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Nero, the last Roman emperor (reigned 54-68) of the Julian-Claudian line, was the son of Domitius Ahenobarbus and Julia Agrippina, niece of Emperor Claudius. After the violent death of his first wife, Valeria Messalina, Emperor Claudius married Julia, adopted her son Nero and gave him in marriage his own daughter, Octavia. Nero's mother had a mind to commit any crime to put him on the throne, and to prepare him for this station she had L. Annaeus Seneca appointed his tutor, and caused the freedman Afranius Burrus, a rough but experienced soldier, to be made commander of the Praetorian guard. These men were the advisers and chief supporters of Nero on his becoming emperor, after the sudden death of Claudius.
Nero was born in Antium on 15 December, A.D. 37, and was seventeen years old when he became emperor. He believed himself to be a great singer and poet. All the better dispositions of his nature had been stifled by his sensuality and moral perversity. Agrippina had expected to be a partner of her son in the government, but owing to her autocratic character, this lasted only a short time. The first years of Nero's reign, under the direction of Burrus and Seneca, the real holders of power, were auspicious in every way. A series of regulations either abrogated or lessened the hardships of direct taxation, the arbitrariness of legislation and provincial administration, so that Rome and the empire were delighted, and the first five years of Nero's government were accounted the happiest of all time, regarded by Trajan as the best of the imperial era.
Under Claudius, the Armenians and Parthians had revolted, and the proconsul had been unable to uphold the prestige of the Roman arms. Seneca advised Nero to assert his rights over Armenia, and Domitius Corbulo was recalled from Germany and Britain to go with fresh troops to Cappadocia and Galatia, where he stormed the two Armenian capitals, Artaxata and Tigranocerta in A.D. 59 and made his headquarters in the city of Nisibis. King Tividates was dethroned, and Tigranes, Nero's favourite, made vassal in his stead. But the position of Tiranes was insecure, and Vologeses, King of the Parthians, who had previously retired from Armenia and given hostages to the Romans, rekindled the war, defeated the new proconsul Patus, and forced him to capitulate. Corbulo again took command and recognized Tividates as king on condition that he should lay down his crown before the image of Nero, and acknowledge his lordship over Armenia as granted by Nero; this so flattered the emperor that, ascending the rostrum in the Forum Romanum, he himself placed the crown on the head of Tividates. At the same time a dangerous war broke out in Britain. Strong camps and forts had been built there in the first years of Nero's reign, and the proconsul, Suetonius Paulinus, had undertaken here, as had Corbulo in the past, to extend the frontiers of the Roman conquests. With the native population complaining of excessive taxation, conscription, the avarice of Roman officials, came suddenly the summons of the heroic Queen of the Iceni, Boadicea, bidding her tribes to free themselves from Roman tyranny (A.D. 61). The procurator, Decianus Catus, had driven this noble woman to despair by his odious and cruel greed; and when this oppression and the shame of her own and her daughter's violation became known to her people and the neighbouring tribes, their wrath and hopes for revenge alone beset them. The Roman camps were destroyed, the troops surprised and slain, and more than 70,000 colonists paid the penalty of their oppression by the loss of home and life. London was burned to the ground, and the proconsul, Suetonius Paulinus, came but slowly to the help of the remaining colonists from his incursion upon the island of Mona. On his arrival was fought the battle of Deva (Dee), in which Britain succumbed to Roman discipline, and was again subjugated with the aid of fresh troops from Germany.
After the death of Claudius, Agrippina had caused to be poisoned her old enemy Narcissus, the protector of Britannicus, and Junius Silanus, because of his Julian kinship. Pallas, the powerful finance minister, and her most valiant adherent, was deprived of his office, and her personal influence in the government constantly lessened. That she might regain her power, she courted the neglected Octavia, and sought to make the impotent Britannicus a rival of her son; this induced Nero to order the murder of Britannicus, who was poisoned at a banquet amidst his own family and friends, Burrus and Seneca both consenting to the crime. When Nero had seduced Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his friend Salvius Otho, she resented playing the role of concubine and aspired to that of empress. This brought about a crisis between son and mother, for with all her vices Agrippina had never lacked a certain external dignity, and had expressed in her conduct the sentiment of imperial power. Now when through hatred of Poppaea she undertook to protect the interests of Octavia, to whom indeed Nero owed his throne, the son determined to rid himself of his mother. He invited her to a pleasure party at Baiae, and the ship which was to convey her out to sea was so constructed as to sink at a given order. This attempt having miscarried, he ordered that she should be clubbed to death in her country house, by his freemen (A.D. 59). The report was then spread abroad that Agrippina had sought the life of her son, and Seneca so dishonoured his pen as to write to the senate a brief condemning the mother. One man alone of all the Senate had the courage to leave his seat when this letter was read, Thrasea Paetus the philosopher. Burrus dying in A.D. 62, left Seneca no longer able to withstand the influence of Poppaea and of Sophonius Tigellinus, prefect of the Praetorian guards. He retired into private life, and new crimes were conceived and effected.
Sulla and Plautus, great-nephews of Augustus, being in exile, were beheaded by Nero's command, and his marriage with Octavia being annulled, she was banished to Campania. The populace resented deeply the maltreatment of Octavia, and the tumults which occurred in consequence served only to increase the fear and hatred of Poppaea. Octavia was sent to the island of Pandataria, and there beheaded. Poppaea now assumed the title of Augusta, her image was stamped upon the coin of the Roman State, and her opponents were murdered by dagger or poison. Nero with his mates rioted by night through the city, attacking men, assaulting women, and filled the vacant positions at the imperial Court from the dregs of the city. In the civic administration extravagance was unbounded, in the court luxury unbridled. Financial deficits grew over night; the fortunes of those who had been condemned at law, of freedmen, of all pretenders by birth filled the depleted exchequer, and the coin was deliberately debased. All efforts to stem these disasters were vain, and the general misery had reached its highest, when in A.D. 64 occurred the terrible conflagration which burnt entirely three, and partly seven, of the fourteen districts into which Rome was divided. The older authors, Tacitus and Suetonius, say clearly, and the testimony of all later heathen and Christian writers concurs with them, that Nero himself gave the order to set the capital on fire, and that the people at large believed this report. Nero was in Antium when he heard that Rome was in flames, he hastened thither, and is said to have ascended the tower of Maecenas, and looking upon the sea of flame in which Rome lay engulfed, to have sung on his lyre the song of the ruin of Ilium.
In place of the old city with its narrow and crooked streets, Nero planned a new residential city, to be called Neronia. For six days the fire ravaged the closely built quarters, and many thousands perished in the flames; countless great works of art were lost in the ruins. Informers, bribed for the purpose, declared that the Christians had set Rome on fire. Their doctrine of the nothingness of earthly joys in comparison with the delights of immortal souls in heaven was an enduring reproof to the dissolute emperor. There began a fierce persecution throughout the empire, and through robbery and confiscation the Christians were forced to pay in great part for the building of the new Rome. In this persecution Saints Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome in A.D. 67. Broad streets and plazas were planned by the imperial architects; houses of stone arose where before stood those of lime and wood; the Domus aurea, enclosed in wonderful gardens and parks, in extent greater than a whole former town-quarter astonished men by its splendour and beauty. In order to compass the colossal expenditures for these vast undertakings, the temples were stripped of their works of art, of their gold and silver votive offerings, and justly or unjustly the fortunes of the great families confiscated. The universal discontent thus aroused resulted in the conspiracy of Calpurnius Piso. The plot was discovered, and the conspirators and their families and friends condemned to death. Amongst the most noted of them were Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, and the Stoic Thrasea Paetus, of whom Tacitus said that he was virtue incarnate, and one of the few whose courage and justice had never been concealed in presence of the murderous Caesar. Poppaea too, who had been brutally kicked by her husband, died, with her unborn child soon after. Finally the emperor started on a pleasure tour through lower Italy and Greece; as actor, singer, and harp player he gained the scorn of the world; he heaped upon his triumphal chariots the victor-crowns of the great Grecian games, and so dishonoured the dignity of Rome that Tacitus through respect for the mighty ancestors of the Caesar would not once mention his name.
Outbreaks in the provinces and in Rome itself now presaged the approaching overthrow of the Neronian tyranny. Julius Vindex, Proconsul of Gallia Lugdunensis, with the intent of giving Gaul an independent and worthy government, raised the banner of revolt, and sought an alliance with the Proconsuls of Spain and the Rhine Provinces. Sulpicius Galba, Proconsul of Hispania Tarraconensis, who was ready for the change, agreed to the plans presented to him, declared his fealty to Nero ended, and was proclaimed emperor by his own army. L. Verginius Rufus, Proconsul of Upper Germany, was offered the principate by his troops, and let them against the usurper Vindex. In a battle at Vesontio (Besancon) Vindex was defeated, and fell by his own sword. In Rome the praetorians dazzled by the exploits of Galba deserted Nero, the Senate declared him the enemy of his country, and sentenced him to the death of a common murderer. Outlawed and forsaken, he committed suicide in the house of one of his freedmen, June, A.D. 68. At once and everywhere Sulpicius Galba was accepted as emperor. The sudden disappearance of Nero, whose enemies had spread the report that he had fled to the East, gave rise to the later legend that he was still living, and would return to sit again upon the imperial throne.
SCHILLER, Gesch. der rom. Kaiser, I (Gotha, 1883); STIGLMAYER, Tacitus uber den Brand von Rom in Stimmen aus Maria Laach, LXXVIII (Freiburg, 1910), 2; VON DOMASZEWISICI, Gesch. der rom. Kaiser, II (Leipzig, 1909).