire of Rome in 64 has often been blamed on Nero, who allegedly set the city on fire either due to total insanity or a desire to destroy the city in an elaborate scheme to acquire land for his massive residence known as Domus Aureus.
The evidence: Suetonius and Cassius Dio both blame Nero for setting the devastating blaze, claiming that he performed the “Sack of Ilium” while Rome burned down around him. His plan, they say, was to repurpose the burned land for his ambitious Domus Aureus, an ostentatious palace covering over 100 acres of land. Indeed, the Domus Aureus did encompass land that had been cleared of obstacles by the fire.
The defense: Tacitus reports that Nero was in fact away from Rome at the time of the burning, and he emphasizes another of Rome’s favorite scapegoats: the Christians. According to Tacitus, Nero himself blamed the Christians. In one of the earliest widespread persecutions of the Christians, Nero ordered that Christians be crucified and burned.
Tacitus also records that Nero was heavily involved in relief efforts, providing shelter and food to the homeless, and personally aiding the search for survivors. Further exonerating Nero, modern examinations of the fire’s logistics reveal that the fire started over half a mile away from the location of the Domus Aureus, thereby casting doubt upon Nero’s alleged motive. Nero could not have been sure that the fire would spread as far as it eventually did. In fact, the fire might not have spread as far as it did if it were not for the efforts of looters, who helped spread the fire to increase chaos and opportunities for their plunder.
The verdict: Not guilty.
The origin of the fire is most likely quite mundane: it could have been caused by the ancestor of Mrs. O’ Leary’s cow. Accidental fires in Rome were far from uncommon, so there is no reason to believe that this particular fire was any different. Tacitus’ account gives further credence to the verdict that Nero was innocent of conspiring to burn down Rome. Tacitus is not positive in his assessment of Nero elsewhere, and he has no incentive to defend him here.
The allegation: Nero fiddled while Rome burnt down. Rumors began swirling quickly after the fire that Nero was somehow involved. Those rumors later evolved into the legend that Nero was fiddling amidst the flames of the city. They have not budged since then.
The evidence: While there were no fiddles in ancient Rome (the fiddle would not, in fact, be invented until several hundred years later), this allegation can be traced back to the histories of both Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Those two historians did indeed report that Nero, accompanied by the lyre, performed the “Sack of Ilium,” during the fire.
This portrayal of Nero does reflect his personality to a certain degree. Nero was truly interested in music and in public performance. For example, he participated in the Olympic Games of 67, winning every competition he entered, albeit more through bribery and influence than actual talent and skill. He also sang and played the lyre before public audiences, a predecessor of sorts of the modern day celebrity rock star.
The defense: The iconic image of Nero playing an instrument while Rome goes up in flames is rooted in the extreme distaste for Nero’s infamous philhellenism, or ardent admiration for the Greeks. Evidence of this enthusiastic esteem are his participation in the Olympic Games and his public singing. His prodigious love of all things Greek, as well as his insistence upon personal involvement in performances, were looked down upon by many Romans, and was considered to be unbefitting of his rank as Rome’s emperor.
The actions of Nero did not match the ideals of Roman austerity and gravitas. The influence of this unpopularity, even disdain, can not be discounted in considering the veracity of the charge. In addition, Tacitus dismisses the account altogether as mere rumor, asserting that Nero was in Antium, not Rome.
The verdict: Not guilty.
The legend is completely incongruous with the recorded actions of Nero following the fire, such as his relief efforts. The story clearly arose from Roman disapproval of Nero’s immoderate philhellenism, a viewpoint viewed as an indication of his instability. The idea that Nero could focus on singing and playing the lyre while such devastation and suffering took place perfectly encapsulates the image that later historians sought to cultivate: a man so cold, cruel, and insane that he could not only ignore the afflictions of his own people, but appear to be unaffected by their suffering once they became known to him.
Was Nero guilty of all he has been accused of? Probably not. Unpopular leaders of Rome were commonly portrayed in the most unflattering light possible. This conclusion does not mean, however, that Nero is entirely a victim of a posthumous smear campaign. He was without a doubt mentally unfit to rule; prone to violence; corrupt; and, at a minimum, more preoccupied with his own interests than with the interests of Rome and the Roman people. The stories, however, that became attached to the emperor Nero reveal the difficulties inherent in piecing together the truth of Rome’s history.
Ancient historical texts are more often political documents than faithful accounts of historical events. Biases of all sorts color the narratives of these histories, making it difficult for anyone to separate the fact from the fiction without paying careful attention to the context of the author. That feat is made even more difficult by the scant information available about we have about the lives of many author-historians.
The legacy of Nero imparts an important lesson to us all: stories from ancient sources and historians must be taken cum grano salis, with a grain of salt.
~~ Colette Milligan is a graduate student at Boston College, completing her dedicated work in Classical Studies. When not expounding upon how misunderstood Roman emperors were or how much the Greeks not only loved great literature but invented it, she enjoys fashion; fabric design; the creative and practical applications of cosmetics; Giants baseball; and helping her novelist mother to understand idioms and clichés in any language!