His horrible reputation is well deserved for as ruler Nero was incompetent, careless, rancorous, violent and sadistic. As a human being, he was very much the same.
His 14-years reign (54 to 68 AD) is characterized by persecutions, murders, extravagant living and also for some diplomatic and military triumphs. Nero also managed to most of the time please the lower classes.
Nero as a Child
On December 15, 37, Nero was born in the seaside resort of Antium – today’s Anzio – just south of Rome. His father was Gnaeus Domitius Ahernobarbus, member of a powerful patrician family. Most importantly, his mother was Agrippina a sister of Caligula, which made him the grandson of Mark Anthony and Octavia Minor. Through Octavia Nero was also Augustus’ grand nephew.
Nero’s given name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus.
Due to the convoluted political marriages and divorces that were the norm in high Roman society, Agrippina became Emperor Claudius’s forth wife and the ruler adopted Nero who was now named Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.
Even though Claudius had a son named Britannicus, he was younger than Nero; therefore the adopted son became the heir to the throne.
In the year 51, when he was only 14, Nero was declared an adult and became proconsul, sharing some of the emperor’s powers. To further his claims, he married his stepsister Claudia Octavia in 53.
A year later Claudius died, probably poisoned by Agrippina, and Nero became the emperor, at 17 the youngest until that time.
Once in Power
From the beginning, Agrippina, Lucius Anneals Seneca – the emperor’s tutor -and Sextus Afrainus Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect vied for Nero’s ear. At first Seneca, won the young ruler over, but over time, the emperor got rid of all of them. First Nero had Agrippina murdered, later Burrus was poisoned. Seneca did a bit better, he was accused of misappropriation of funds and retired from public life.
Nero divorced Octavia, exiled her, allowed her to come back to Rome and then had her killed.
Senators who opposed or even spoke evil of the emperor were put to death. Possible rivals were quickly eliminated.
In between Nero found time to expel the Parthians from the eastern part of his empire.
Did Nero Burned Rome?
Late on the night of July 18, 64, a fire started in some shops close to the Circus Maximus. Rapidly, it spread and in five days turned to cinder three of Rome’s 14 districts and badly damaged seven more.
It is rumored that Nero started the inferno and that he sang and played the lyre while the city burned. He could have or not, for there are reports that he was away from Rome at the time. There are records that he organized and paid for a relief effort; that he searched for victims and housed some of the homeless in his palace.
Nero, as it is well known, blamed the Christians for the catastrophe.
…And Then, Nero Built a Palace
No sooner had the area destroyed by the fire had been cleared that Nero decided to built himself a grand palace in that exact location.
He raised taxes to pay for the multiplex which is estimated to have covered between 100 and 300 acres. It included an artificial lake, man-made gardens, vineyards and a 90 feet (30 meter) statue of himself. The interiors were no less extravagant with semi precious stones in the ceilings, ivory veneers and specially ordered frescoes on the walls.
The burden his tax policies placed on the already weak Roman economy would prove his downfall.
Death of Nero
Like all roman Emperors Nero put down numerous conspiracies and revolts against him.
The final uprising against the emperor began in March, 68. Even though troops loyal to Nero first gained the upper hand, his opposition, under the leadership of Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of the province of Hispania Tarraconensis, grew.
In a short time, Nero abandoned Rome and toyed with various ideas of how to make the best of his surrendering to Galba.
It is not clear why, but Nero then returned to Rome, only to find himself without guards or friends in the palace. He escaped to a villa in the outskirts of Rome and there, not finding valor to kill himself, he had a servant do the foul deed.
There was an attempt to stop the bleeding, but on the anniversary of the death of Octavia, June 9, 68, Nero died.
He left the empire in confusion and disorder.