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NERO (nē'rō, Gr. Nērōn). The fifth Roman emperor, born a.d. 37, commenced reign 54, died June 9, 68. The original family name of Nero was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but after he was adopted into the Claudian family line by the Emperor Claudius, he assumed the name of Germanicus. Nero’s father was Enaeus Domitus Ahenobarbus, a man given to viciousness and vice. His mother was Agrippina, who cared little for her son’s morals but was interested only in his temporal advancement.
The first years of Nero’s reign were quite peace- ful and gave promise of good things to come. Nero himself could boast that not a single person had been unjustly executed throughout his extensive empire. During these “rational years” of Nero’s administration, the apostle Paul, in compliance with Paul’s own expressed appeal (
Nero’s marriage to Poppaea opened the second period of his reign. He killed his mother, his chief advisers Seneca and Burrus, and many of the nobility to secure their fortunes.
In a.d. 64 a large part of Rome was destroyed by fire. Whether or not Nero actually ordered the burning of the city is very controversial. However, justly or not, the finger of suspicion was pointed in Nero’s direction. A scapegoat was provided in the Christians. Even the Roman historian Tacitus, who certainly cannot be given the name “Christian,” bears testimony as to the severity of the sufferings inflicted on them. “Their death was made a matter of sport; they were covered in wild beast’s skins and torn to pieces by dogs or were fastened to crosses and set on fire in order to serve as torches by night.... Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle and gave an exhibition in his circus, mingling with the crowd in the guise of a charioteer or mounted on his chariot. Hence,...there arose a feeling of pity, because it was felt that they were being sacrificed not for the common good, but to gratify the savagery of one man” (Tacitus, Annals 15, 44).
Nero’s private life was a scandal. Surrendering himself to the basest of appetites, he indulged himself in the most evil forms of pleasure. Conspiracies and plots dogged his latter years. He was advised to destroy himself, but could not find the courage to do so. Learning that the Senate had decreed his death, Nero’s last cruel act was to put many of the Senate members to death. He finally died by his own hand in the summer of a.d. 68. Thus perished the last of the line of Julius Caesar. Both Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom under Nero.——JFG
NERO (Gr. Νέρων, G3746). was the fifth emperor of Rome, from a.d. 54 to 68. He was a son of the first marriage of Julia Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus, and Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus who was consul in a.d. 32. Nero was born in a.d. 37.
By her third marriage, in a.d. 49, Agrippina became the wife of her uncle, the emperor Claudius. She was thirty-four, and he fifty-nine at the time, but the difference in age was not without its influence in Agrippina’s unscrupulous planning, for Claudius, in many ways an able and intelligent man, was a ready dupe for women and the ambitious freedmen with whom he surrounded himself. He was also a lifelong victim of some form of cerebral palsy, a fact which accounts for many of his strange personal characteristics listed with gusto by ancient authorities. To contemporary observers his life-expectation would not seem to be long; hence the promptitude of Agrippina’s plotting.
With the aid of the freedman Pallas, the tutor of her son the philosopher Seneca, and of Burrus the powerful commander of the praetorian guard, Agrippina promoted her son Nero in the imperial household. Claudius had a son by his disgraced wife Messalina, Britannicus, four years Nero’s junior, and Agrippina’s first move was to establish Nero, youth though he was, as Britannicus’ guardian. When Claudius died in a.d. 54, presumably poisoned, Agrippina, with the same allies, succeeded in advancing the young Nero to the succession. In his inaugural address, doubtless written by Seneca, he promised to rule with the principles of Augustus, who had covered autocracy with the cloak of republican and constitutional rule.
For the first five years of his principate, Nero was content to allow the able Seneca and Burrus to run the empire, and the “quinquennium Neronis”—Nero’s Five Years—became, in the provinces, a legend for sound administration and good order. In the capital itself, and this is the major theme in Tacitus’ Rome-centered and vivid story of the time, there was a devil’s brew of murder and intrigue. Agrippina, thinking to function as coregent with her youthful son, was rapidly disillusioned. Marcus Salvius Otho, who was to be emperor briefly in a.d. 69 (“the year of the four emperors”), encouraged Nero to break free from the imperious dominance of his mother. Agrippina retorted by bringing Britannicus forward. The unfortunate prince was promptly poisoned (a.d. 55), and Agrippina went into retirement. Poppaea, Otho’s wife, with eyes on Nero, plotted the successful elimination of both Octavia, Nero’s wife, and Agrippina. Nero had his mother murdered in a.d. 59.
Meanwhile, there were able men, doubtless appointees of Seneca and Burrus in the provinces, Galba in Spain and Vespasian in Syria, both destined to hold the imperial position among the four emperors of a.d. 69, and Vespasian to survive and found the Flavian dynasty. In Britain, Suetonius Paulinus put down Boudicca’s fierce revolt, and Corbulo did sterling work on the unstable Parthian frontier, Rome’s long and insoluble problem of defense.
Nero, meanwhile, was getting his footing. His domineering mother was dead. Burrus, the able prefect of the guard, died, a natural death apparently, in a.d. 62. Seneca, long appalled by the compromising role he had been called upon to play, retired when his one stable colleague was thus removed. Octavia was divorced, and promptly murdered. Poppaea, married now to Nero, bore him a brief-lived daughter in a.d. 63. Nero, who fancied himself an artist, and may indeed have had some talent, gave his time to poetry, singing even on the public stage, and to sport. He sought to supersede the gladiatorial games, Rome’s proletarian preoccupation, by racing and Gr. athletic contests, a project in which he failed.
With those who had in some fashion restrained him, dead or deposed, the worst emerged in the young emperor. Ofonius Tigellinus, the new prefect of the praetorian guard, was an evil influence, and Nero had his own full share of vanity, cruelty and love of power. He thought of the principate as a tyranny. None of his predecessors, he said, had realized what they could do (Suetonius, Nero, 37). Like Claudius, he began to surround himself with freedmen, greedy and arrogant. A serious and deliberate depreciation of the coinage followed the expensive wars in Britain and Armenia. The hated law of treason (maiestas) was revived, and was used to decimate the ranks of the senate and aristocracy.
In July a.d. 64, a fire broke out in a slum area near the Capena Gate and destroyed half of Rome. It proved to be a measure of Nero’s growing desperation and unpopularity. He found it necessary to discover scapegoats, for a dangerous rumor was circulating that Nero himself had put his capital in flames in a spirit of wanton vandalism, and to free space for his own megalomaniac building plans. He did seize the opportunity afforded by the devastation to begin planning and building his notorious Golden House. The scapegoats, however, were the Christians, whose withdrawal from the close knit framework of pagan society had won them the animosity of the Rom. mob. It was thus that the active persecution of the Christian Church began. It is not known whether the proscription of the Christians simply for bearing the name was actually written into law at this time, or sometime in Nero’s remaining five years, but it may certainly be said that it was in Nero’s principate that the suppression of the Church became State policy. It was to remain so, sporadically revived, for almost three centuries.
Rome at large read the portents aright. High and low were menaced by such a person in the imperial position, and a wide conspiracy was concocted in a.d. 65 by Caius Calpurnius Piso. It was an ill-ordered plot which was betrayed, and suppressed. Seneca and Lucan, the poet, were among the host of high estate who died during Nero’s panic-stricken measures to root out dissent and opposition. Nero, paranoid now in his suspicions, struck out again after Poppaea’s death, the result of his own fierce cruelty, in a.d. 66. In this second wave of executions, men of the caliber of Caius Petronius, Paetus Thrasea the Stoic, and Barea Soranus, perished.
It was in a.d. 66 that the fearful Jewish revolt broke out. Sending Mucianus to govern Syria, Nero detached Vespasian from that office and sent him S to suppress the great rebellion. Any prestige which Nero might have won at that time, from the establishment of Armenia as a buffer kingdom on the NE frontier, was more than cancelled by the dire threat in Pal. Nero marked his deepening irresponsibility by leaving Rome in control of his freedman Helius, and departing in a.d. 67 for an extended tour of Greece. His buffoonery reached new heights as he competed, of course victoriously, in the Gr. games. Simultaneously, Nero ordered his able eastern general Corbulo and two popular governors of Germany to commit suicide.
This folly was decisive. In the spring of a.d. 68, one of the Gallic governors, Caius Julius Vindex, rose in arms against Nero simultaneously with Servius Sulpicius Galba in Spain, and Clodius Macer in Africa. Vindex’ rising was put down by Verginius Rufus, the loyal governor of Germany, but the praetorian guard in Rome declared for Galba, and on 9 June a.d. 68 Nero committed suicide. The meaning of his last words: “Qualis artifex pereo” (“What an artist dies in me”?) has been the subject of much speculation.
There is no disputing the fact that Nero was a vicious and unbalanced man. More than forty years ago, Arthur Weigall, better known as an Egyptologist than as a classical historian, wrote a popular defense of the emperor (Nero, Emperor of Rome ), but the consensus of expert opinion dubs him a villain. A corrupt ancestry, esp. on his father’s side, a bad woman in Agrippina, his mother, a repressed and perverted childhood and youth. followed by the temptations of absolute power in a context of sycophants and designing freedmen, would have tried the strength and integrity of the best and most stable characters. Apart from viciousness, there was also a strong element of mental instability in Nero’s constitution. His devotion to art was real, but accompanied, as such devotion can be, by a tendency to exhibitionism and self-glorification. A savage jealousy of all other eminence, be it of rank, or excellence in war, peace, lit., or wherever else humanity shows its worth, issued in persecution, suppression, and murder. Rome was shocked by the young emperor’s undignified self-display before the Greeks. And when soldiery, nobility, proletariat, philosophers, artists, and every other element in society, appeared to have united against Nero, there can be little doubt of universal detestation. The curious myth that Nero would return, on which Weigall bases his perverse verdict of lamented popularity, was a Gr. invention. The officer’s verdict quoted by Tacitus (Ann. 15.67) is final: “I began to hate you, when, after murdering mother and wife, you turned out to be a jockey, a mountebank, and an incendiary.”
Ancient sources, which exist in many good trs., are Tacitus, Annals (Books 13 to 16); Suetonius’ “Nero,” in his Lives of the Caesars; and Dio Cassius (Books 61 to 63).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
I. NAME, PARENTAGE AND EARLY
II. AGRIPPINA’s AMBITION FOR NERO
Her Nine Measures for Bringing Him to the Throne
III. NERO’s REIGN
1. Quinquennium Nerohis
2. Poppea Sabina (58 AD)
3. Poppea and Tigellinus
4. Great Fire (July, 64)
5. Persecution of Christians
6. Conspiracy of Piso (65 AD)
7. Nero in Greece (66 AD)
8. Death of Nero
IV. DOWNFALL AND CHARACTER
1. Seven Causes of Downfall
V. "NERO REDIVIVUS"
VI. NERO AND CHRISTIANITY
1. Nero and the
2. Neronian Policy and Christianity
The fifth Roman emperor, born at Antium December 15, 37 AD, began to reign October 13, 54, died June 9, 68.
I. Name, Parentage and Early Training.
His name was originally Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus but after his adoption into the Claudian gens by the emperor Claudius, he becameGermanicus. His father was Enaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus ("Brazen-beard"), a man sprung from an illustrious family and of vicious character. His mother was Agrippina the younger, the daughter of Germanicus and the elder Agrippina, sister of the emperor Caius (Caligula) and niece of the emperor Claudius. On the birth of the child, his father predicted, amid the congratulations of his friends, that any offspring of himself and Agrippina could only prove abominable and disastrous for the public (Suet. Nero vi: detestabile et malo publico). At the age of three the young Domitius lost his father and was robbed of his estates by the rapacity of Caius. In 39 his mother was banished for supposed complicity in a plot against Caius. Nero was thus deprived of his mother and at the same time left almost penniless. His aunt, Domitia Lepida, now undertook the care of the boy and placed him with two tutors, a dancer and a barber (Suetonius vi). On the accession of Claudius, Agrippina was recalled, and Nero was restored to his mother and his patrimony (41 AD).
II. Agrippina’s Ambition for Nero.
She cared little for her son’s moral education, but began immediately to train him for high position. She aimed at nothing less than securing the empire for Nero. With a view to this she must gain influence over her uncle, the emperor Clandius, who was very susceptible to female charms. At first the path was by no means easy, while the licentious empress, Messalina, was in power. But on the fall and death of Messalina (48 AD)--for which Agrippina may have intrigued--the way seemed opened. With the assistance of the emperor’s freedman, Pallas, Agrippina proved the successful candidate for Claudius’ affections. She how felt secure to carry out the plans for the elevation of her son:
Her Nine Measures for Bringing Him to the Throne
(1) She secured his betrothal to Octavia, the daughter of Claudius, having previously, by the villainy of Vitellius, broken off the engagement between Octavia and Lucius Silanus (ibid., xlviii). Later, Nero married this unfortunate lady.
(2) Vitellius again obliged by securing a modification of Roman law so as to permit a marriage with a brother’s (not sister’s) daughter, and in 49 Agrippina became empress.
(3) In the meantime she had caused Seneca to be recalled from banishment and had entrusted to him the education of Nero for imperial purposes.
(4) The adoption of her son by Claudius (50 AD).
(5) She next secured early honors and titles for Nero in order to mark him out as Clandins’ successor.
(6) She caused Britannicus, Claudius’ son, to be kept in the background and treated as a mere child, removing by exile or death suspected supporters of Britannicus.
(7) Agrippina was farsighted and anticipated a later secret of Roman imperialism--the influence of the armies in the nomination of emperors. For this cause she took an active interest in military affairs and gave her name to a new colony on the Rhine (modern Cologne). But she did not forget the importance of securing the praetorian guard and Burrus the prefect.
(8) She persuaded Clandins to make a will in favor of her son. All was now ready. But Claudius did not like the idea of excluding his son Britannicus from power, and murmurs were heard among the senate and people. Delay might prove fatal to Agrippina’s plans, so
(9) Claudius must die. The notorious Locusta administered poison in a dish of mushrooms, and Xenophon, Agrippina’s physician, thrust a poisoned feather down Claudius’ throat on the pretense of helping him to vomit. Burrus then took Nero forth and caused him to be proclaimed imperator by the praetorians.
III. Nero’s Reign.
1. Quinquennium Neronis:
Nero’s reign falls into three periods, the first of which is the celebrated quinquennium, or first 5 years, characterized by good government at home and in the provinces and popularity with both senate and people. Agrippina, having seated her son on the throne, did not purpose to relinquish power herself; she intended to rule along with him. And at first Nero was very devoted to her and had given as watchword to the guard, "the best of mothers" (Tacitus, Annals xiii.2; Suetonius ix). This caused a sharp conflict with Seneca and Burrus, who could not tolerate Agrippina’s arrogance and unbounded influence over her son. In order to detach him from his mother they encouraged him in an amour with a Greek freedwoman, Acre (Tac. Ann. xiii.12). This first blow to Agrippina’s influence was soon followed by the dismissal from court of her chief protector Pallas. She now threatened to bring forth Britannicus and present him as the rightful heir to the throne. This cost Britannicus his life, for Nero, feeling insecure while a son of Claudius lived, compassed his death at a banquet. A hot wine cup was offered Britannicus, and to cool it to taste, cold water was added which had been adulterated with a virulent poison. The victim succumbed immediately. All eyes fastened on Nero in suspicion, but he boldly asserted that the death was due to a fit of epilepsy--a disease to which Britannicus had been subject from childhood. Such was the fate of Agrippina’s first protege. She next took up the cause of the despised and ill-treated Octavia, which so incensed her son that he deprived her of her guards and caused her to remove from the palace. Agrippina now disappears for the next few years to come into brief and tragic prominence later. Seneca and Burrus undertook the management of affairs, with results that justified the favorable impression which the first 5 years of Nero’s reign made upon the Roman people. Many reforms were initiated, financial, social and legislative. These ministers treated Nero to counsels of moderation and justice, dictating a policy which left considerable activity to the senate. But perceiving the bent of his evil nature, they allowed him to indulge in low pleasures and excesses with the most profligate companions, thinking, perhaps, either that the young ruler would in this way prove less harmful to the public, or that, after sowing his wild oats, he would return to the serious business of government. But in both ways they were sorely disappointed, for Nero, having surrendered himself to the basest appetites, continued to go from excess to excess. He surrounded himself with the most dissolute companions, conspicuous among whom were Salvius Otho and Claudius Senecio.
2. Poppea Sabina (58 AD):
The former had a wife as ambitious as she was unprincipled, and endowed, according to Tacitus, with every gift of nature except an "honorable mind." Already divorced before marrying Otho, she was minded to employ Otho merely as a tool to enable her to become Nero’s consort. With the appearance of Poppea Sabina, for such was her name, opens the second period of Nero’s reign. She proved his evil star. Under her influence he shook off all restraints, turned a deaf ear to is best advisers and plunged deeper into immorality and crime. She allowed, if not persuaded, Nero to give her husband a commission in the distant province of Lusitania. Her jealousy could tolerate no possible rival. She plotted the death of Agrippina to which she easily persuaded Nero to consent. This foul crime was planned and carried out with the greatest cunning. Anicetus, admiral of the fleet, undertook to construct a vessel that would sink to order. Nero invited his mother to his villa at Baiae at the Quinquatrus celebration. After the banquet she was persuaded to return to Bauli by the vessel prepared. But the plan did not succeed, and Agrippina saved herself by swimming ashore. She pretended to treat the matter as an accident, sending a freedman to Nero to inform him of her escape. Anicetus, however, relieved Nero of the awkward position by pretending that Agrippina’s freedman had dropped a dagger which was considered proof enough of her guilt. Deserted by her friends and slaves except one freedman, she was quickly dispatched by her murderers. Nero gave out that she died by suicide (Suetonius xxxiv; Tacitus, Annals cxli-cxlviii).
3. Poppea and Tigellinus:
Nero no longer made any secret of taking Poppea as his mistress, and, under her influence, bid defiance to the best Roman traditions and plunged deeper into dissipation. In 62 AD matters grew much worse by the death of the praetorian prefect, Burrus. Seneca lost in him a powerful ally, and Poppea gained in one of the new prefects, Sofonius Tigellinus, a powerful ally. She succeeded in causing Seneca to retire from the court. Next she determined to remove Octavia. A charge of adultery was first tried, but as the evidence proved too leaky, Nero simply divorced her because of barrenness. Then Anicetus was persuaded to confess adultery with her, and the innocent Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria, where a little later she was executed at Poppea’s orders and her head brought to her rival (62 AD). Poppea was now empress, and the next year bore a daughter to Nero, but the child died when only three months old. Two years later Poppea herself died during pregnancy, of a cruel kick inflicted by Nero in a fit of rage (65 AD). He pronounced an eulogy over her and took a third wife, Statilia Messalina, of whom he had no issue.
Nero, having by his extravagance exhausted the well-filled treasury of Claudius (as Caius did that of Tiberius), was driven to fill his coffers by confiscations of the estates of rich nobles against whom his creature Tigellinus could trump the slightest plausible charge. But even this did not prevent a financial crisis--the beginning of the bankruptcy of the later Rein empire. The provinces which at first enjoyed good government were now plundered; new and heavy taxes were imposed. Worst of all, the gold and silver coinage was depreciated, and the senate was deprived of the right of copper coinage.
4. Great Fire (July, 64):
This difficulty was much increased by the great fire which was not only destructive to both private and state property, but also necessitated the providing thousands of homeless with shelter, and lowering the price of corn. On July 18, 64, this great conflagration broke out in Circus Maximus. A high wind caused it to spread rapidly over a large portion of the city, sweeping before it ill-built streets of wooden houses. At the end of six days it seemed to be exhausted for lack of material, when another conflagration started in a different quarter of the city. Various exaggerated accounts of the destruction are found in Roman historians: of the 14 city regions 7 were said to have been totally destroyed and 4 partially. Nero was at Antium at the time. He hastened back to the city and apparently took every means of arresting the spread of the flames. He superintended in person the work of the fire brigades, often exposing himself to danger. After the fire he threw open his own gardens to the homeless. The catastrophe caused great consternation, and, for whatever reasons, suspicion seemed to fix upon Nerio. Rumor had it that on hearing the Greek verse, "When I am dead let the earth be wrapped in fire," he interrupted, "Nay rather, while I live" (Suetonius xxxviii); that he had often deplored the ugliness of the city and wished an opportunity to rebuild it; that he purposely set it on fire in order to find room for his magnificent Domus Aurea ("Golden House"); that when the city was burning he gazed upon it from the tower of Maecenas delighted with what he termed "the beauty of the conflagration"; that he recited in actor’s costume the sack of Troy (Suetonius xxxviii; Tacitus, Annals xv.38 ff). In spite of all these reports Nero must be absolved of the guilt of incendiarism.
5. Persecution of Christians:
Such public calamities were generally attributed to the wrath of the gods. In the present case everything was done to appease the offended deity. Yet, in spite of all, suspicion still clung to Nero "Wherefore in order to allay the rumor he put forward as guilty (subdidit reos), and afflicted with the most exquisite punishments those who were hated for their abominations (flagitia) and called `Christians’ by the populace. Christus, from whom the name was derived, was punished by the procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius. This noxious form of religion (exitiabilis superstitio), checked for a time, broke out again not only in Judea its original home, but also throughout the city (Rome) where all abominations meet and find devotees. Therefore first of all those who confessed (i.e. to being Christians) were arrested, and then as a result of their information a large number (multitude ingens) were implicated (reading coniuncti, not convicti), not so much on the charge of incendiarism as for hatred of the human race. They died by methods of mockery; some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and then torn by dogs, some were crucified, some were burned as torches to give light at night .... whence (after scenes of extreme cruelty) commiseration was stirred for them, although guilty and deserving the worst penalties, for men felt that their destruction was not on account of the public welfare but to gratify the cruelty of one (Nero)" (Tacitus, Annals xv.44). Such is the earliest account of the first heathen persecution (as well as the first record of the crucifixion by a heathen writer). Tacitus here clearly implies that the Christians were innocent (subdidit reos), and that Nero employed them simply as scapegoats. Some regard the conclusion of the paragraph as a contradiction to this--"though guilty and deserving the severest punishment" (adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos). But Tacitus means by sontes that the Christians were "guilty" from the point of view of the populace, and that they merited extreme punishment also from his own standpoint for other causes, but not for arson. Fatebantur does not mean that they confessed to incendiarism, but to being Christians, and qui fatebantur means there were some who boldly confessed, while others tried to conceal or perhaps even denied their faith.
But why were the Christians selected as scapegoats? Why not the Jews, who were both numerous and had already offended the Roman government and had been banished in great numbers? Or why not the many followers of the oriental religions, which had proved more than once obnoxious?
(1) Poppea was favorable to Judaism and had certainly enough influence over Nero to protect the Jews; she was regarded by them as a proselyte and is termed by Josephus (Ant., XX, viii, 11) theosebes, "god-fearing." When the populace and Nero were seeking victims for revenge, the Jews may have been glad of the opportunity of putting forward the Christians and may have been encouraged in this by Poppea. Farrar (Early Days of Christianity, I, chapter iv) sees "in the proselytism of Poppea, guided by Jewish malice, the only adequate explanation of the first Christian persecution."
(2) Closely connected with this was doubtless the observation by the Roman government that Christianity was an independent faith from Judaism. This may first have been brought home to the authorities by the trial of Paul before Nero, as suggested by Ramsay (Expositor, July, 1893). Judaism was a recognized and tolerated religion, a religio licita, and Christianity when divorced from Judaism became a religio illicita and punishable by the state, for Christianity first rose "under the shadow of licensed Judaism" (sub umbraculo licitae Judeorum religionis: Tertullian, Apol., xxi).
(3) As Christianity formed a society apart from Roman society, all kinds of crimes were attributed to its followers, Thyestean feasts, nightly orgies, hostility to temples and images. These flagitia seemed summed up in odium humani generis, "hatred for the human race."
(4) They were easily selected as being so numerous and making most progress in a line opposed to Roman spirit; compare ingens multitudo (Tacitus, Annals xv.44; Clemens Rom., Cor 1:6, polu plethos; compare also "great multitude" of
(5) No doubt, too, early Christian enthusiasm was unequivocal in its expressions, especially in its belief of a final conflagration of the world and its serene faith amid the despair of others.
6. Conspiracy of Piso (65 AD):
In the meantime Tigellinus’ tyranny and confiscations to meet Nero’s expenses caused deep discontent among the nobles, which culminated in the famous conspiracy at the head of which was C. Calpurnius Piso. The plot was prematurely betrayed by Milichus. An inquisition followed in which the most illustrious victims who perished were Seneca the philosopher, Lucan the poet, Lucan’s mother, and later Annaeus Mela, brother of Seneca and father of Lucan, T. Petronius Arbiter, "the glass of fashion." Finally, "Nero having butchered so many illustrious men, at last desired to exterminate virtue itself by the death of Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus" (Tacitus, Annals xvi.21 f).
7. Visit to Greece (66 AD):
Having cleared every suspected person out of the way, he abandoned the government in Rome to a freedman Helius, and started on a long visit to Greece (66-68 AD), where he took part in musical contests and games, himself winning prizes from the obsequious Greeks, in return for which Nero bestowed upon them "freedom." Nero was so un-Roman that he was perfectly at home in Greece, where alone he said he was appreciated by cultured people. In the meantime the revolt of Vindex in Gaul commenced (68 AD), but it was soon quelled by Verginius Rufus on account of its national Gaulic character. Galba of Hither Spain next declared himself legatus of the senate and the Roman people. Nero was persuaded to return to Rome by Helius; he confiscated Galba’s property, but his weakness and hesitancy greatly helped the cause of the latter.
8. Death of Nero:
Nymphidius Sabinus, one of the prefects, won over the guard for Galba, by persuading the irresolute emperor to withdraw from Rome and then told the praetorians that Nero had deserted them. Nero was a coward, both in life and in death. While he had the means of easily crushing Galba, he was revolving plans of despair in his Servilian gardens, whether he should surrender himself to the mercies of the Parthians or to those of Galba; whether Galba would allow him the province of Egypt; whether the public would forgive his past if he showed penitence enough. In his distraction a comforter asked him in the words of Virgil, "Is it then so wretched to die?" He could not summon the courage for suicide, nor could he find one to inflict the blow for him: "Have I then neither friend nor foe?" Phaon a freedman offered him the shelter of his villa a few miles from Rome. Here he prepared for suicide, but with great cowardice. He kept exclaiming, "What an artist I am to perish!" (Qualis artifex pereo, Suet. xlix). On learning that he was condemned to a cruel death by the senate, he put the weapon to his throat and was assisted in the fatal blow by Epaphroditus his secretary. A centurion entered pretending he had come to help: "Too late--this is fidelity," were Nero’s last words. His remains were laid in the family vault of the Domitii by his two nurses Ecloge and Alexandria and his concubine Acte (Suetonius L). Thus perished on July 9, 68 AD the last of the line of Julius Caesar in his 31st year and in the 14th of his reign.
IV. Downfall and Character.
1. Seven Causes of Downfall:
The causes of his downfall were briefly:
(1) his lavish expenditure leading to burdensome taxation and financial insecurity;
(2) tyranny and cruelty of his favorites;
(3) the great fire which brought dissatisfaction to fasten suspicion on Nero and the consequent enlargement of his private abode at the expense of the city--especially the Golden House;
(4) the unpopular measure of the extension of Roman franchise to Greece and favored foreigners;
(5) the security engendered by the success with which the conspiracy of Piso was crushed;
(6) the discovery of another "secret of empire," that an emperor could be created elsewhere than at Rome, that the succession of emperors was not hereditary but rested with the great armies, and
(7) the cowardice and weakness which Nero displayed in the revolt which led to his death.
His reign is memorable for the activity of Seneca, the great fire, the persecution of Christians, the beginning of the bankruptcy of the later Roman empire, the Armenian disaster of Paetus (62 AD) retrieved by Corbulo and the humiliation of Parthia, the outbreak of the insurrection in Judea (66 AD), which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem.
Nero ranks with Gaius for folly and vice, while his cruelties recall the worst years of Tiberius. Very effeminate in his tastes, particular about the arrangement of his hair and proud of his voice, his greatest fault was inordinate vanity which courted applause for performances on non-Roman lines. He neglected his high office and degraded Roman gravitas by zeal for secondary pursuits. Nero, like his three predecessors, was very susceptible to female charms. He was licentious in the extreme, even to guilt of that nameless vice of antiquity--love of a male favorite. His cruelty, both directly and through his instruments, made the latter part of his reign as detestable as the quinquennium had been golden. He loved the extravagant and luxurious in every exaggerated form. He was a weakling and a coward in his life, and especially in his death. Of his personal appearance we are told his features were regular and good; the expression of his countenance, however, was somewhat repelling. His frame was ill proportioned--slender legs and big stomach. In later years his face was covered with pimples.
V. "Nero Redivivus."
It seems as if there was something lovable even about this monster, which led a freedman to remain faithful to the last, and his two old nurses and cast-off concubine to care affectionately for his remains, and for a long time there were not wanting hands to strew his grave with spring and autumn flowers and to display his effigy (Suet. lvii). But, whether from the strange circumstances of his death, or the subsequent terrible confusion in the Roman world, or from whatever cause, there soon arose a belief that Nero had not really died, but was living somewhere in retirement or had fled among the Parthians, and that he was destined in a short time to return and bring great calamity upon his enemies or the world (quasi viventis et brevi magno inimicorum malo reversuri: Suetonius lvii). This belief was a force among the Parthians who were ready to take up arms at the report of a pseudo-Nero (Tacitus, History i.2). In the confusion of the year of the four emperors, Greece and Asia were disturbed by the report of the advent of Nero (Tac. Hist. ii.8), and the historian promises to mention the fortune and attempts of other pseudo-Neros. This belief was taken up by the Jews and amalgamated with their legend of Antichrist. In
VI. Nero and Christianity.
1. Nero and the New Testament:
The name Nero does not occur in the New Testament, but he was the Caesar to whom Paul appealed (
2. Neronian Policy and Christianity:
The first persecution to which Christianity was subjected came from the Jews: the first heathen persecution took place under Nero. Up to this time the Roman government had been on friendly terms with Christianity, as Christianity was either not prominent enough to cause any disturbance of society or was confounded by the Romans with Judaism (sub umbraculo licitae Judeorum religionis: Tertullian, Apol., xxi). Paul, writing to the Christians of the capital, urged them to "be in subjection to the higher powers" as "ordained of God" (
Tacitus Annals xii-xvi; Suetonius Nero; Dio Cassius in Epit. of Xiphilinus 61 ff; Zonaras xi.
Hermann Schiller, Geschichte des rom. Kaiserreichs unter der Regierung des Neron (Berlin, 1872); Merivale, Hist of the Romans under the Empire; Ramsay, Church in the Roman Empire and The Expositor, 1893; E.G. Hardy, Christianity and the Roman Government and Studies in Roman History; Mommsen, "Der Religionsfrevel nach rom. Recht," Histor. Zeitschr., 1890; C. F. Arnold, Die Neronische Christenverfolgung; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity; Baring-Gould, Tragedy of the Caesars: G.H. Lewes, "Was Nero a Monster?" in Cornhill Magazine, July, 1863; B.W. Henderson, Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero, with important bibliography of ancient and modern authorities (London, 1903); Lehmann, Claudius u. Nero.