EMPEROR NERO

EMPEROR NERO

BORN IN 37 A.D. AND DIED IN 68 A.D.


Then, in July AD 64, the Great Fire ravaged Rome for six days. The historian Tacitus, who was about 9 years old at the time, reports that of the fourteen districts of the city, 'four were undamaged, three were utterly destroyed and in the other seven there remained only a few mangled and half-burnt traces of houses.' This is when Nero was famously to have 'fiddled while Rome burned'. This expression however appears to have its roots in the 17th century (alas, Romans didn't know the fiddle). The historian Suetonius describes him singing from the tower of Maecenas, watching as the fire consumed Rome. Dio Cassius tells us how he 'climbed on to the palace roof, from which there was the best overall view of the greater part of the fire and, and sang 'The capture of Troy'' Meanwhile Tacitus wrote; 'At the very time that Rome burned, he mounted his private stage and, reflecting present disasters in ancient calamities, sang about the destruction of Troy'. But Tacitus also takes care to point out that this story was a rumour, not the account of an eye witness. If his singing on the roof tops was true or not, the rumour was enough to make people suspicious that his measures to put out the fire might not have been genuine. To Nero's credit, it does indeed appear that he had done his best to control the fire. But after the fire he used a vast area between the Palatine and the Equiline hills, which had been utterly destroyed by the fire to build his 'Golden Palace' ('Domus Aurea'). This was a huge area, ranging from the Portico of Livia to the Circus Maximus (close to where the fire was said to have started), which now was turned into pleasure gardens for the emperor, even an artificial lake being created in its centre. The temple of the deified Claudius was not yet completed and - being in the way of Nero's plans, it was demolished. Judging by the sheer scale of this complex, it was obvious it could never have been built, were it not have been for the fire. And so quite naturally Romans had their suspicions about who had actually started it.

It would be unfair however to omit that Nero did rebuild large residential areas of Rome at his own expense. But people, dazzled by the immensity of the Golden Palace and its parks, nonetheless remained suspicious.

Nero, always a man desparate to be popular, therefore looked for scapegoats on whom the fire could be blamed. He found it in an obscure new religious sect, the Christians. And so many Christians were arrested and thrown to the wild beasts in the circus, or they were crucified . Many of them were also burned to death at night, serving as 'lighting' in Nero's gardens, while Nero mingled among the watching crowds. It is this brutal persecution which immortalized Nero as the first Antichrist in the eyes of the Christian church. (The second Antichrist being the reformist Luther by edict of the Catholic Church.)

Meanwhile Nero's relation's with the senate deteriorated sharply, largely due to the execution of suspects through Tigellinus and his revived treason laws. Then in AD 65 there was a serious plot against Nero. Known as the 'Pisonian Conspiracy' it was led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso. The plot was uncovered and nineteen executions and suicides followed, and thirteen banishments. Piso and Seneca were among those who died. There was never anything even resembling a trial: people whom Nero suspected or disliked or who merely aroused the jealousy of his advisers were sent a note ordering them to commit suicide.

Nero, leaving Rome in charge of the freedman Helius, went to Greece to display his artistic abilities in the theatres of Greece. He won contests in the Olympic Games, - winning the chariot race although he fell of his chariot (as obviously nobody dared to defeat him), collected works of art, and opened a canal, which was never finished.

Alas, the situation was becoming very serious in Rome. The executions continued. Gaius Petronius, man of letters and former 'director of imperial pleasures', died in this manner in AD 66. So did countless senators, noblemen, and generals, including in AD 67 Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, hero of the Armenian wars and supreme commander in the Euphrates region. Further, a food shortage caused great hardship. Eventually Helius, fearing the worst, crossed over to Greece to summon back his master.

By January AD 68 Nero was back in Rome, but things were now too late. In March AD 68 the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, himself Gallic-born, withdrew his oath of allegiance to the emperor and encouraged the governor of northern and eastern Spain, Galba, a hardened veteran of 71, to do the same. Vindex' troops were defeated at Vesontio by the Rhine legions who marched in from Germany, and Vindex committed suicide. However, thereafter these German troops, too, refused to furthermore recognize Nero's authority. So too Clodius Macer declared against Nero in north Africa. Galba, having informed the senate that he was available, if required, to head a government, simply waited.

Meanwhile in Rome nothing was actually done to control the crisis. Tigellinus was seriously ill at the time and Nero could only dream up fantastic tortures which he sought to inflict on the rebels once he had defeated them. The praetorian prefect of the day, Nymphidius Sabinus, persuaded his troops to abandon their allegiance to Nero. Alas, the senate condemned the emperor to be flogged to death. As Nero heard of this he chose rather to commit suicide, which he did with the assistance of a secretary (9 June AD 68).



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