Nero (AD 37-68) is widely held to be the cruelest and most depraved of Roman emperors. He dispensed with anyone who stood in his way, including his mother and his first wife. He was infamous for his persecution of Christians. Nero was emperor for 13 years from 55AD to 68AD, and after his death, Rome experienced a series of disruptive civil wars.
Let’s have a look at the top 10 most interesting facts about Nero.
1. Nero was adopted by Emperor Claudius.
Nero’s father died when he was three years old, possibly poisoned by his mother, Julia Agrippina. Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, and she had political aspirations of her own, which she endeavored to carry out through her son. She conspired to marry her uncle, Emperor Claudius, who adopted Nero. Agrippina then persuaded Claudius to favor Nero over his biological son, Britannicus. To be doubly sure of Nero’s ascension, she arranged his marriage to Claudius’s daughter, Octavia.
2. He was the youngest Roman emperor in history.
Claudius died in 54AD, possibly at the hand of Agrippina, and the 17-year-old Nero became emperor. His mother now had effective control of the Empire through her son. For a while, her head was printed on Roman coins next to his. Nero had two additional advisors, the philosopher Seneca, who had been one of Nero’s tutors, and Burrus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard. The first five years of Nero’s reign were characterized by exemplary government because of their influence, an interesting fact about Nero. The Senate was given increased power, and political trials were no longer held behind closed doors, as they had been in his great-uncle’s time.
3. Being too close to Nero could get you killed.
The young emperor became tired of his mother’s control and eventually arranged to have her killed. He first orchestrated a boating accident, which she survived by swimming ashore. He then issued a direct order to the Praetorian Guard to dispense of her. His relationship with his first wife, Octavia, also soured, and he divorced her on the grounds of barrenness. He then married his mistress, Poppaea Sabina, who was already pregnant with their child. They first banished Octavia on trumped-up charges of adultery, and Nero later had her gruesomely executed. Her head was cut off and sent to Poppaea.
4. He married a eunuch.
Poppaea died while pregnant with the couple’s second child. It was rumored Nero killed her by kicking her in the stomach, but there is no evidence for this. Shortly after his wife’s death, Nero fell in love with a boy child-slave, Sporus, who bore a striking resemblance to Poppaea. He had the boy castrated to ensure he maintained his boyish looks and married him.
5. Nero did not “fiddle while Rome burned.”
In July 64AD, a fire started in the Circus Maximus that rapidly spread through the city of Rome. It was rumored that Nero started the fire to rebuild the city according to his aesthetics. He was at Antium at the time, so this is unlikely. He also could not have played a fiddle while he watched the city burning as the saying goes, because it would be another 800 years before bowed string instruments were seen in Europe, an interesting fact about Nero. He did rebuild the city in his favored Greek-style, at significant cost to the treasury. His new palace complex, the “Golden House,” occupied 100 acres.
6. The emperor initiated the persecution of Christians.
To deflect attention from himself, Nero placed blame for the Rome fire on the Christians, a newly formed religion at the time. (Until this point, the Romans had not distinguished between Jews and Christians.) The emperor is infamous for his cruel persecution methods, which included dressing Christians in animal skins and giving them to dogs to tear limb from limb, and dipping them in tar to set them alight as torches for his garden parties.
7. Nero loved performing.
An interesting fact about Nero is that he had a passion for music and the arts. After his mother’s death, he took to performing publicly to win popularity, but his advisors held his actions to be unworthy of his position and lacking in dignity.
8. He competed in the Olympic Games.
Nero had a great admiration for the Greeks. In 60AD, he modeled his Neronian Games after their Olympic Games. And in 64AD, he competed in the real Greek Olympics. Organizers were bribed to delay the games a year for him to participate and added non-athletic, arts-oriented events for his benefit. He “won” every event he competed in, including a chariot race where he was thrown from his cart and failed to finish. A year after his death, his name was removed from the list of winners.
9. Nero likely committed suicide when he learned of orders to execute him.
Nero’s last years were characterized by unrest. A plot to assassinate him was uncovered, and rebellions in Britain and Judea had to be quelled. In 68AD, Governor Vindex of Gaul revolted against increased taxes by Rome and persuaded Governor Galba of Spain to oppose Nero and declare himself emperor. The Praetorian Guards joined forces with Galba, and the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the public. Nero committed suicide rather than face execution. (Although rumors exist that claim he was unable to perform the deed himself and had his private secretary kill him.)
10. Nero imposters continued to make appearances after the death of the emperor.
For many years after Nero’s death, people refused to believe that he was dead, and were convinced he would return to Rome. This became known as the “Nero Redivivus Legend.” For decades, “false Neros” regularly appeared and fronted rebellions. This phenomenon lends support to the theory that Nero wasn’t necessarily as unpopular as history would have us believe.
Conflicting reports surround Nero, and he was undoubtedly a complex character.
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