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date: 19 April 2024


, Roman emperor


, Roman emperor
  • Martin Percival Charlesworth,
  • Guy Edward Farquhar Chilver
  •  and M. T. Griffin


  • Roman History and Historiography

Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar), Roman emperor 54–68 ce, was born 15 December 37 of Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul 32 ce) and Iulia Agrippina.

To strengthen his doubtful claim to the throne, stories had been spread of his miraculous childhood (Suet. Ner. 6; Tac. Ann. 11. 11) and stress laid on his descent from the divine Augustus. In 49 his mother, as Claudius' new wife, was able to have the younger Seneca (L. Annaeus Seneca(2)) recalled from exile in order to teach her son rhetoric and to secure his betrothal to Claudius' daughter Octavia (3); in 50 Lucius Domitius Aheno-barbus was adopted by Claudius, thus becoming Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar or, as he is sometimes called, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. In the next year he assumed the toga virilis at the early age of 13 and was clearly marked out for the accession by being given the same privileges as Augustus' grandsons Gaius and Lucius had received (see iulius caesar (3), c. and iulius caesar (4), l.). When Claudius died on 13 October 54, Nero was escorted into the praetorian camp by the prefect Sex. Afranius Burrus. The senate then conferred the necessary powers on Nero and declared his adoptive father a god and Agrippina his priestess.

The ancient tradition is unanimous in regarding Nero's initial years of rule as excellent, a period hailed as a golden age by contemporary poets. Two 4th-cent. writers ascribe to the later emperor Trajan the view that Nero surpassed all other principes for a quinquennium, apparently referring to the first five years. Of our three major ancient authorities, Suetonius and Cassius Dio suggest that the young emperor at first left government to his mother and Dio adds that Seneca and Burrus soon took over control, leaving the emperor to his pleasures. Tacitus (1), however, regards the influence of Agrippina (visible on coins of December 54 showing her head facing Nero's on the obverse) as more apparent than real and the role of his advisers as one of guiding his activities, as in Seneca's De clementia, and managing court intrigue and public relations. Nero's first speech to the senate, written by Seneca, is described by Suetonius (Ner. 10) as a promise to rule according to Augustan precedent; Tacitus (Ann. 13. 4) adds a renunciation of the abuses of the Claudian regime—excessive influence of palace minions and monopolization of jurisdiction by the princeps, in particular, the trying of (political) cases behind closed doors—and a pledge to share the responsibilities of government with the senate. The historian vouches for the fulfilment of these promises, clearly interpreting the last, not in the sense of a surrender of power by the princeps but of an attitude of respect towards that body. Symbolic of the new attitude was the legend ‘ex s c’ (‘in accordance with a senatorial decree’) appearing regularly on the gold and silver coinage for the first ten years, though whether it is an authorization mark or relates to the types and legends is uncertain.

Nero at first heeded his advisers because they protected him from his domineering mother and indulged him within limits. She had always used the menace of rivals to threaten him, and the presence of a considerable number of dynastic claimants was inevitable under the Augustan Principate, which, not being an avowed monarchy, could have no law of succession to regulate the actual practice of hereditary succession. When Agrippina decided to show sympathy for Claudius' natural son Britannicus in 55, she sealed his doom, though the poisoning was not overt and could be dissembled, as by Seneca, who wrote praising Nero's clemency in the next year. In 59 Agrippina's resistance to his affair with Poppaea Sabina led Nero to enlist the prefect of the fleet of Misenum to drown her in a collapsible boat. When that failed, she was stabbed at her villa. This spectacular crime marked the end of the good part of Nero's reign, according to a contemporary view (Tac.Ann. 15. 67), echoed in the later tradition of the ‘Quinquennium Neronis’. But for Tacitus, the political deterioration did not set in until 62 when a treason charge of the unrepublican sort, based on irreverence towards the emperor, was admitted for the first time in the reign (see maiestas), and Burrus died, thereby ending Seneca's influence as well. One of the new prefects, Ofonius Tigellinus was seen by Tacitus as Nero's evil genius, rather like Sejanus to Tiberius. Nero now divorced his barren wife Octavia and married Poppaea who was pregnant: the child was a girl, Claudia Augusta, who was born in January of 41 and died four months later.

The death of his mother already made him feel freer to indulge his artistic passions. His enthusiasm for art, chariot-racing, and Greek athletics seems to have been genuine; he wanted to lead Rome from gladiatorial shows (see gladiators) to nobler entertainments. At the Iuvenalia, private games held in 59 to celebrate the first shaving of his beard, he sang and performed on the cithara (lyre) but also encouraged members of the upper classes to take lessons in singing and dancing. A year later he introduced for the first time at Rome public games in the Greek fashion (see agōnes) to be celebrated every five years. In 61 he opened a gymnasium and distributed free oil to competitors. His interest in re-educating Rome was genuine: it was not until the second celebration of these games in 65 that the princeps himself performed, though he had already made his début in the Greek city of Naples (Neapolis) a year earlier. His voice, described as ‘slight and husky’, may have been passable; his poetry was probably his own, for Suetonius had seen his notebooks with their erasures (Ner. 52).

The emperor's popularity with the propertied classes had been further undermined by a fire which devastated the city and strained the economy. It broke out in the early hours of 19 June 64 in shops around the Circus Maximus, and spread north through the valley between the Palatine and the Esquiline. It lasted for nine days in all and reduced three of the fourteen regions (regiones) of the city to rubble, leaving only four regions untouched. The emperor provided emergency shelter and helped with reconstruction, but he soon revealed that he would take the opportunity, not only to introduce a new code of safety for buildings, but to use land previously in private occupation for a grand palace and spacious parks (the Golden House or Domus Aurea) in the centre of Rome. The precious metal coinage shows the financial strain, to which the expense of the disastrous revolt of Boudicca in Britain in 60 and the protracted wars with Parthia over Armenia contributed: both the gold and silver were reduced in weight and the silver content of the denarius lowered by more than 10 per cent. With rumours circulating that Nero had instigated the fire and recited his own poems over the burning city, Nero made the Christians scapegoats, burning them alive to make the punishment fit the alleged crime (see christianity).

Nero never lost his popularity with the ordinary people of Rome, who loved his generosity and his games. The threat came from the upper classes and especially from senators governing provinces where the propertied élite had become discontent as a result of confiscations after the Rome fire: they are attested in Gaul, Spain, Africa, Britain, Judaea, and Egypt. But meanwhile his paranoiac prosecutions in Rome led to a conspiracy in 65 to assassinate him and make C. Calpurnius Piso(2) emperor. The scheme was betrayed. Piso and his accomplices, senators including Lucan, knights, officers of the praetorian guard, and one of the prefects, Faenius Rufus, were executed. Nero now suspected all, and more deaths followed, including Seneca, Petronius, and the Stoics Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus (see stoicism). In the year after Poppaea's death, Nero married Statilia Messallina, and, also in 66, Tiridates (4), a member of the ruling Parthian dynasty, came to Rome to receive the diadem of Armenia from Nero's hand. This represented an adjustment of Roman foreign policy in the east, where independent client kings had always been imposed on this buffer state with Parthia. In September of 66, despite another conspiracy at Beneventum, Nero himself left for Greece, to perform in all the Greek games. The highpoint of his tour was his liberation of Greece from Roman administration and taxation, announced at a special celebration of the Isthmian Games at Corinth on 28 November 67. The text of Nero's speech in Greek is preserved on an inscription (ILS 8794; Syll.3 814; Sherk, Hadrian 71 for translation).

While in Greece Vespasian was selected from the emperor's entourage to deal with a revolt in Judaea (see jews). But Nero deposed and executed three senatorial commanders, Cn. Domitius Corbulo who had served him well in the east, and the Scribonii brothers who governed the two Germanies (see germania). Disaffection was rumbling in the west. At last Nero, in response to the warnings of his freedman Helius, returned to Italy. Soon after, in March of 68, C. Iulius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis (see gaul, transalpine), rose in arms. Although he was defeated two months later by the governor of Upper Germany, Nero's failure to respond decisively had encouraged others to defect. In Spain Galba declared himself ‘Legate of the Senate and Roman People’, and in Africa L. Clodius Macer revolted. The praetorians were told that Nero had already fled abroad and were bribed by C. Nymphidius Sabinus, one of their prefects, to declare for Galba. The senate followed suit, decreeing Nero a public enemy. Nero took refuge in the villa of his freedman Phaon and there he committed suicide, reputedly lamenting, ‘What an artist dies with me!’ (Suet. Ner. 48–9).

Nero's philhellenism earned him the devotion of many in the Greek-speaking provinces, and within the next twenty years, three false Neros appeared there, all playing the lyre and all attracting followers. But the Christians naturally hated him for their persecution of 64 and the Jews for the mistreatment that led to the revolt which ultimately lost them the Temple in Jerusalem.


  • Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Nero Suppl. 3, Domitius 29.”
  • E. M. Smallwood, Documents illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (1967).
  • J. Tresch, Die Nerobücher in den Annalen des Tacitus (1965).
  • K. R. Bradley, Suetonius' Life of Nero: An Historical Commentary (1978).
  • B. H. Warmington, Suetonius' Nero (1977).
  • B. H. Warmington, Nero, Reality and Legend (1969).
  • M. T. Griffin, Nero: the End of a Dynasty (1984).
  • U. Hiesinger, American Journal of Archaeology 1975.
  • A. Boethius, The Golden House of Nero (1960).
  • L. Fabbrini, Città e architettura nella Roma imperiale, Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, Suppl. 10 (1983), 169 ff.
  • F. A. Lepper, Journal of Roman Studies 1957, 95 ff.
  • D. MacDowall, The Western Coinages of Nero (1979).
  • E. Champlin, Nero (2003).