Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First

Natasha sheldon - June 27, 2019

On June 9th, 68 AD, Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar— better known as Emperor Nero — died by his own hand after being declared an enemy of the state by the Roman senate. It was an ignominious death for the last of the original imperial dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Deserted and reviled, Nero had fled Rome in disguise to the villa of one of his freedmen. Once there, the man who had killed his wife, mother and adopted brother without compunction and was rumoured to have started the Great Fire of Rome spent the last few hours of his life attempting to avoid the inevitability of his death.

Nero was so terrified of dying that he begged one of his servants to kill themselves to serve as an example to him- before a troop of armed soldiers forced his hand. Even then he needed help to drive the dagger home. However, within months of his death, rumours began that Nero still lived and would return in glory to reclaim his empire. Over the next twenty years, as many as three “false Neros” came forward claiming to be the notorious emperor and seize the imperial purple. All were out-ed as fakes and foreign pawns. But why did so many cling to the idea that the former emperor lived? And why would anyone believe that someone impersonating someone as reviled as Nero could help them seize power in Rome?

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
Bust of Nero as a young man from the Palatine Hill. Picture Credit: Jastrow. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

 

The Life and Reign of Nero

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarus was born at Antium on December 15, 37 AD, the son of Gnaeus Ahenobarus and Agrippina the younger — the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina, the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus. By 48 AD, Agrippina the Younger had married her Uncle, Emperor Claudius and in 50 AD, the ailing Emperor adopted his great-nephew as his son. Lucius Domitius now became Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. Just three years later, after the death of Claudius, he became Emperor Nero, after superseding Claudius’s natural son, Britannicus.

The first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively benign. The young emperor seemed intent on becoming a second Augustus and made a great speech to the Senate acknowledging their authority — minting coinage bearing the stamp of senatorial authority to reinforce his words. Nero also deified his predecessor Claudius and made a show of merciful rule by avoiding the death penalty as much as possible. However, behind the scenes, the cracks were beginning to show, and Nero started to remove anyone in perceived opposition to him. In 55 BC he murdered his adopted brother Britannicus after growing tensions with Agrippina led her to shift her attention to the young Prince. Agrippina followed in 59BC, and finally, in 62 AD, Nero murdered first wife Octavia and her elder sister.

Then in 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome broke out. The conflagration lasted for nine days and wiped out much of the city. Nero provided emergency help and shelter for the dispossessed — but he also appropriated vast swathes of public land which he turned into a lavish palace and gardens — the so-called Golden House of Nero. These advantages to Nero led to rumours that the Emperor was the arsonist. So Nero responded by looking for other scapegoats to satisfy the mob in the form of Rome’s Christian population who he cruelly persecuted.

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
The Apostles Paul and Peter confront Simon Magus before Nero, Renaissance fresco in Florence by Filippino Lippi, c1482. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Nero’s reputation amongst the elite began to plummet — although he remained popular with the people. The disastrous Boudiccan Revolt and war with Parthia did little to bolster the emperor’s reputation. Nor did the Emperor’s excesses. In 65Ad, a plot to replace Nero arose which he learned of and thwarted. However, the foiled coup only made Nero worse and widespread executions followed, including the poet Lucan and the emperor’s old tutor, Seneca. Nero even turned on his old friend Petronius, author of the Satyricon. His murderous madness finally culminated in him kicking his pregnant wife, Poppaea, to death.

In the aftermath, Nero abandoned Rome and spent a happy two years touring Greece, competing in athletic and musical contests — including the Olympic games — and basking in the adoration of his Hellenistic subjects. However, in January 68AD, the emperor’s extended foreign holiday came to an abrupt close when Helios, the freedmen he had left governing Rome, advised Nero to return to Rome quickly — or lose the purple. Nero complied — but it was too late. A famine in the city, caused by Nero cutting grain supplies had lost him the support of the populace, but worse still, Nero had lost the support of the army. They now supported a new imperial candidate, the governor of Spain, Galba. By early June 68 AD, Nero’s end was in sight. The Senate declared him a public enemy on June 9th, 68 AD. However, by the time they made the declaration, the Emperor had fled Rome.

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
Emperor Nero as Apollo playing the lyre, Roman intaglio. Engraved amethyst. Treasure of the abbey of St Denis. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Nero’s Decline- and Death

Before he left Rome, Nero tried to bribe the officers of the Praetorian guards to help him. There reply was not encouraging. “Is it so terrible a thing to die?” one reputedly asked the emperor. Following this rejection, the desperate Nero considered his options. One was to flee to Parthia while another was to wait and throw himself on the mercy of the advancing Galba. Nero even toyed with the idea of publicly petitioning the Roman people for the Prefecture of Egypt —but gave the idea up when he realised he was likely to be torn apart.

The night of June 8th must have passed uneasily for Nero. However, the next day was far worse. The ex-emperor awoke to discover his bodyguard had left him. So, gathering his remaining four servants — one of which was a gladiator named Sporus — and fled Rome barefoot and in disguise for the villa of his freedman Phaon, just four miles outside Rome. Nero then passed the next few hours vacillating over his death. When his servants begged him to avoid ignominious execution by committing suicide, appeared decided and ordered them to dig him a grave. However, while they did so, he wandering around bewailing his fate and muttering ” Dead! And so great an artist!'”

Then a letter arrived, and Nero learned the Senate had declared him a public enemy. The letter also stated that the Senate had decreed the ex-emperor should be captured and brought to Rome for execution “ancient style.” This meant that Nero was to be stripped naked and, with his head secured in a wooden fork, publicly flogged to death. The news sent Nero into a frenzied panic. He snatched up two daggers and tried the points as if to kill himself —only to throw down again, protesting the time of his death had not yet come.

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
Death of Nero by Vasiliy Smirnov, 1888. The State Russian Museum – Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Nero then changed his mind again and asked Sporus to mourn him. He then begged for one of his remaining servants to set him an example by killing themselves first. The next moment, increasingly erratic emperor was berating himself for his cowardice. Suetonius records how witnesses stated he bewailed “How ugly and vulgar my life has become,” before turning on himself, saying “Come pull yourself together.”

Hooves from a troop of cavalry approaching the villa to arrest Nero finally decided the matter. Rather than face execution, the cornered Nero chose to end his own life. He made his companions promise to bury him respectably. Then he took up the dagger. However, Nero couldn’t quite summon the courage to plunge the knife home himself — his secretary Epaphroditus had to help him stab himself in the throat. The arresting centurion arrived just in time to catch the emperor’s last breath, but despite his outlaw status, respected Nero’s last wishes. Galba’s freedman Icelus cremated the emperor in the gold-embroidered robes he had last worn in Greece. His ashes, however, were placed amongst those of his father’s family the Domitii on the Pincian Hill rather than amongst the other Julio-Claudians.

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
Galba from “Pictures from Roman Life and Story, ” by CHURCH, Alfred John. Original held and digitised by the British Library. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The False Neros.

After Nero’s death, the citizens of Rome reputedly celebrated in the street. However, some also mourned. The Greeks were one group. However, there were also some in Rome who still revered Nero. According to Suetonius, it became customary for people to lay spring and summer flowers on Nero’s grave in the years after his death and some even erected the emperor’s statue on the rostra in the forum. Others continued to circulate Nero’s edicts as if he was still alive — while rumours began to circulate that the emperor was not dead but would return to “confound his enemies.”

The fact no one had seen Nero’s corpse fanned the flames of these rumours-as did his private burial. The rumours were also not helped by the fact that Nero’s natal chart reputedly foretold he would lose his empire- only to recover it in the east. However, whatever their initial basis, the rumours of Nero’s survival did not go away, and over the next twenty years, not one but three individuals claiming to be Nero came forward and tried to take the empire.

The first false Nero emerged just months after Nero’s death in the place where the emperor was most beloved: Greece. This false Nero gathered a group of army deserters and set sail for Italy. However, Emperor Galba, who took the imposter seriously sent forces out to intercept and kill Nero and return his decapitated head to Rome for public display. For the next ten years, all was quiet on the imposter front as the empire settled under the stabilising rule of Emperor Vespasian. However, after Vespasian’s death, not one but two false Nero’s arose — one during the reign of Vespasian’s eldest son, Titus and the other under his unstable and unpopular son, Domitian.

Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First
Nero’s torches by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Both of these false Nero’s were sponsored by the Parthians who after causing a good deal of unrest amongst the Roman ruling elite handed their “Neros” over for retribution. The Parthians motives were clear: to humiliate and possibly destabilise their old enemy Rome as much as possible. However, they could not have hoped to succeed in their plans unless they believed the return of Nero would have some support amongst the people of the Roman empire — particularly in Rome.

Professor Edward Champlin, author of “Nero: The end of a Dynasty” believes Nero was not as universally loathed as people think. He believes it was the “senators…..and leading knights” described by Tacitus that truly hated Nero. The plebian poor who made up 90% of the population of Rome however, was a different matter. These were the people who had benefitted from Nero’s reign, who ” ate his banquets and joined in enthusiastically with his performances.” They were not offended by Nero’s excesses or murderous tendencies — as long as their own lives saw some benefits. They may have turned on Nero at his end. But when times became tough for them, they looked upon his rule as a golden age —and so were all too willing to cling to the idea that — like King Arthur — Nero might return.

 

Where Do We Get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Who’s who in the Roman world, John Hazel, Routledge, 2002

The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, (trans Robert Graves), BCA, 1979

Terrifying reign of Roman emperor Nero ended in suicide, Marie Hogg, The Daily Telegraph, June 8, 2018

Vol II, Book 2, 8-9, The Histories of Tacitus, Loeb Classical Library, 1925

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