Nero, in full Nero Claudius Augustus Germanicus (15 December 37 AD – 9 June 68 AD) was the fifth and last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. He succeeded Claudius in 54 and reigned until he died in 68.
Nero, whose birth name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was born on 15 December 37 AD in Antium. His father was the politician Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and his mother Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina was the sister of the Roman emperor Caligula and great-granddaughter of Augustus.
A few years after Nero's father passed away, Agrippina married emperor Claudius and convinced him to adopt Nero and favour him for the succession over his son Britannicus. When Nero turned 16, he married Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia. In 54, the emperor died and Nero, who was not yet 17 years old, was proclaimed emperor. Many ancient historians claim that Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina, who was worried that his son’s position might be threatened due to the emperor’s increasing affection for Britannicus. Moreover, she manoeuvred to replace prefects of the Praetorian Guard with men loyal to her. Thanks to this, Nero was able to ascend the throne without incident.
After helping her son to become an emperor, Agrippina hoped to control the government. However, Nero’s Praetorian Guard Burrus and his old tutor Seneca encouraged Nero to act independently of his mother. As a result, his relationship with Agrippina went cold and she was forced into retirement. This left Burrus and Seneca as the effective rulers of the Roman Empire.
Nero’s early administration was seen as an example of a good and moderate rule. He got rid of the secret trials before the emperor and the corrupt freedmen and granted more independence to the Roman Senate. Moreover, contests in the circus involving bloodshed and capital punishment were banned, taxes were reduced and slaves were allowed to bring civil complaints against their masters. Nero also inaugurated competitions in poetry, the theatre and athletics.
As Burrus and Seneca were in charge of the government, Nero was left uncontrolled to pursue his pleasures. In this sense, the emergence of the emperor’s most brutal traits can be fixed in 59, when he had her mother murdered. A few years later, in 62, he murdered his wife Octavia after he fell in love with Poppaea Sabina, wife of senator Otho. As these acts proved to Nero that he was free to do whatever he wanted, he began to give rein to his artistic pretensions. By this time, Seneca had no influence over Nero anymore and, following Burrus’ death in 62, he decided to retire.
The decline of Nero’s reign is marked by the great fire of Rome in 64, which ravaged the city. Taking advantage of the destruction caused by it, the emperor had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and ordered the building of a palace. This palace, known as the Golden House, would have covered a third of Rome had it been finished. At this time, the Roman population mistakenly believed that Nero himself had started the fire to reconstruct Rome following his aesthetic tastes. In order to get rid of these rumours, the emperor blamed Christians and initiated the later Roman policy of persecution of Christians.
By the final years of his reign, the Empire was under great strain, as the reconstruction works and the war costs of the revolts in Britain and Judea forced him to devalue the imperial currency. This was further aggravated when Rome went to war against the Parthian Empire over the control of the state of Armenia in 58. The Parthian War ended in 63 when Nero and the Parthian king Vologases I reached a solution. According to their agreement, Tiridates, Vologases’ brother, would rule over Armenia provided that he travelled to Rome to be crowned by Nero. The coronation ceremony took place in 66 and is considered to be the Golden Day of Nero’s rule.
In 65, during the Parthian conflict, a conspiracy to assassinate Nero emerged, causing him to sentence several senators to death. Seneca was also among the conspirators and was forced to commit suicide. A few years later, in 68 Vindex, the governor of Gaul (France), rebelled against the emperor and declared his support for Galba, the governor of Spain. Although he tried to suppress the revolt, Nero realized that he had also lost the support of the Roman citizens and had been declared enemy of the state by the senate. He then tried to flee Rome and eventually committed suicide.
Nero’s death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was followed by a civil war known as the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ (69 AD). At the end of this conflict, Vespasian became emperor and started a new dynasty: the Flavians.
After his death, Nero’s images were destroyed, removed or reworked and his memory was condemned. Throughout the centuries, he has been known as one of the most brutal emperors of the Roman Empire and his name has been associated with debauchery, misrule and anti-Christian persecution.
- roman empire
- roman emperor
- the twelve caesars
- parthian war
- year of the four emperors
- great fire of rome