How Successful Was Emperor Nero at the Olympic Games?
Nero was undoubtedly one of ancient Rome's most infamous emperors. History remembers his 14-year-reign as a period of debauchery, instability, and religious persecution. Perhaps the most famous, though certainly untrue, story about Nero is that he played his fiddle (or, to choose a more historically accurate instrument, lyre) as Rome burned in the fire of 64 A.D. – a fire he was rumored to have started so that he could build a large palace on the Palatine Hill.
Throughout his reign, Nero was more interested in music, art, and sports than in the day-to-day running of the empire. He instituted a series of public games in Rome, featuring oratory, music, poetry, gymnastics, and horse riding. He also trained as a charioteer so he could take part in various athletic contests himself.
Nero was fascinated with Hellenic culture and distracted himself from a growing list of political problems in Rome with an extended tour of Greece in which he indulged his passions for music and theater. One of the most notable episodes in this tour was when he participated in the Olympic Games.
Despite the religious significance of the ancient Olympics – and rules against emperors competing – Nero co-opted them for his own artistic and athletic vanity. He bribed the organizers to delay the Games by a year so that he could take part in 67 A.D. and insisted on adding artistic and musical competitions. Nero's Olympic participation included acting, singing, playing the lyre, and competing in chariot races. Of course, the somewhat overweight and unathletic Nero won every event that entered, including a four-horse chariot race that he entered with 10 horses and failed to finish when he was thrown from his chariot. He awarded himself the victory on the grounds that he would have won had he completed the race.
The demise of Nero:
- Fed up with Nero's misrule and inability to resolve the growing unrest in the empire, the Praetorian Guard and the Senate finally declared Nero an enemy of the people in 68 A.D. They threw their support behind Galba, the governor of Hispania, who would become the next emperor.
- Rather than face arrest, Nero took his own life. According to the historian Suetonius, the emperor's final words were "What an artist dies in me!"
- After his death, Nero's name was removed from the list of Olympic champions.
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