“What an artist dies in me“.
Nero (37 – 68 AD), the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, was among Rome’s worst rulers. He was born in 37, a nephew of the emperor Caligula, and grand-nephew of his successor, the emperor Claudius. Claudius grew infatuated 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 a teenaged Nero succeeded him as emperor.
He was dominated by his mother during the first five years of his rule, so he sought to have her killed. He resorted to elaborate means to make her murder look accidental, such as a roof designed to collapse and crush her, and a pleasure barge designed to sink in the middle of a lake. Agrippina survived the collapsing roof, and swam from the sinking barge to shore. Exasperated, and fearing an awkward confrontation, Nero sent his henchmen to hack her to death with swords.
Once freed of his mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses, and with the resources of an empire at his disposal, indulged himself to the fullest. Fancying himself a talented musician, he took to giving excessively long concerts in which he would recite songs while strumming a lyre. Few attendees dared leave before completion, or observe with less than rapt attention. Writers of the period record instances of women faking labor in order to leave, and men faking death so they could get carried out.
He had also dreamt since childhood of becoming an Olympics champion, so he arranged for the games to be delayed for two years until he could visit Greece. Once there, he competed in chariot racing, but didn’t complete the course when his chariot crashed. The judges, combining sycophancy with fear of an unstable man who could have them executed at whim, awarded him the victor’s wreath, on the theory 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 part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing.
He spent lavishly to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied, even as he neglected government and entrusted its daily conduct to a corrupt entourage that drove it into the ground. By 68 AD, discontent reached the breaking point, and a number of generals and provincial governors rose up in rebellion. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him.
Fleeing Rome, Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public and begging its forgiveness, and playing them the lyre so as to “soften their hearts” and be allowed to retire to a province which he could govern. He composed a speech to that effect, but was dissuaded when it was pointed out that he would likely be torn apart by a mob if he was sighted in public.
While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be beaten to death publicly, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him and take him to the site of execution. With all options closed, Nero decided to end his life. He couldn’t do it himself, so he had a freedman run him through with a sword, crying out before he was stabbed: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!”