Both as an emperor and as a human, Nero was inexcusably bad. His show-reel of worst moments include: assassinating his mother, forcing one wife to commit suicide and kicking another wife to death when she told him off for spending too much time at the games. As emperor, he completely failed his principal job of holding the empire together. For in his final days, he mismanaged events so spectacularly that what started out as an insignificant revolt led to him committing suicide without an heir, plunging Rome into yet another civil war.
The beginning of the end came with the rebellion of the Roman governor of Gallia Lugdunensis (Northern France) in March 68 AD. Sick of Nero’s inept leadership and looking to win support for his cause, he nominated the Spanish governor Galba as the new emperor. Despite Galba being declared an enemy of the state, it wasn’t long before the armies abandoned Nero and swore allegiance to him.
The 30-year-old emperor toyed with several solutions, including throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba or Rome’s enemies, the Parthians, or mounting the rostra (a speaking platform in the forum) dressed in black and publicly apologizing for all past offenses. In the end, he decided to do nothing and went to bed. Waking up in the middle of the night, he found everyone had abandoned him, even his personal gladiator who he was searching for so he might end help the emperor end his wretched life.
Eventually, he made his way to the villa of his freedman (ex-slave), Phaon, just outside the city. Hiding himself inside, he waited for news from the outside world. A few hours later it arrived, but it wasn’t what Nero wanted to hear. The Senate had declared him an enemy of the state. Nero steeled himself for suicide, but could not bring himself to do it, asking in vain for someone to show him how it’s done. Eventually, mistaking the sound of horses outside for someone sent to arrest him, he drove a dagger into his throat.
Moments before his death, Nero is credited with saying,
“Qualis artifex pereo! — What an artist dies with me!”
While taken to mean “what an artist dies with me!”, in reality the phrase has been misunderstood for centuries. Artifex translates less as “artist” and more as “artisan” in the modern sense of the word: a builder and a creator. Then again, Nero was never any good as an artist anyway; Suetonius tells us he had a husky singing voice—desirable among the 90s Seattle grunge scene, less so in first-century Rome.