As with several other regimes, Nero promised to behave as a good emperor should and refer matters to debate in the senate and break with the practices of his predecessor. The particular targets of senatorial ire were Claudius’ freedmen. Narcissus and Pallas, two of the more prominent of Claudius’ freedmen, were both removed from power quickly. Yet, administrative structures were unaltered. The same offices continued to be filled by freedmen.
Nero was generous towards certain of his freedmen: Doryphoros, who was in charge of petitions, received a gift of 10,000,000 sesterces, a significant fortune (Dio, 61. 5.) and Pythagoras became prominent, though it is unclear whether his talents were sexual (Dio, 62.28; 63.14. When Nero went on his grand tour of Greece, he supposedly left his freedman Helios in control though possibly this was a primarily administrative role.
Nero frequently sat in court himself and Suetonius tells us that he took care not to come to an impetuous decision. He took advice (as was customory forl judges) and insisted on advice being given secretly and in writing so that he could contemplate the case overnight before giving judgement in the morning. When dealing with a capital case, Nero seems to have signed the death warrants with a show of reluctance (Suetonius, Nero 10, 15). Similar care is shown in a complex case concerning tenure of estates. Nero acted to preserve the letter of the law, but also compensated those who lost out (Tacitus, Annales 14. 18).
Nero curbed the activities of informers and discouraged malicious prosecutions by significantly reducing the portion of the estates that could be claimed by the informer (Suetonius, Nero 10). Care was also taken in the collection of taxes. Helvidius Priscus was assiduous in the collection of taxes at the treasury and Nero published regulations concerning the farming of taxes since the activities of tax farmers had been causing complaints (Tacitus, Annales 13. 31, 50–1).
He also resumed the policy of founding military colonies in Italy that had been discontinued after the early years of Augustus’ reign. Military colonies were established at Capua and Nuceria (in 57) (Tacitus, Annales 13. 31), Antium and Tarentum (in 60) (Tacitus, Annales 14. 27). Puteoli (also in 60), Pompeii and Tegeanum also received the title of colony.
These were conservative policies, attempting to maintain order and discipline and perhaps also to support Italy through the settlement of veterans. Such conservatism can also been seen in regulations relating to slaves and freedmen. Sons of freedmen were prevented from joining the senate (Suetonius, Nero 15). Nero laid hold of the estates of rich freedmen, a measure that also prevented social mobility (Suetonius, Nero 32), though itis reported as due to cupidity. In 57, the senate passed a law which decreed that if a master was killed by his slaves, those of his household who were freed by his will were to be killed (Tacitus, Annales 13. 32). This reinforced the law which laid down that all slaves within the household of a master murdered by a slave were to be executed. Other measures were discussed concerning freedmen (Tacitus, Annales 13. 26–7) which would seem to reflect a concern on the part of the aristocracy that their freed were not showing proper respect.
In 61, the former prefect of the city, L. Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by a slave. Secundus was notably brutal and there was considerable public and senatorial sympathy for those slaves not directly involved in the killing. The plebs showed sympathy, but the senators decided to enforce the order. The plebs, however, rioted, showing that the poorer citizens of Rome had sympathy for the servile. The senators and Nero, however, did not and Nero called out the praetorians to enforce the executions (Tacitus, Annales 14. 42–5).
Another notorious aspect of Nero’s reign was his persecution of Christians. The persecution began after the great and although the reasons for the persecution are not very clear, it is likely to be connected to a concern with social order. New religions upset order and the inability of Christians to worship the emperor opened them to charges of disloyalty. Nero’s attacks on the community were savage and aroused sympathy even in those hostile to the Christians (Tacitus, Annales 15. 44).
Nero’s extravagance and his buildings were legendary. The state of the treasury is difficult to assess. Nero’s artistically successful moneyers started getting 5–12 per cent more coins from a pound of gold bullion and 14 per cent more coins from a pound of silver, suggesting that there was not enough money coming in to meet expenses. Conventionally, historians have regarded such a debasement as potentially inflationary, but the change was so small that it was unlikely to be noticed by those using the coin and there is no evidence of any inflation in the Neronian (prices were very, very slowly rising through the imperial period). The main economic effect would have been to gradually increase the amount of coin in circulation and if anything that was likely to have beneficial effects since coin could be used for more transactions.
Nevertheless, tax collectors may have been encouraged to squeeze more money from the provincials. Taxation was an issue in the revolt in Judaea. There is some evidence of problems in Egypt. Tax records of an Egyptian village suggest that the last years of Nero’s reign there was a sudden increase in tax avoidance, perhaps a sign of economic difficulties. An edict of Tiberius Julius Alexander issued in 68 on the accession of the new emperor, Galba. Alexander made allusions to a whole series of petitions and complaints with which he had been presented and the decree was meant to reassure Egyptians.
Is there a trajectory here? Can we construct a narrative of administrative and financial failure? The information is slight, but it is certain that the Roman imperial finances were not fundamentally undermined during the Neronian period. The Roman state lost vast amounts of money in the civil war period, but continued to function.
The early years of the reign of Nero are marked by a number of provincial corruption trials. Most are briefly recorded in Tacitus (Annales 13. 30; 33; 52; 14. 18; 46) and at least some were acquitted (which does not mean that they were innocent) with two others recorded in Dio has other names Pollio and Laelianus, who served in Armenia (Dio, 61.6).
Josephus’s account of the Nero’s procurators (governors) in Judaea provides us with Felix (brother of Pallas), Festus (who is praised for suppressing political bandits), Albinus (a personally corrupt governor who undid all Festus’ work), and Gessius Florus (who made the people long for the return of Albinus) who were all either corrupt or incompetent or both (Josephus, Jewish War 2. 13-17).
In spite of this evidence of corruption, Tacitus’ account of the trial of Claudius Timarchus of Crete in 63 suggests that the relationship between governors and provincials may have been changing (Tacitus, Annales 15. 20). Timarchus was accused of claiming that he arranged the votes of thanks on the governor’s term of office. Governors who wished to be thanked for their administration of the province were dependent on his favour. Such votes would be communicated to the senate and emperor and it is to be assumed that a governor who failed to win the endorsement of his subjects would find it difficult to secure another appointment. Such votes of thanks were banned on the proposal of Thrasea Paetus, which was accepted by Nero: a boost for the powers of governors. But it suggests that there was a measure of reciprocity between governors and provincial elites.
Overall, there is a discrepancy between Nero’s reputation and his administration.