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Brief overview of the character of the Emperor Nero
Good Looking and Short-Sighted
Nero was described as a very handsome man. He was apparently short-sighted
which made him squint often and had a lot of freckles. He had dark blond hair
and grayish eyes. He maintained his good health even though he had a big belly
and a large neck.
Nero was a confident leader who was very interested in Roman arts and education.
When he was young the control of the empire was in the hands of his mother,
Agrippina. In fact on the first day that he began to rule he gave the tribune of
the guard the watchword "The best of mothers" and she was authorized to
handle all of the business of the empire for Nero. Burrus, the prefect of the
Praetorian Guard, and his tutor, Seneca were his trusted advisors. During this
time and under their direction Rome prospered, but this did not last.
note: Presumably Nero was extremely short-sighted. Apparently he had an
enormous emerald which he used as a glass to view gladiatorial fights. The
Romans believed that emeralds were good for the sight, but Nero's emerald may
have been hollowed out to act as a lens to help him see.
Agrippina Runs Things – For Awhile
Nero both loved and hated his mother, who had been continually trying to
dominate him. Slowly as Nero became older and more independent, his mother began
to lose power.
note: On Roman coins Nero and Agrippina faced each other and on the back
was Agrippina's name showing she was more important. Slowly as Nero became older
and more independent, his mother began to lose power. The coins showed Nero and
his mother facing the same direction and his name was on the back.
Relations between Nero and his mother were at their worst. Nero tried to bestow
honor on her in several ways, but she scorned him, and made him feel indebted to
her for everything. She finally moved out of the palace in 55 A.D. to her own
mansion, which was a sure sign that she was losing power. Agrippina suddenly
began to show favor toward Britannicus (Nero’s brother) and so Nero ordered his
By 59 A.D. Nero was fed up with her schemes and ordered her death. This had been
the first time and the last time that a woman had ruled Rome.
After Agrippina had left the palace Burrus and Seneca successfully ran the
empire. Three years later in 62 A.D. both Burrus and Seneca vanished from the
political scene. Burrus apparently died from throat cancer, and Seneca resigned
and later committed suicide. Nero appointed two Praetorian Prefects (Faenius
Rufus and Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus). Tigellinus was previously exiled by
Caligula and Nero called him back to make use of his renowned intelligence
With the help of Tigellinus, Nero divorced Octavia and married Poppaea.
Tigellinus framed Octavia on an immorality charge and she was exiled to an
island and later executed.
62-63 A.D. marked the beginning of the degeneration of Nero's rule.
Orgies, Gluttony and Lust
Nero lavished himself in his own power, he used golden thread for his fishing
nets, he never wore the same robe twice, he had his mules shod with silver. He
was heavily into parties and practiced orgies and gluttony, and his dinners
sometimes lasted twelve hours, from noon to midnight. He also murdered his
19-year-old wife so that he could marry his mistress, and then later he killed
Nero became even more tyrannical, claiming that he was equal to Apollo and
the other gods. He encouraged emperor worship and had a huge statue of himself
erected in Rome.
Nero was always interested in the arts, and he was a huge admirer of all things
Greek, and he deliberately wore a charioteer's hair style and wore Greek
clothing which upset his people continually. Nero was far more interested in
writing poetry, acting, dancing, and singing than he was in being emperor. He
introduced Greek games and arts contests to the Romans, wrote poetry, played the
lyre, and considered himself gifted in them all, including singing (Nero
employed the famous lyre player Terpnus to give him lessons). In 64 A.D. at
Neapolis Nero performed in a public theater for the first time. He liked to come
there and sing for large crowds of people. The first time he appeared on a Roman
stage was in 65 A.D. at the second performance of the Neronian Games. Nero was
an avid performer but he also suffered from severe stage fright.
He was fascinated by civil engineering and architecture. But his big mistakes
were that he left his empire unattended, for example he never visited the
legionary camps, and he scorned the Senate. When Nero learned of a senatorial
conspiracy in 65 A.D. he had the organizers either killed or banished. Seneca,
his own tutor, was among them. Whenever there was a hint of treason Nero ordered
their execution or forced them to commit suicide.
Nero apparently slept with beautiful young women and young boys including
Britannicus, his brother. He supposedly also slept with his mother Agrippina and
had many physical relationships with men older than himself, and with eunuchs.
Nero, according to Dio Cassius, "fastened young boys and girls to stakes, and
then, after putting on the hide of a wild beast, attacked them and satisfied his
brutal lust under the appearance devouring parts of their bodies". Nero
wanted to marry a freedwoman, Acte, but this would have been socially
unacceptable for an emperor.
The Pisonian Conspiracy
In 65 A.D. some senators concocted the Pisonian Conspiracy to murder Nero in
the Circus Maximus, while the games were going on, and then place Caius
Calpurnius Piso in Nero’s position. They were found out and Nero went on a
rampage to root out any opposition and there were daily executions. In fact all
together there were nineteen executions and suicides. Among the ones killed were
Faenius Rufus, Seneca, Lucan and Poppaea. Corbulo commited suicide. In 66 A.D. a
second wave of executions took place and some of the important men who perished
were Caius Petronius, Paetus Thrasea the Stoic, and Barea Soranus. Almost
everyone who was suspected of treason was executed including many senators and
In 67 A.D. Nero decided to take a trip to Greece where he participated in a
variety of athletic contests and drama spectacles. He was awarded more than
1,800 prizes by the judges. During an oration in the stadium Nero declared
Greece free from Roman taxation, though still part of the Roman empire. This was
no doubt a huge blunder on Nero’s part and would bring many more revolts.
This all took place in 66 AD, the same time when the horrible Jewish revolt
Greece – Free from Taxation
Even though many revolts were breaking out throughout the empire, Nero did
not seem to care. It was only a matter of time, his trusted bodyguards deserted
him and he fled for his life. When he left Rome the Senate declared him a public
enemy and ordered him arrested. Nero went into hiding and soon realized that
there was no hope of escape and saw death as the only answer and cried out
"Alas, What an Artist Is Dying in Me." He preferred suicide rather than the
usual public flogging which was the standard punishments for any enemy of the
state, and Nero said "how ugly and vulgar my life has become! This certainly
is no credit to Nero." The Praetorian Guard came for him and he raised a
knife to his throat and, according to Suetonius said these words "Hark to the
sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses." And suddenly, with the help
of his secretary Epaphroditus, he slit his own throat.
He died in 68 A.D. and the empire was on the verge of Civil War. In fact the
Jews in Judea had already begun a revolt.
Also see the
"I began to hate you, when, after murdering mother and wife, you turned out to
be a jockey, a mountebank, and an incendiary." (Tacitus ann. 15:67).
Nero - A Devotional Message
Primary Sources for the Study of the Emperor Nero are:
Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Christian
and Jewish Tradition, and Archaeology.
The 5th Emperor (Princeps) of Rome (54-68 A.D.)
The Roman Empire beyond Italy was divided into about 40 provinces
(territories), with each province having its own governor who kept order and
collected taxes for Rome. He was either appointed by the emperor or named by the
During the first century A.D. the Roman Empire was near its peak with a
population of 50-60 million. This was more than 1/5 of the world's population at
that time. Jesus lived and died during the period known in Roman history as the
Pax Romana or the "Peace of Rome".
It was an amazing time in history when the risen Jesus empowered His church to
go into all the world to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In
fact the apostles journeyed throughout the Mediterranean world which was part of
the Roman Empire. They traveled through Roman cities on Roman roads and
everywhere that they traveled they came into contact with Rome.
Julius Caesar had a dream for Rome but he was assassinated before he could see
it fulfilled. The big problem was who would become the next emperor after his
assassination. Very few had expected the young Octavian (Augustus) to become the
chief heir and new emperor after Julius Caesar, but it was Augustus who turned
out to be the most important emperor in all of Roman history.
Augustus was very aware of what had happened with Julius Caesar, and desired to
avoid the same problems with the Roman Senate. He wanted his stepson Tiberius to
be emperor after his death and to make sure that this would happen he began to
share his power with Tiberius. When Augustus died in 14 A.D. Tiberius was easily
accepted as emperor. In fact this became the new way that emperors would be
chosen. Each emperor would choose a successor from among his family or he would
adopt someone who he thought would be fit to rule after him.
During the 200 years after the death of Augustus, four dynasties (family lines)
ruled the Roman Empire. Some of the emperors in each dynasty were somewhat moral
emperors and others were horribly cruel. Each of the four dynasties ended with a
violent overthrow of an unfit emperor.
Augustus’ family line ended in disgrace in 68 A.D. with the Emperor Nero, who
came to power when he was a young boy at the age of 17. Nero Claudius Caesar was
born in December of 37 A.D. at Antium and reigned as the fifth emperor (Princeps)
of Rome, from 54-68 A.D. under the political system created by Augustus after
Civil War had finally put an end to the Roman Republic.
Throughout the early years of his rule Nero was directed by his tutors
(including the famous writer Seneca) and there was peace throughout the Empire.
The Emperor Nero loved performing in the Theatre, races and games. He was not
respected by the senators or the army. He was criticized by the people of Rome
for being more interested in entertaining himself than in governing the empire.
However, when his main advisors had either retired, or were dead, Nero revealed
his true character. It did not take long for the people to realize that Nero was
a tyrant. In 59 A.D. Nero executed his mother, his wife, Claudius’s son
Britannicus, and several of his advisors and anyone that opposed him was
In 64 A.D. a devastating fire swept through Rome destroying everything in its
path. Everyone thought that Nero had started the fire so that he could rebuild a
more beautiful city, including his Golden House. According to the Roman
historian Suetonius, Nero sang and played the lyre while Rome burned. When Nero
felt that the rumor had turned everyone against him he found some scapegoats to
bare the blame for the fire, the Christians. He punished them severely and had
many of them burned alive or torn apart by wild beasts. It is believed that the
apostles Paul and Peter were martyred during this persecution.
There were many who sought Nero’s death and in 68 A.D. his own army rebelled
against him and various military commanders attempted to seize the throne. The
Emperor Nero was forced to flee from Rome and soon afterward he committed
suicide. He was the last emperor who was of the dynasty of Augustus (Julio-Claudian
- Agrippina - Nero's dominating mother
The main people involved in the life of Nero were:
- Nero Himself - Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
- Claudius - The emperor before Nero
- Octavia - Claudius' daughter and Nero's first wife
- Britannicus - Claudius' son and rightful heir to the throne
- Seneca and Burrus - Nero's trusted tutors
- Poppaea - Nero's second wife
- Galba - General in Spain and the next emperor of Rome
- The First Imperial 'Persecution' of Christians – 64 A.D.
Important events that happened during the life of Nero:
- The Great Fire of Rome – 64 A.D.
- The first Jewish Revolt Against Rome – 66 A.D.
- Suetonius Svetonius Tranquillus (70-140 A.D. approx.)
The main historical sources about the life of Nero were:
- Tacitus Tacitus Publius Cornelius (55-120 A.D. approx.)
- Cassius Dio Dion Cassius Cocceianus (155-235 A.D. approx.)
- Jewish and Christian Tradition
- Archaeology: inscriptions, coins, written text.
Nero, Emperor of
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Birth and Youth
Great Fire of Rome