- Born: 15 December AD 37, Antium, Italy
- Died: 9 June AD 68 (aged 30), Outside Rome, Italy
- Reign: 13 October 54 – 9 June 68
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus before he accession and Emperor Nero historically, was the fifth Roman emperor and the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He reigned from October 13, 54 to his death in 68.
Nero was born at Antium in AD 37, the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, a great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus. His father died when he was around three years old, and his mother married Emperor Claudius, who adopted Nero as his son at the age of 13. He succeeded Claudius after his death in 54 AD.
Nero is famously remembered for his tyrannical nature, and for having his mother killed. While she guided him through the first few years of his reign, there was a huge power struggle between the two and Nero wanted to resolve this by killing her. Nero also killed his first wife, Octavia; and allegedly, his second wife, Poppaea Sabina.
During his reign, the general Corbulo fought the Roman–Parthian War of 58–63, and made peace with the hostile Parthian Empire. There was a major revolt in Britain, known as Queen Boudica’s revolt. Most famously, however, Nero was accused of starting the great fire of Rome during his time on the throne, so he could make space for a new palace. To shift the blame from himself, he pointed the finger at Christians, who were publicly killed for entertainment.
As Emperor, Nero was popular with the members of his Praetorian Guard, and with lower-class commoners in Rome and the provinces, but was deeply resented by the Roman aristocracy. He was declared a public enemy by the Senate at the end of his reign, leading him to commit suicide in 68 AD.
Nero’s Early Life
Nero was born in Antium, Italy (modern day Anzio), on December 15, AD 37, to his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. His mother Agrippina was the sister of the third Roman emperor Caligula. Nero was an only child and the great-great grandson of former emperor Augustus.
His father, a former Roman consul, died when he was about 3 years old, in AD 40. Before his death, his father was involved in a serious political scandal. His mother and his two surviving sisters, Agrippina and Julia Livilla, were exiled to a remote island in the Mediterranean Sea, allegedly for plotting to overthrow the Emperor Caligula. His mother was banished by the Emperor, leaving Nero without an inheritance and in the care of his paternal aunt Domitia Lepida the Younger.
After the murder of Caligula in January AD 41, and the ascension of Emperor Claudius shortly afterward, he was reunited with his mother. His mother went on to marry Claudius, who was also her uncle, in AD 49, and Nero was adopted by Claudius. It was after this that he was given his new name, Nero (full name: Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus). Claudius had gold coins issued to mark the adoption.
At the age of 14, Nero entered public life for the first time, giving several speeches on behalf of different communities between 51 and 53 AD. At 16, he married his step-sister, Claudia Octavia.
Nero’s Time As Emperor
Nero’s Accession and Early Years
Emperor Claudius died in 54 AD, with many believing his was poisoned by his wife, Agrippina. It is thought Claudius was poisoned to ensure Nero could become Emperor. Claudius had a biological son, Brittanicus, but he was younger than Nero. As Britannicus was approaching the age of majority, there was no need for Nero to be heir in case of Claudius’ death. Therefore, Agrippina acted before Brittanicus reached this age, so that Nero would become the successor instead.
Before Claudius’ death, Agrippina was said to have removed Claudius’ sons’ tutors and replaced them with tutors that she had selected. She was also able to convince Claudius to replace two prefects of the Praetorian Guard, who were suspected of supporting Brittanicus, with Afranius Burrus, who was Nero’s future guide. This allowed Nero to accede with little trouble.
Nero became Emperor at the age of 16, making him to youngest ever Emperor at the time, until Elagabalus, who became emperor aged 14 in 218. Nero gave his first speech to the Senate, in which he claimed to undo “the ills of the previous regime”. As Claudius had not been popular with the Senate, and Nero claimed he wanted to respect the Senate, this earned him respect and popularity from the Senate and Senators.
In his first few years as Emperor, Nero was generally well received. He brought in fiscal reforms which among others put tax collectors under more strict control by establishing local offices to supervise their activities, and allowed slaves to file complaints about their treatment to the authorities. He did, however, have failures too, such as his failure to abolish all taxes in 58 AD. It is thought that during this time many of his successes were actually down to his advisors Burrus and Seneca, who had been his tutor.
During his reign, Nero had several villas or palaces built outside of Rome. The ruins can still be seen today. These included the Villa of Nero at Antium, where he destroyed the villa on the site to rebuild it on a more massive and imperial scale and including a theatre. At Subiaco, Lazio, near Rome he built three artificial lakes with waterfalls, bridges and walkways for the luxurious villa.
Nero and Agrippina’s Death
Historians have claimed that Agrippina wanted to rule through her son. For example, she murdered her political rivals: Domitia Lepida the Younger, the aunt that Nero had lived with during Agrippina’s exile; Marcus Junius Silanus, a great grandson of Augustus; and Narcissus. The Senate also allowed Agrippina two lictors during public appearances, an honor that was customarily bestowed upon only magistrates and the Vestalis Maxima. What’s more, Agrippina was shown on the reverse side of one of the earliest coins that Nero issued during his reign.
However, Agrippina and Nero did not always see eye to eye. Nero removed Agrippina’s ally Marcus Antonius Pallas from his position in the treasury. Nero also exiled Agrippina from the palace when she began to cultivate a relationship with his wife Octavia.
After AD 55, Agrippina’s face stopped appearing on Roman coins. She also appeared to have lost power in favor of Nero’s top advisers, Seneca and Burrus. The exact reasoning for their falling out is unknown, but it may have been to do with Nero’s affair with Poppaea Sabina, which his mother did not approve of because of her affection for Octavia.
Whatever the reason for the dispute, Agrippina wanted to kill his mother. He didn’t trust the Praetorian Guard to carry out the killing and ordered naval troops to sink a boat that she would be sailing on. This first attempt failed, with his mother swimming to shore. Nero then ordered the troops to do the job directly, and she was executed by Anicetus, who reported her death as a suicide.
Seneca wrote Nero’s report on the murder to the Senate. He was applauded by them, as they believed his life was at risk as she had been plotting to kill him.
Nero and Boudica’s Revolt
In AD 60 to 61, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe led a revolt against the Romans, attacking Roman settlements. The towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St. Albans) were burned, and a substantial body of Roman legion infantry were eliminated.
The causes of the rebellion included the greed of the Romans exploiting the newly conquered territories, the recalling of loans made to local leaders, ongoing conflict in Wales and violence against the family of Prasutagus, Boudica’s husband and king of the Iceni.
The governor of the province, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, assembled his remaining forces and defeated the Britons. Although order was restored for some time, Nero considered abandoning the province. Suetonius Paulinus introduced harsher laws against the Britons, until Nero replaced him with the more lenient governor Publius Petronius Turpilianus.
Nero and Octavia’s Execution and Marriage to Poppaea
By AD 62, Nero and his wife Octavia were estranged. Their marriage had not been happy, and she had given him no heir. Therefore, he divorced her on grounds of infertility, and banished her. There were public protests over Octavia’s exile, and so Nero accused her of adultery with Anicetus and she was executed.
It is thought that he may have killed her to protect his position as Emperor. A large part of Nero’s legitimacy as Emperor was based, not only on the fact that he was the adopted son of Claudius, but that he was married to his daughter.
In the same year, Nero went on to marry Poppaea Sabina. She was already pregnant by this point, and gave birth to a daughter in January, 63 AD. However, the baby lived only about three months, and Nero took her death hard and had the baby deified.
In AD 65, when Poppaea was pregnant again, she died. Nero was said to have kicked Poppaea to death, before she could have his second child. However, this has been disputed and Poppaea may have died during childbirth.
Either way, Nero went into deep mourning after her death. Poppaea was given a lavish state funeral, divine honors, and was promised a temple for her cult. A year’s importation of incense was burned at the funeral. Her body was not cremated, as would have been strictly customary, but instead embalmed after the Egyptian manner and entombed. It is not known where this tomb is.
Nero and the Great Fire of Rome
On the night of July 18, AD 64, a fire started in the Circus Maximus. Nero was at Antium at the time that it occurred, but immediately returned to Rome to oversee relief efforts. Rome had always be vulnerable to fires, as much of Rome was made with combustible material and the city was overcrowded.
At this point, Burrus was dead and Seneca was unable to maintain his influence over Nero without his colleague’s support, so had withdrawn into private life. Ofonius Tigellinus became the foremost advisor to Nero.
Little of Rome was untouched by the fire, which burned for over seven days. While it subsided, it then started again and burned for three more. It destroyed three of Rome’s fourteen districts and severely damaged seven more.
Some believed that the fire was an accident, while others believed that the fire was started by Nero himself. Following the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless, and arranged for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors. He also provided the removal of bodies and debris, which he paid for from his own funds.
Nero was aware of the suspicion that he had started the fire, and he and Tigellinus were looking for someone to shift the blame onto. Therefore, Nero accused Christians of starting the fire. They were already unpopular, because of their refusal to worship the emperor, their way of life, and their secret meetings.
Christian’s were killed in cruel and horrific ways, that some even sympathy for them. They were burned alive and exposed to wild animals for the entertainment of the general population. At this time, two of Christianity’s most significant “teachers” were in Rome, Peter and Paul. Peter was crucified upside down on the Vatican hill and Paul was beheaded along the Via Ostiensis.
After the fire, houses were built of brick. They were also built spaced out and faced by porticos on wide roads. The cost to rebuild Rome was immense, and it was money that the state treasury did not have. To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, Nero’s government increased taxation. To meet at least a portion of the costs, Nero devalued the Roman currency, increasing inflationary pressure for the first time in the Empire’s history. Heavy tributes were also imposed on the provinces of the empire.
Nero took advantage of space cleared by the fire and built a new palace called the Domus Aurea (golden palace).
Nero and Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s Conspiracy
In 65 AD, Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a Roman statesman, organized a conspiracy against Nero with the help of Subrius Flavus and Sulpicius Asper, a tribune and a centurion of the Praetorian Guard. Apparently, many of the conspirators wanted to “rescue to state” from under Nero.
However, the conspiracy failed because there were too many people involved with it, and Tigellinus caught wind of the idea. He ruthlessly pursued the suspicion and found out the truth, which resulted in torture and interrogation for those involved. All the members of the conspiracy were executed.
Nero and The Parthian Empire
The Parthian empire was a major political and cultural power and a long-standing enemy of Rome. had long been contending for control over the buffer state of Armenia and open conflict sparked again during Nero’s rule. The Parthian War started in AD 58 and, after initial victories and following set-backs, ended in AD 63 when a diplomatic solution was reached between Nero and the Parthian king Vologases I.
It was agreed that Tiridates, brother of the Parthian king, would rule over Armenia, but only after having travelled all the way to the Roman Empire to be crowned by Nero. The coronation ceremony took place in the summer of AD 66.
Also in AD 66, a Jewish revolt broke out in Judea stemming from Greek and Jewish religious tension. In 67, Nero dispatched Vespasian to restore order, and the revolt was eventually put down in 70, after Nero’s death. This revolt has been remembered as the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple of Jerusalem.
Nero and Greece
In AD 66, Nero embarked on a trip to Greece, which had been under Roman control for about two centuries. He took part in several Greek festivals, taking home 1,808 first prizes for his artistic presentations.
In 67 AD, Nero participated in the Olympic Games. He had bribed organizers to postpone the games for a year so he could participate. Artistic competitions were added to the athletic events, and Nero won every contest in which he was a competitor. During the games, Nero sang and played his lyre on stage, acted in tragedies and raced chariots.
He won a 10-horse chariot race, despite being thrown from the chariot and leaving the race. He was crowned on the basis that he would have won if he had completed the race. After he died a year later, his name was removed from the list of winners. Nero was reportedly so happy with the results of his trip to Greece that he rewarded the Greeks their “freedom,” which was essentially a tax exemption.
In 60 AD, Nero established the Neronian games, which were modelled on Greek style games. They included music, gymnastics and equestrian contests.
Nero’s Other Interests
Nero’s other interests aside from games included poetry, music, painting and sculpture. He both sang and played the cithara (a type of lyre). Many of his performances and displays were private, although public performance was gaining popularity at the time. Many of the disciplines Nero was interested in were standard education for the Roman elite, but Nero’s interest in music exceeded what was socially acceptable for a Roman of his class.
Nero’s Later Years
In 67 AD, Nero, who was still mourning the loss of Poppaea, married Sporus, a young boy who is said to have greatly resembled Poppaea. Nero had him castrated, tried to make a woman out of him, and married him in a dowry and bridal veil. It is believed that he did this out of regret of killing of Poppaea.
By 68 AD, Nero’s issues had really caught up with him and he was struggling. Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gaul (France), rebelled against Nero and his tax policies, and declared his support for Galba, the governor of Spain, as Emperor. At the Battle of Vesontio in May 68, Verginius’ forces easily defeated those of Vindex. Vindex committed suicide, but the continued opposition of Galba in Spain did not help Nero. What’s more, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus, also abandoned his allegiance to the Emperor and came out in support of Galba.
In response, Nero fled Rome with the intention of going to the port of Ostia, but some army officers openly refused to obey his commands. He returned to Rome and spent the evening in the palace, but found that the palace guard had left, as had all his friends.
Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate on June 8. He traveled in disguise to a villa just outside the city with four loyal freedmen, Epaphroditus, Phaon, Neophytus, and Sporus. A day later, on 9 June 68, he committed suicide.
With Nero’s death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended. It has been reported that there were mixed feelings among the public about Nero’s passing. Senators, nobility and the upper class welcomed Nero’s death, while the lower-class, slaves, frequenters of the arena and the theater were very upset by his death.
However, there was widespread belief, especially in the eastern provinces, that he was not dead and somehow would return, which became known as the Nero Redivivus Legend and lasted for hundreds of years after his death. There were at least three Nero imposters that emerged in later years. However, they were all captured and killed.
In AD 69, a civil war ensued, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba began his short reign with the execution of many of Nero’s allies, but Otho overthrew Galba. Otho even used “Nero” as a surname. However, Vitellius overthrew Otho and started a new dynasty: the Flavians.
Nero’s Greatest Achievements and Historical Significance
Nero’s reign started off successfully, and he was very popular with the people of Rome. However, as his reign progressed, Nero fell out of favour with many people. While he remained popular with the lower-class people of Rome, he was resented by the Roman aristocracy and Senate.
Emperor Nero has been remembered for a number of reasons. For one, he killed his mother, Agrippina the Younger; his first wife, Octavia; and allegedly, his second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Ancient historians also claim he started the great fire of Rome in 64 AD so he could rebuild the city center. He blamed the Christians for the fire, and they were tortured and killed publicly.
However, he is also remembered in a positive light. It appears he was popular with the general public, and enjoyed music and the arts and performing. This allowed him to connect with the public and there was much upset when he stopped performing. Nero competed a number of times in the Olympics as well as other sport competitions.
He brought down taxes, and helped to reduce the price of food. He also allowed slaves to file complaints about their treatment to the authorities. What’s more, despite being accused of starting the great fire of Rome, Nero took relief efforts into his own hands, even paying for some of it out of his own pocket.
Emperor Nero FAQs
Who was Emperor Nero?
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known historically as Emperor Nero, was the fifth Emperor of Rome and the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He ruled from AD 54 until 68, when he committed suicide.
What were Emperor Nero’s greatest achievements?
While Nero is often remembered for being a cruel Emperor, he did have some achievements in his reign. He took relief efforts into his own hands after the infamous great fire of Rome, helped to bring down taxes, and reduced the price of food. He also enjoyed music, arts and performance, which made him popular amongst the public.
Did Emperor Nero really kill his mother?
It is almost certain that Nero killed his mother, Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina was the fourth wife of the emperor Claudius. Having married Claudius, Claudius adopted Nero and it is thought Agrippina had Claudius killed so Nero would be his successor, instead of Claudius’ biological son, Brittanicus.
While Agrippina helped Nero in his first few years of reign, it is reported she didn’t approve of the affair he was having, He exiled Agrippina from the palace when she began to cultivate a relationship with his wife Octavia. After this, in AD 59, he had her killed.
Did Emperor Nero start the great fire of Rome?
The rumor that Nero started the great fire of Rome was widely popular at the time, but it is most likely false. It has been said that Nero created the fire so he could burn the city to make room a new palace. While he did build a new palace, called his ‘Golden House’ or Domus Aurea, after the fire, it is quite unlikely he actually started it.
What’s more, Nero led relief efforts after the fire. Not only did he help with the removal of dead bodies from Rome, but he introduced new fire regulations, insisting on a maximum height for buildings and the use of non-flammable materials. Nero himself blamed the Christinas for starting the fire, and they were publicly tortured and killed. However, it remains a mystery what or who actually caused the fire.
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