Nero  [37- 68 CE; suicide]

The fifth Roman emperor was a great-great-grandson of Augustus, nephew of Caligula & stepson of Claudius. Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, his father died when he was three, shortly before Caligula's assassination. His youth was dominated by his ambitious mother, Agrippina, who poisoned her 2nd husband to marry the emperor Claudius (49 CE), whom she in turn poisoned (54 CE) after persuading the aging emperor to adopt her son & name him his heir rather than Claudius' natural son, Britannicus. Nero's full adopted name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, represented him as descendent of Julius Caesar, Augustus & Livia, all of whom were worshipped by Romans as gods.

It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of Nero, since he was so controversial in his own day. Those whom he supported idolized him with excessive flattery. His enemies, on the other hand, portrayed him as the greatest of monsters. Josephus---who lived through his reign, had an audience with him & even persuaded him to release Jewish hostages on the very eve of the Jewish revolt---complained that contemporary historians favorable to Nero were "careless with the truth," while those hostile to him "shamelessly & recklessly reveled in lies" [Antiquities  20.154]. None of the early favorable portraits of Nero survive, while the hostile ones were preserved by Christian historians as proof of their belief that Nero was the Anti-Christ. Within the last generation, however, historians have developed a less one-sided reconstruction of the man.

Nero's reign was heralded as the golden age by the Senate & many in the Roman world who, influenced by oracles & prophecies, were looking for the appearance of a divine savior. The 17 year old emperor, who had been tutored in the classics by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, set out to play the part. He banned capital punishment & public spectacles focused on bloodshed. He reduced taxes & gave slaves the right to file complaints against their masters. Unlike previous emperors he did not prosecute people under the laws against treason & freely pardoned prisoners who were arrested for sedition, including his own critics. To fill the entertainment void left by the absence of gladiators, he sponsored theater, athletics & poetry contests. And he gave the Senate greater freedom than at any time since before the rise of Julius Caesar.

The benign laissez-faire image that Nero cultivated in public, however, did not extend to his private life. He murdered his mother (59 CE)---who herself had poisoned most of his potential rivals--- & his first wife [Octavia, the daughter of Claudius]. He gained a reputation for a scandalously libertine night-life in the streets of Rome that shocked Roman aristocrats. Freed from his domineering mother, he began to give public recitals (poetry & lyre), stage performances & chariot races. In his last years he dabbled in eastern mystery cults. Yet, by 62 CE, influenced by the dilettante patrician Gaius Petronius [author of the Satyricon] & Ofonius Tigellinus [head of the Praetorian guard] Nero abandoned himself to extravagant orgies, while his secret police plunged Rome into a new reign of terror. While posing as benefactor of the people, Nero was blind to their real needs. 

He responded to a fire that devastated Rome (64 CE) by using the ground to build the largest palace ever designed with a colossal gilded statue [120 ft. high] of himself as the sun god. It was so widely rumored among the people that Nero or Tigellinus had deliberately set the fire to build his palace that [according to Tacitus] he blamed Christians, many of whom were arrested & tortured to death. According to early Christian tradition, the apostles Peter & Paul both died in this persecution. 

Dismayed at Nero's wasteful extravagance, even his tutor Seneca joined a group of Roman nobles who conspired to murder him. Yet when the plot was exposed (64 CE), Nero sentenced less than half the conspirators to death. In late 66 CE he began a tour of religious shrines in Greece as a barefoot pilgrim. Returning to Rome in 68 CE he established the cult of Apollo in Rome, freed slaves & bestowed money freely on the people. Such irresponsible extravagance inspired the Senate & army to rebel. Even the Praetorian guard abandoned him. Forced to flee Rome, he committed suicide at age 31. The political chaos after his death ended the dynasty of the Caesars.

Among Christians Nero became infamous for torturing Christians for the fire that devastated Rome. But towards Romans, Jews & others he was often far less a tyrant than his predecessors. He was obviously self-centered, irresponsible & easily dominated by others whose political designs were less than idyllic. Yet, the historical Nero was not as much a malevolent monster as his uncle, Caligula. In the end he alienated the Roman army & aristocracy not so much for his cruelty but for squandering the imperial wealth & posing as benefactor of those people whom Rome had spent centuries conquering & dominating.

References: Josephus, Antiquities 20.150-162, 182-184, 194-195, 252-259. 
                  _____, War 1.20-23; 2.248-253; 3.1-8; 4.491-497.
                  Tacitus, Annals 13.1-5, 12-21, 25, 29, 31, 34, 45-52;
                                             14.1-16, 20-22, 39, 50- 65; 15.18, 22-23, 33-74;
                                             16.1-3, 6-8, 10-11, 14, 18-26, 30.
                  Suetonius, Twelve Caesars: Nero
                  Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.31-35; 61.1-21; 62.13-29; 63.1-29
                  Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.44

Other resources on line:

Roman sestertius [quarter denarius] with Nero's image struck in 65 CE, the year of the fire that devastated Rome & precipitated the emperor's persecution of the city's Christians. The Latin inscription reads [clockwise from the bottom]: Nero Claud[ius] Caesar Aug[ustus] Ger[manicus] P[ontifex] M[aximus] Tr[ibunis] P[otentia] Imp[erator]. . For a catalog of Nero's coins see:

Perspective on the World of Jesus

Copyright 1999-2023 by Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.

an American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website
OCLC catalog no.: 62046512