Nero: Debauched, Sybaritic and god-damn awful.

Of all the ancient world rulers, very few are better known today than Emperor Nero for his distinguished image and personality. Throughout centuries, Nero has been depicted as one of the most vile and despotic rulers of the Ancient world, acting as a symbol of Roman decadence through his hedonism in food, drink, sexual depravity, lurid spectacles and the persecutions of Christians. It is this scandalous portrayal that historians are infatuated by; tragically causing many to overlook the fundamental question that arises when studying Nero’s period in office: to what extent was Nero really to blame for the events that took place during his reign? Whilst a few historians have touched upon the possibility of controlling female and political figures influencing Nero, this essay will attempt to uncover all the conceivable reasons as to why Nero has accumulated such a dishonourable reputation over time and whether he is solely to blame for the horrific events that occurred during his reign.

For the ancient world, ‘history’ is a concept very loose in meaning in comparison to our definition in modern society. For the Romans, history was a genre separate from the genres of biography and autobiography, including both fiction and historical fact. Many pieces of ancient history were predominately written as “a poem in prose” [Quintilian] to entertain the elite in society and as a form of the historian’s showmanship. Since Roman education consisted almost exclusively of instruction in literature and rhetoric, all great Roman historical writers [including Caesar] studied rhetoric and thus, this inevitably resulted in the introduction of stylistic and rhetorical skills in their work, which provided them with the flexibility to induce a certain reaction from their readers. Of the historians who wrote genuine works of history understood the need for credibility and unlike epic or tragic poets were self- conscious about untrustworthy aspects of their narratives. This is not to say that they did see the truth as important but rather the appearance of truth as vital in order to allow history to act as a moral instruction for future generations. [R.MELLOR] It is clear that Roman historians had limited interest in primary documentary material and preferred to gather material from the works of prior historians or eye witnesses, as very few ancient historians writing about Nero were living during his reign or attained any primary material for that matter. So what does this mean for Nero’s reputation? Perhaps the majority of the image of Nero conjured up as debauched emperor, has been distorted and exaggerated through history to act as a moral teaching for future generations of the corruption that excessive power can lead to. Alternatively, it is possible that Nero’s immoral disposition had been inflated to add a dramatic element into ancient history which still captivates historians to present date.

Some historians have suggested that Nero’s infamous behaviour was rooted in his childhood and coming into reign at seventeen; IT was just an extreme form of adolescent rebellion. Nero arguably had a ‘traumatic’ childhood, facing the death of his father at aged two and being rasied by his mother in deprived living conditions. When Nero was a little older, his mother, Agrippina married her uncle, Emperor Tiberius Claudius and when she had convinced him to adopt Nero she ruthlessly killed him in order for Nero to take the throne. Under the guidance of his mother, his advisor Seneca and the Praetorian Prefect Afranius Burrus, the general consensus amongst historians was that the first five years of Nero’s rule was actually considered very successful amongst the Roman citizens as Nero had reduced direct taxation, decreased many restrictive governmental rules and banned capital punishment. Cassius-Dio wrote that “Nero [was] popular with the masses” and was “to be regarded as the only successor to the imperial power” even before his reign commenced, however he had a bad role model as his predecessor for whilst Tiberius had been a good administrator and able general, in his later years he became disenchanted with the business of running the Empire and dealing with the ‘petty’ politics of aristocratic Rome. According to contemporary sources he retreated to Capri where he indulged in his worst vices, including the rape of the young sons of Senators. Though proof of this is minimal, some have progressed to say that he even bedded the young Nero. With the corrupt Tiberius as Nero’s main patriarchal figure and a murderous mother, perhaps it is no wonder that Nero participated in similar vices.

Flourished from Nero’s ill-famed reputation, Nero has been accused- justly or unjustly- for the murder of many distinguished men during his reign. The first ‘victim’ was M. Junius Silanus, a renowned political figure descended directly through his mother from Augustus.  He was allegedly poisoned during his proconsulship of Asia, however in Tacitus’ Annals: The history of Rome [Book 13, chapter 1] Tacitus went out of his way to emphasise that Nero was not involved in this crime: “ignaro Nerone”, without the knowledge of Nero. Silanus’ murder was soon to be followed by the death of Claudius’ freedman, Narcissus, who was imprisoned and consequently driven to suicide. Once again, Tacitus asserts that this death had not been ordered by Nero: “invito principe, against the wishes of the Emperor. With no affection or sympathy for Nero, why then would Tacitus ‘incorrectly’ portray Nero in a positive light?

In AD 55, Britannicus [Nero’s rival for the imperial household] died suddenly at an imperial banquet, Jeremy Paterson states that “the accusation of poisoning was inevitable”, but in this case an alternative explanation is available. When he collapsed, Nero’s first reaction, according to Paterson, was that he was suffering from an epileptic fit; this claim however has been undermined by the fact that Agrippina had exploited Britannicus to have this ‘condition’ in her attempt to discredit his claim to the throne. Given the current circumstances the death of the prince was bound to provoke suspicion, allowing historians who greatly disliked Nero, such as Suetonius, to depict a vivid scene [in Nero 33] in which one of Nero’s slave had been commanded to prepare the poison for Britannicus. This claim has however been weakened by the fact that all members of the imperial household had tasters for their food to protect them from the possibility of poisoning. According to Josephus [Jewish Antiquities 20.153] few people at the time were privy of anything unnatural about Britannicus’ death and even Tacitus admits that his death raised no general outcry, but perhaps human nature is too preoccupied with creating links and so everything must have a reason, in which case Nero becomes the most likely candidate to be blamed.

Following after Britannicus’ death, Nero was next widely accused of murdering his mother, Agrippina. According to Jeremy Paterson, in her later life Agrippina, “in a desperate attempt to retain her hold over her son… is supposed to have made open sexual advances to Nero”.  Though evidence of this is limited, Tacitus’ Annals [book 14 chapter 2] on this rare occasion provides different opinions of the events leading up to her death. His account is by far the most detailed, providing his readers with background information that in early AD 59 Nero had found a new love, Poppaea Sabina who urged Nero to divorce his wife [Octavia] and marry her. Agrippina would have never agreed and so the story presumes that Nero destroyed her influence in public affairs in AD 55 and consequently forced her to retire to her country estates.  If we are as readers to accept Tacitus’ story, we are permitted to anticipate that once Agrippina is removed, Nero would divorce his current wife and marry Poppaea. And so he does- but only after three years. With no reason for delaying, Tacitus provides us with another motivation for the postponed divorce [Annals: book 14 chapter 59]: the relationship between Poppaea and Nero has been dated too early in an entirely conjectural effort to find some influential reason that would fuel Nero’s desire to murder his mother. In the case of the actual death of Agrippina, many historians have recorded that Nero arranged for his mother to be killed in a shipwreck [which he later declared an accident] and only when this failed and she realised that her death was imminent did she stab herself in her womb. What grounds were there for disbelieving Nero’s claim that the shipwreck was an accident? The main witnesses of the shipwreck were dead; the crew were mostly likely concerned with saving the emperor’s mother first and so risked their own lives in order to save hers, hence Agrippina survived whilst the other members did not. Tacitus by his own admission suggests that there is no plot and that the rush to the sides of the boat may have been a sign of panic than an attempt to over throw the ship and drown Agrippina. Furthermore there is no sign of a small boat in which the crew members would use to escape, and so nothing in Nero’s narrative compels us to disbelieve his claim that the shipwreck was indeed an accident.    

After the death of his mother, Nero sent a letter to the senate, allegedly composed by Seneca, claiming that she had caused the death of illustrious men. Who could Nero mean? These ‘illustrious men’ must include M. Junius Silanus and Narcissus with whom this murderous trail began. Seeing that Tacitus was one of the few Roman historians who established his evidence from official documents [he received the letter to the senate sent from Nero] now it is possible to comprehend how Tacitus was able to state that these deaths were the responsibility of Agrippina and to absolve Nero completely. The elaborate story of Nero’s plan to murder his mother was too interesting to be set aside in favour of a more prosaic, official account and so many Roman historians have often chosen to sell their works with these scandalous imperial affairs, quickly disregard any validity. 

In 1983, Jerome Nriagu, a geochemist, proposed that “lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman empire”. His work was centred on experimenting how ancient Romans, who had very few sweeteners besides honey would boil ‘must’ [ pressed fruit juice, usually grape juice, containing  the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit] in lead pots to produce a sugar syrup called defrutum. If acidic must is boiled in lead vessels the sweet syrup it yields will contain a quantity of lead acetate increasing the chance of lead poisoning. The risk of lead poisoning was also enhanced through drinking vessels and cookware made out of lead and from lead piping used for municipal water supplies and baths.  Once lead enters the body it is not quickly removed and so tends to form lead phosphate complexes within the bone, leading to peripheral nerve and brain damage. This can cause muscle weakness and destroy vital receptors which prevents nerves from transmitting messages efficiently. Lead poisoning can also interfere with neurotransmitter release, synapse formation and the structure of blood vessels resulting in bleeding and brain swelling. Recent research in Washington has shown that the long term impacts of lead poisoning include learning disabilities, antisocial behaviour, memory and concentration problems, high blood pressure, constant headaches and dizziness. Could it be possible that Nero went mad due to lead poisoning? After all he was renowned for his lavish lifestyle and excessive consumption of food and wine which were predominately stored in lead vessels.  Is it merely a consequence that modest emperors such as Augustus Caesar who lead a frugal lifestyle also had better health? Perhaps, the role of lead poisoning contributing to madness is a subject of controversy and its validity is discounted by many historians such as John Scarborough who concluded that ancient authors were well aware of lead poisoning and that it was not endemic in the Roman Empire. This has been confirmed by Roman authors such as Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius who recognised the toxicity of lead. Vitruvius, a prominent author during Augustus’ time wrote that the Romans knew very well the dangers of lead poisoning; nevertheless I do not believe that this theory should be completely dismissed, given the correlation between the emperors’ lifestyle and their mental health conditions.

Cato the younger was a political figure in the late Roman republic and a follower of the Stoic philosophy [which opines that destructive emotions results from errors in judgement and that a person of “moral and intellectual perfection” would not endure such emotions], was renowned for his stubbornness, his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity and his disgust for the ubiquitous corruption of his period. Many historians have attempted to analysis what made Cato so morally upstanding, generally concluding that his childhood and older influences played a big part in his ethics. If this is the case, can we blame Nero for turning out to be insane with an unstable childhood and corrupt influences? Both Nero and Emperor Caligula [arguably a Roman emperor even more sadistic than Nero] were seen to have deprived childhoods: Nero had a domineering mother; Caligula had both a formidable mother and a dictatorial grandmother [by whom he was raised after his mother’s death]. Both were expected to live up to the names of great men and both failed to do so.

Philosophers have also attempted to understand the reasons why political figures such as Cato have maintained their moral principles and others such as Verres [a corrupt Roman magistrate] have been depraved and abused their power. Thomas Reid a religiously trained philosopher stated that Cato “was good because he could not be otherwise” implying that Cato was predetermined to be moral and so could not act in any other way. Reid observes: “this saying, if understood literally and strictly, is not the praise of Cato, but of his constitution, which was no more the work of Cato than his existence” (EAP, 4.1 198).  If Cato is free, then he is responsible for all the good things he has done, however if he is not free then he cannot be praised for being morally upstanding as he has no choice but to do well.  This concept of freedom is a theory greatly disregarded when examining why Nero was brutal, many do not ask whether he was ‘free’ to commit his atrocities or they presuppose that he was unrestricted in his actions. Is it such a stretch to say that Nero was determined to commit ruthless crimes? Possibly, but clearly the ancient world did not believe that anything was left to chance. Democritus’ believed that strict causal laws controlled the motions of atoms and that everything- including the human mind- consisted merely of atoms in a void. Therefore in this absolute necessity there is no room in the cosmos for chance, why then do we, as a society [where the theory of pre-determination still prevails] assume that a person doing evil acts must be free to do them?

Another theory significantly overlooked is the possibility that Nero had a health problem. In Tacitus’Annals [book 15, chapter 36], Tacitus depicts Nero entering the temple of Vesta to offer worship when suddenly [there was] trembling through all his limbs: “repente cunctos per artus tremens”. Previous accounts by Cassius Dio also portray Nero “trembling” in a similar way that resembles a fit. Although Nero was never diagnosed as being ill perhaps this trembling isn’t because he was “scared by divinity or because he was never free from fear with the recollections of his crimes” as Tacitus suggests but maybe this seizure was a warning sign of an underlying health problem. The 1951 film “Quo Vadis” provides a further curious portrayal of Nero’s character as having a fickle child-like mind. The film is set in ancient Rome from AD 64-68, during which destructive Nero ascends to power and eventually threatens to destroy Rome’s previous peaceful order. The main subject of the film is the conflict between Christianity and the corruption of the Roman Empire; however the imaginative depiction of Nero as a passive, feeble ruler is a particular point of interest and throughout the film he is seen to have a child-like outlook. How accurate this representation of Nero is, is debatable, but I believe that there must be some truth to this easily swayed, indecisive image of Nero.

Throughout history Nero has been criticised as the emperor “who fiddled while Rome burned”, but few have actually momentarily paused to identify with him. At a young age, Nero was forced into a profession that he took little interest to; evidently Nero was more drawn to the performing arts, as throughout his reign he ordered the buildings of theatres in places such as Naples, held performances in his gardens, promoted athletic games, and increased the overall cultural capital of the empire.  Although these leisure activities were taboos for the Romans, associated with the Greek effeminate lifestyle and largely contradictory to the virility associated with Rome, Nero craved the attention and pleasures that came from such activities. Arguably, the whole of Nero’s rule, for him was a chance to be in the spotlight and evidently he did not waste. Nero saw the persecution of the Christians [who at the time were considered a “fatal superstition: exitiabilis superstito”- Tacitus Annals Book 15 Chapter 44] as not only a scapegoat to causing the fire of Rome, but as a spectacle in itself as Tacitus states that Nero had offered his own gardens for the crucifixion of Christians and was putting on a circus show in which he mixed with the crowd “with the appearance of a charioteer”. Cruel though the acts he committed were, Nero really desired to be loved by his people and to be viewed as a great performer of his time.

This essay does not intend to excuse Nero of his atrocious crimes that he committed, but rather to begin to provide a wider viewpoint of possible influences that could have potentially encouraged his vicious behaviour and to gain an understanding of why Nero has been greatly butchered overtime. Whilst Nero can never be completely be liberated from his brutality, I hope that future generations that study his reign will approach this topic with a more open frame of mind than currently in history, attempting to identify with him rather than comply with the besotted perception of a debauched emperor. 

Bibliography: (As honest as a bibliography can be)

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/61*.html

http://listverse.com/2010/05/09/top-10-worst-roman-emperors/

http://www.cracked.com/funny-7063-5-insane-ancient-rulers/

http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/metal.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_of_the_Roman_Empire

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_the_Younger

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