NERO'S DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY
- Mom and Dad
- Agrippina: married to L. Domitius Ahenobarbus ('Red
Beard'). From an ancient Roman family noted for its
hot-tempered loutish sons.
- Nero born in 37 C.E.
- Agrippina had divorced Ahenobarbus and married Claudius
after Claudius became Emperor (after the death of Caligula).
- Step Family
- Claudius, at the time of his succession had a daughter,
Octavia and a son, Britannicus (b. 41 CE).
- His wife, Messalina, was noted for her wild affairs, which
Claudius ignored. However, when she went through a marriage
ceremony with a popular politician, something had to be done.
- Claudius' chief advisors were freedmen of Greek origin,
Pallas and Narcissus. Narcissus persuaded Claudius that
Messalina and her pseudo-husband were planning a coup. The
Emperor ordered them arrested and killed.
- Pallas then persuaded Claudius to marry Agrippina, his
niece (48 CE). Two years later, Agrippina persuaded Claudius to
adopt Nero. The theory was that Nero would act as a guardian
figure for Claudius' own son.
- Agrippina's chief allies were Pallas, Seneca (Nero's tutor)
and Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect. She then began a campaign
against anyone who might object to Nero's eventual succession.
Her methods included:
- trumped up charges of magic
- delation (Claudius had stopped delation trials)
- In 53, Nero married Claudius' daughter Octavia.
- In 54, Claudius died eating mushrooms.
The Period of Regency - or how not to fight with your mother
- Nero was 16 at the time of his succession. Originally he was
well received. Seneca wrote his first speech to the Senate in
which he promised to rule according to the principles of Augustus
and end treason trials. He refused the title pater patriae until
'he deserved it.'
- Seneca and Burrus effectively managed the Empire and did it
- Agrippina tried to become the power behind the throne, but was
opposed by Seneca and Burrus (who had effected the downfall of
- Agrippina responded by buttering up Britannicus. So Nero had
- Agrippina responded by buttering up Octavia. So Nero (who was
having a fling with Acte, a freedwoman) had his wife banished.
- Agrippina retires.
- Nero then began a wild affair with the wife of one his close
friends, Otho. He rewarded Otho for his indulgence by giving him a
provence (Lusitania). He would eventually marry Poppaea Sabina,
- Nero then (55 CE) tried to secretly murder Agrippina. The
attempt was botched and knowledge of the murder became public. He
told the Senate that she in fact had been trying to murder him.
People were outraged, but didn't protest.
Nero, the Artist
- Nero wrote poetry (the Siege of Troy) and loved to sing. He
was greatly influenced by Greek traditions of performance and
athletics. No one in Rome minded these obsessions until he began
to insist on public performances. In the Roman tradition, only
slaves and marginalized characters performed in public. In the
Greek tradition, which Nero preferred, citizens could perform on
- In 59 Nero instituted the Ludi Iuvanles - private competitions
held on the Palace grounds, in which he insisted that members of
Rome's aristocratic families compete.In 60 he instituted the
Neronia, public games, in which he himself competed (he won most
of the prizes).
The Alienation of the Elite
- In 62 Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect died (apparently from
natural causes). Nero replaced him with two cronies, Faenius Rufus
and Ofonius Tigellinus. Seneca retired.
- Nero then accused his wife of adultery and had her killed. He
subsequently married Poppaea.
- He then began a series of trumped up treason trials. He would
also simply ask members of the aristocracy to kill themselves. The
trials were motivated in part by a desire for money.
The Alienation of the People
- In July 64 a fire started in Rome which burned for 10 days.
About half the city (in which about 80% of the population lived)
was destroyed. Nero was at Antium when the fire started. He
returned immediately to Rome and actively led fire-fighting and
- He also began plans to rebuild the city into a monument to
himself (vast gardens, 120 foot statues of himself, a palace to be
called the Domus Aurea - the Golden House). These plans were
wildly expensive and not popular with the people - most of whom
were homeless. To effect his plans he increased the prosecution of
the wealthy and debased the coinage.
- Rumors began to circulate that Nero had deliberately burned
- He began a persecution of the Christians to divert the
people's animosity. Normally he would have persecuted Jews, but
his wife Poppaea was fascinated with Judeism. The trials did not
explicitly link Christian's with the burning of Rome. Instead,
Christian's were tried for status crimes. If you claimed to be a
Christian, you were immediately guilty of treason.
- Romans hated the little they knew of Christians (whom they
regarded as unpatriotic at best and cannibals at worst), but
Nero's persecution was so vicious that it actually created
sympathy for the persecuted.
Query - Can a Vicious Tyrant be Paranoid?
- In 65, a significant number of Senators and Equites began a
conspiracy to murder Nero. The conspirators were divided about
what they would do next. Some wanted to replace Nero with Piso, a
senator from a leading family. Others thought about restoring the
republic. Seneca was a leading member of the conspiracy.
- One of the conspirators ratted and Nero held a series of
"private" trials and had the conspirators killed. He also killed
his wife Poppaea that year, but apparently only in a fit of
- After this, Nero's paranoia knew no bounds. He began a
persecution of Stoics, a philosophy which had attracted many
aristocrats and taught non-involvement in politics.
- In 66-67, Nero ordered several provincial governors/army
commanders [who were quite competent] to commit suicide.
These men might have served as figures to lead a rebellion from
the army. Unfortunately for Nero, it was precisely at this moment
that Judea decided to revolt.
- By 68, Nero was associating himself with figures of Greek
divinity and apparently actively seeking to be worshiped as a god.
His Greek enthusiasms became even more extreme and he went to
Greece to compete in games (where he won 1808 gold medals).
- His freedmen in Rome urged him to return because the people
were becoming increasingly angry about a corn shortage. Nero
stayed only a short time, however, before retiring to Naples - the
most 'Greek' city in Italy.
- Vindex, a Gaul, then led a revolt against Rome. Roman armies
in the west abandoned Nero. Galba in Spain, Otho in Lusitania and
Macer in Africa all began propaganda campaigns to replace Nero.
Vergniius Rufus, the commander in Gaul defeated Vindex and his
troops offed to make him Emperor. He refused, believing that the
aristocracy wouldn't accept him.
- Nero committed suicide and the armies began to compete for the
honor of naming their general, Emperor. In 69, Galba, Otho,
Vitellius and Vespasian were all crowned Emperor. Vespasian lasted
and the Flavian dynasty was born.