The Reign of Emperor Nero

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Nero became the Emperor of Rome following the death of Emperor Claudius in 54 AD.

Nero became the Emperor of Rome at the age of 16.The accounts of the death of Emperor Claudius vary widely in the primary sources, but a number of ancient writers accuse Nero’s mother, Agrippina, of arranging the death of Claudius in order to hasten the ascension of Nero. The primary sources also state that Nero was strongly influenced during the early part of his reign by his mother, Agrippina, his tutor, Lucius Anneaus Seneca and the Praetorian Prefect, Sextus Afranius Burrus.

The Murder of Agrippina

In 55 AD, Agrippina began advocating for the ascension of Britannicus, Nero’s younger step-brother. Agrippina hoped that by supporting Britannicus, who was the biological son of Emperor Claudius, she could force Nero out of power. Britannicus died on February 12, 55 AD, the day before he was to be declared an adult. Nero claimed that Britannicus died as a result of an epileptic fit however, the primary sources are unanimous in accusing Nero of poisoning Britannicus.

Over the course of his reign, Nero gradually became more and more powerful as he freed himself from his advisors and eliminated many of his enemies.

In 58 AD, and in spite of the fact that he was married to Claudia Octavia, Nero became romantically involved with Poppaea Sabinus, the wife of Nero’s friend, and future Emperor, Marcus Salvius Otho. It has been suggested that this was Nero’s motivation for ordering his mother’s murder. Some modern historians are sceptical of this, however, arguing that Poppaea did not divorce Otho until 62 AD, three years after the death of Agrippina. Some modern historians claim that Nero murdered his mother because she was plotting to replace him with Rubellius Plautus. Suetonius wrote that Nero tried to have his mother killed with a planned shipwreck, which took the life of her friend, Acerronia Polla, instead. Following this failure, Nero had his mother murdered and claimed that she had committed suicide.

The Great Fire of Rome

In July, 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome broke out. The fire is thought to have started somewhere near the south-eastern end of the Circus Maximus, in shops selling flammable goods.

The exact extent of the fire is uncertain. According to Tacitus, who lived in Rome, and was nine at the time, the fire spread quickly, burning for five days. The fire destroyed three of the city’s districts and did significant damage to seven others.

Uncertain of who, or what, started the fire, Suetonius and Cassius Dio accused Nero of arson, claiming that he had the city burned down in order to build a large palace complex, known as the Domus Aurea, or the Golden House. Tacitus also wrote that Christians confessed to the crime, however, it is not known whether or not these confessions were obtained through torture.

Tacitus wrote that Nero was in Antium when the fire broke out. Upon receiving word that Rome was burning, Nero immediately returned to the city to organize the relief effort. Nero distributed food to the survivors and opened the Imperial palaces to the homeless. In the wake of the fire, the population searched for a scapegoat and rumours circulated that Nero had burned down the city on purpose. In order to deflect the suspicions, Nero blamed the Christians. He had large numbers of Christians rounded up and crucified.

In 65 AD, Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a Roman statesman, organized a conspiracy against Nero, with the help of Subrius Flavus and Sulpicius Asper, a Roman Tribune and a Centurion with the Praetorian Guard. A freedman named Milichus uncovered the plot and reported it to Epaphradotis, Nero’s secretary. The conspiracy failed and its members were executed. Seneca, one of Nero’s chief advisors, was ordered to commit suicide when he admitted to knowledge of the plot.

The Death of Emperor Nero

In 68 AD, Gaius Juilius Vindex, the Governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, near modern day Lyons, rebelled against Nero’s tax laws. In an attempt to gain support outside his own province, Vindex formed an alliance with Servius Sulpicius Galba, the Governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. In May, 68 AD the Legions of Vindex were defeated at the Battle of Vesontio by the Governor of Germania Superior, now parts of modern day France and Switzerland. After the battle, Vindex committed suicideIn the meantime, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Nymphidius Sabinus came out in support of Galba.

When Nero learned this, he fled Rome, intending to take troops and a fleet to a loyal province in the East. However, he was forced to abandon this plan, as many of the senior Legionary commanders refused to follow his orders

An Imperial freedman offered to take Nero to his villa, which was just a few miles outside the city. Upon arriving, Nero ordered his four loyal servants to dig his grave. Shortly after this, a messenger arrived saying that the Senate had declared Nero an Enemy of Rome and that they intended to have him beaten to death. With the help of his secretary, Nero drove a dagger into his throat. Nero died on June 9, 68 AD. His death would lead to the chaos known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

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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