Greetings, greetings, and welcome once more to the Museum Macabre. Today it seems we have wandered into the Hall of Personages, as you may have gathered from the dozens of wax dummies in funny foreign clothes you now find yourself surrounded by. While some of these noteworthy individuals were merely morally reprehensible by the watered-down sensibilities of the 21st century, others remain as singularly vile representatives of the human race, whose names have become bywords for crime, corruption, unspeakable lust or other sins. Why, we even have the Antichrist himself present! Yes, yes, he’s already come and gone. Where is he, you ask? Just over there, you see, the fat slobbering goon with the chinstrap beard who is wearing a bedsheet and carrying a lyre. That would be him. Say hello to Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Emperor of Rome.
Born December 15th, 37 CE, Nero was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a close relative of most of the early Roman Emperors, a man described by historian Suetonius as “thoroughly despicable and dishonest” as well as a murderer, cheat and incestuous adulterer guilty of treason, and Agrippina the Younger, sister to the Emperor Caligula (and let me tell you, I have stories about that one! Maybe another time…). Thus, through his father’s side, Nero was the great-grandson of Mark Antony while on his mother’s side he was the nephew of Caligula and grand-nephew of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor (contrary to common misconception, Julius Caesar was never an emperor. The honor of “First Citizen” fell to his adopted son, Augustus). Due to the exceedingly tangled state of Julio-Claudian dynastic bloodlines, we will leave Nero’s heritage at that.
It had been considered unlikely that Nero would ever become emperor; Caligula ascended to the title at the age of 25, with plenty of time left to produce an heir. Unfortunately for Caligula, his wife and daughter were murdered alongside him on January 24th, 41. Thus, Caligula’s uncle Claudius became emperor, being the last adult male of the Julio-Claudian dynasty at that point. Claudius was expected to be something of a sick joke as an emperor — due to a childhood illness, Claudius’ knees were weak and he limped, his head and hands trembled, he stammered and confused his speech, and he drooled when excited. Prior to WWII historians generally attributed his condition to polio, though more recently cerebral palsy or possibly Tourette’s have been advanced as more likely causes. Regardless of which malady had stricken him, Claudius proved an able and talented administrator, and to strengthen his political standing, he officially, legally adopted his nephew Nero upon marrying her mother, Agrippina the Younger, who was also his niece (I told you this bloodline is complicated!). As Nero was older than Claudius’ biological son Britannicus, Nero became heir to the throne.
In 51, at the age of 14, Nero was legally recognized as an adult and appointed to the position of proconsul (a provincial governor ruling for a one-year term), spoke before the Senate, and married his step-sister Claudia Octavia.
In 54, Claudius died, quite possibly by poison (many ancient historians implicate Agrippina in his death, as it was well known she’d poisoned her preceding husband). And so, at the age of 17, Nero became the Emperor of Rome. During the early period of Nero’s rule, he was heavily influenced by his mother, with other advisors, most notably Seneca the Younger, attempting to temper her control over the young emperor. When Seneca prevented Agrippina from sitting down next to Nero during a policy meeting (an unthinkable breach of protocol), she began angrily pushing for Britannicus, at the time nearly fifteen, to be made emperor — she hoped that, since Britannicus was Claudius’ biological son, the Senate would recognize his legitimacy as heir over the adopted Nero.
Britannicus died under very suspicious circumstances in 55; while Nero put forth the official explanation that his step-brother had died of an epileptic fit, it is commonly accepted that Nero had him poisoned. Britannicus had no recorded history of epilepsy (though there was a family history of it) and the fact that he died on the night before he was to be confirmed as an adult…
in 58, Nero started getting cozy with a woman named Poppaea Sabina; the fact that he was still married to Octavia and that Poppaea was married to Nero’s friend (and future emperor) Otho did not seem to bother Nero much; however, divorcing Claudia and taking up with Poppaea was not politically feasible…at least not with Agrippina still around. A staged shipwreck, intended to kill Agrippina, instead took the life of her best friend, Acerronia Polla, so Nero was forced to resort to having Agrippina stabbed, and the death framed to appear as a suicide.
In 62, Nero divorced Octavia and banished her on the grounds of infertility, leaving him free to take up with Poppaea, who was pregnant with his child at the time. Public protests forced Nero to reverse the banishment of Octavia, but had her executed shortly after her return to Rome. In 65, Nero is reported to have kicked Poppaea to death in a fit of rage.
As emperor, Nero was obsessed with his popularity among the common people of the Empire. He spent lavishly — grotesquely so — from the public treasury on gladiatorial games and theatrical performances, and often competed in athletic competitions as well as performing as an actor and a musician, enraging many politicians, who held that for an emperor to play at being an actor (a profession held in slightly lower regard than prostitution) was shameful and a disgrace to his office. He even competed in the Olympic Games of 67, where despite poor performances in the athletic and acting competitions (he dropped out of one chariot race before it ended, and was nearly killed in another when thrown from his chariot), he took home gold crowns in all events. What to do with a vainglorious ruler who would rather be Justin Bieber than Caesar Augustus?
Apparently, he wasn’t even that talented a musician.
In 64, Rome caught fire. According to the historian Tacitus, who was nine at the time, the fire burned for five days, destroyed three of the fourteen districts of Rome and damaged another seven extensively. Here we have mixed accounts. Tacitus claims that Christians started the fire, and that Nero was in Antium (modern-day Anzio, Italy) when the fire started, but rushed back to Rome upon receiving word for it, opened his palace for refugees, dug through the rubble for survivors with his bare hands and paid a large portion of the reconstruction costs out of his own pocket. However, historians Suetonius (who was also, it must be said, a notorious gossip-monger) and Cassius Dio suggest that Nero may have had the fire started to clear land for him to build a larger palace, the Domus Aurea. They also reported that while Rome burned, Nero stood on the front steps in stage costume, strumming a lyre and singing a song about the destruction of Troy — the origin of the phrase “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” though fiddles had not yet been invented.
Regardless of the historians, the Domus Aurea, a palace complex covering anywhere from 100 to 300 acres of land, was built on land cleared by the fire, and included lush artificial landscapes and gardens, watched over by a 30-meter (almost 100 feet) statue of Nero, known as the Colossus of Nero. In order to pay for this, Nero levied heavy taxes and tributes from the provinces of Rome. At the same time, he massively devalued Roman currency by lowering the amount of silver in the denarius, allowing him to mint more coinage, later doing the same with the golden aureus.
In the wake of the fire, to deflect rumors that he’d started it, Nero began a devout persecution of Christianity and its practitioners, blaming them for the fire. He ordered Christians be torn apart by wild beasts, or crucified, or most excruciatingly, bound to posts, dipped in tar, and set on fire to serve as “candles” for his garden parties.
Here’s Tacitus’ account:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of all sorts was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
In the apocryphal 2nd century Christian text the Ascension of Isaiah, the prophecy is given that “the slayer of his mother, who himself is king, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted. Of the twelve one will be delivered into his hands.” The Bishop Eusebius advanced the idea that the Apostle Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero, and that both Peter and Paul died as a result of Nero’s persecution. It was rumored that Nero had disappeared upon death and would return, either from death or strange deathless exile, as the Anti-Christ. And while the Book of Revelation was written some thirty years after Nero’s death, this rumor of deathless exile has fueled the notion, carrying down to the present day, that the “Great Beast” of Revelations is in fact Nero, and the number 666 is a reference to him — I don’t know much about numerology, but translated into Greek, Emperor Nero becomes Neron Kaisar, and then translated into Aramaic it becomes nrwn qsr. Taking the numerical values of each letter and adding them together does come up with 666.
As for Nero’s demise…? in March of 68, to provincial governors, Vindex and Galba, launched a revolt against Nero’s heavy taxation, quickly finding strong support throughout the empire. Nero found himself forced to flee, but could find no help across the Empire. Hiding out in a freedman’s villa four miles outside Rome, Nero ordered a grave dug for himself — “What an artist dies with me!” he lamented. Upon receiving news that the Senate had declared Nero a Public Enemy and decreed that he was to be beaten to death, Nero committed suicide, driving a dagger into his own throat — but not before making one of his few remaining supporters commit suicide first, to bolster Nero’s courage.
With Nero died the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, resulting in a period of civil war — the Year of Four Emperors — as Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian fought for the throne, with the first three only reigning for a matter of months. Finally, Vespasian brought peace to Rome and began the Flavian Dynasty. In the wake of Nero’s demise, the Senate and Rome’s wealthy and powerful celebrated, and Nero’s name and visage was erased from many monuments, while other portraits were reworked into images of other individuals. This was not a case of Damnatio Memoriae, in which all evidence of an individual who had become persona non grata in Rome was erased, as images of Nero continued to be created years and decades after his death.
And that is the tale of Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the Anti-Christ. And with its conclusion so too concludes this installment of Museum Macabre. Do stop by the gift shop on your way out, as we have some lovely Emperor Nero Commemorative Lighters for sale, guaranteed to burst into a steady flame with but a single flick of the thumb, priced very reasonably, and of course all proceeds go to the upkeep of the Museum Macabre. Do return soon, won’t you?