Nero: destroyer or builder?

Until 24th October 2021, visitors to the British Museum have the opportunity to explore the life of one of Rome’s most infamous rulers. Nero: the man behind the myth tells Nero’s story through 200 ancient objects, many of which are lucky to exist today. As well as learning about Nero’s tyrannical rule, the items on display reveal the history and skill of an ancient civilisation. The British Museum allows individuals to admire the craftsmanship of statues, armour, coins and items of luxury. Sticking to the known facts, the museum encourages people to develop their own opinion about the Emperor Nero. Was he a destroyer of Rome or Rome’s finest rebuilder?

The exhibition begins with a marble statue of Nero as a boy, approximately 13 years old. Three years later, Nero would become the fifth Emperor of Rome and the final ruler of Rome’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Born on 15th December AD 37, Nero’s real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father died when he was very young and his mother, Agrippina (AD 15/16-59), later married Emperor Claudius (10 BC-AD 54).

Eighty years before Nero became Emperor, his great-great-grandfather, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), established a new form of government in Rome, known as a principate. Augustus was adopted into the Julian family by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), whose death sparked a civil war. When Augustus crowned himself Emperor, he ended the war, which resulted in a long period of peace and prosperity.

In 38 AD, Augustus married Livia (58 BC-AD 29), the mother of Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37), who became the next Emperor of Rome. Before Augustus died, he persuaded Tiberius to adopt his great-nephew Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19). Augustus wished Germanicus to be the heir to the throne after Tiberius. Unfortunately, Germanicus died prematurely, probably from poison, so the throne passed down to Germanicus’ son, Caligula (AD 12-41).

Caligula, to put it bluntly, was a tyrant. He banished his sisters, Agrippina, the mother of Nero and Livilla, for allegedly conspiring against him. To end his destructive rule, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him. Since Caligula had no children, his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, became the next Emperor. Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile and married her. Although Claudius wanted his son Britannicus to inherit the throne, Agrippina persuaded him to choose Nero as crown prince and heir.

Not everyone approved of Claudius’ decision, particularly the supporters of his previous wife Messalina, the mother of Britannicus. Even before Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile, Messalina feared Nero’s growing popularity. She allegedly sent men to kill Nero, but they were chased away by snakes hiding in the boy’s bedroom. Although Nero denied this story, he began wearing a gold bracelet containing the remains of a snakeskin.

To cement his claim as heir, Nero married Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. According to rumours, Agrippina believed her son was ready to take over as Emperor, so she poisoned Claudius. To begin with, Agrippina acted as her son’s co-ruler and appointed Nero’s former tutor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, as his chief advisor.

Seneca, along with the Praetorian Guard, tried to weaken Agrippina’s grip on her son. The Praetorians were established by Augustus as his personal guard, and they continued to support and protect each subsequent emperor. They swore allegiance to Nero the moment his mother crowned him as Emperor, but they disapproved of her constant meddling in empire affairs. Over time, Nero managed to push his mother away, eventually removing her from the palace after Britannicus’ death in AD 55. Agrippina’s waning power is evident when studying Roman coins. The first silver denarius issued after Claudius’ death shows a profile of Agrippina in a prominent position. Later coins contained the heads of both Agrippina and Nero, facing each other. In AD 55, a new design put Nero’s face in front of his mother’s, and the following year, Agrippina disappeared from coins altogether.

As well as the throne, Nero inherited the empire’s many problems, including tensions with rival powers. For years, the Parthians argued over the state of Armenia, but soon Nero directed his attention to Britain, where Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe, started a violent rebellion. Claudius captured parts of Britain in AD 43, and by AD 60, Boudica raised an army powerful enough to fight back. As well as the Iceni tribe, Boudica hired soldiers from the Trinovante tribe of Essex, totalling tens of thousands of people. They destroyed many Roman settlements, including Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London). The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, finally defeated Boudica in AD 61.

Following the war with Britain, Nero resumed focusing on Rome’s long-standing struggle for control of Armenia. Relations with Parthia grew worse when the Parthian king installed his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. After taking military action, Nero agreed to let Tiridates rule over Armenia on the condition that he let Nero crown him as king. With this compromise in place, the two empires finally experienced a period of peace.

When not worrying about the actions of his enemies, Nero concentrated on the people of the Roman Empire. He built many new buildings, including the Imperial Palace, baths and food markets. Nero improved the food system and implemented tax reforms to benefit the population. Unlike previous emperors, Nero also believed providing entertainment for his people was important. He encouraged public performances of plays and became the first emperor to act on stage – something that divided public opinion. Nero was also a keen musician, but his eagerness to perform in public provoked resentment among the senatorial elite who believed the Emperor should not mix with the plebs.

Nonetheless, Nero’s involvement with everyday entertainment made him popular with the people of Rome. Nero enjoyed chariot racing, despite the consensus that Charioteers were of low status. Racers competed in specific teams or factiones, each recognised by a different colour. Written evidence suggests Nero raced for the Green team because he often dyed the sand in the arena that colour. Nero’s passion for horse racing began as a child when he and his friends reportedly played with wooden chariots and toy horses.

According to Nero’s biographer, Suetonius (AD 69-122), Nero performed the roles of the mythical figures Orestes and Oedipus in tragedies on the stage. Based on Greek myths, Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father, and Oedipus unknowingly committed incest with his mother. There is no physical evidence that Nero played these roles, and some suggest Suetonius deliberately made this claim to hint at crimes Nero committed against his mother Agrippina.

Nero ordered his mother’s death in AD 59 after he suspected her of plotting against him. He also exiled and executed his first wife for similar reasons. Actions such as these were not uncommon in the Roman Empire, and Roman princesses often faced accusations of conspiring against rulers. Nonetheless, Nero’s actions tarnished his reputation, particularly his act of matricide.

During her lifetime, wild tales of Agrippina’s sexual promiscuity spread across the empire, as did her alleged sexual relationship with her son. These may only be rumours made up by those who feared her power. Nero openly admitted to ordering Agrippina’s death but claimed she had planned to assassinate him. Whilst some celebrated Nero’s salvation, others soured towards the Emperor, despite previously disliking Agrippina.

In AD 62, Nero remarried to Poppaea Sabina, who soon faced the wrath of the senate, who distrusted women in power. Nonetheless, the public loved Poppaea, which they demonstrated with poems and writing scratched into walls: NeroPoppaenses.

“Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl and a large single pearl. When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.”

Poppaea gave birth to Nero’s only child, Claudia Augusta, in AD 63. Sadly, the child died three months later. Poppaea passed away in AD 65 after suffering a miscarriage. Although Nero expressed his grief by honouring his wife with a lavish funeral, many believed her death was his fault, suggesting he had violent tendencies.

Both Poppaea and Claudia Augusta were deified, and a marble statue of the latter was produced, depicting what she might have looked like if she had reached childhood. The hairstyle resembles Nero’s at the time of her birth, and in her right hand, she holds a butterfly. This insect is a symbol of the soul, which flutters out of the body after death.

Following Poppaea’s death, Nero married a third time. Not much is know about his third wife, Statilia Messalina, other than she outlived him. The lack of information suggests the public did not warm to her as they had Poppaea, who they saw as the perfect wife for Nero.

It is hard to trust ancient documents, especially those concerning the Roman Empire because they often contain exaggerated facts or outright lies depending on the author’s opinion or feelings. Poppaea’s death is one such example, and another is the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Flames raged for nine days, destroying a large portion of the city. Although Nero helped reconstruct buildings and provided relief for citizens, many accused him of starting the fire. The myth claims Nero stayed in his palace and “fiddled while Rome burned”, yet other evidence suggests Nero was not in the city at the time of the fire.

Three of fourteen Roman districts were reduced to ruins by the fire, including the Imperial Palace. Fires were common in Rome, as they were in most major cities due to flammable building materials and the reliance on flames for light and warmth. Yet many suspected an act of arson and pinned the blame on Nero, who in turn accused a new sect of Jewish origin, later known as Christians. Natural disasters also impacted Nero’s reign, for instance, the earthquake in AD 62, which destroyed most of Pompeii.

Whilst Nero supplied aid for the rebuilding of Rome and Pompeii, he also started building a new palace to replace the one lost in the fire. Only a few traces of the old palace remain, but its opulence is evident from the surviving fragments of ornate columns. Nero wanted his new palace to be bigger and better and named it Domus Aurea, “Golden House”. Nero’s plans were ambitious, and the building remained incomplete by his death in AD 68. He imported yellow marble from North Africa, red and green porphyry from Egypt and Greece, and white and black marble from Turkey to decorate the floors and walls of the palace. Frescoes adorned the ceilings, and the walls featured intricate geometric friezes.

Nero planned to host large banquets in the Domus Aurea as a way of expressing his wealth and power. He owned many expensive items with which he could impress his guests, including an exceptionally rare cup made from the mineral fluorspar. Ancient historians claim Nero paid one million sesterces for this item. He also owned silver dining sets. Nero’s political enemies used the construction of Domus Aurea and Nero’s possessions to paint him as a tyrant, pointing out that his new palace sat on land that once belonged to the public.

During the aftermath of the fire and the death of his second wife, Nero was at the height of his power. This was also the turning point that led to his demise. Nero planned to expand the empire across the Black Sea by invading Ethiopia, but revolts in Judea, Gaul (France) and Spain forced him to abandon these ideals. He also had less support from the senate than he had in previous years.

Nero managed to suppress the rebellions in the outer areas of the empire and marked the end of a lengthy war with Pathia in AD 66 by opening the gates of the temple of Janus in Rome. These gates were symbolically closed during times of conflict and opened during times of peace. The last time the gates were open was during the reign of Augustus. Nero celebrated this victory by issuing coins to mark the occasion.

During a tour of Greece, Nero aimed to participate in all the Greek festivals, but some of his military campaigns prevented him. Nonetheless, he granted Greece freedom from taxation in AD 67 and used the 6,000 prisoners captured during the rebellion in Judea to start building a canal in Corinth. These acts made Nero popular with the people, but those in the elite classes began to despise him.

Many members of the Senate felt threatened by Nero’s love of the common people. They wanted the Emperor and Senate to tower above the rest of the empire, but Nero often stooped down to his people’s level – although his palace suggests this was not always the case. In AD 65, the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso led a plot against Nero known as the Pisonian Conspiracy. When Nero found out, he ordered Piso and the other conspirators to commit suicide. Although the people of Rome rejoiced that Piso’s plot had failed, other senators started to turn against Nero, and more plots followed. By AD 67, Nero had few allies left in political and military positions. Knowing this, many senators and governors took the opportunity to rebel, including Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gaul.

As the rebellions gained momentum, the remaining members of the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state and threatened him with execution. To avoid this degrading death, Nero chose to commit suicide in June AD 68 at the age of 30. His 14-year reign came to an abrupt end, leaving people torn between grief and joy. For some, Nero had been a saviour, and rumours spread that he would return from the dead. For others, Nero had been a tyrant and someone to fear.

The year following Nero’s death became known as the Year of the Four Emperors, where the elite classes fought over the throne. Nero had no children and no heir, so there was no obvious successor. The first man to claim the throne was Lucius Sulpicius Galba, the 70-year-old governor of Spain. He reigned for seven months but failed to gain popularity with the people, resulting in his assassination. Marcus Salvius Otho, the governor of Lusitania (Portugal), took Galba’s place but found it equally difficult to exert his power. After three months, Otho took his life.

Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), took Otho’s place but failed to gain support. Although he tried to abdicate, he was executed by the Praetorian Guard. Finally, Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), a man from relatively humble origins, claimed the throne in December AD 69. He had supported Nero and fought on the Emperor’s behalf during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The people and Senate were happy with this final competitor, and Vespasian ruled for ten years until his death, after which his son Titus took the throne.

During the Year of the Four Emperors, many of Nero’s statues were destroyed. As a result, very few remain today. Nero’s enemies deliberately decapitated his stone portraits, and others were used to produce new statues of later emperors. A marble portrait of Vespasian, for example, was re-carved from a likeness of Nero. Traces of Nero’s signature hairstyle are evident at the base of the neck.

The Romans attempted to write Nero out of history, which adds weight to the stories about the tyrannical Emperor. The British Museum questions these beliefs by providing evidence to the contrary. The exhibition, whilst trying to stay impartial, leans towards a more positive description of Nero. Many of the negative connotations were written long after Nero’s death. These stories were likely distorted and exaggerated over the years. That is not to say there is no truth in those allegations, but the physical evidence reveals Nero rebuilt Rome after the great fire, achieved peace throughout the empire and had a large public following.

So, was Nero a cruel, ruthless tyrant or was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society? Was he a megalomaniac, or did Nero try to do what was best for his Empire? Should we believe what historians of the past have written or make judgements based on evidence unearthed by archaeologists? Ultimately, we will never know the truth, but this exhibition reveals we cannot fully rely on anything to give us an accurate account of ancient history.

Nero: the man behind the myth is open until 24th October 2021 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £20 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!