Controversially, Nero is one of my favourite roman emperors, not because his actions as emperor did good to the roman empire - burning your city is never a good way to appease the general public - but rather because of all the atrocities and scandals he has given all the ancient historians to write about. From killing his own mother to his own suicide at 30 years of age (after his murderous and debauched lifestyle in Baiae caught up with him) many infamous roman writers from Suetonious to Tacitus himself have written horrid accounts of his person, his ancestors and his reign. However, today, many classicists are trying to redeem his image, arguing that he wasn’t as bad an emperor as many made him out to be, and in fact did much good for the empire.
Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in June AD 37. At only two years of age, his father died from a tragic illness, which led his mother to marry the current emperor at the time, Claudius. Claudius later adopted Nero, making him the next heir to the empire’s throne. Nero received an excellent education, under the wing of Seneca, including Greek, philosophy and rhetoric. Seneca later became a major influence in Nero’s short reign.
Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy and trade and being a great lover of the arts himself, a keen singer and sportsman, he became dedicated to the cultural life of the empire. He demanded the construction of amphitheatres as well as promoting athletic games . Moreover, he made public appearances as an actor, poet, musician, and charioteer, and was greatly skilled in all of these. This extravagant, empire-wide program of public and private works was funded by a rise in taxation—a move that was much resented by the upper class. In contrast, his populist style of rule remained well-admired among the lower classes until his death and was appreciated far beyond.
Most roman sources which speak of Nero give a very overwhelmingly negative account of him, his reign and personality. Suetonius tells the story of how he started the Great Fire of Rome for his own benefit, to build a great palace for himself in the ruins of the city, and Tacitus claims that he captured Christians as scapegoats for this same fire, and then burned them alive motivated by personal cruelty and hatred. Suetonius also has a spread of around 5 pages in his book “the twelve caesars” dedicated solely to telling us about Nero’s crimes.
Nonetheless, many modern historians tend to question the reliability of these sources. There is even a whole exhibition entirely dedicated to redeeming Nero’s reputation in the British Museum, “Nero: The Man Behind the Myth”. The fact is, although we might never truly know, whilst there are many sources that claim him to be a tyrant, there are many others, which are not talked about enough, that tell us the contrary. There are many reasons as to why some might have made it their mission to make Nero appear as evil as possible, the most common being that Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, and these accounts were calculated in part to denigrate this dynastic line and burnish the reputations of its successors.
Moreover, most of what has been passed down to us about Nero comes from either Cassius Dio, Tacitus or Suetonius, making the accounts we have of him even more biased. Modern scholars have even stated that many of the tropes used to characterise Nero’s depravities bear a remarkable similarity to literary accounts of mythical events. However, nowadays we can strongly disagree with these accounts, that twisted his actions completely. We know that Nero had a lot of support from the senate as well as the roman people; they admired his character and passion for singing as well as his desire to improve Rome’s cultural life. After all, Opper the author of “Nero: the man behind the myth” writes that “there seems little reason now to take any of this seriously, beyond what it reveals about the authors involved.”
Amalia de G, Year 13