The Political Ups and Downs of the Mad Roman Emperor Nero

For centuries, the Roman emperor Nero is well chronicled for his cruelty. Stories about his madness include divorcing his first wife before having her beheaded and then bringing her head to Rome for his second wife, having his own mother executed, as well as castrating a former slave before marrying him.

Bust of Emperor Nero at Musei Capitolini, Rome
Bust of Emperor Nero at Musei Capitolini, Rome

However, despite the numerous charges against him by ancient writers, there are also evidence that Nero enjoyed some level of popular support. “He let slip no opportunity for acts of generosity and mercy, or even for displaying his affability,” wrote the otherwise critical Suetonius. More recently, a poem dated about two centuries after Nero’s death depicts him in an even more a positive light by proclaiming Nero a man “equal to the gods,” suggesting many individuals in the Roman Empire held a favorable view of him long after his death.

After Nero ordered his mother to be executed in 59 CE due to her interference in his personal life and political policies, he is widely portrayed a becoming more of a tyrant, spending excess amounts of government funds on personal indulgences. It was believed for a long time that Nero started the great fire in 64 CE to make room for his new villa. The impression one is left with from this story is that his mother, Julia Agrippina (Agrippina the Younger), may have been the only steadying influence he had. But is this true? 

Statue of Nero as a boy
Statue of Nero as a boy, 1st century AD By Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Trouble with Nero, Ancient Rome’s Mad Emperor

Nero’s history is problematic as there are no surviving contemporary historical sources. Although these first histories existed, they were described as overly biased – either too pro-Nero, overly critical of him or, worse, contradicted each other regarding a number of events. Nevertheless, these lost primary sources formed the basis of surviving secondary and tertiary histories on Nero written by the next generations of historians. The bulk of what is known of Nero comes from Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio – all of whom wrote their histories on Nero 50 to 150 years after his death. Although they contradict each other on a number of events in Nero’s life, they are consistent in their condemnation of Nero.

However, there are also sources that depict Nero in a more favorable light. Upon hearing the news of Nero’s death, Tacitus describes the lower-class, slaves, frequenters of the arena and the theater as being upset with the news. Eastern sources such as Philostratus II and Apollonus of Tyana mention that Nero’s death was mourned as he restored their liberties with wisdom and moderation, respecting them even as he was holding their liberties in his hand.

Nero’s mother, Julia Agrippina, had an eventful life. She was the great-granddaughter of Augustus through her mother, Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder). Her father Germanicus, known as a great Roman general in his own right, was adopted by Tiberius. It was her brother, Gaius Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius in the end. Caligula was then succeeded by Claudius, her uncle. When Claudius’s wife Messalina was executed for treason, It was not long before Claudius was changing the laws of incest so he could legally marry her.

Nero became Emperor at the age of 17 when the news of Claudius’s death was made known, making him the youngest emperor thus far. No one doubted Julia Agrippina’s role in the ascension of Nero. Hers was also the hand behind the recall of Seneca from exile and promptly given him the prestigious rank of praetor and placing Seneca in charge of the young Nero’s education – a key role in the coaching of any emperor-in-waiting.

bust of young emperor with a toga.
Young Nero with toga. Marble, Roman artwork, 1st century CE. From the Augustan area on the Palatine Hill. Antiquarium of the Palatine

Worshipped as a Goddess: The imperial role of Julia Agrippina, mother of Emperor Nero

In 1979, archaeologists working on the eastern side of the ancient city center of Aphrodisias in Roman Asia Minor made a remarkable discovery. During the first century, Aphrodisias, a small but prosperous provincial city enjoyed a special relationship with the imperial family due to the Julio-Claudian family’s claim to be descendants of the city’s patron goddess Aphrodite. In tribute to the connection, the people spent several decades constructing an elaborate religious complex consisting of a 10 meter long walkway of relief panels dedicated to the worship of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

Only half of the original relief survived when the remains of this complex were found. One of the survivors was a relief of Julia Agrippina, standing hand in hand with Claudius and wearing the flowing chiffon gown typical of female deities.

But a rather surprising sight was a larger than life relief of Julia Agrippina standing to the right of her son Nero on whose had she places a laurel wreath. Again, she is dressed in the regalia of a goddess. Nero wears military dress and gazes off into the middle distance as her stance in angled towards him, seemingly contemplating his profile as she rests the laurel over his head. This sculptural relief is the first known visual representation of one member of the Roman imperial family crowning another – let alone a mother crowning her son. Not even Livia, Augustus’ wife and Tiberius’ mother, had been given so powerful a role in her son’s iconography.

Gold and silver coins minted in 54 CE to mark Nero’s accession featured the profiled heads of both the new emperor and his mother facing each other nose to nose on the same side of the coin. Inscribed surrounding the two heads are the words Agrippina Augusta divi Claudii Neronis Caesaris Mater (“Agrippina Augusta Mother of the Divine Nero Claudius Caesar”) – her name is given precedence, making it very clear to whom Nero owed his authority as emperor.

Julia Agrippina’s power over the empire through her son could not last forever. When Nero withdrew his support, she was forced into a quiet retirement. The indignant mother agitated against Nero – setting up factions of senators still loyal to her and trying to use Britannicus, son of Claudius and Messalina, as a threat against him. Eventually, in 59 CE, Nero decided to have her executed. Julia Agrippina was murdered outside of Rome, then cremated and buried in an unmarked grave with no ceremony – Nero did his best to pretend that she had never existed during the remaining years of his reign.

Before we argue that Nero’s years as the emperor under the influence of his mother was the best years of his reign, we need to also look at Nero’s political decisions after the death of Julia Agrippina. Nero began his reign in 54 CE by promising the Senate more autonomy when he became emperor – this, of course, earned him praise from the senate. He began taking on a more active role as an administrator a year later, becoming consul four times between 55 CE and 60 CE. During this period, ancient historians speak fairly well of Nero to contrast it with his later rule, crediting his early political triumphs to his mother’s influence.

Remains of Nero's House - Octagon in Ancient Olympia
Remains of Nero’s House – Octagon in Ancient Olympia  By George E. Koronaios – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Emperor Nero, champion of arts, science and the working class

Under Nero, there was a discussion in the Senate on the misconduct of the freedmen class, and a strong demand was made that patrons should have the right of revoking freedom. Nero supported the freedmen and ruled that patrons had no such right. After tax collectors were accused of being too harsh to the poor, Nero transferred the collection authority to lower commissioners. He removed many government officials and ordered many arrests for corruption. He also attempted to repeal all indirect taxes. When the Senate convinced him that this action would bankrupt the public treasury, Nero compromised by cutting the taxes from 4.5% to 2.5%. In addition to this, Nero ordered secret government tax records to become public and tax-exemption for merchant ships to lower the cost of food imports.

Nero was also an ardent supporter of the arts and science. He built a number of gymnasiums and theaters, as well as establishing the Quinquennial Neronia, an arts festival which included games, poetry, and theater. According to Seneca, between 62 to 67 CE, Nero showed the foresight of promoting an expedition to discover the sources of the Nile River. Despite its failure upon reaching the present-day South Sudan, this expedition was the first exploration of equatorial Africa from Europe in history.

Emperor Nero, the Deal-Maker

Shortly after Nero’s accession as Emperor, the Roman vassal kingdom of Armenia overthrew their Iberian prince Rhadamistus and replaced him with Tiridates, a Parthian prince. Rome considered this event as a Parthian invasion of Roman territory, and there was concern over how the newly-minted young Emperor would handle this situation. Nero reacted by immediately sending the military to the region, leading the Parthians to temporarily relinquish control of Armenia to Rome before launching a full-scale war in 58 CE. The Parthian king, Bologases I, refused to remove his brother Tiridates from Armenia and invaded the Armenian kingdom. The Roman army repelled most of the Parthian army that same year. Tiridates retreated and Rome again controlled most of Armenia.

Nero dressed as a woman
Emilio Gallori, Nero dressed as a woman ,1873. By M0tty – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This victory brought Nero public acclaim. He followed this victory by installing Tigranes, a Cappadocian noble raised in Rome, as the new ruler of Armenia. In 62 CE, Tigranes invaded the Parthian province of Adiabene, which led to another war between Rome and Parthia. This war lasted until 63 CE and the army tried to convince Nero to continue the war, but Nero opted for a peace deal instead as there was anxiety in Rome about eastern grain supplies and a budget deficit. This would not have been the result of Julia Agrippina’s influence as, at this point, she was already deceased for about 4 years.

The result of Nero’s decision was a deal where Tiridates would became the Armenian king who was crowned in Rome by Nero. After this, the next kings of Armenia would then be Parthian princes whose appointment require approval from the Romans. Tiridates then came to Rome and participated in ceremonies meant to display Roman dominance.

This peace deal was a considerable political victory for Nero. It brought him massive popularity in the eastern provinces of Rome and with the Parthians. The peace between Parthia and Rome lasted 50 years until Trajan’s invasion of Armenia in 114 CE.

Emperor Nero and the “Great Fire” of Rome

The “Great Fire” of Rome erupted in 64 CE, starting from the southeastern end of the Circus Maximus in shops selling flammable goods. The extent of the fire is uncertain. According to Tacitus, the fire spread quickly and burned for over five days, destroying three and severely damaged seven out of fourteen Roman districts. It is worth mentioning that the only other historian who lived through the period was Pliny the Elder and he only wrote about this fire in passing. Other historians who lived through the period, such as Josephus, Plutarch and Epictetus make no mention of this fire in what remains of their work. It maybe that accidental fires were actually rather common occurrences in ancient Rome as Rome suffered other large fires in 69 CE and in 80 CE.

Both Suetonius and Cassius Dio accuse Nero as the arsonist and both say that Nero sang the “Sack of Ilium” in stage costume as the city burned. However, Tacitus’ account has Nero in Antium at the time of the fire. The argument about who started the fire continued as a pamphlet published in Milan in 1900 attempted to prove that the arsons were the Christians of Rome. The pamphlet describe the early Christianity at Rome as composed of great fanatics, who had numerous proselytes among the the fire-police of Rome. This was disputed by Dr. A. Profumo, who came to the opposite conclusion. He attributes the sole responsibility for the Emperor Nero who, according to him, planned of improving the worst of the old imperial quarters of which aspect and sanitary condition he disapproved by destroying them by fire.

statue of Nero and Seneca
“Nerón y Séneca” by Eduardo Barrón, 1904

Regardless of who started the fire, Tacitus states that, upon hearing news of the fire, Nero returned to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds. After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless and arranged for food supplies to be delivered to keep the survivors from  starvation. Nero then made a new urban development plan. Houses were spaced out, built in bricks, and faced by porticos on wide roads.

The cost of rebuilding Rome was high and it required funds that the state treasury did not have. To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, Nero devalued the Roman currency for the first time in the Empire’s history and imposed tributes on the provinces of the empire. This economic policy s a point of debate among scholars as, according to ancient historians, Nero’s construction projects were overly extravagant and the large number of expenditures under Nero left Rome exhausted and the provinces ruined. However, modern historians note that the period was riddled with deflation and that it is likely that Nero’s spending came in the form of public works projects and charity intended to ease economic troubles.

small statue of nero
Small statue of Nero, British Museum

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