Nero is an unusual emperor, who comes to power in an unusual way. First off, he is just barely a member of the Julio-Claudian family. His mother is Agrippina the Younger – sister of Caligula who had to be adopted to consolidate his claim to the principate, and his biological father is Lucius Domitus Ahenobarbus. Nero’s birth name is Marcus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Hang on! I hear my reader think, these are names we haven’t heard before, and we know by now that Roman families reuse the same three names over and over again until it’s near impossible to tell which Gaius Julius Claudius is which! And you’re right! This is the other side of the family, the marginalised side. And it takes some brave, clever and super sneaky wrangling to get him out of that, into the Claudians and leapfrogging over all the other far better qualified (in terms of birthright) candidates to get him onto the throne. None of this by Nero himself, but by his quite extraordinary mother.
Little Nero is born at the beginning of Caligula’s reign to 22 year old Agrippina and 54 year old Lucius (try not to think about it) and daddy Lucius dropped dead two years later. Agrippina was then exiled, probably for plotting against her brother, Nero’s inheritance was seized and he was packed off to some obscure paternal aunt at the same time that Gaius had his own heir. Marginalised, semi orphaned, penniless and 2. A typically Julio-Claudian start to life. And then Gaius and his daughter are horribly murdered two years later, and quiet, unassuming uncle Claudius emerges as surprise political mastermind.(1) Claudius does the usual pardoning of all those punished under the previous regime and brings Agrippina back from exile, reuniting her with her son. Baby Nero is now 4 and his mummy has plans.
This is where Agrippina begins to get really impressive, because she manages to persuade her uncle to marry her, which involves getting him to change the incest laws so he can marry his niece (again, try not to think too hard about the realities of this next bit). Our sources – both Suetonius and Tacitus this time – describe her using her familial privilege to caress and kiss her slobbery uncle as she seduced him. You may have noticed that there’s not a lot of Nero in this discussion so far. That we’re talking an awful lot about a girl instead. That’s because our sources for Nero are obsessed with his mum. She is a more prominent character in narratives of Nero’s life and reign for the first few years than he is. She is portrayed as the wickedest of wicked women: a scheming, power hungry, hysterical, jealous, sexually manipulative, murderous (through poison, obv) slut who craved luxury and the throne. At least part of it seems to be true. Agrippina – of whom I am a massive fan – does seem to have manipulated her son to the principate and tried to control him when he got there. Certainly, as we shall see, the circumstances of Nero’s ascension could not have happened organically. However, we must remember that Tacitus and all the other boys hate women, particularly powerful women who get out of line. And Agrippina most certainly does not conform to good woman tropes. Indeed, Agrippina uses her feminine attributes to get Claudius to adopt her son and add him to his will as the primary heir, effectively disinheriting his own biological son Brittanicus. And so Marcus Ahenobarbus becomes Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus at the age of 13. From penniless orphan to barely legitimate heir to the throne in 11 years. Good work Mummy Nero. And 3 years later, gross uncle/husband/stepdad/emperor Claudius drops dead, possibly as a result of a poisoned mushroom but frankly who knows, and 17 year old Nero is emperor without having to put any effort in at all.
Now Nero is still a kid, and can’t really do much, and he bloody loves his mum, so the defining narrative of his first few years as emperor is that he relied heavily on Agrippina and his tutors Seneca and Burrus as advisors. The focus of this narrative is not Nero, but the power struggles that inevitably arose between the three advisors, particularly the idea that Agrippina enormously overstepped her role as Mother of the Emperor and tried to reign as co-emperor.(2) This upset all the boys, including Seneca who is a tedious old man who wrote high minded, moralising good woman/bad woman tracts constantly, and the agitation against Agrippina began with people trying to convince Nero that his mum wanted to be emperor herself, and lots of House of Cards style political intrigue and plotting.
In amongst all this, little Nero seems frankly uninterested in any of it. He’s too busy hating his wife and having passionate affairs with a freedwoman and probably would have stayed that way if his mum hadn’t tried to take away his girlfriend. He throws a tantrum, cuts off her power, fires all her mates from their cosy positions, tells Seneca and Burrus where to go and takes control himself. A couple of years after that, Nero has his mother murdered when she looks like she might disapprove of him divorcing his wife ,(3)Never mess with an 18 year old’s girlfriend. Especially if they are emperor of the world. And this is nicely indicitave of the way that Nero’s reign goes. “Yeah yeah, do what you like with the empire, I’m more interested in this over here.” With this over here being shagging and singing. “But if you fuck about with my singing and/or shagging, I will hurt you because I can.”
Nero’s approach to governing is “I want a shiny thing and you can’t stop me”, which is true. They couldn’t. The senate tried, with what is known as the Pisonian conspiracy when they worked out that Nero had taken away virtually every job that they had left and they had no real reason to have meetings anymore, but that failed and resulted in the execution of a bunch of people, including Seneca.. Nero’s shiny thing project got a really bad reputation in 64AD with the Great Fire of Rome which destroyed enormous swathes of the city. This was a fairly regular occurrence in Rome because most of the houses were made of wood, were several stories high and were very very close together. The Subura (poor bit) was a slum and so fire spread fast. But this one was especially bad. So, despite his genuine and excellent efforts to rebuild the city and institute new laws which would prevent such incidents again,(4) when Nero also built himself a big golden house and private garden and 30 foot tall golden statue of himself in the ashes rumours spread that he had set the fire himself, literally himself. Suetonius has him sneaking out of the palace in disguise and setting fire to the city, them climbing the tower of Maecenas and singing a song about the sack of Troy while watching. Tacitus on the other hand has him on holiday in Actium so make of Suetonius’s version what you will.
The reason that everyone liked the think of Nero playing his lute (not fiddle) while Rome burnt for five days is that Nero’s one true love in life – way more than any woman, was singing. Man he loved to sing. He practiced like a professional singer and performed in competitions in Rome and in Greece. This was considered to be excruciatingly embarrassing by upstanding Romans (like Seneca) who viewed performing as an effeminate, low class, degrading thing to do, and Nero’s insistence of singing at them at dinner parties and public events was near unbearable. Especially when he stopped letting them leave. He then started spending a lot of time in Greece, where his musical talents were received with slightly less repulsion (the Greeks being – so the Romans thought – effeminate, low class, degraded losers who liked theatre too much), which is why he grew that preposterous neckbeard you see above. This was an open declaration of his personal allegiance to Greek mores and customs over Roman. This upset everyone too.
So with the singing, and the alleged city burning, and the taking powers away from the senate and the terrible personal temper (he is said to have kicked one of his wives to death for asking where he’s been) it’s unsurprising that he met a grim end. But in the end it was his tax policies that brought him down. Seriously. Galba – entrant in the top three least known emperors competition – began his revolt against Nero from Gaul because of his tax policies. Though it is likely that these taxes were levied in order to pay for the reconstruction of Rome and/or the giant statue of Nero in the middle, it set something off. This revolt is interesting, because it changes the pattern of the principate and ends the Julio-Claudian bloodline. It is the first revolt from the army and starts the very long running trend of army commanders becoming emperor at the point of a sword rather than via political machinations. Not that Nero was thinking this. Nero was thinking “why would anyone want to kill someone as brilliant as me?” because he wasn’t particularly smart. Once he realised that they definitely did want to kill him though, he ran for the hills with a loyal slave in the hope he could escape and, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to live out his life as a bad singer, he committed suicide. Some of his final words were allegedly (Suetonius again) “What an artist the world is losing!” which at the very least shows you what people thought his priorities in life were. And so he dies, in a ditch, in the country, in hiding from a guy not one of you has heard of, at the age of 31, and the Julio-Claudian dynasty dies with him.
But before he died, Nero reigned for 14 years, during which he rebuilt Rome, added lots of pretty things, held many games and performances and broadly kept the people of Rome happy, defeated Parthia in a war using some damn impressive diplomacy, put down several revolts against the Romans, including Boudicca, with little bloodshed, ended the first Jewish war without burning their temple down (unlike some, I’m looking at you Vespasian) and again with limited bloodshed, and rearranged the tax system to reduce the taxation burden on the poor and raise taxes for the rich (this is what got him killed). All this is pretty good for a kid who as far as anyone can tell just wanted to be a singer, and had absolutely no interest in being emperor at all. Do you remember when we spoke about Caligula and I sad that unwillingness – or lack of overt interest in being – emperor seemed to be a defining characteristic of Bad Emperors? Nero is the epitome of this. He shows no interest in administration or the tedious details of ruling that so enthused Augustus and Vespasian and Trajan, he just wants a big gold statue and everyone to think he’s good at singing. Sadly, life didn’t work out that way, and he ended up being 17 and king of the world. Sorry, emperor. So he killed people who didn’t say he was good at singing, or tried to intefere with his girlfrriend, or asked him why he was home so late.
Nero is hard to defend, because he was definitely an entitled douchecanoe who would get out an acoustic guitar at parties and sing at you for hours and if you tried to go to the toilet or go have a conversation in the kitchen, he’d freak out and shout at you for being rude. And he definitely killed his mother, which is not often a good thing. But he also falls into the category of “emperors who lost” and as we all know, history is written by the victors. There’s no reason for those who won to say anything nice about Nero when they’re trying to legitimise their own coup and explain why it was necessary to start a small civil war, if you see what I’m saying here. In an alternate universe, there is a Marcus Ahenobarbus whose mother never married Claudius, or was never adopted, and who grew up to be a terrible singer in his own time without the power of an empire behind him and Britannicus became emperor. But that is a tale for alt-history. Feel free to write it.
(1) This is not the most common representation of Claudius today, mainly because of Robert Graves who represented him as some kind of angelic moral bright spot in a Roman hell, which is – unfortunately for you dear reader – absolute bollocks. The image of disabled uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain, being discovered by the army and hailed as the new emperor against his will is a delightful one, and terribly good for his image but it’s also a glorious fiction. Detailed accounts of the succession of Claudius from Josephus outline a three day process of negotiation between an army camp where Claudius is hiding, and the senate house where the senate are bickering among themselves over which of them gets to be emperor next, because frankly the idea of a return to the republic is ludicrous at this stage. Herod the younger (son of THAT Herod) acts as a negotiator and go between and eventually the senate cave and agree to let Claudius be emperor. Which almost certainly has nothing to do with the fact that he’s hanging out with the guys who have all the weapons. Dear old uncle Claudius.
(2) Agrippina is the most fascinating woman, and I will write about this another day I promise. According to tacitus she wrote a meoir of her life and family which has now – devastatingly – been lost (Tacitus, Annals 5, 53: “This incident, not mentioned by any historian, I have found in the memoirs of the younger Agrippina, the mother of the emperor Nero, who handed down to posterity the story of her life and of the misfortunes of her family.”)
(3) Allegedly he tried to do this in many dramatic and inventive ways:
Suet, Nero 34 His mother offended him by too strict surveillance and criticism of his words and acts, but at first he confined his resentment to frequent endeavours to bring upon her a burden of unpopularity by pretending that he would abdicate the throne and go off to Rhodes. Then depriving her of all her honours and of her guard of Roman and German soldiers, he even forbade her to live with him and drove her from the Palace. After that he passed all bounds in harrying her, bribing men to annoy her with lawsuits while she remained in the city, and after she had retired to the country, to pass her house by land and sea and break her rest with abuse and mockery. At last terrified by her violence and threats, he determined to have her life, and after thrice attempting it by poison and finding that she had made herself immune by antidotes, he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom, contriving a mechanical device for loosening its panels and dropping them upon her while she slept. When this leaked out through some of those connected with the plot, he devised a collapsible boat, to destroy her by shipwreck or by the falling in of its cabin. Then he pretended a reconciliation and invited her in a most cordial letter to come to Baiae and celebrate the feast of Minerva with him. On her arrival, instructing his captains to wreck the galley in which she had come, by running into it as if by accident, he detained her at a banquet, and when she would return to Bauli, offered her his contrivance in place of the craft which had been damaged, escorting her to it in high spirits and even kissing her breasts as they parted. The rest of the night he passed sleepless in intense anxiety, awaiting the outcome of his design. On learning that everything had gone wrong and that she had escaped by swimming, driven to desperation he secretly had a dagger thrown down beside her freedman Lucius Agermus, when he joyfully brought word that she was safe and sound, and then ordered that the freedman be seized and bound, on the charge of being hired to kill the emperor; that his mother be put to death, and the pretence made that she had escaped the consequences of her detected guilt by suicide. Trustworthy authorities add still more gruesome details: that he hurried off to view the corpse, handled her limbs, criticising some and commending others, and that becoming thirsty meanwhile, he took a drink.
(4) He instituted laws about street width and tried to stop people building houses that were 5 stories tall and made of wood. People got cross about this because Rome in the summer is damn hot and wide streets means less shade. He also opened his own home to those who’d had their houses burnt down. This isn’t well remembered.