Roman Emperor Nero is mostly remembered for his evil, murderous rule – some even called him the antichrist. Today, part of his physical legacy lies in ruins under 6 feet of earth in the center of Rome: the Domus Aurea. Before visiting the Roman archaeological site, learn about the life and deeds of the infamous ruler behind its construction below.
Emperor Nero was born in 37 AD to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Julia Agrippina, a descendant of Emperor Augustus.
His family was known for its fratricidal crimes. After his father’s death, and the assassination of Caligula, emperor from 37-41 CE, his mother married her uncle, the new emperor, Claudius. His mother herself was suspected of poisoning Emperor Claudius to death in 54 CE (and Nero’s stepbrother Brittanicus died under suspicious circumstances) so that Nero could ascend to the throne at the age of 16.
Things started out fine under Nero. Up until 59 CE, biographer accounts describe a man who reigned benevolently and even beneficially in the eyes of the Romans. That year, however, Nero ordered his mother killed. This essentially happened because Nero was overwhelmed with paranoia; as his mother tried to control him and his power, she eventually turned against him and he against her. She felt like her son was slipping out of her control, making her paranoid, which Nero interpreted as a threat. And thus, his downward spiral began, with the order to have his mother killed. The public at this point had been fed a feast of rumors about the emperor – true or not, it didn’t really matter because matricide was the apex of madness, the worst of crimes.
His wife Octavia would meet the same fate three years later. After falling in love with his mistress Poppaea Sabina and getting her pregnant, he feared Octavia’s existence would provoke hostility at court and in the populace, so he killed her too, feigning a suicide. This obviously had the opposite effect on the people, further stoking their animosity towards him.
Although Nero did some good, he mostly exploited his reign (and taxpayer money) to satisfy his extravagant impulses, throwing lavish parties, partaking in artistic performances – at the time considered a job equal in status to that of a prostitute – often cross dressing for roles, and participating in games and chariot races he put on. All of these displays were considered indecorous and even perverse, only further diminishing public approval.
As his descent into madness continued, he became inversely confident. He had his slaves on conspiracy watch, notifying him of impending plots to remove him from power or even assassinate him. But he largely ignored the possibility of their fulfillment, preferring to pursue his personal pleasures than take them seriously.
Nero’s hopes for regaining the love of the people continued to diminish, and they literally went up in smoke. The Great Fire of Rome was the point of no return for the emperor’s reputation. After a plot to oust him in 65 CE, he departed for a visit to Greece for 15 months in 66 CE, during which the economic devastation in Rome worsened and unrest stewed along with general disapproval of the ruler.
Upon returning, he continued to indulge in his artistic pursuits, playing pregnant women and slaves on stage. Acting was an indecorous pastime for an emperor, so his public appearances slowly cracked the façade of his authority and made him vulnerable to further plots. But he believed himself immune to mutiny and ignored the threats that echoed from faraway places like Spain and France that would eventually spell his downfall.
The government eventually backed Governor Galba in Spain as the new emperor and declared Nero an enemy of the people. He fled the city to a friend’s villa where he took his own life.
It was the night between 18 and 19 July, 64 CE, when the Great Fire of Rome burst through the shops rooftops on the Aventine hill overlooking Circus Maximus. For 9 days, the city was engulphed in flames. The fire didn’t abate for six days, ripping through the heart of the city. After letting up a bit, it raged again for three days, eventually devastating two-thirds of Rome.
Emperor Nero was in his villa in Antium, about 35 miles from the city, during the fire. But that didn’t prevent the people from placing blame on the ruler himself, especially after his expansive rebuilding efforts revealed his plan to erect a grandiose palace for himself in the center of the city.
After the blaze died out, he briefly redeemed himself through relief efforts by inviting the suffering populace into his home for food and shelter and uplifting morale with his grand plans to rebuild the city. His plans included some positive additions – broader thoroughfares to avoid future fires – and some less popular aspects – a massive golden palace complete with a colossal bronze statue of himself…
But many believed he had several motives for starting the fire, including boosting his already tarnished reputation with this generosity and the more self-serving purpose of creating space for his golden palace.
No matter what the people believed, the fact of the matter was that rebuilding was costly. It led to the devaluation of currency by 10 percent. All in all, it sparked his downfall, and he was declared an enemy of the people.
A Nero’s famous murder was of the philosopher Seneca, who was Nero’s childhood tutor. When he ascended to the throne, Nero named him as advisor. Much of Emperor Nero’s early success can be attributed to the guidance of Seneca and praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, who together led the government under the teenage emperor.
Slowly, Seneca’s good graces with the tyrant dwindled. In 65 CE, a plot involving senators, knights, officers, and philosophers sought to install Gaius Calpurnius Piso as emperor (known as the Pisonian conspiracy). It ultimately failed, and the conspirators, Seneca among them, were executed, forced to commit suicide, exiled or pardoned.
Seneca’s enemies implicated him in the plot, leaving some doubt that he was actually involved. He was ordered to commit suicide, which he accepted with philosophical composure and became the subject of many works of art.
Nero is famous for being an insane and merciless ruler, who has been blamed for committing murders against his mother, his wives with his unborn child, his tutor Seneca, for having caused the Great Fire of Rome, for condemning to death the Christians and for damaging Rome economy.
In 59 CE he would commit an act so unforgivable that it would taint his popularity for good, an act he would never recover from: he killed his mother. Although many emperors of the day had committed horrific acts of familial assassination, matricide was the worst. His stained reputation would not likely recover from this. But Nero still got away with it, giving him the authority to essentially do whatever he liked without retribution. Who was Nero's mother?
Nero’s mother was Julia Agrippina, a descendant of Emperor Augustus. She was a power-hungry and vicious mother who handed Nero the helm of an empire as a teenager. She did everything she could to ensure he was installed on the highest seat of the ancient world, including eliminating threats in the government and possibly within the family.
An ambitious woman, she knew the only way for her to ever really have any sort of power was through a husband or son. Claudius, however, was more difficult to manipulate, so her chosen ticket to rule was her son.
Nero started his reign on the 13th of October 54 CE, at the age of 16 years old.
Contrary to what we might believe today, Emperor Nero started his reign as a beloved ruler to the citizens of Rome. He had banned secret trials, slashed taxes, outlawed capital punishment and did many other things that benefitted the city and its subjects. He was a lover of the arts, pursued such passions as music, theater and poetry, and spent his time in brothels and theaters.
But he soon grew bored of the responsibilities of his title and preferred to spend his time exploiting the advantages that title gave him, living a life of luxury and entertainment. And a few years after he became emperor, the people grew sick of his extravagant antics.
Nero was married to Claudius’ daughter, a distant cousin, Claudia Octavia. He would go on to kill her when she threatened his image in the public eye.
There were rumors that Nero killed Poppaea Sabina, who was his second wife, and her unborn child.
The people of Rome blamed the hellfire on their antichrist emperor, despite accounts claiming he had been at his villa in Antium as the inferno raged. Rumors stated that he had planned the whole thing to purge Rome of its filth to make way for his Domus Aurea. They spread as fast as the fire itself that he was behind it, an example of how weak his reputation had become.
It is estimated that the fire leveled two-thirds of the city. Four of the fourteen Roman districts were burned to the ground, and seven more were severely damaged.
Since he was accused by the Roman people of having burned Rome, Nero needed to turn the attention away from him, so he chose the Christians as his scapegoat.
Nero burnt the Christians in turn for their supposed act of arson.
Emperor Nero was well-known for his lyre playing.
A rumor claimed that Emperor Nero, as the arsonist behind Rome’s burning, proudly watched the flames as he played his fiddle. Since the stringed instrument wasn’t actually invented until the 10th-century, it could have developed from an earlier rumor that he was playing the lyre.
However, the historical accounts of the events largely agree that he was at his villa in Antium at the time of the fire, and thus this tale has been discounted as mere hearsay.
In 68 CE, the Praetorian Guard officially sentenced him to death. He narrowly escaped, taking refuge at a friend’s villa where he was eventually cornered. Some accounts say he took his own life, other’s that he had his friend finish the deed. Meanwhile, he cried out, Qualis artifex pereo, “what an artist dies in me,” a final statement of his megalomaniacal self-interest
After Nero died, Rome devolved into instability, and the Julio-Claudian line of emperors ended with Nero.
Servius Sulpicius Galba was the emperor who reigned after Nero.
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