The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero

The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero

Patrick Lynch - December 25, 2016

Emperor Nero ruled the Roman Empire from 54-68 AD and is usually looked upon as a bloodthirsty tyrant who murdered for pleasure and used his role as a means of living an opulent lifestyle. Throughout his reign, he executed a huge number of people for no other reason than the fact he didn’t trust them.

Nero was born on December 15, 37 AD and was the crazed Caligula’s nephew. He became emperor upon the death of Claudius before his 17th birthday and showed early signs of being a competent ruler. However, this hope was dashed as his dark side came to the fore. The rest of his reign was marked by brutality and extremely odd behavior. In this piece, we look at five important facts about his reign.

The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero
University of Oxford – Nero and Agrippina

1 – He Wasn’t Always a Tyrant

Far from being a tyrannical emperor from the beginning, Nero started quite promisingly with a number of reforms. Given his youth, he wisely listened to the counsel of more experienced Romans including his mother Agrippina and his advisors Sextus Africanus Burrus and Seneca the Younger. Classical sources suggest Nero’s mother poisoned Emperor Claudius to allow her son to take the throne.

For the first five years of his reign, it appeared as if Agrippina made the right decision. Nero earned a positive reputation as he ended secret trials and allowed power-sharing with the Senate. Other reforms including a ban on capital punishment, allowing slaves to sue owners for maltreatment and a reduction in taxation. Nero even gave aid to the Jews and helped other cities that had suffered disasters. For much of the first five years, Nero pursued his passions; music, and athletics, and allowed the three advisors mentioned above to make the necessary decisions about the kingdom.

However, Seneca made a terrible mistake by encouraging Nero to step out of the shadow of his mother. Agrippina could see what was happening and began to turn against her son; she promoted Britannicus as the heir to the throne and opposed Nero’s affair with Poppaea Sabina. Nero reacted angrily, and Britannicus soon died in mysterious circumstances.

His initial attempt to kill his mother didn’t go particularly well in 59 AD. Nero invited Agrippina to a seaside resort where he was staying, and his plan was for her to die when returning home by boat. She survived this assassination attempt and swam safely to shore. When the subtle approach didn’t work, Nero sent soldiers to complete the job. He tried to claim that his mother was plotting against him but no one believed it. In ancient Rome, the killing of one’s mother, matricide, was seen as among the worst crimes. People were appalled, but Nero was only just getting started.

The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero
Thousand – Palatine Hill

2 – His Depravity Was Legendary

Much is made of Caligula having sex with his sister, but it is suggested that Nero had intimate relations with his mother, Agrippina. According to historian Tacitus, Agrippina ‘offered herself’ to Nero. Tacitus cited Clavius and Fabius Rusticus as his sources, but their writings have been lost. Suetonius also claims Nero wanted sexual relations with his mother. Given Nero’s depravity, it would hardly be a surprise, but there doesn’t appear to be enough evidence to confirm this rumor outright.

Nero did, however, indulge in a wide array of inappropriate behavior. When he drifted down the River Tiber to Ostia, there were individual booths set up along the way. Each one was filled with the tools of debauchery with matrons acting as innkeepers as every person beckoned him to the shore. Nero also had a penchant for seducing married women and young boys.

His activities with a slave called Sporus were odd even by Nero’s standards. He castrated the unfortunate boy and tried to make a woman of him. Then he ‘married’ Sporus with all the traditional ceremony and outfits including a bridal veil for his ‘bride.’ The slave was taken to Nero’s house and treated as his wife.

Nero also supposedly defiled every part of his body. His complete lust for all things weird meant he was forced to come up with inventive ways to fulfill his desires. One of his more twisted games was to tie men and women to stakes. Nero would cover himself with the skin of a wild animal and be let loose from a cage to attack the private parts of the helpless victims. Once he had satiated his lust, his freedman Doryphorus murdered those Nero had defiled.

If all of the above wasn’t enough, there was the small matter of Nero’s legendary wild orgies. Accounts of these ‘events’ make a terrifying reading. As the drunken guests of the emperor peered out of the palace windows, they would be greeted with the sight of up to a dozen men covered with tar which had been tied to stakes. These Christians would be set on fire, and as they screamed, a host of half-naked dancing girls would appear. This would just be the beginning of a night of unrestrained indulgence.

The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero – Nero’s Pleasure Palace

3 – He Had a Pleasure Palace

For centuries, historians wondered if the legendary dining room in the magnificent Golden Palace, described by historian Suetonius, even existed. The writer spoke of how the dining rooms had ceilings made from fretted ivory. The panels of the ceilings would slide back, and perfume would come from sprinklers or else flowers would rain down on the guests. He continued by stating that the main banqueting room was circular and revolved 24 hours a day.

If the above seems unbelievable, an incredible discovery by archaeologists brought this dining room to life. Excavation on Rome’s Palatine Hill revealed a circular perimeter wall which may have been part of the building Suetonius spoke about. Other findings included a circular floor 50 feet in diameter, giant stone spheres and a 13 foot thick stone pillar. It has been suggested that the mechanism for the spheres was cranked by slaves.

The construction of the infamous Golden Palace infuriated Romans. Some even alleged that Nero started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD to make room for the building although it’s unlikely the emperor had anything to do with starting the blaze. He did build the palace on the ruins of burned buildings and raised taxes to complete the construction of his pleasure palace.

A 120-foot bronze statue of Nero stood at the entrance, and the grounds contain an amphitheater and bathhouse complex. Exotic creatures roamed the entrance, and once guests averted their gaze from this stunning sight, they were led to the rotating dining room. There they would feast on delicacies including stuffed sow’s wombs, roasted dormice, Swan, and peacock. Guests were plied with gallons of wine and only stopped eating long enough to have sex with the male and female prostitutes the emperor had lined up. When they were full but wanted to eat more, they simply vomited into special bowls.

Nero was known for his love of music, and on occasion, he would inflict his ‘talent’ on his guests. He liked to strum a lute-like instrument or subject the audience to a lengthy poetry recital. It wasn’t just his guests that were forced to listen to his ramblings. Nero sometimes appeared in theaters and ensured the doors were locked so no one could leave before his performance was finished. Guests at his parties faced a similar fate; they had to eat, drink and indulge in sexual activity until Nero allowed them to leave. As the Golden Palace was only completed in 68 AD, it is unlikely there were many parties as it was the same year the emperor died.

The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero
Wikipedia Commons – Luca_Giordano_-_The_Death_of_Seneca

4 – He Was a Murderer

When he wasn’t indulging in wild sexual behavior or gluttony, Nero enjoyed a spot of murder. He had his first wife Octavia banished because of alleged adultery and also because she was infertile. Not content with this punishment, Nero had her executed in 62 AD. The emperor married Sabina in the same year and had a child that died in infancy. In 65 AD, Nero reportedly kicked his wife in the stomach when she was pregnant with their second child, and this action caused her death. The following year, Nero married Statilia Messina after forcing her husband to commit suicide. He ‘married’ Sporus in 67 AD because he apparently bore a resemblance to Sabina.

One of his most infamous acts was the persecution of the Christians whom he blamed for the Great Fire of Rome. Nero did this to deflect the blame as it was believed he was responsible for the blaze. The Christians were an easy target because they were a small and immensely disliked minority in Rome. According to Tacitus, those who were rounded up and arrested first confessed that they were Christians. Next, they were convicted, not for the crime of burning the city but for ‘hating the human race.’

Their horrific deaths were turned into a sport. First of all, Christians were covered with the hides of wild beasts and savaged to death by dogs. Alternatively, they were tied to crosses and set alight. As I mentioned in #3, some of these Christians would be set on fire for the amusement of guests at Nero’s parties.

At the beginning of his reign, Nero promised to give the Senate the kind of powers it had under the Republic. By 65 AD, the Senate complained that it had no power left and this resulted in the Pisonian Conspiracy. A leading statesman by the name of Gaius Calpurnius Piso plotted the assassination of Nero and intended to become emperor. A slave called Epicharis revealed the plot to a fleet captain without giving names. He turned her in and under torture; she offered more details including names although she did not completely betray the plot.

The conspiracy was eventually revealed by a freedman named Milichus and Nero ordered the plotters, including Piso and Seneca, to commit suicide. Over a dozen conspirators committed suicide or were executed as the emperor showed no mercy. The plot was a failure, but it was the beginning of the end for Nero.

The Musical Tyrant: 5 Facts about Emperor Nero
Heritage History – Nero Fiddles While Rome Burns

5 – His Death Led To Civil Wars

The people of Rome were fed up with Nero’s tyrannical rule. Although he had provided assistance in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome, he built a decadent palace on some of the ruins and in 68 AD, he increased taxation to pay for it. Tales of his depravity and cruelty were well known and his extraordinary ego ruined the Olympic Games of 67 AD. He fell in the chariot race and offered poor performances as an actor and singer. Nonetheless, he was awarded victories because of his status and paraded around Rome wearing the crowns he had ‘won.’

The Pisonian Conspiracy was the first sign of open revolt against the emperor, but it wouldn’t be the last. In April 68 AD, Gaius Iulius Vindex, a Roman Governor in Gaul, renounced the emperor and declared his support for Galba. Nero failed to respond decisively to this rebellion, and support for Galba quickly grew, Galba declared himself legate of the Senate and the Roman People. Soon, the Praetorian Guard announced their allegiance to Galba and the Senate followed suit while also declaring Nero as an enemy of the people.

Nero ordered Lucius Verginius Rufus to quell the rebellion in Gaul and in May, he defeated Vindex who committed suicide. The legions of Verginius wanted him to become emperor, but he refused to act against Nero. Nonetheless, it was clear that the tyrant’s days were numbered. After a failed attempt to flee Rome, he returned to the city and woke up to find his palace guard had left.

Nero went to his villa and asked four freedmen to dig a grave for him. A courier arrived and provided a false report that the Senate had sentenced the emperor to die and he would be beaten to death. In reality, Senate members wanted to reach a compromise to ensure the royal bloodline remained intact. On June 9, 68 AD, Nero ordered Epaphroditos to help him commit suicide.

Cassius Dio and Suetonius wrote that the people of Rome celebrated the death of Nero. However, his death was to lead to a bloody civil war and instability as 69 AD became known as the year of the Four Emperors. Galba became emperor upon Nero’s death but was killed by the Praetorian Guard. Otho was emperor for only three months before Vitellius assumed the throne. Finally, Vespasian was recognized as the leader of Rome, and he reigned relatively peacefully for ten years.