Profile of the Roman Emperor Nero

engraving of Locust and Nero

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Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudians, that most important family of Rome that produced the first 5 emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero). Nero is famed for watching while Rome burned, then using the devastated area for his own luxurious palace, and then blaming the conflagration on the Christians, whom he persecuted. While his predecessor, Claudius, was accused of letting enslaved people guide his policy, Nero was accused of letting the women in his life, especially his mother, guide his. This wasn't considered an improvement.

Family and Upbringing of Nero

Nero Claudius Caesar (originally Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus) was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, sister of the future emperor Caligula, in Antium, on December 15, A.D. 37. Domitius died when Nero was 3. Caligula banished his sister, and so Nero grew up with his paternal aunt, Domitia Lepida, who chose a barber (tonsor) and a dancer (saltator) for Nero's tutors. When Claudius became emperor after Caligula, Nero's inheritance was returned, and when Claudius married Agrippina, a proper tutor, Seneca, was hired for young Nero.

Nero's Career

Nero might have had a successful career as an entertainer, but that was not to be—at least officially. Under Claudius, Nero pleaded cases in the forum and was given opportunities to ingratiate himself with the Roman people. When Claudius died, Nero was 17. He presented himself to the palace guard, who pronounced him emperor. Nero then went to the ​Senate, which gave him the appropriate imperial titles. As emperor, Nero served as consul 4 times.

Compassionate Elements of Nero's Reign

Nero reduced heavy taxes and fees paid to informers. He gave salaries to impoverished senators. He introduced certain fire-preventing and fire-fighting innovations. Suetonius says Nero devised a method of forgery prevention. Nero also replaced public banquets with grain distribution. His response to people criticizing his artistic skills was mild.

Some Charges Against Nero

Some of Nero's infamous acts, which led to rebellion in the provinces, included inflicting punishments on Christians (and blaming them for the devastating fire in Rome), sexual perversions, marauding and murdering Roman citizens, building the extravagant Domus Aurea 'Golden House', charging citizens with treason to confiscate their property, murdering his mother and aunt, and causing (or at least performing while watching) the burning of Rome.

Nero gained notoriety for inappropriately performing. It is said that as he died, Nero lamented that the world was losing an artist.

Death of Nero

Nero committed suicide before he could be captured and flogged to death. Revolts in Gaul and Spain had promised to bring Nero's reign to an end. Almost all his staff deserted him. Nero tried to kill himself, but required the assistance of his scribe, Epaphrodite, to stab himself in the neck. Nero died at the age of 32.

Ancient Sources on Nero

Tacitus describes the reign of Nero, but his Annals end before the last 2 years of Nero's reign. Cassius Dio (LXI-LXIII) and Suetonius also provide biographies of Nero.

Tacitus on the Modifications Nero Made to Building After the Fire of Rome

(15.43)"... The buildings themselves, to a certain height, were to be solidly constructed, without wooden beams, of stone from Gabii or Alba, that material being impervious to fire. And to provide that the water which individual license had illegally appropriated, might flow in greater abundance in several places for the public use, officers were appointed, and everyone was to have in the open court the means of stopping a fire. Every building, too, was to be enclosed by its own proper wall, not by one common to others. These changes which were liked for their utility, also added beauty to the new city. Some, however, thought that its old arrangement had been more conducive to health, inasmuch as the narrow streets with the elevation of the roofs were not equally penetrated by the sun's heat, while now the open space, unsheltered by any shade, was scorched by a fiercer glow."​​ -Annals of Tacitus

Tacitus on Nero's Blaming the Christians

(15.44)".... But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car."​ -Annals of Tacitus
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Gill, N.S. "Profile of the Roman Emperor Nero." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 29). Profile of the Roman Emperor Nero. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Profile of the Roman Emperor Nero." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).