Freud would have had a field day with Nero. Having helped murder his adopted father Claudius, he went on to have what the sources suggest was a fully incestuous relationship with his mother Agrippina. We’re told that whenever they rode together in a litter, the stains on his clothes would betray what they had done. Worst of all, in wanting to share his power she was complicit. Tacitus tells us that she would get him drunk to loosen him up. But being the good historian that he was, Tacitus also offers the view of a contemporary writer, Fabius Rusticus, who had it on good authority that Nero needed no such encouragement.
Nero would ultimately kill his mother in 59. He initially plotted to drown her, sending her out into the bay of Baia on a boat rigged to collapse. But the plan went awry, and while he panicked and prevaricated his advisors ended up taking command, sending a group of centurions to her villa at Baia to finish the job. Realizing her fate as they approached her Agrippina pointed to her womb before uttering her final words: “strike here”.
Nero had several wives. The first, Octavia, he made commit suicide. The second, Poppaea Sabina, he kicked to death during her pregnancy after she rebuked him for returning home late from the races. The third was his former mistress, Statilia Messalina, and in 66 Nero forced her unfortunate husband—the consul Marcus Junius Vestinus Atticus—to commit suicide so he could go ahead and marry her. And then there were Pyhtagoras and Sporus.
Pyhtagoras (not to be confused with the man who invented the theorem) or “Doryphorus” as some sources call him, was one of Nero’s favorite freedmen (or “ex-slaves”). In 64 AD he participated in a bizarre wedding ceremony, marrying Nero who took on the role of the veiled bride. But Pythagoras wasn’t Nero’s only husband; he had another favorite—a young boy called Sporus—who the emperor had castrated and married in 67 AD.
Like his uncle Caligula, he sexually assaulted the wives of senators. He also devised an utterly bizarre sex game in which he would dress up in wild animal pelt, sally forth from a cage, and attack the genitalia of men and women who had been tied to stakes. Once he’d had enough, he would be run through by his husband, Pythagoras, while moaning like a vestal virgin being deflowered (whatever floats one’s boat). Still, nothing should surprise us about someone whose philosophical principle was that no man was in any way pure or chaste but merely concealed their vices behind a thin veil.
It’s hard to establish the truth behind these stories. Granted Nero was no Mother Theresa. But it’s also hard to reconcile his mother-f*cking, wife-killing, slave-marrying, sexually assaulting, a pelt-wearing persona with the fact that he managed to retain power for almost 14 years. What’s worth remembering is that Nero was the last of a dynasty, and it was in the interests of subsequent writers under subsequent dynasts to blacken his name to benefit theirs.