Nero was the emperor of Rome from 54 to 68 CE. He has become notorious for his persecution of Christians in the Empire and for the rumor that he "fiddled" during the Great Fire of Rome. As with many of the Roman emperors, early historical sources are unreliable and it is difficult to separate fact from rumor. Though Nero's name became a byword for tyranny and decadence, his reign was also noted for diplomatic success and cultural growth.
Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December 37 in Antium. He was the nephew of the current emperor, Caligula. Lucius' father died when he was three years old and Caligula soon afterwards exiled Lucius' mother, Agrippina, and sent the child to be raised by an aunt.
Though Lucius was not looked upon as a possible heir to the Empire during his childhood, his luck changed after Caligula's death in 41. Claudius, who succeeded the throne, adopted Lucius in 50 and changed his name to Nero. Older than Claudius' only natural son, the boy was proclaimed an adult and appointed to the Senate the following year and began to be groomed for the throne. At the age of 16, he became the youngest ever Roman emperor following the death of Claudius. During his early reign, he was heavily under the influence of his mother Agrippina, his tutor Seneca the Younger, and the Praetorian Prefect Burrus.
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Beginning in 55, Nero consolidated his power through increasingly ruthless measures. He executed his mother in 59, and Burrus died in 62, some speculate from poisoning. Seneca was charged with embezzlement and retired from public life.
In 62, Nero also divorced and exiled his wife, Octavia, and married again, to Poppea Sabina, who was already carrying his child. Octavia returned to Rome later in the year, but was executed shortly thereafter. Nero executed a string of his rivals and detractors over the following year and began slowly restricting the power of the Senate.
The political highlight of Nero's career was the Roman-Parthian War of 58-63. The war erupted over the contested area of Armenia, a Roman vassal kingdom that overthrew their Roman prince for a Parthian one in 55. Nero was successful both in quashing the initial Parthian invasion in 58 and in negotiating peace in 63. According to the peace agreement, a Parthian prince would hold the Armenian throne, but he must be approved by the Roman government. The peace between Rome and Parthia under these terms continued for 50 years.
Nero's administrative policies made him popular among the poor, but disliked by Senators, nobility, and the upper class. He lowered taxes for the poor; placed limits on fines and lawyers' fees; invested in a great deal of public construction, particularly after the Great Fire of 64; and vetoed laws restricting the rights of freedmen and slaves. Government officials were frequently impeached and removed from office following corruption charges during Nero's reign. The emperor was also known for his love of public theatre and sporting events, another quality that appealed to the poor. In addition to staging many public entertainments, Nero often performed in them as a singer, actor, and charioteer.
Though Nero is remembered for "fiddling while Rome burned" in July of 64, he responded to the aftermath of the Great Fire with relief efforts and reconstruction of the city. No one knows what caused the fire, and Nero was originally a scapegoat. However, he soon found a new scapegoat for the tragedy: the Christians, at that time a small and unpopular religious sect in Rome.
Under Nero, Christians underwent widespread and brutal public torture. THe emperor went down as the first persecutor of Christians, which contributed to his reputation as a ruthless tyrant in later centuries. Christian legend also holds that he was responsible for the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, two of the most important figures in early Christianity. Some early Christians, as well as some modern biblical scholars, believed that Nero was the Antichrist described in the Book of Revelation.
Nero's reign came to an end in 68 as a result of the rebellion of governors of Roman provinces against his tax policies. He had been heavily taxing the provinces to pay for his construction projects, which some considered extravagant. Nero was declared a public enemy in 68 and Galba, a governor in Hispania, was declared Emperor.
The praetorian prefect, another aspirant to the throne, bribed the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor's personal guards, to betray Nero. Instead of fleeing, Nero committed suicide shortly before his capture. His reign was followed by civil war and political chaos.