Nero
54 - 68 CE
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Nero became emperor when his mother poisoned her husband, Nero's granduncle Claudius. He showed his filial devotion and gratitude to her by having her murdered 5 years later. Known as an uncaring, self-indulgent ruler, he went down (erroneously) in the popular histories as the man who "fiddled while Rome burned".

Nero and Claudius Syrian Tetradrachm
About this coin: Despite coming to power through the murder of his uncle, Nero took pains to appear the dutiful nephew, having Claudius deified and minting these silver provincial tetradrachms featuring him on the obverse and Claudius on the reverse.

I do wonder, though, whether it's coincidence that the portrait of Nero is always far more regal looking than that of Claudius. Could the die engravers have been told that the living emperor would look with favor on an "uglified" portrait of the dead one?

In the first five years of Nero's reign, he appeared the model of a responsible emperor. This isn't bad, if you consider that his uncle Caligula developed a worse reputation after a reign of only four years total. He was quite the patron of the arts, and he fancied himself an excellent singer, poet, and actor.

Of course, he did practice a bit of murder at times, including two of his wives, and possibly his step-brother Britannicus, though that might have been his mother's doing. And speaking of his mumsy, Agrippina ...

Less than a year after Agrippina had murdered her husband Claudius to ensure Nero's accession, Nero expelled her from the Imperial palace. Four years later, he decided to eliminate the maternal meddling permanently. To "honor" her, he had her ride in an especially magnificent boat, but under a canopy that had been rigged to collapse. The boat was then intentionally sunk. Unfortunately, she proved quite a strong swimmer (possibly due to the hobby of sponge diving she had taken up while exiled by her brother, Caligula), and he had to send soldiers to murder her in her own home.

The popular image of mad Nero sawing away at a fiddle as he watches the flames consume Rome is an impossibility, since the fiddle wasn't invented until quite a bit later and he wasn't even in Rome when the fire occurred. In fact, he appears to have behaved quite responsibly, organizing relief efforts, allowing public buildings to be used as emergency shelters, and supplying inexpensive grain to the victims. He also helped fund reconstruction efforts and established building codes to decrease the likelihood of a recurrence.

But he also began construction on a magnificent new Imperial residence (the "Golden House" and huge surrounding gardens, including an artificial lake and a 120-foot high bronze statue of himself) on a massive piece of prime downtown Roman real estate that had been cleared by the fire. Rumors spread that Nero had started the fire himself to make the land available for his project, and the story also emerged that he had sung one of his compositions about the fall of Troy (possibly accompanying himself on the lyre) as he watched the flames from a safe distance. This is the origin of the "Fiddled while Rome Burned" legend.

The lavish spending soon had him near bankruptcy. To raise money, he fell back on Uncle Caligula's tried and true formula: treason trials, property confiscation, and huge taxes. It had the same tried and true result as it had for Caligula: a flurry of conspiracies to assassinate him. In 65 and 66, two massive conspiracies involving senators and officers of the Praetorian Guard were uncovered and dealt with.

Despite this unrest at home, Nero went on a tour of Greece, competing in (and winning, of course!) major Greek performing arts festivals. Audience members were not allowed to leave while he was performing. It is said that women gave birth in the stands, and that people faked death in order to be carried out.

The future emperor Vespasian fell into disfavor for falling asleep during one of these performances. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to deal with a serious uprising in Judaea, and it is speculated that Nero planned on using this to discredit him -- either Vespasian would succeed and be accused of unnecessary brutality, or he would fail and be accused of incompetence. But Nero would be dead before that could come about.

Upon returning home, Nero found his support among the aristocracy near zero. His new taxes had also engendered rebellion in the provinces. Vindex, a provincial governor in what is now France, rebelled. He was supported by Galba, a governor in Spain. Vindex was quickly defeated, but Galba benefitted from defections within the military and support for him in Rome itself. Nero soon found himself abandoned by even his palace attendants. He was led from the city by one of his freedmen, but soldiers quickly found him in the villa where he'd sought refuge. When they came to arrest him, he stabbed himself in the neck.

A true performer to the end, even in his extremity he couldn't resist the opportunity for a great exit line. Just before thrusting the knife home, he said, "Oh, what an artist the world is losing!"


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