37 c.e.–c. 68 c.e.
A Troubled Emperor in a Troubled Time.
Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in December 37 c.e. to Agrippina the Younger and G. Domitius Ahenobarbus. His mother was the daughter of Germanicus Julius Caesar, grandson of the emperor Augustus and brother of the emperor Claudius. His father was a cruel and much vilified former soldier who swindled and killed for fun. His family was banished by the emperor Caligula in 39 c.e., and his father died soon afterward. When Claudius became emperor in 41 c.e., he restored Agrippina's civil rights and her estates, which had been confiscated by Caligula. Seneca the Elder, an historian and orator, tutored the young Nero. His uncle Claudius adopted him in 50 c.e., making him heir to the throne. Agrippina murdered Claudius in 54 c.e., and Nero became emperor. His dominating mother held the empire's reins at first, but gradually the impressionable Nero fell under the influence of his advisers, and she was removed from the emperor's palace in 55 c.e. Nero murdered his mother in 59 c.e. Never very stable, he allowed his advisers to run the government while he slid into debauchery, excess, and madness. He was married three times, and had numerous affairs with both men and women, and, according to some rumors, even his mother.
Nero adored spectacle and the arts, and spent a lot of time in Greece, the cradle of culture for the Romans, where he regularly competed in games. He once staged a triumph for himself, but instead of displaying the spoils of conquered nations, he was preceded by a display of the trophies and proclamations of his victories in singing and lyre playing in Greek. He fancied himself as a gifted author and performer on the stage, and often compelled the citizenry to listen to him declaim and sing excerpts from drama for hours in locked theaters. Citizens were said to have faked serious illness in order to be carried out of the theater. In 60 c.e. he established the Neronia, contests modeled on Greek games in which noblemen vied in declamation and music. He underwent grueling rituals to strengthen himself for performing in public, such as lying with heavy weights on his chest, purges and extreme diets, and drinking a concoction made of dried boar's feces to repair sore muscles. He surrounded himself with flatterers who encouraged his delusions. The famous fire in 64 c.e., in which Nero was famed to have "fiddled while Rome burned," serves as an example of the extent of his megalomania and the urban turmoil in Rome during his reign. He was so serious about himself as one of the world's most talented performers that the writer Suetonius relays that his dying words were "I die as such a great artist."
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves (East Rutherford, N.J.: Penguin, 2003).
Tacitus, The Annals. Trans. Michael Grant (New York: Viking Press, 1956).
Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar) (nēr´ō), AD 37–AD 68, Roman emperor (AD 54–AD 68). He was originally named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and was the son of Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul in AD 32) and of Agrippina the Younger, who was the great-granddaughter of Augustus. Agrippina married (AD 49) Claudius I and persuaded him to adopt Nero. In AD 55, Agrippina saw the bonds of her domination of Nero loosening and intrigued in favor of Claudius' son, Britannicus, but Nero poisoned the boy. Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his friend Otho, became his mistress; according to rumor she was to blame for the worst of Nero's behavior. In AD 59 he murdered his mother and in AD 62, his wife Octavia. He later married Poppaea. When half of Rome was burned in a fire (AD 64), Nero accused the Christians of starting it and began the first Roman persecution. In AD 65 there was a plot to make Caius Calpurnius Piso emperor. The detection of this plot began a string of violent deaths, e.g., of Seneca, Lucan, and Thrasea Paetus. Nero had ambitions to be a poet and artist. In AD 68 a series of revolts, including one by his own Praetorian Guard, caused him to commit suicide. Among his last words were,
"What an artist the world is losing in me!"
His memory was publicly execrated.
See biography by M. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (1985).
A wave of uprisings in ad 68 led to his flight from Rome and his eventual suicide.