|Alas in AD 54
Claudius died, most likely poisoned by his wife.
Agrippina, supported by the prefect of the
praetorians, Sextus Afranius Burrus, cleared the
way for Nero to become emperor. Since Nero was
not yet seventeen years old, Agrippina the
younger first acted as regent. A unique woman in
Roman history, she was the sister of Caligula,
the wife of Claudius, and the mother of Nero.
But Agrippina's dominant position did not last
for long. Soon she was shunted aside by Nero,
who sought not to share power with anyone.
Agrippina was moved to a separate residence,
away from the imperial palace and from the
levers of power. When in 11 February AD 55
Britannicus died at a dinner party in the palace
- most likely poisoned by Nero, Agrippina was
said to have been alarmed. She had sought to
keep Britannicus in reserve, in case she should
lose control of Nero.
Nero was fair-haired, with weak blue eyes, a fat
neck, a pot belly and a body which smelt and was
covered with spots. He usually appeared in
public in a sort of dressing gown without a
belt, a scarf around his neck and no shoes.
In character he was a strange mix of paradoxes;
artistic, sporting, brutal, weak, sensual,
erratic, extravagant, sadistic, bisexual - and
later in life almost certainly deranged.
But for a period the empire enjoyed sound
government under the guidance of Burrus and
Nero announced he sought to follow the example
of Augustus' reign. The senate was treated
respectfully and granted greater freedom, the
late Claudius was deified. Sensible legislation
was introduced to improve public order, reforms
were made to the treasury and provincial
governors were prohibited from extorting large
sums of money to pay for gladiatorial shows in
Nero himself followed in the steps of his
predecessor Claudius in applying himself
rigorously to his judicial duties.
He also considered liberal ideas, such as ending
the killing of gladiators and condemned
criminals in public spectacles.
In fact, Nero, most likely largely due to the
influence of his tutor Seneca, came across as a
very humane ruler at first. When the city
prefect Lucius Pedanius Secundus was murdered by
one of his slaves, Nero was intensely upset that
he was forced by law to have all four hundred
slaves of Pedanius' household put to death.
It was no doubt such decisions which gradually
lessened Nero's resolve for administrative
duties and caused him to withdraw more and more,
devoting himself to such interests as
horse-racing, singing, acting, dancing, poetry
and sexual exploits.
Seneca and Burrus tried to guard him against too
greater excesses and encouraged him to have an
affair with freed woman named Acte, provided
that Nero appreciated that marriage was
impossible. Nero's excesses were hushed up, and
between the three of them they successfully
managed to avert continued attempts by Agrippina
to exert imperial influence.
Agrippina meanwhile was outraged at such
behaviour. She was jealous of Acte and deplored
her son's 'Greek' tastes for the arts.
But when news reached Nero of what angry gossip
she was spreading about him, he became enraged
and hostile toward his mother.
The turning point came largely through Nero's
inherent lust and lack of self-control, for he
took, as his mistress the beautiful Poppaea
Sabina. She was the wife of his partner in
frequent exploits, Marcus Salvius Otho. In AD 58
Otho was dispatched to be governor of Lusitania,
no doubt to move him out of the way.
Agrippina, presumably seeing the departure of
Nero's apparent friend as an opportunity to
reassert herself, sided with Nero's wife,
Octavia, who naturally opposed her husbands
affair with Poppaea Sabina.
Nero angrily responded, according to the
historian Suetonius, with various attempts on
his mother's life, three of which were by poison
and one by rigging the ceiling over her bed to
collapse while she would lay in bed. Therafter
even a collapsible boat was built, which was
meant to sink in the Bay of Naples. But the plot
only succeeded in sinking the boat, as Agrippina
managed to swim ashore. Exasperated, Nero sent
an assassin who clubbed and stabbed her to death
Nero reported to the senate that his mother had
plotted to have him killed, forcing him to act
first. The senate didn't appear to regret her
removal at all. There had never been much love
lost by the senators for Agrippina.
Nero celebrated by staging yet wilder orgies and
by creating two new festivals of chariot-racing
and athletics. He also staged musical contests,
which gave him further chance to demonstrate in
public his talent for singing while accompanying
himself on the lyre. In an age when actors and
performers were seen as something unsavoury, it
was a moral outrage to have an emperor
performing on stage. Worse still, Nero being the
emperor, no one was allowed to leave the
auditorium while he was performing, for whatever
reason. The historian Suetonius writes of women
giving birth during a Nero recital, and of men
who pretended to die and were carried out.
In AD 62 Nero's reign should change completely.
First Burrus died from illness. He was succeeded
in his position as praetorian prefect by two men
who held the office as colleagues. One was
Faenius Rufus, and the other was the sinister
Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus.
Tigellinus was a terrible influence on Nero, who
only encouraged his excesses rather than trying
to curb them. And one of Tigellinus first
actions in office was to revive the hated
Seneca soon found Tigellinus - and an ever-more
willful emperor - too much to bear and resigned.
This left Nero totally subject to corrupt
advisers. His life turned into little else but a
series of excesses in sport, music, orgies and
murder. In AD 62 he divorced Octavia and then
had her executed on a trumped-up charge of
adultery. All this to make way for Poppaea
Sabina whom he married. (But then Poppaea too
was later killed. - Suetonius says he kicked her
to death when she complained at his coming home
late from the races.)
Had his change of wife not created too much of a
scandal, Nero's next move did. Until then he had
kept his stage appearances to private stages,
but in AD 64 he gave his first public
performance in Neapolis (Naples). - Romans saw
it indeed as a bad omen that the very theatre
Nero had performed in shortly after was
destroyed by an earthquake.
Within a year the emperor made his second
appearance, this time in Rome. The senate was
And yet still the empire enjoyed moderate and
responsible government by the administration.
Hence the senate was not yet alienated enough to
overcome its fear and do something against the
madman whom it knew on the throne.
Then, in July AD 64, the Great Fire ravaged Rome
for six days. The historian Tacitus, who was
about 9 years old at the time, reports that of
the fourteen districts of the city, 'four were
undamaged, three were utterly destroyed and in
the other seven there remained only a few
mangled and half-burnt traces of houses.'
This is when Nero was famously to have 'fiddled
while Rome burned'. This expression however
appears to have its roots in the 17th century
(alas, Romans didn't know the fiddle).
The historian Suetonius describes him singing
from the tower of Maecenas, watching as the fire
consumed Rome. Dio Cassius tells us how he
'climbed on to the palace roof, from which there
was the best overall view of the greater part of
the fire and, and sang 'The capture of Troy''
Meanwhile Tacitus wrote; 'At the very time that
Rome burned, he mounted his private stage and,
reflecting present disasters in ancient
calamities, sang about the destruction of Troy'.
But Tacitus also takes care to point out that
this story was a rumour, not the account of an
If his singing on the roof tops was true or not,
the rumour was enough to make people suspicious
that his measures to put out the fire might not
have been genuine. To Nero's credit, it does
indeed appear that he had done his best to
control the fire.
But after the fire he used a vast area between
the Palatine and the Equiline hills, which had
been utterly destroyed by the fire to build his
'Golden Palace' ('Domus Aurea'). This was a huge
area, ranging from the Portico of Livia to the
Circus Maximus (close to where the fire was said
to have started), which now was turned into
pleasure gardens for the emperor, even an
artificial lake being created in its centre. The
temple of the deified Claudius was not yet
completed and - being in the way of Nero's
plans, it was demolished.
Judging by the sheer scale of this complex, it
was obvious it could never have been built, were
it not have been for the fire. And so quite
naturally Romans had their suspicions about who
had actually started it.
It would be unfair however to omit that Nero did
rebuild large residential areas of Rome at his
own expense. But people, dazzled by the
immensity of the Golden Palace and its parks,
nonetheless remained suspicious.
Nero, always a man desparate to be popular,
therefore looked for scapegoats on whom the fire
could be blamed. He found it in an obscure new
religious sect, the Christians.
And so many Christians were arrested and thrown
to the wild beasts in the circus, or they were
crucified . Many of them were also burned to
death at night, serving as 'lighting' in Nero's
gardens, while Nero mingled among the watching
It is this brutal persecution which immortalized
Nero as the first Antichrist in the eyes of the
Christian church. (The second Antichrist being
the reformist Luther by edict of the Catholic
Meanwhile Nero's relation's with the senate
deteriorated sharply, largely due to the
execution of suspects through Tigellinus and his
revived treason laws.
Then in AD 65 there was a serious plot against
Nero. Known as the 'Pisonian Conspiracy' it was
led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso. The plot was
uncovered and nineteen executions and suicides
followed, and thirteen banishments. Piso and
Seneca were among those who died.
There was never anything even resembling a
trial: people whom Nero suspected or disliked or
who merely aroused the jealousy of his advisers
were sent a note ordering them to commit
Nero, leaving Rome in charge of the freedman
Helius, went to Greece to display his artistic
abilities in the theatres of Greece. He won
contests in the Olympic Games, - winning the
chariot race although he fell of his chariot (as
obviously nobody dared to defeat him), collected
works of art, and opened a canal, which was
Alas, the situation was becoming very serious in
Rome. The executions continued. Gaius Petronius,
man of letters and former 'director of imperial
pleasures', died in this manner in AD 66. So did
countless senators, noblemen, and generals,
including in AD 67 Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, hero
of the Armenian wars and supreme commander in
the Euphrates region.
Further, a food shortage caused great hardship.
Eventually Helius, fearing the worst, crossed
over to Greece to summon back his master.
By January AD 68 Nero was back in Rome, but
things were now too late. In March AD 68 the
governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius
Vindex, himself Gallic-born, withdrew his oath
of allegiance to the emperor and encouraged the
governor of northern and eastern Spain, Galba, a
hardened veteran of 71, to do the same. Vindex'
troops were defeated at Vesontio by the Rhine
legions who marched in from Germany, and Vindex
committed suicide. However, thereafter these
German troops, too, refused to furthermore
recognize Nero's authority. So too Clodius Macer
declared against Nero in north Africa.
Galba, having informed the senate that he was
available, if required, to head a government,
Meanwhile in Rome nothing was actually done to
control the crisis.
Tigellinus was seriously ill at the time and
Nero could only dream up fantastic tortures
which he sought to inflict on the rebels once he
had defeated them. The praetorian prefect of the
day, Nymphidius Sabinus, persuaded his troops to
abandon their allegiance to Nero. Alas, the
senate condemned the emperor to be flogged to
As Nero heard of this he chose rather to commit
suicide, which he did with the assistance of a
secretary (9 June AD 68).
His last words were, "Qualis artifex pereo."
("What an artist the world loses in me.")