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History

Who was the Emperor Nero? Read about one of the most controversial Roman Emperor.

12th Feb 2016

Considered to be one of Rome’s more infamous emperors, Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and the first Roman Emperor to commit suicide. Generally reviled for the heinous actions attributed to him, he most famously “fiddled while Rome burned” during The Great Fire in Rome of 64AD. The fire, which burned for days, destroyed nearly all of Rome; some historians claimed Nero started the fire himself, others claimed he enjoyed every minute as Rome crumbled because the fire created space for his new, extravagant villa, the Domus Aurea.

Modern historians, however, counter the accusation pinning Nero as the culprit. Although no primary accounts survived, a number of secondary sources did. While many accounts are believed to be exaggerations, Tacitus, a well respected Roman historian and Senator, states that Nero was in Antium when the fire broke out and immediately returned to Rome upon hearing the news. While the fire spread rapidly on that windy Roman night and the days that followed, Nero ordered food supplies, opened all gardens and public buildings for survivors, and allowed some to stay in his palaces until their homes were rebuilt.Many large residential areas were completely rebuilt at Nero’s personal expense. Some accounts even claim that Nero himself helped search for survivors in the smoldering rubble.

The fire is believed to have begun about a half mile from where the Domus Aurea was eventually built, on the opposite side of the Palatine Hill, thus also somewhat discrediting the theory that Nero intentionally started the fire to create space for his new villa. In fact, the fire actually destroyed parts of his own palace, the Domus Transitoria. Nero eventually integrated the damaged marble from his palace into the Domus Aurea itself, even going so far as to recreate paintings and wall decorations that had been destroyed by the fire.

Some of the Domus Aurea was destroyed after Nero’s death, and his lake was filled in, and replaced with the Colosseum by the new emperor, Vespasian. The story of Nero forms a fundamental part of the history of this important site, as your guide will explain during your Colosseum tour.

Despite his infamy and negative reputation, Nero’s impact and reign is generally considered positive according to modern historians, especially in his early years as emperor. His seemingly tyrannical acts, such as the execution of his own mother, often cloud the accounts of his attention to diplomacy, trade, efforts to improve Roman culture, and his promotion of athletic games. The execution of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, came after years of what some historians suspected to be attempts to undermine his rule as she was jealous of the close relationship Nero had with his two advisors. In a classic example of this jealousy, Nero and his mother were both portrayed on a Roman coin, which is virtually unheard of in Ancient Rome, as a way to display her power and her influence on Nero. Another instance of Agrippina’s undermining led to Nero poisoning his own step-brother, Brittanicus, after learning of Agrippina’s ploy to slip Brittanicus into the throne as the blood son of Claudius and true heir. Exploring the ancient city on a Palatine tour, you’ll discover that Nero was not the only emperor to kill his relatives.

Of course, some of his reputation is warranted. After the fire, while rumors ran rampant of Nero’s role in the incident, he had many Christians fed to dogs, crucified, and burned in an attempt to deflect blame. Nero also imposed high taxes on all provinces in the Roman Empire and sold positions in public office to the highest bidders in order to finance the construction of the Domus Aurea, which was not well met by the public.

Eventually, Nero’s tax policies would cause many to revolt, most notably in March of 68, when governors Vindex and Galba led a rebellion against Nero. As the rebellion gained popularity and support, Nero began to contemplate his future as emperor, unknowing of who to trust. Having fled Rome to hide out in a villa about 4 miles outside of the city, Nero was falsely informed that he had been ruled a public enemy by the Roman Senate. In reality, the Senate had not made such judgement, mainly because Nero was the last living member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and they had hoped a resolution could be reached in order to assure the continuation to the dynasty.

On June 9 68, Nero committed suicide, thus ending the Julio-Claudian dynasty, ushering in a period of civil war in Rome. To learn more about this turbulent period of Roman history, join one of our tours of Ancient Rome.

~by Michele D’Elia~