The Early Life of Emperor Nero

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Born as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero was the fifth and last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

Nero was born on December 15, 37 AD in Antium, near what is now Anzio, in Italy. Nero was the only son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, as well as both second and third cousin to Agrippina the Younhger, who was the sister of Emperor Caligula.

Nero’s Ancestors

Nero’s father was the grandson of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had defeated Gnaeus Domitius Calvius at the Battle of Phillipi, during the wars of the Second Trivumvirate. Nero’s father, Lucius had served as a Praetor during the reign of Emperor Caligula. He also served as a member of the Imperial Retinue when Caligula travelled to the east. According to the Roman writer, Suetonius, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was guilty of treachery and incest. However, the death of Emperor Tiberius allowed him to escape punishment for these charges. Nero’s father died of Edema, sometime around 39 AD, when Nero was three years old.

Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the great-granddaughter of Augustus, through her mother Julia the Elder and Marcus Agrippa. A number of primary sources claim that Agrippina arranged the death of Emperor Claudius, to hasten the ascension of Nero.

Suetonius described Nero as being heavyset and of average height. Suetonius also wrote that Nero possessed strong body odor, a thick neck and weak blue eyes, in addition to slender legs.

Nero’s Childhood

Early on in his life, Nero was not expected to become Emperor. His maternal uncle, Emperor Caligula, became Emperor at the age of 25, leaving plenty of time to produce an heir and secure the succession. Additionally, Nero’s mother, Agrippina, fell out of favor with Caligula, following the death of Nero’s father in 39 AD. In addition to rumors of treason and incest, Ahenobarbus was also accused of being an accomplice of Albucila, in a number of cases of adultery and murder. Following the death of Ahenobarbus, Nero was left a third of his father’s estate however, this money was confiscated by Emperor Caligula. Caligula also sent Nero to live with his aunt, Domitia Lepida, who had slept with Nero’s father, and was the mother of Valeria Messallina, the third wife of Emperor Claudius.

On January 24, 41 AD, Caligula, his wife, Caesonia, and their daughter, Julia Drusilla were assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. In the wake of the death of Caligula, Claudius became Emperor. One of his first acts as Emperor was to recall, Nero’s mother, Agrippina, from exile.

Claudius married twice before marrying Valeria Messallina. Claudius’s marriages produced three children, a boy named Drusus, who died young, a daughter named Claudia Octavia and a second son named Brittanicus. In 48 AD, Claudius had Valeria put to death. A year later, he married for a fourth time, this time to Agrippina, Nero’s mother. Claudius also adopted Nero. Because Nero was older than his step-brother, Brittanicus, Nero became Claudius’s heir.

Nero Becomes Emperor

Nero was proclaimed an adult in 51 AD, at the age of 14. He was appointed Proconsul by Emperor Claudius and made his first address to the Senate. Nero also made joint public appearances with Claudius. His image also appeared on Roman coinage. In 53 AD, Nero married his stepsister, Claudia Octavia. Nero was declared Emperor, following the death of Claudius in 54 AD.

Sources

Tacitus, Histories, I-IV (c. 105)

Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, the Life of Nero (c. 121)

Champlin, Edward. Nero. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2003

Griffin, Miriam T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New Heaven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1985

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