December 15, 2015, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD 37, the Roman emperor Nero was born at Antium, in Italy
Text by Annabel Rock-Clarke
Image by Sarah Jordan
Nero’s birth name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father was Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Gnaeus was the grandson of Marc Antony and Augustus’ sister, Octavia. He was a consul in 32 under Tiberius. Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus. He was, therefore, closely related to the founder of the ruling dynasty.
Nero received a classical education, including Greek, philosophy and rhetoric, under the tutelage of Seneca, who was to become a major influence throughout his early reign. In 39, when Nero was two years old, his father died enabling his mother to marry the emperor Claudius in 49.
In 53 Nero married his step-sister Claudia Octavia. Claudius died in 54. Pliny the Elder believed that Agrippina used poisoned mushrooms to murder Claudius, though this well-known story may have been invented simply to blacken Agrippina’s reputation.
Agrippina had previously persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero as his heir, and so after Claudius’ death, he took the name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, and became emperor at the tender age of 17.
In the early years of his reign, problems arose from competition for influence between Agrippina and Nero’s two main advisers, his tutor, Seneca, and the Praetorian Prefect, Sextus Afranius Burrus. At the same time, these early years saw Nero attempting to free himself from all such advisors and become his own man.
According to the biographer Suetonius, the interference of Agrippina and the aggravation it caused Nero led him, in 59, to unsuccessfully attempt to kill his mother through a pre-meditated shipwrecking. Upon hearing of her survival, Nero ordered her to be executed on a trumped up charge of having attempted to assassinate the emperor. The killers were told to frame it as a suicide.
His key advisors, Seneca and Burrus, came to realize that Nero could not be molded into a virtuous and wise ruler and began to step back from their roles at court. Burrus died in 62. Without his ally, Seneca fell victim to attacks and rumours spread by those of Nero’s advisors who had done well by encouraging the emperor in his wants and who wanted rid of the old philosopher. In 62 he sought permission from Nero to retire from public life and this was granted.
One of the most notable events of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in 64. Some later claimed that Nero had ‘fiddled while Rome burned’ (or rather had played the lyre and sung a song about the fall of Troy!). But in fact Nero had tried his best to help the people of Rome, even going as far as opening his private gardens so that people might flee the inferno.
In the wake of the Great Fire, Nero alienated public and elite opinion by increasing taxes and taking money from the temples of Rome and the empire in order to finance the reconstruction of Rome. The plan which included the construction of a huge pleasure palace and gardens in the midst of the city, for use by the emperor. This was the Domus Aurea (Golden House).
A major turning point in his reign was the Pisonian conspiracy of 65. Nero’s increasingly debauched and tyrannical tendencies, which had been growing ever since he had rid himself of his mother, had alienated the senatorial order. A plot was hatched to have the emperor murdered and replaced with the respected senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso.
However, the conspiracy was betrayed and many of the conspirators were murdered, forced to commit suicide or exiled. Still, Nero must now have realized, perhaps for the first time, that the loyalty and obedience of his subjects (especially the politically powerful ones) was no longer guaranteed.
This was shown once again in 68, when the governor of one of the Gallic provinces, Gaius Julius Vindex, rebelled against Nero and declared his support for Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to replace him. Vindex was defeated in battle by troops loyal to Nero, and Galba was declared a public enemy. But support steadily grew for Galba, and Nero lost control of the situation. He fled Rome.
The Senate declared Nero a public enemy and condemned him to death. Nero, who had escaped to the villa of one of his own freedmen, decided to commit suicide. HE could not go through with it and asked his private secretary, Epaphroditus, to do the deed. As he died Nero is said to have exclaimed, ‘What an artist dies within me!’
Nero’s death at the age of 30 brought an end to the colourful Julio-Claudian dynasty. After a brief civil war, they would be replaced by the Flavian dynasty.
Nero’s reign, however, was not all bad. He focus some of his attention on diplomacy, trade and enhancing the cultural life of the Empire. He commissioned theatres and promoted athletic and poetic games.
He also enjoyed some success in the military sphere. One general, Corbulo, fought the Parthian Empire eventually negotiating a peace, and another, Suetonius Paulinus, crushed the revolt of Queen Boudica in Britain.