Nero's Downfall

by W.D. and T.F.

Nero was the last Roman Emperor who had any hereditary connection to Julius Caesar. His real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. The end of his reign as ruler marked the beginning of civil war in Rome. There was much speculation at the time of whether or not Nero was the rightful leader of Rome. He came to rule at the minimum age allowed at the time which was sixteen. He gained his position, although he may not have known it, through underhanded tricks and deception carried out by his mother, Agripina. Nero came to rule with an incredible amount of pressure on him but the young emperor handled it well. This did not last long. He soon began to show carelessness in his rule. Obviously the pressures of the throne and the persistence of his corrupt mother to have a share of the power proved to be too much. He would soon meet a disastrous end.

Everything abut Nero's time as emperor pointed towards a bad ending. Even the way he got the throne was immoral. Nero inherited his rule from Claudius even though he was only his adopted son and Claudius even had a real son. Claudius divorced his first wife, Messalina, and forced her to commit suicide in 48 A.D. Agripina, Nero's mother and Claudius' niece saw her opportunity to empower her son. Claudius and Agripina were soon married. Grant (1970) states that it would have been "perilous for Claudius to let a woman who bore such a great name have the chance to marry into another family." (p 22) Then through persuasion from Agripina and advice from the minister of finance Pallas, Claudius on February 25, 50 A.D. adopted Lucius Domitius Abenobarbus. This name was immediately dropped and he became, officially, Nero. The adoption however did not give Nero the heir to the throne...yet. Agripina knew there was still more to be done before her son would be emperor. For what happened next there are two well credited accounts of. One from Tacitus and one from Seutonius. Both are very similar and both give detailed descriptions of how Agripina hired a known poisoner, Locusta, and had Claudius killed. After Nero came to power he even joked about the poison mushroom that killed his stepfather. Since Claudius was dead and his real son Britanicus was not old enough to rule Nero became the emperor of Rome. (Stark, 1966)

Nero was a fair ruler from the start. Roman economics was in satisfactory shape and the people were happy. Nero was a wise ruler in the sense that he did not make the same mistake that many made before him had made which was expansion. Seutonius (1975) states in the translated edition of "The Twelve Caesars" that, "Nero felt no ambition or hope to extend or enlarge Rome, and even considered withdrawing his forces in Britain." (p 222) He also was surrounded by well suited advisors which included Burris, head of the Palace Guard, and Seneca who was said to be the wisest man in Rome. Despite all these attributes Nero went astray and indulged himself in the performing arts which was looked down upon at the time. It soon became his goal to become Rome's finest performer. The aristocracy looked down upon him and he soon lost favor in the Senate due to the fact that acting and singing were commonly carried out in the lower class. Nero however was undaunted by this and continued to perform. It was even rumored that he handed over rule, temporarily, to his advisors. It is more likely though that he relied more heavily upon his advisors than was customary for the times.

This coin represents the power Nero and Agripina shared

Despite the casualness of his ruling Nero lost more and more interest in being emperor. He began to become frivolous and perverse. The A&E documentary biography of Nero (1997) stated that it was public knowledge that Nero made games out of stalking, beating and even molesting both men and woman at night. Agripina began to see that she could no longer control her son so she started to develop a relationship with her stepson Britanicus. Nero saw this relationship developing and although it was never official that Nero had had Britanicus killed was common knowledge. Grant (1970) in "Nero" gives a first hand account of the event as seen by the historian Tacitus. "Britanicus' collapse did not look natural, despite what Nero might say, and the haste with which the body was cremated seemed to point to murder." (p 39) Nero soon had his mother banished from the palace and would torment her endlessly until he decided to finally have her killed. His first attempt however failed. He sent her a boat so that she could come to visit him. However the boat was constructed to sink. Fortunately Agripina escaped and swam to safety. Hearing of this Nero lost all subtilty and sent naval officers to kill her. He would later tell the public that he had killed her because she was conspiring to kill him.

Now that Nero no longer had to worry about his mother or any other conspirators he decided to take up chariot racing. This caused him to lose much favor in the Senate and with the Aristocracy because chariot racing was a sport commonly done by slaves. However his new indulgence gave him favor with the public who loved to watch their emperor race and throw out bags of money to the crowd, which he commonly did. Nero was also becoming tired of his wife Octavia who had not bore him a son yet. He had her banished and then killed. Twelve days after her death he married his pregnant lover Poppaea. She bore him a son who died three months after his birth.

Map Of Rome

On July 18, 64 A.D. disaster struck, Rome was ravaged by a great fire that burned over three fourths of the city. Amid this disaster however Nero saw the opportunity to rebuild Rome greater than it had been before. His first task was the construction of a huge elegant palace. Some people believed that Nero started the fire so that he would have a place for his palace to be built. Nero saw himself losing favor with the public so he decided to blame the fire on the Christians. MacKendrick (1958) believed that "the Emperor found it politic to blame the Christians for Rome's great fire of A.D. 64." (p 82) After the fire Nero returned to his first love, the theater. When the aristocracy saw this there was nothing but contempt for emperor turned artist. This was the beginning of the end.

Many of Nero's high ranking government officials started to consort to kill Nero in what was called the "Pisonian Conspiracy". It was called this because the conspirators wished to replace Nero with a man named Piso. (Perowne, 1968) Nero discovered the plan before it was too late and had over fifty people put to death. Among those were his retired tutor Seneca and his wife Poppaea and their unborn child. But perhaps the most important person put to death was Corbulo, a high ranking military general. His execution was important because until now Nero had carried all the provinces and the legions that inhabited them. But Corbulo's death made it clear that no one was safe from the insane emperor. After the conspiracy had been uncovered Rome was cast into a spell of fear, paranoia and suspicion. Nero had spies everywhere throughout Rome trying to find out who was "not with Nero". Soon the armies of Rome that were in Germany began to revolt. Although Nero still had the majority of the military with him he left Rome in disguise for fear of his life. Then on June 9, 68 A.D. Nero learned that the Senate had declared him a public enemy. He could not bear the thought of being hunted down so he had his servant stab him. Scullard (1969) states that his last words were "What an artist I died." (p 301).

Before Nero died Rome had been at peace for over a century and when he died civil war followed. The reason for this is that after the death of his three month old son Nero had all his relatives and anyone who would have had any claim to the throne after his death killed. He only wanted a direct descendant of his blood to rule. He did not listen to the words of Seneca who said "However many men one kills he can never kill his successor." (A&E Biography, 1997) Now that Nero was dead the throne was open to the one with the power to attain it.

As history has shown before this time period the opportunity of attaining power is an irresistible temptation to many men. In this situation the one who seized power after Nero's death was Vitellius.

Works Cited

This Web Page Created by T. F. and W.D., 3/22/98, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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