Nero - Rome in Italy - Famous and Infamous Rulers
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22-03-2018    720 times
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Nero - Rome

Nero was born in Antium, near Rome in Italy, on 15 December, AD 37, as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was a former Roman consul, who died when his son was about three years old. His mother, Agrippina, the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, was banished by the Emperor Caligula, leaving her son in the care of an aunt. They were reunited, when Claudius became the emperor, soon after the murder of Caligula in January 41 AD. Agrippina, the great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, was an ambitious lady. After arranging the death of her second husband in 48 AD, she married her uncle, the Emperor Claudius. Soon after the marriage, she began to persuade Claudius to adopt her son, Domitius, giving him a new name ‘Nero’ and declare him as his successor, at the expense of his own biological son, Britannicus. To make her son’s claim to the throne more strong, Agrippina also persuaded Claudius to offer his daughter, Octavia, as Nero’s wife. The adoption took place in 50 CE, and Domitius was renamed Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus as a result.

Claudius suddenly died in 54 AD, and it is widely suspected that Agrippina had fed him poisoned mushrooms. Nero, in the mean time, was educated in the classical tradition by the famous philosopher Seneca and studied Greek, philosophy and rhetoric. He presented himself to the Senate to deliver a eulogy in Claudius’s honor and was named the Emperor of Rome. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus ascended to the throne at the age of seventeen, with the support of the Praetorian Guard, Burrus.

The Palace of Nero
The Palace of Nero, Rome

When Nero first came to the throne, the people of his empire mostly welcomed him as a nice change from Claudius, who was cruel and crazy in his own way. Nero was described as a generous and reasonable leader. He was a kind and benevolent emperor and was handsome as well. He reduced taxes, allowed slaves to bring complaints against their masters, supported the scope for arts and athletics, and arranged games and festivals to entertain the people. He banned games that ended in bloodshed and even banned capital punishment. He was kind enough to send aid to other cities in crisis. He was well known for his nighttime playboy movements, but his actions were good-natured and harmless, if irresponsible and self-indulgent.

Nero gained a good reputation for political generosity, during his first five years as the emperor. Following the ideal rule, he adopted the system of promoting power-sharing with the Senate and ending closed-door political trials, though he generally pursued his own passions and left the ruling up to his three key advisers - the Stoic philosopher Seneca, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Burrus and ultimately his mother, Agrippina.

Agrippina was a domineering woman and she wanted to become the actual ruler of the country. In the first two years of Nero’s reign, his coins depicted him side by side with his mother. It is noted by Cassius Dio, who lived AD 155-235, that, on behalf of his son, Agrippina managed all the business of the empire, used to receive embassies and send letters to communities, kings and governors. Even, she wanted to assert her authority to influence the personal life of her son. At that time, Nero was having an affair with Claudia Acte, a former slave. Agrippina strongly objected to it, advocated for Octavia and demanded her son to discard Claudia immediately. However, despite his mother’s protests, Nero began living openly with Claudia Acte as his wife. The mother and the son appear to have had a direct confrontation within about two years of his becoming the emperor. Her face stopped appearing on Roman coins after A.D. 55, and she appeared to have lost her controlling power in favour of Nero’s top advisers, Seneca and Burrus.

Agrippina's depiction on coinage in Nero's reign
Agrippina's depiction on coinage in Nero's reign

Ignored and insulted, Agrippina became furious and turned against his own son, promoting her stepson Britannicus as the true heir to the throne. But suddenly in 55, Britannicus died the day before he was to be proclaimed an adult. It is widely alleged that Nero poisoned Britannicus, although Nero completely denied the charges. However, even after the death of Britannicus, Agrippina tried her best to agitate the public against Nero. Eventually Seneca encouraged Nero to step out from the shadow of his domineering mother and Nero banished her from the family palace.

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By 58, Nero had dismissed Claudia, the former slave girl, and fallen for Poppaea Sabina, a noblewoman who was married to a member of the Roman aristocracy. He desperately wanted to marry Poppaes, but public opinion was against his decision of a divorce from Octavia and his mother also staunchly opposed it. Disgusted with his mother’s interference, even after her removal from the palace, Nero took matters into his own hands. Not trusting his Praetorian Guard to carry out the killing, he ordered his naval troops to sink a boat that she would be sailing on. This first attempt in 59 failed, with his mother swimming to shore. Nero then ordered the troops to do the job directly and this time, Agrippina was stabbed to death in her villa.

Nero with the Corpse of his Mother
Nero with the Corpse of his Mother Agrippina - Antonio Zanchi
Nero And Agrippina by Antonio Rizzi
Nero And Agrippina by Antonio Rizzi

After the murder of his mother, Nero drastically descended into a wild lifestyle that was not only lavish self-indulgence, but also tyranny and cruelty. Nero became totally engrossed in his longstanding artistic and aesthetic passions. He started to spend unreasonable and outrageous amounts of money at his sweet will on artistic pursuits and around 59 AD, began to give public performances as a poet and lyre player, which is a significant breach of etiquette for a member of the ruling class. Apart from that, he also encouraged members of the upper classes to take dancing lessons, ordered public games to be held every five years in Rome and trained as an athlete himself, competing as a charioteer.

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In the year 62, with the death of the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Burrus, and retirement of his former tutor Seneca, Nero ordered to execute the exiled empress Octavia against a false allegation of adultery and married Poppaea. However, in 65 AD, Nero is believed to have kicked his new wife Poppaea to death. His next wife was Statilia Messalina, whose first husband was executed by Nero.

During this period, allegations of treason began to come up against Nero and the Senate and to demolish his critics Nero began to react harshly to any form of adverse criticism on the plea of disloyalty. One of his army commanders was cruelly executed for oddly criticizing him at an open party, while a politician was exiled for writing a book with negative remarks about the Senate. The remaining other rivals were also brutally executed one after another in the ensuing years, allowing Nero to reduce his opposition and consolidate maximum power.

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At that critical juncture, the public’s attention was diverted by the Great Fire. Early in the morning of June 19, 64 a blaze broke out in the shops around the Circus Maximus and quickly engulfed the city. The ravaging blaze lasted for about ten days, and decimated about three-fourth of the city. It is said that, Nero enjoyed the sight of the fire from the roof of his palace, dressed in stage garb and singing from the Greek epic ‘The Sack of Ilium.

Fire of Rome
Fire of Rome

Many Romans believed Nero started the fire to clear land for his planned palace complex, the ‘Domus Aurea’ (Golden House) on the Palatine Hill. However, Nero successfully diverted the blame for the fire from himself to the minority Christian community of Rome, who were already being targeted in every respect by the Roman pagan society. This was officially the time that the active persecution of the Christian Church began. He ordered all manner of creative and brutal persecution and cruel tortures of the helpless Christians of Rome. Some were ridiculed and insulted with the sentence to be dressed in animal skins and then torn apart by ferocious dogs, while others were burned to death in nighttime inferno that provided light for the emperor’s garden parties.

Fire of Rome
The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert (1785)
Fire of Rome
Nero’s Torches - Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

After the Great Fire, Nero resumed plans for his dream project, the Domus Aurea. In order to finance the project, he needed money and he was determined to procure it at any cost. He sold positions in public office to the highest bidder, increased taxes and took money from the temples. He devalued currency and also reinstated the policies to confiscate private property in cases of suspected treason.

These new tyrannical policies to raise fund resulted in the Pisonian conspiracy. Finally, a plot was hatched in 65 by Gaius Calpurnius Piso, an aristocrat, along with senators, knights, poets and Nero's former mentor, Seneca. Their ultimate plan was to assassinate Nero to save Rome and the Romans from his tyranny and to crown Piso to the throne of Rome. Unfortunately, the conspiracy was divulged, and the leaders of the conspiracy were executed, along with, many other wealthy and honourable Romans.

Nero at Baiae
Nero at Baiae
The Remorse of Nero
The Remorse of Nero by John William Waterhouse. 1878

Nero unethically drained out the Roman treasury to rebuild the city around his 100-acre Domus Aurea palace complex. At the center of the complex, he arranged to commission a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself, ‘the Colossus Neronis’.

In the mean time, the rivals of Nero were gathering strength and in March, 68, the governor Gaius Julius Vindex rebelled against his tax policies. He enlisted another governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, to join his side and declared himself as the emperor. However, the rebelling forces were defeated and Galba was declared a public enemy. But, despite being categorized as a public enemy, support for Galba started to increase spontaneously. Soon Nero’s own bodyguards defected in his support. Even the Praetorian Guard declared allegiance to Galba, and the Senate followed suit, declaring Nero an enemy of the people.

Fearing that his end was imminent, Nero fled. In his mind, he had the intention to head to the east, where he may still expect loyalty of some provinces. But ultimately, he had to give up the plan, as his officers refused to obey him. He returned to his palace, but his guards and friends had left. He was intimated that the Senate had condemned him to death by beating. Nero could find no other way, but to commit suicide. But, as he was unable to carry out the deed all by himself, his secretary, Epaphroditos, assisted him. It is said that, before his death Nero exclaimed, ‘what an artist dies in me !'

After his fall, the name of Nero became a byword for misrule, debauchery and anti-Christian persecution. His demise marked the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, which had ruled Rome since 27 B.C.

Nero
Nero of Rome

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Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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