Today is the birthday (37CE) of the Roman emperor Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius (on the urging of his mother Agrippina the Younger), who was Claudius’ fourth wife, and became Claudius’ heir and successor. Agrippina may have hastened Nero’s inheritance by poisoning Claudius, but the evidence is not clear. Nero became emperor at the age of 16, and during the early years of his reign, Nero was content to be guided by his mother, his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and his Praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. There is no question that Agrippina was a scheming, powerful woman, and her ambition seems to have been to rule Rome by making sure her son became emperor at a young age, so that she could hold sway as dowager. After five years of this, however, Nero had her killed so that he could rule in his own right.
I had to mull things over for several years before deciding in favor of celebrating Nero on his birthday because I have a tacit rule against posting about unpleasant people. In reviewing Nero’s life and career carefully, I have decided to give him his moment in the sun, not because he was a wonderful man and emperor, but because he was not all bad, and he was certainly not as bad as history paints him. He was about average for his time and culture. The main contemporary historians, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassio Dio associate Nero’s rule with tyranny and extravagance. They offer overwhelmingly negative assessments of his personality and reign. Tacitus, for example, claims that the Roman people thought him compulsive and corrupt. Suetonius reports that many Romans believed that the Great Fire of Rome https://www.bookofdaystales.com/great-fire-of-rome/ was instigated by Nero to clear the way for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea.
If you read my post on the fire you will see that I believe that Tacitus tried to be even handed about Nero and the fire, although his dislike of him shows through. He does acknowledge that the legend of Nero playing the lyre whilst the city burned was certainly false, and he notes that he opened up his own personal lands for the dispossessed, and prevented the price gouging of food in the aftermath of the fire to protect the poor. Yet Tacitus also seems to accept the belief that Nero had the fire started so that he could rebuild the city to his own liking, including a massive palatial structure and gardens. According to Tacitus, Nero was said to have seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire and burned them alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty.
Modern judgment of Nero is more measured. There is evidence of his popularity among the Roman commoners, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, where a popular legend arose that Nero had not died and would return. At least three leaders of short-lived, failed rebellions presented themselves as “Nero reborn” to enlist popular support. It seems to be the case that Nero made many enemies among the ruling classes, but was mostly liked by the average citizens. It is not average citizens who write histories, however, nor do they have great influence over the opinions of high-born historians.
After his mother’s death, Nero started to play a more active and independent role in government and foreign policy. During his reign, general Corbulo conducted a successful war and negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire. His general Suetonius Paulinus crushed a major revolt in Britain, led by the Iceni queen, Boudica. In 59, Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni, and a client king of Rome’s during Claudius’ reign, died. The client state arrangement was unlikely to survive the death of Claudius. Prasutagus’ will leaving control of the Iceni to his wife Boudica was denied, and, when procurator Catus Decianus scourged Boudica and raped her daughters, the Iceni revolted. They were joined by the Trinovantes, and their uprising became the most significant provincial rebellion of the 1st century CE. Under Boudica the towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) were burned and a substantial percentage of legion infantry killed. Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia, assembled his remaining forces, defeated the Britons, and restored order. But for a while Nero considered abandoning the province. Julius Classicianus replaced Decianus as procurator. Classicianus advised Nero to replace Paulinus, who continued to punish the population even after the rebellion was over. Nero decided to adopt a more lenient approach to governing the province, and appointed a new governor, Petronius Turpilianus.
Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade and the cultural life of the empire, ordering theatres built and promoting athletic games. He made public appearances as an actor, poet, musician and charioteer. In the eyes of traditionalists, this undermined the dignity and authority of his person, status, and office. His extravagant, empire-wide program of public and private works was funded by an increase in taxes that was much resented by the upper classes. In contrast, his populist style of rule remained very popular among the lower classes of Rome and the provinces until his death and beyond. Various plots against his life were revealed; the ringleaders, most of them Nero’s own courtiers, were executed.
In 68 CE, Vindex, governor of the Gaulish territory Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled. He was supported by Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. Vindex’s revolt failed in its immediate aim, but Nero fled Rome when Rome’s discontented civil and military authorities chose Galba as emperor. Nero fled Rome with the intention of going to the port of Ostia and, from there, to take a fleet to one of the still-loyal eastern provinces. According to Suetonius, Nero abandoned the idea when some army officers openly refused to obey his commands, responding with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Is it so dreadful a thing then to die?” Nero then toyed with the idea of fleeing to Parthia, throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba, or appealing to the people and begging them to pardon him for his past offences “and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt”. Suetonius reports that the text of this speech was later found in Nero’s writing desk, but that he dared not give it from fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.
Nero returned to Rome and spent the evening in the palace. After sleeping, he awoke at about midnight to find the palace guard had left. Dispatching messages to his friends’ palace chambers for them to come, he received no answers. Upon going to their chambers personally, he found them all abandoned. When he called for a gladiator or anyone else adept with a sword to kill him, no one appeared. He shouted, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber. Returning, Nero sought a place where he could hide and collect his thoughts. An imperial freedman, Phaon, offered his villa, located 4 mi (6.4 km) outside the city. Travelling in disguise, Nero and four loyal freedmen, Epaphroditos, Phaon, Neophytus, and Sporus, reached the villa, where Nero ordered them to dig a grave for him.
At this time, a courier arrived with a report that the Senate had declared Nero a public enemy, that it was their intention to execute him by beating him to death, and that armed men had been sent to apprehend him for the act to take place in the Roman Forum. The Senate actually was still reluctant and deliberating on the right course of action, as Nero was the last member of the Julio-Claudian family. Indeed, most of the senators had served the imperial family all their lives and felt a sense of loyalty to the deified bloodline, if not to Nero himself. The men actually had the goal of returning Nero back to the Senate, where the Senate hoped to work out a compromise with the rebelling governors that would preserve Nero’s life, so that at least a future heir to the dynasty could be produced. Nero, however, did not know this, and at the news brought by the courier, he prepared himself for suicide, pacing up and down muttering Qualis artifex pereo (“What an artist dies in me”). Losing his nerve, he begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself first.
At last, the sound of approaching horsemen drove Nero to face the end. However, he still could not bring himself to take his own life but instead he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to do the deed. When one of the horsemen entered and saw that Nero was dying, he attempted to stop the bleeding, but efforts to save Nero’s life were unsuccessful. Nero’s final words were “Too late! This is fidelity!” He died on 9th June 68, the anniversary of the death of his wife, Octavia, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, in what is now the Villa Borghese (Pincian Hill) area of Rome. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, sparking a brief period of civil wars known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
It is the third Sunday of Advent today (2019), so I have hauled out this quasi-recipe from when I was living in Lombardy at this time of year. Lentils were common in ancient Rome, and this would have worked for Nero’s chefs:
I had no idea what to make for dinner this evening, so I went out to the market to get some ideas. By chance I found a piece of meat called “reale di vitello” which is obviously veal, but I had no idea what cut. A lot of digging eventually uncovered the fact that “reale,” which can mean “real” or “royal,” is a cut of veal similar to chuck in beef. So I treated it the same way with slow braising. To make it suitable for Christmas I used a braising stock laced with allspice and ginger. For accompaniment I made lentils with the usual additions – mushrooms and leeks – but I added sultanas, as well as some allspice, ginger, and hot pepper. It’s just a spur of the moment thing, but may give you some ideas.