3. This Emperor Was Horrible, But Contra His Perception, He Was Also an Artist at Heart
Nero was one of ancient Rome’s worst rulers. He was born in 37 AD, a nephew of the emperor Caligula, and grand-nephew of his successor, the emperor Claudius. Claudius fell in love with his niece and Nero’s mother, Agrippina. He married her and adopted Nero, naming him his heir and successor. Agrippina had Claudius poisoned in 54 AD, and her teenaged son became emperor. She dominated Nero during the first five years of his rule, so to escape her smothering embrace, he decided to murder her.
Nero tried to make it look accidental, such as with a roof designed to collapse and crush her. The roof fell on and crushed one of her maids, instead. Next, Nero gifted his mother a pleasure barge, which was rigged to capsize in the middle of a lake. Before Nero’s horrified gaze as he watched from a villa overlooking the lake, his mother swam from the sinking barge to shore like an otter. At his wit’s end, and dreading an awkward confrontation, Nero sent in some sailors to club her death with oars. With his mother out of the way, Nero was finally free to indulge his fantasies ofâ¦ being an artist and Olympics champion.
After freeing himself from his domineering mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses and indulged himself to the fullest. Fancying himself a talented musician, he threw exceptionally long concerts, during which he sang while playing a lyre. Few dared leave before completion, or display anything less than rapt attention. The performances were so bad that women faked labor in order to leave, and men faked heart attacks or death so they could get carried out. Still, that was nothing compared to Nero’s pursuit of his dream to become an Olympics champion. He kicked that off by having the games delayed for two years until he could visit Greece.
Nero competed in chariot racing, and his competitors tried to throw the race by slowing down. Still, Nero failed to reach the finish line because he crashed and wrecked his chariot. The judges, combining sycophancy with fear of an unstable man who could have them crucified with a snap of his fingers, awarded him the victor’s wreath anyhow, reasoning that he would have won but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not even part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing.
Nero spent extravagantly in pursuit of his hobbies and to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied. In the meantime, he left the business of running the government to incompetent and corrupt cronies who wrecked it. By 68 AD, the Roman Empire had had enough, and numerous rebellions broke out. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public and begging their forgiveness. He thought that if he sang for them while playing the lyre, it would “soften their hearts”, and he would be allowed to retire to an out-of-the-way province as its governor.
He composed a speech and wrote a song. However, he changed his mind after it was pointed out that he would probably be torn apart by a mob as soon as he was sighted in public, before he got the chance to orate or sing. While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be publicly beaten to death, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him. All hope gone, Nero decided to end his life. Unable to do it himself, he had a freedman stab him, crying out before the fatal blow: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!” The perception of him molded by time.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading