‘Oh What an Artist dies in me’- Nero as he died.
Emperor Nero is a famously vicious Roman princeps in a dynasty of similarly notorious individuals. The extent to which this is truly the case is up for some debate however. The most pertinent ancient sources, the historians Tacitus and Suetonius, make their views on Nero’s debauched lifestyle and method of leadership very clear. Suetonius finishes his opening paragraph of Nero’s biography, ‘though Nero degenerated from the good qualities of his ancestors, he yet reproduced the vices of each of them’ (Nero 1), which is a pretty damning statement given the already questionable qualities of said ancestors as extolled by Suetonius. Tacitus takes it a step further, decrying that ‘Nero himself, defiled by every natural and unnatural lust, had left no abomination in reserve with which to crown his vicious existence’ (Annals 15.37).
It is questionable, however, how far Nero was purely evil as no story is as clear cut as Tacitus and Suetonius would like this one to be. Josephus writes in his Antiquities of the Jews that other historians ‘out of hatred to [Nero], and the great ill-will which they bare him, have so impudently raved against him with their lies, that they justly deserve to be condemned’ (Antiquities, 20.8.3), suggesting that not all in the Roman world perceived Nero as darkly as one would first assume.
So what specific immoral crimes was Nero accused of, to back up this ‘impudent raving’ against his person? Perhaps a better question would be what he wasn’t accused of. To start, he was a great patron of the arts and would often take to the stage himself to perform on a lyre and recite poetry. He dealt decisively and effectively with a dangerous and (in Suetonius’s own words, Nero 16) ‘mischievous cult’ which was rising to prominence in his time. He rebuilt a large part of Rome at his own expense with grand colonnades and well-structured streets, and ordered the construction of a magnificent palace and gardens (Tacitus Annals, 15.41-43). He even followed his heart in publicly marrying a man, perhaps showing himself as the most progressive of all the emperors!
This all sounds great until you take into account that the arts were seen as feminine, un-Roman and decidedly ‘Greek’; the cult which he dealt so thoroughly with was Christianity; he is accused of causing the ‘Great Fire of Rome’ in the course of his engineering plans; and he castrated his ‘husband’ Sporus before naming him after his deceased wife. Many of these actions are detailed in both Suetonius and Tacitus, with a few also compounded in Dio Chrisostom’s Discourses. It is therefore believable that there is some founding for the assertion that Nero did commit these crimes. Amusingly his advisor, the stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, writes an essay on mercy (De Clementia) aimed at the Emperor, possibly in the hopes he could temper some of Nero’s viciousness.
Whilst it is easy to get carried away with the gruesome stories of Christians covered in oil and used as garden lamps, or pretty young men being forcibly castrated and pushed or sold into female social roles, arguably the most important scandal surrounding Nero is that of the burning of Rome. Tacitus implies multiple times that the fire was likely the fault of the Princeps himself, though he attempts historical neutrality by asserting at the start of his investigation that ‘both sides of the argument have their sponsors’ (Annals, 15.38).
Suetonius is less subtle; in his description of a ‘general conversation’ where an unknown voice says (rather dramatically for a general conversation), ‘When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire,’ and Nero replies ominously ‘Nay, rather while I live’. (Nero, 38). Both historians claim that men were seen throwing firebrands into buildings to purposefully light them, with Tacitus claiming that ‘they had their authority’, suggestion the hand of someone with said authority (Nero himself). The fire itself was extremely damaging to Rome either way, and ancient accounts of it are suitably graphic.
While it is difficult to establish quite how legitimate a lot of the horrifying claims made of Nero are, it does seem relatively safe to assume that he was indeed a particularly nasty Emperor, and failing that he was certainly an extremely scandalous figure.