The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 6
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire,” with a stable economy, a strong government and a superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Nero, the irrational emperor who had his mother murdered and sang as Rome burned.
Nero: The Mad Tyrant
Sensitive and handsome, Nero started out well as emperor. Yet his early promise gave way to wild extravagance and murder, and his rule ended as violently as it had begun.
When he became emperor, Nero was a young man who enjoyed the theater, music and horse racing. His dominating mother, Agrippina, had already murdered Claudius to see her son on the throne. She quickly poisoned Nero’s main rival, Claudius’ son, Britannicus.
However, Nero did not want to be controlled by his mother. Encouraged by his former tutor, the writer and philosopher Seneca, he began to make his own decisions. Relations with his mother became cold and in 56 AD she was forced into retirement.
Nero’s reign began well, as he ended secret trials and gave the Senate more independence. He banned capital punishment, reduced taxes and allowed slaves to sue unjust owners. He provided assistance to cities that had suffered disasters, gave aid to the Jews and established open competitions in poetry, drama and athletics.
However, like Caligula before him, Nero had a dark side. His impulses began as simple extravagance, but before long, stories were circulating that he seduced married women and that he had castrated and “married” a male slave. He also liked to wander the streets, murdering innocent people at random.
Both Seneca and Agrippina tried hard to control Nero. Seneca tried to be subtle, but his mother was not. Relations between mother and son grew worse and Nero decided to kill her.
Nero invited his mother to travel by boat to meet him at the seaside resort where he was staying. When their reunion was over, Agrippina left for home. She was never meant to get there, but the murder attempt failed and Agrippina swam to safety.
Annoyed that his plot had failed, Nero abandoned subtlety and sent some soldiers to complete the job. He claimed that his mother had been plotting against him, but fooled nobody. Rome was appalled. Matricide – the murder of one’s own mother – was among the worst possible crimes.
Tolerance of Nero’s depravity ebbed away and Rome faced a series of bad omens. Tacitus wrote, “Unlucky birds settled on the Capitol, houses fell in numerous earthquakes and the weak were trampled by the fleeing crowd.” But the worst was yet to come. The Great Fire of Rome lasted for six days and seven nights and destroyed or damaged ten of Rome’s 14 districts and many homes, shops and temples.
Nero tried to save his rule by offering shelter to the homeless, but it was too late. A rumor had spread of Nero’s behavior during the fire: although he had not fiddled while Rome burned, he had been singing. With Nero’s mother dead and his tutor retired, the emperor was beyond anyone’s control. Rome was now victim to the arbitrary desires of a mad tyrant: there was only one solution.
In 65 AD, one plotter, a freed slave named Epicharis, found a dissatisfied officer who had access to the emperor. She secretly asked him to kill Nero. Instead, the officer betrayed Epicharis and she was captured. Rather than give up the names of her fellow plotters, she killed herself. Not knowing who was involved, Nero redoubled his guard and unleashed terror on Rome. Huge numbers of people, including Seneca, were executed or forced to kill themselves.
But Rome had had enough. A revolt in the northern territories quickly spread and the Senate declared Nero a public enemy, meaning that anyone could kill him without punishment.
Terrified, Nero fled to the country with his few remaining slaves and killed himself. Without any heirs, the Roman Empire now had no leader. With the ultimate prize up for grabs, rival generals began moving their troops towards Rome and civil war.