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Sunday, 28 August 2016



Nero was born in December 15, 37 in Antium (modern Anzio and Nettuno), near Rome.

He was the only son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the younger, sister and reputed lover of Caligula.

His full name at birth was not Nero but Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus.

Lucius came to the attention of his uncle Caligua soon after his birth. Agrippina reportedly asked her brother to name the child. This would be an act of favor and would mark the child as a possible heir to his uncle. However Caligula only offered to name his nephew Claudius after their lame and stuttering uncle, apparently implying that he was as unlikely to become Augustus as Claudius.

Lucius' father died of dropsy in 40. He was now effectively an orphan with an uncertain fate under the increasingly erratic Caligula.

Lucius' luck would change the following year, when on January 24, 41 Caligula was murdered. Agrippina was soon remarried to the wealthy Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus.

Passienus died in 47. Agrippina was reportedly suspected of poisoning her husband in order to inherit his fortune. Lucius was the only heir to his now wealthy mother.

Nero and Agrippina. Agrippina crowns her young son Nero with a laurel wreath

On January 1, 49 Agrippina became the fourth wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar Drusus. The marriage would last for five years.

The great stoic philosopher and playwright Seneca was Nero’s tutor. Seneca’s brother was Gallio the proconsul of Achaia mentioned in Acts 18 v11-12.


Early in year 50 the Roman Senate offered Agrippina the honorable title of Augusta, previously only held by Livia (14 - 29). On February 25, 50 Lucius was officially adopted by Claudius as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus.

Claudius honoured his adoptive son in several ways. Nero was proclaimed an adult in 51 at the age of 14. He was appointed proconsul, entered and first addressed the Senate, made joint public appearances with Claudius, and was featured in coinage.

Coin issued under Claudius celebrating young Nero as the future emperor, c. 50.

Agrippina was determined to secure the Emperorship for her son despite Claudius' plans to name Nero's step brother Britannicus as his successor. She fed her husband poisonous mushrooms then his physician, Xenophon, shoved a feather down his throat to induce vomiting. Claudius died in agony choking to death without making his wishes known.


In 54 Nero succeeded his step-father, Claudius, as Emperor.

A plaster bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

In the first months of Nero's reign, Agrippina controlled her son and the Roman Empire. She lost control over Nero when he began to have an affair with the freed woman Claudia Acte, which Agrippina strongly disapproved of and violently scolded him for. Agrippina began to support Nero's step brother Britannicus in an attempt to make him emperor.

Britannicus was secretly poisoned on Nero's orders during his own banquet in February 55. The power struggle between Agrippina and her son had begun.

For the first seven years of his reign Nero ruled with clemency and justice. He abolished excessive taxes and distributed money to the common people. However, his lust for power eventually got the better of him.

While his advisers took care of affairs of state, Nero surrounded himself with a circle of favorites. Roman historians report nights of drunken revelry and violence while more mundane matters of politics were neglected. Among his new favorites was Marcus Salvius Otho. By all accounts Otho was as dissolute as Nero but served as a good and intimate friend to him.

Nero liked to roam the streets of Rome at night in disguise with some of his friends beating up and even killing innocents. By 56 AD this was becoming a scandal.

Nero reportedly machinated the murder of Agrippina on March 23, 59. Seneca attempted to convince the Senate that she had been orchestrating a conspiracy against her son, but the reputation of the Emperor was damaged beyond repair by this case of matricide. His friend and adviser Otho was soon also removed from the imperial environment, and sent to Lusitania as governor.

Nero's tutor Seneca, later became his chief adviser. Nero's mistress Poppaea disliked Seneca's stoic ideals and as a result Seneca was named in a conspiracy. The frame was so lavish, Seneca was forced to commit suicide.

The Great Fire of Rome erupted on the night of July 18 to 19 July 64. For seven nights it burned and Nero watched from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called, "The beauty of the flames". He hoped the Christians would be blamed, but many Romans believed Nero himself had started in order to clear land for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea.

Artwork depicting the Great Fire of Rome.

After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero set up a relief program for the homeless and allowed them to temporary reside in his gardens.


After The Great Fire of Rome, Nero was intent on persecuting the Christians who were suspected of causing the blaze. Often he put on a public show in his own gardens, in which the Christians were killed by being covered in skins of wild animals and being torn to death by dogs, or by crucifixion.

Some of these early martyrs were covered in pitch, slung up on poles and set alight. These "on fire" Christians in the dark were like torches in the night. Instead of screaming for mercy and recanting, the early believers went to their death with dignity, singing hymns.

Nero's Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki - 

Among the Christians murdered by Nero was St Paul who was beheaded and St Peter who was crucified upside down.

The emperore put Christians to death in an area called "Nero's Circus". Today St Peters Cathedral stands on the site of this area.

A Christian Dirce, by Henryk Siemiradzki. A Christian woman is martyred in this re-enactment of the myth of Dirce.

People begun to feel sorry for the members of this sect, realizing they were being massacred to satisfy Nero's mania rather than the public good.

The letters of the name "Nero Caesar" written in Hebrew represents numbers together which make 666.


Nero was red-headed with a chubby face.

Bust of Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome

He used make-up included powder, rouge kohl and blond wigs.

The near-sighted Nero used a form of glasses ( a jewel with curved facets) to get a closer view of gladiatorial exchanges.


On June 9, 53 AD, when Nero was 16, he married Claudia Octavia, his father’s daughter from an earlier marriage.

Portrait head of Claudia Octavia, National Museum of Rome

Nero became bored of Octavia and tried to strangle her on several occasions.

Nero's good friend Marcus Salvius Otho was married to the auburn haired Poppaea Sabina, who was described as a woman of great beauty, charm, and wit. Gossip began to appear of Nero, Otho, and Poppaea being parts of a love triangle. By 58, Poppaea had been established in her position as the favorite mistress of Nero.

By the time he was twenty-five years old, Nero had yet to produce an heir. When Poppaea became pregnant, Nero finally decided to marry his mistress, but his marriage to Octavia had to be dissolved before doing so.

At first Nero resorted to accusing her of adultery. However, Nero had already gained a reputation for this offence while Octavia was reputed to be an example of virtue. Some testimony was needed against her, but torturing one of her slaves only produced the famous declaration of Pythias reporting the genitalia of Octavia to be cleaner than the mouth of Tigellinus. Nero proceeded to declare the divorce on grounds of infertility, leaving him free to marry Poppaea and wait for her to give birth.

Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene) on a false charge of adultery with Nero's former tutor Anicetus. On June 8, 62, Octavia was suffocated in an exceedingly hot vapor bath. Her sudden death brought much sorrow to Rome and prompted incidents of public protest.

In 62 Nero married his mistress, Poppaea. She loved the lavish lifestyle of being an emperor's wife and always traveled with 500 nursing asses so she could take milk baths to keep her skin smooth and supple. She used depilatory creams to remove unwanted body hair on a daily bonus.

Bust of Poppaea Sabina at Palazzo Massimi alle Terme

Claudia Augusta was born on January 21, 63. At the birth of Claudia, Nero honored mother and child with the title of Augusta. However, the child died three months later, meaning Nero was still with no heir. Her father was devastated and many believe this was the event that unhinged the emperor.

Poppaea was killed by a kick from Nero when pregnant with her second child in the summer of 65. She had criticized him for coming home late from the races.

Around 65, Statilia Messalina became Nero's mistress. After the death of the emperor's second wife Poppaea Sabina, Statilia's consul husband Vestinus was forced to commit suicide in 66, so Nero could marry her.

In 67 Nero married the castrated male slave Sporus in a public ceremony. Sporus was a male lookalike of his dead wife Poppaea Sabrina, whom he even called by her name. During their marriage, Nero had Sporus appear in public as his wife wearing the regalia that was customary for Rome.


Nero had leek soup served to him every day, as he believed the leek made his speech honeyed and thus gives him a clear and sonorous voice for delivering his orations.

Due to his inordinate appetite for leeks some people nicknamed Nero "Porrophagus" ("porrum" meaning leek in Latin.)

Nero sent slaves to the tops of the Apennines Mountains to bring fresh snow down to the royal kitchens where the snow was then flavored with fruit pulp and honey or nectar.

On February 11, 55 Nero was hosting a dinner when his 13-year-old stepbrother and rival Britannicus keeled over and died as the water used to cool his wine had been poisoned (his taster forgot to taste it). The other dinner guests faced a dilemma. Should they take no notice and carry on tucking into their meal or should they call a doctor and risk offending the paranoid emperor. Nero dismissed the murder by claiming that the boy suffered from epilepsy.

Nero liked to drink a traditional charioteer's potion of dried boar dung in water in the belief that it gave him strength.

Nero, painting of Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen, 

On one occasion when the unstable emperor heard of a battle being lost, he became so upset that he smashed a crystal glass, crying that he would punish the world by making sure that no one would be able to drink from such a glass again.


Nero had more faith in his artistic abilities than anyone else. He grew intensely jealous of his rival poets and musicians.

His first public stage performance was at Naples in 64AD where he recited poetry and sang and played music with the lyre. It is said there was an earth tremor in the theater as he sang.

He continued to perform publicly as an actor and singer. It is said none left the building during his performances mainly because the emperor locked the audience in so they couldn't leave.

In the 2nd century AD, Suetonius described Nero as a player of the tibia utricularis, an early form of bagpipe.

Nero once wrote a song about his second wife Poppaea's beautiful long auburn hair.

During The Great Fire of Rome, Nero put on his tragedians costume and sang "The Fall of Ilium" from the beginning to the end.

At the 67AD Olympic Games in Greece, Nero entered the singing contest and was judged the winner even though according to Suetonius, some male listeners fell off the wall and feigned death in order to remove themselves from earshot without causing imperial offence.

A drunken Nero also competed in the Greeks Olympics at chariot racing-no one else took part. The Roman Emperor fell off but he was put back on in his chariot, restarted, failed to complete the course and was still awarded the crown.

Nero won a number of Olympic titles for horse riding, tragedy and harp, singing competitions and declamation. In all these cases the competition finished with a crown adorning his head, a "feat" probably achieved by bribing the judges.

Nero awarded his favorite horses pensions when they grew old and dressed them in costumes.


The Domus Aurea was a large landscaped portico villa built by Nero in the heart of ancient Rome, after the Great Fire in 64 AD had cleared away the aristocratic dwellings on the slopes of the Palatine Hill

The Emperor Caesar Augustus had lived there in a purposely modest house only set apart from his neighbors by the two laurel trees planted to flank the front door as a sign of triumph granted by the Senate. However, Nero enlarged the house and grounds over and over until it took up the hill top.

The Emperor issued orders that all other private homes situated there should be razed. The edifice, the sole residence on Palatine Hill, soon was identified with that name and became known as the Palātium or palace. That is how, ever since a royal abode, is called by this name.

In his golden palace Nero possessed a spectacular dining room in which there was a revolving ceiling which turned day and night, in time with the sky. When slid back, a rain of fragrant waters, or rose leaves was showered on the heads of the diners.


Following a military revolt, the Senate condemned Nero to death. He fled Rome and took refuge in a villa a few miles outside the city. On June 9, 68 Nero drove his dagger into his throat rather than being taken alive. As Nero's four faithful servants prepared his funeral pyre, the Emperor muttered through his tears: "Qualis artifex Pereo", ("How great an Artist dies here".)

The alleged Tomb of Nero.

The Coliseum received its name not for its size, but for a colossal statue of Nero that stood close by. It was placed there after the destruction of his palace.

Sources Food for Thought by Ed Pearce, The Faber Book Of Anecdotes, Europress Family Encyclopedia 1999.

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