By the time Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, driving a dagger into his neck in hiding from the Senate and the army in his freedman’s squalid villa, his posthumous reputation was already beyond saving. Not only had he managed to alienate vast sections of Roman society through his shocking incompetency as emperor, his death also brought about the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and resulted in just over a year of brutal civil war— creating precisely the instability an emperor was supposed to prevent.
Declared an enemy of the state (hostis) by the Senate, Nero was subjected to a de facto damnatio memoriae, meaning that while no official senatorial decree was passed to eradicate any trace of his reign from history, his name and images were still attacked, erased, or removed from public view and put into storage. He still had some love among the plebs though. Not only did people long continue to decorate his tomb with flowers, but our sources tell us that the years following his death a number of “False Neros” sprung up around the Empire, believing they could trade in their name for power.
Nero was briefly rehabilitated during the short-lived reigns of two of his successors, Otho and Vitellius in 69 AD, his statues returned to public view. Otho had close ties with Nero, having formerly being married to one of Nero’s wives, Poppaea Sabina, while Vitellius and Nero had been friends with Vitellius constantly praising the emperor’s artistic abilities and encouraging him to give recitals. However, the eventual winner of the Civil War, Vespasian, wasted no time in reinforcing Nero’s damnatio memoriae.
Many of Nero’s statues were re-cut to look like Vespasian, and ease with which this was done wasn’t a great compliment to the young Nero. Vespasian was 60 when he took power—almost double Nero’s age when he died—and we’re told he had an expression that made him look constantly constipated. But it wasn’t just Vespasian’s likeness Nero’s statues were re-carved into. Augustus, Claudius, Galba, Titus, Domitian, Trajan, Commodus; these are just a few of the preceding and succeeding emperors whose statues were cut from Nero.
Another iconic image of Nero underwent alteration after his death. After the Great Fire of 64 AD, Nero commissioned a “colossus”, a giant bronze statue of himself some 120 foot tall, to be erected in the gardens of his Golden House (roughly where the Colosseum stands today and from where it gets its name). After his death, this colossus underwent numerous changes: first made to look like the sun god Sol, it was then recast to resemble Vespasian’s son, Emperor Titus, before becoming Hercules and finally Emperor Commodus.