We have already seen that Augustus had trouble creating a dynasty, in large part because he failed to produce male offspring. Fifty years after his death, Augustus’ grandson (by adoption), Claudius, then reigning emperor, died leaving one natural son and another by adoption, a great-great grandson of Augustus, known to the world as Nero (37-68). Through the influence of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Nero seized the throne (54-68) and soon became one of the great monsters of history. Most notorious for murdering his mother and “fiddling” while Rome burned, he also supposedly slept with his mother, married and killed one step-sister, killed another step-sister, raped and murdered his step-brother, castrated and then married a freedman, married another freedman as the man’s bride, raped a Vestal Virgin, and melted down the household gods of Rome for cash.
After incinerating the city in 64 he built over much of downtown Rome with his vast Golden House. He fixed the blame for the Great Fire on the Christians, some of whom he hung up as human torches to light his gardens at night. He competed professionally as a poet, singer, actor, and charioteer at the Olympic Games in Greece. He alienated and persecuted much of the elite, ignored the army, and drained the treasury. And he committed suicide at the age of 30, in AD 68, one step ahead of the executioner.
**Please keep two things in mind as you read about Nero.
1) Our sources are written almost entirely by two groups who had reason to hate him, the elite and Christian writers to whom Nero was an anti-Christ. We must therefore be careful not to accept everything they say as statements of fact.
2) Nero was wildly popular with a large section of the population who loved his theatrical extravagance. Though his popularity was different than that courted by Augustus, his rule kept the Roman masses and many peoples in the Empire more than satisfied. And when he died, there were many tales that came to light of the return of Nero and some were convinced that he would return triumphantly one day and that he was not dead. (cf. Elvis sightings).
1. How did Nero differ from his great-great-grandfathers Augustus and Mark Antony? A related question to think about is how you might say that Rome and its people had changed since the days of Augustus.
2. We should not assume that our sources are wrong in their assessment of Nero, but we should also not assume that they were right. Given that this is all that we have to go on, how might we overcome the prejudice of our sources and use them?
3. Can anything good be said about Nero?
4. What most bothered the senate about Nero? How about the army? The people?