(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman emperor (r. 54-68 c.e.){$I[g]Roman Empire;Nero} As the fifth emperor of Rome, Nero continued the reign of terror of the Julio-Claudians while pursuing his own artistic career.

Early Life

Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero (NEER-oh) was a member of the Imperial Julio-Claudian family of Augustus through both parental lines. His formidable mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the granddaughter of Augustus’s daughter Julia III. His dissolute father, Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was the grandson of Augustus’s sister Octavia and Marc Antony. When Nero was two years old, his mother was banished by her mad brother, the emperor Caligula, for treason. In the following year, Nero’s father died, and his estate was seized by Caligula. The orphan was reared in the house of his paternal aunt Domitia Lepida until the accession of Claudius I in 41 c.e., when his mother was recalled from exile and his paternal inheritance was restored. The boy’s early education was uncertain. He may have been cared for by a male dancer and a barber in his aunt’s house. Later, he was given Greek tutors, including Anicetus and Beryllus, who remained advisers into his adulthood.

Nero’s prospects improved significantly in 48 c.e., when the emperor Claudius married his niece Agrippina and her son came under the tutelage of the famous statesman and Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (known as Seneca the Younger), who supervised the boy’s education. Empress Agrippina schemed tenaciously to improve Nero’s place in the line of succession. In 49 c.e. she persuaded her husband to betroth Nero to his daughter Octavia. On February 25, 50, Agrippina’s son was legally adopted by the emperor and renamed Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus even though Claudius had a natural son and heir, Britannicus. On March 5, 51, Nero took the toga virilis and was declared an adult, six months before he was legally entitled to do so; in the absence of the emperor, he served as prefect of the city of Rome. Two years later, Nero married Octavia and gave his first public speeches. On October 12, 54, the emperor Claudius died, perhaps poisoned by Agrippina, and the sixteen-year-old Nero was declared emperor the next day.

The physical description of Nero by his ancient biographer Suetonius is supplemented by images on contemporary coins. He was of average height, with blue eyes and light blond hair that he often set in curls and grew long in the back. He had a round, prominent chin, a squat neck, a protruding stomach, and spindly legs.

Life’s Work

Nero’s reign was marked by lavish public displays, a dissolute personal life, and the suspicious deaths of rivals. Nero endeared himself to the Roman populace by increasing the number of days on which public games were held. In 57 c.e. he built a new wooden amphitheater for gladiatorial contests and wild-beast shows. The emperor preferred extravagant and exotic artificial displays such as mock naval battles, controlled conflagrations during dramatic performances, and reenactments of mythological events. On such public occasions, the emperor often displayed great generosity to both the performers and the audience.

Nero enjoyed an uninhibited personal life. Rumors of an incestuous relationship with his mother cannot be proven. Nero certainly supplemented his marriage to Octavia with a long-term relationship with a Greek freedwoman named Acte. In 55 c.e. Britannicus became the emperor’s first victim, poisoned at a banquet. About the same time, Agrippina fell into disfavor. By 59 this rift had developed to such an extent that Nero ordered a bizarre assassination attempt on a barge in the Bay of Naples. When this failed, a troop of Nero’s henchmen killed Agrippina in her villa.

Throughout his reign, Nero relied heavily on others to govern the empire. At first, this dependence seemed the result of youthful inexperience; in later years, however, Nero spent much of his time composing poetry and songs that he performed publicly, much to the distaste of his subjects. While Agrippina’s influence was short-lived, Nero benefited from the moderating counsel of Seneca and of Sextus Afranius Burrus, the commander of his Praetorian Guard until 62 c.e., when Seneca retired and Burrus died. Burrus was succeeded by Ofonius Tigellinus, whose heavyhanded tactics resulted in terror and bloodbaths.

The emperor had a cadre of epicurean friends on whom he could rely for help, especially in his debauchery. Marcus Salvius Otho, the future emperor, helped arrange Nero’s rendezvous with Acte, and another friend, Petronius Arbiter, the author of the Satyricon (c. 60 c.e.; The Satyricon, 1694), is often called the emperor’s “arbiter of elegance.”

Several competent military commanders served Nero. Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo struggled with the difficult Armenian problem on the eastern border of the Empire. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus put down a dangerous revolt in the province of Britain...

(The entire section is 2068 words.)