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Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors. His reign exemplifies many of the problems in understanding the whole dynasty. It was a relatively long reign, stretching from his accession in AD 54 until his suicide in AD 68. Clearly, the reign went wrong, perhaps after the conspiracy of Piso in AD 65 or even after a purge in AD 66 and Nero lost most of his support among the upper orders of Roman society. But one has to suspect that the damning portrayal of Nero in our main sources owes more to the catastrophic last years than the events of the first decade.

As with other emperors, much of the criticism concentrates on matters we would think of as personal. Even for the Julio-Claudians, the stories that surrounded Nero and his mother are extraordinary. His sexual behaviour drew considerable attention. His life-style was one of luxury and again drew considerable adverse commentary. But it is not

Nero_Palatine Museum

Nero: Capitoline Museum, Rome (Creative Commons)

obvious that at the time (or, indeed, immediately afterwards) that Nero’s luxury was seen as profoundly problematic. Emperors of the troubled period of civil wars from 68-70 had differing views of the Neronian legacy and some at least found it politic to associated themselves with the last Julio-Claudian.

Our major sources, Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, were of a generation or, in Dio’s case, four generations later, and there is reason to suspect that attitudes towards Nero had hardened and that the moral climate was somewhat more strict. There is reason to believe that the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, made much of not being Nero, defining themselves against the excesses of the previous regime.

In modern traditions, Nero has become, like Gaius, the emperor of dissolution: a historical example of the absolute corruption of absolute power.

He was, seemingly responsible for the deaths of his adoptive father, brother, his wife (who was also formerly his sister), his mother, and another wife, thereby leading to the death of his unborn child. He is consequently not a poster boy for family values.

It was also in his reign that we see the first of many periodic persecutions of Christians. This has also tended to win few friends among historians.

Further, we have Nero the actor, poet and singer. His appearances on the stage appear to have caused concern among contemporaries: some seem to have been puzzled; other offended. Moderns have been no more willing to see the political leaders of their times play-acting. His stage career confirms his lack of seriousness in many people’s eyes, and his failure to understand the burdens of rule.

And then there was the great fire of Rome. And the revolt of Boudicca in Britain, and of the Jews of Judaea. Both revolts, for different reasons, figure particularly heavily in our understanding of Roman imperialism and the first century AD.

If one puts all this together, it is easy to see how Nero can be made into the pantomime villain of Roman imperial history. Nevertheless, the very simple understanding of Nero’s reign misses the complexities and peculiarities of the Neronian period.

What seems clear is that after Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius, all of whom had enormous problems, Nero tried something different. Ultimately, he failed, of course.



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