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

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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