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Roman Emperor Nero: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson goes over a brief biography of Roman Emperor Nero's life and reign. You'll learn about his early life and family and contrast his early reign from his later reign.

Nero

You might have heard three things about the Roman Emperor Nero:

  1. he fiddled while Rome burned.
  2. he set Rome on fire.
  3. he was crazy.

Well, the first is wrong: he couldn't have possibly fiddled while his empire's city burned, as the fiddle wasn't even invented yet! So, if anything, he might have played his lyre. But even this could be hearsay.

Nero setting Rome on fire is supposition, as you'll learn. The third thing about being crazy, well that's true, at least to some extent. Let's find out how and why in this brief biography of the man.

Early Life and Family

Little Nero was actually born as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on December 15, 37 C.E. in what is now Anzio, Italy.

Nero didn't come from the best of stock in terms of temperament. His dad, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was cruel even by Roman standards. He even used a chariot to purposefully run over a little boy, and apparently said that his newborn son, Nero, would be a disaster. Gnaeus would die when Nero was just three.

His mom's side of the family wasn't that much better. His mom was Agrippina the Younger. She was the great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus. Her more immediate family wasn't so amazing, though. Her younger brother was Emperor Caligula, an extremely cruel and crazy emperor. He even tried to make his horse a high-ranking public official.

Agrippina's uncle Claudius succeeded Caligula as emperor. Claudius was cruel and crazy in his own way as well. For example, he had one of his wives murdered. Agrippina took the opportunity to marry her uncle Claudius after her husband died. This allowed Nero to be adopted into the direct line of imperial succession. The adoption took place in 50 C.E. and Nero was renamed Claudius Caesar Augustus as a result.

Early Reign

In 54 C.E., Claudius died under mysterious circumstances. Agrippina and Nero might have played a role in this and in trying to kill Claudius's own son, Britannicus. It's said Claudius died after eating poisoned mushrooms and Nero apparently exclaimed that 'mushrooms must be the food of the gods' not long after.

When Nero first came to the throne, the people of his empire largely welcomed him as a nice change from Claudius. He was seen as a good and generous emperor who was handsome as well. He held many games and festivals to entertain the people and reduced taxes. However, the games weren't violent. In fact, he banned games that ended in bloodshed and even banned capital punishment! While Nero did end up persecuting Christians, he actually aided Jews. His early reign was seen as something of a short-lived golden era for the empire.

Eventually, Nero restored a lot of the Senate's political power, though it wasn't done so much to limit his own power but rather to allow him more free time to indulge in his personal interests. This included playing the lyre and singing (which he wasn't good at). Nero appeared to think of himself as God's gift to the Earth in terms of artistic ability.

Later Reign

Nero wouldn't last very long as a sane and 'good' emperor, though. His mother made the mistake of thinking she was the real power behind the throne. This made Nero paranoid. Encouraged by his tutor, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, he kept his mother at a distance at first. Eventually, Nero decided to kill his mom.

Nero.
Nero

He devised several elaborate plans to try and make his mom's assassination look like an accident. But none of these worked out. So, he just had her stabbed to death in 59 C.E. There are conflicting reports, however, as to whether he killed her out of her apparent lust for power or because she went 'crazy' at the fact that Nero went from being a 'golden' emperor to one merely interested in his own pleasures.

Next up on the chopping block was Nero's first and popular wife Octavia. She was murdered so Nero could marry another woman, Poppaea, with whom he was having an affair. She was having an affair as well though, with a future emperor by the name of Otho, whom Nero exiled so he could have Poppaea to himself. Hey, at least he wasn't killed! The same can't be said for Poppaea though. In a fit of rage, he kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. This ended up killing her and her child.

Nero was seen as being a bit too much at this point by some and a conspiracy arose to kill him. It failed and Nero had numerous people killed as a result and became even more paranoid.

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