By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History

Nero was the fifth Roman Emperor who ruled from 54CE until his suicide in 68CE. Christians perhaps best know Nero for his persecution of Christians after the fire that occurred in Rome in 64CE.

Birth and Rise to Power at a Young Age

  • Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus December 15, 37CE, in Antium, which is near Rome.
  • He was the only son of his parents.
  • His mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the sister of Emperor Caligula.
  • His father was related to Mark Antony and was charged with treason, adultery, and incest. He died from natural causes when Nero was three years old.
  • After Nero’s father’s death, his mother was exiled and the family’s assets frozen and confiscated by Caligula.
  • Caligula sent Nero to be raised by an aunt.
  • Caligula and his family were murdered in 41CE, resulting in Caligula's uncle, Claudius, to the throne.
  • Claudius brought Nero’s mother, Agrippina, back from exile.
  • In 48CE Claudius executed his third wife for reasons unknown and married Nero’s mother, Agrippina, the following year.
  • A year later Claudius adopted Nero and changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.
  • Upon adoption, Nero became the oldest of Claudius’ children, and thus the next in line for the throne.
  • In 51CE, Nero was appointed proconsul and addressed the Senate. He was 14 at the time.
  • When he was 16, he married his stepsister, Claudia Octavia.
  • Within two years Claudius had an untimely death. Scholars believe his wife and mother of Nero, Agrippina, poisoned him. It is unknown whether Nero knew of this.
  • Nero was proclaimed Emperor in 54 CE – he had not yet turned 17.

Ruling Rome and Multiple Marriages

  • Because Nero became emperor as a young age, he was very much influenced by his mother, his tutor (Lucius Seneca), and the Praetorian Prefect (Sextus Burrus). Within a short time of becoming emperor, a great rivalry developed between his mother and these two advisors.
  • After becoming emperor, Nero tired of his first wife, Octavia, and fell in love with a former slave.
  • Nero’s mother, Agrippina, supported Octavia and insisted he get rid of the former slave.
  • Nero, with the help of his advisors, ignored his mother.
  • Frustrated with Nero, Agrippina began working behind the scenes to relieve Nero of his office by grooming his stepbrother to take his place.
  • Nero’s stepbrother died suddenly on the eve of being declared an adult. The officially he died as a result of complications from a seizure, but most historians think Nero had him poisoned.
  • Agrippina was ordered out of the palace, the stepbrother’s death.
  • As Nero grew older, he grew more independent. He dismissed his advisors by 58 CE.
  • Once again he fell in love with a woman named Poppaea – who was another man's wife.
  • Anticipating Agrippina's rebuke, he had her killed in 59 CE.
  • He divorced Octavia, had her exiled, and then married Poppaea (who was already pregnant) in 62.
  • Public opinion forced him to bring Octavia back from exile. However, he then executed her shortly after allowing her to return.
  • In 65CE, just three years after marrying Nero, Poppaea died while pregnant with their second child. Some historians think Nero had her killed; others think she had a miscarriage and died from complications.

Modern Views of Roman Emperor Nero

  • Historians disagree about whether or not Nero was a successful emperor.
  • He focused on trade and diplomacy, spent a lot of money building theaters and gymnasiums.
  • He was also known for his excesses and tyranny. He did not hesitate to execute his enemies (or his mother, for that matter).
  • Anyone who was found to "slander" Nero was promptly put to death.
  • Nero also managed to wrest power away from the Senate.

The Big Fire and Christian Persecution

  • During the night of July 18, 64CE, fire broke out in Rome.
  • Although the fire might have started from accidentally (traced to a store selling flammable goods) or even from natural causes, some think Nero had a hand in it.
  • The fire burned for five days, destroying 4 of 14 districts in Rome and seriously damaging another 7.
  • Though poets say Nero "fiddled while Rome burned," the fact is that fiddles were not yet invented. This idiom may be based on false rumors that Nero ordered the torching of the city, then sat on a hilltop overlooking the city playing the lyre.
  • Rebuilding, of course, cost a lot of money, and taxes were increased throughout the empire to pay for it.
  • As people looked for a scapegoat, fingers began point to Nero.
  • In order to divert attention from him, Nero began to accuse Christians of setting the fire. Christians were still a small sect at the time.
  • He ordered Christians to be tortured until they confessed (which some did). Some were crucified, burned, or tossed to the animals by Nero.

Rebellion and Death

  • By 67CE a few governors rebelled against the high taxation. The military was sent in to put down the rebellion, which they did. But this created new concerns within the Senate.
  • In 68CE the Senate elected another emperor and declared Nero a public enemy.
  • Upon hearing this news, Nero tried to escape from Rome. His own men betrayed him to the Praetorian Guard.
  • On June 9, 68CE, Nero committed suicide just as he was about to be captured.
  • After his death, Rome had four emperors within one year resulting in complete chaos.

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