When Nero’s father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was congratulated on the birth of a son, he replied that the fruit of any union between his family and Agrippina could only be a disaster.
The gens Domitia had furnished Rome for 200 years with consuls and generals, famous for their brutality. They were rich men, partly because they never had daughters to dower, and Nero’s great-great-grandfather had raised money for Pompey’s army through pledging lands. Despite being on the wrong side, there was still plenty left.
Nero’s father was a violent man. He tore out an equestrian’s eye in the Forum and once ran over a child on the Appian Way for fun. He had been rebuked by Augustus for the cruelty of his Games and he was even prosecuted. He would have been a terrible father to have around but he obliged Nero by dying of dropsy when the child was three. His mother, Agrippina, was ruthless and murderous, as we have seen; her behaviour was explained, as in the case of Caligula, but not excused, by a traumatic childhood. Her grandmother had been the dissolute Julia, Augustus’ only child, and her mother, Agrippina the elder, had been beaten up by a centurion before her eyes and then starved to death – as had her two elder brothers – on the orders of Tiberius. (One of them tried to survive by eating the stuffing of his mattress.) When Agrippina’s (mad?) brother Caligula became Emperor she had to watch his excesses and was then exiled, leaving her little boy in the care of a barber and a dancer. She survived Messalina’s regime and, marrying her uncle the Emperor, successfully promoted her son, whom she later, possibly, seduced. With such an upbringing Nero’s sexual behaviour – rating a chapter of its own in Hirschfeld’s catalogue of anomalies and perversions – as a sodomite, catamite, sadist, masochist and bestialist can be understood.
He inherited the defects of both sides of the family and a geneticist would be hard put to it to find an ancestral gene for the visionary, romantic streak in Nero, dominant in this most misunderstood man ever, whom history has damned and caricatured for his almost accidental persecution of the Christians. His infamy deepened as their influence increased, yet, to contemporaries, his decision to harass this tiny Jewish sect was both understandable and insignificant. The first five years of his reign constituted, by common accord, a mini golden age. (His abdication to the Senate of powers held by his predecessors is illustrated on coinage from AD 55 to 64, which refers to Nero simply as Emperor, without indicating other offices of state. Later he became an enthusiastic and bossy numismatologist.) Under the tutelage of Burrus and Seneca, with his mother nagging but tactfully sidestepped, Nero showed generosity, kindness and accessibility – liberalitas, clementia et civilitas – by – words designed by Seneca for his accession speech to the Senate in the autumn of AD 54.
Both his predecessors had made the same promises in the same speech, but Nero was true to his, for nearly eight years. An immediate bonus was a return to the old Roman ideal that advocates should not receive fees, based on the notion that the right of justice, free of bribery and influence, should be the duty and concern of every Roman gentleman. Two of Nero’s better dicta date from these halcyon days – on signing a death warrant, ‘Oh how I wish I had never learned to write!’ and in reply to a vote of thanks from the Senate, ‘I will accept when I deserve it.’
His mentors complemented each other. Burrus, originally an accountant, had been made, through Agrippina’s influence, sole commander of the Praetorian Guard and had master-minded the accession. He was a straightforward brusque fellow and, though not a soldier, bristled with officer-like qualities, firm, fair but not familiar, and was respected by his men. He was also loyal, first to Agrippina and then, when Nero had her murdered, to her son.
Seneca was an altogether more devious figure, multi faceted and complex. Born into a rich and educated family of Italians who had emigrated to Andalucia at the turn of the century, 1 AD, he was brought up in Rome by his doting daddy, the elder Seneca, who lived to be ninety. His two elder brothers were both in the cursus honorum – la grande carrière. The brothers were all bronchial, which saved Seneca’s life because Caligula, irritated by his suave oratory, wanted to frame him for alleged involvement in a conspiracy, but banished him to Corsica instead, because one of his mistresses persuaded him that he had not long to live. He was a protégé of Agrippina, who was eventually able to recall him after eight humiliating years in Corsica and fixed him up with a praetorship. During his exile, Seneca had been writing – treatises ‘On Natural Science’ (including earthquakes), ‘On Sympathy’, ‘On Anger’, On Anything, for he was a polymath and encyclopédiste, like Voltaire. On paper Seneca was exemplary, the darling of Classics masters down the ages, for his sweet reasonableness and for the dignified manner of his suicide. His Stoicism, imbued with gloom and a sense of duty, also appealed to nineteenth-century moralists and he was so well regarded by the early Christian Church that a correspondence was invented between him and St Paul in the fifth century AD. In fact Seneca was a hypocrite.
His compassion was muted by greed. Though one of the few to disapprove of slavery, he did not even attend the debate in the Senate which agonized all night about whether to execute the 400 household slaves of the murdered prefect of police, Pedanius. (They were all led off to their deaths, the troops pushing back a hostile crowd.) Seneca spent much of his time lending money – cf. Proust’s daily communications with his stockbroker – and through this occupation became one of the richest men in Rome, with over 100 citrus wood and ivory tables (one of which was a status symbol in ancient Rome), yet Plutarch describes his lecturing Nero on the virtue of true poverty.
With Burrus, his partner in power, Seneca became a friend of the Emperor, amicus Principi, in an autocracy more important than any official position. Their immediate concern was the Emperor’s mother, still implacable, whose need to rule was disruptive. ‘They both,’ wrote Tacitus, ‘waged a crusade against Agrippina’s ferocity’ Her first move, advancing in public session to sit beside her son on the imperial dais, was deflected by Nero, rising to greet his mother and escorting her to another curule. Subsequently she would hide behind curtains to observe proceedings. Then the partners told Acte, a freedwoman mistress they had provided, to explain to the Emperor that his mother’s boasting of her influence was alienating the soldiery. Nero, alone of his line, was naive. However, he reacted by depriving his mother of her personal Praetorian Guard and by firing Pallas,48 Claudius’ freedman, and so a creature of Agrippina, from his position of financial controller, thus honouring his pledge to keep palace influence out of public affairs.
Roman historians make the death of young Britannicus the crime of Agrippina, as consistent with her policy of removing any obstacle (including and especially her husband’s son) to her son’s enjoyment of power; but Nero’s latest biographer, Miriam Griffin,49has her in a panic, switching sides and deciding to support Britannicus as the rightful heir in a move to unnerve Nero and force him into submission. It did not work. Britannicus was poisoned at a children’s party at the palace during the holidays and much later many famous children claimed to have had tummy troubles from the same cakes. A reconciliation between Nero and his mother in AD 55 did not last.
Nero grew irritated at the failure of his advisers (who, he was beginning to reflect, had been hers) to suggest a method of ridding him of this turbulent mother, and asked help of his old mentor, the ingenious Anicetus, now Prefect of the Fleet at Misenum.
Like George IV, who installed the first gaslight system in England, at the Pavilion in Brighton, and turned the apparatus on himself, with the courtiers standing well back, Nero, also an extravagant builder, encouraged inventors. He imported a team of mechanical engineers from Alexandria (who had previously come to the notice of Julius Caesar and who had invented amongst other extraordinary artefacts, a toy steam-engine). He employed them to realize his dream of the Golden House, of which more anon, and they may well have conceived the collapsible boat, seen by Nero on stage and used in an attempt to drown his mother. (The roof descended automatically as the hull let in water.) The Empress Mother was induced to embark at Baiae in this strange vessel, imagining a nautical promenade in her honour. The devilish machinery performed as advertised, but, in front of a large crowd, Agrippina swam safely to the shore. Nero was terrified. He appealed to Burrus, who told him to do his own dirty work. He ordered a military tribune to kill her and when the moment came Agrippina was not surprised – the second half of the astrologer’s prediction had to come to pass – and simply directed that the first blow be to her womb, whence the Emperor had (with difficulty) once emerged. Seneca, ready as always with the quill, composed a letter to the Senate describing how the Empress had been discovered in a plot against her son and the farcical, seedy matricide was in this way converted to a sick little triumph of deliverance.
Liberation from his mother (but not from nightmares about her death, which caused him to avoid numinous places like Delphi and Eleusis with their attendant Furies) triggered the release of Nero’s inhibitions. He began his nostalgie de la boue trips, in disguise, like Caligula, to the seedy parts of the city, beating up passers-by in the way of rich bored young men in pursuit of kicks throughout the ages (cf. the ‘Mohawks’ in the twenties in London). Oddly Nero was a private but not a public sadist and his Hellenism revolted against the Ancient Roman pleasure in the Games, which he tried to suppress in favour of mock gladiatorial combats among the patriciate. Of course he failed here, but he persisted till the end – and it was his end – in conceiving his mission as the re-education of the Roman people. If only his fellow human beings were as committed to the arts as he, as talented, as extravagant, as gifted, as generous and as peaceable as he – the world would surely be a better place! He was a genuinely naive artist and once proposed to appear before an enemy host and cry.
The first indicator of his ethics and aesthetics was his reception of Tiridates, the client king, the Roman general Corbulo, of whom Claudius had been so jealous, had imposed on Armenia, as part of a deal with the Parthians. The first day passed in the traditional way, as practised by Augustus, and the king knelt in homage to the Emperor seated on the rostrum in front of an army parade. On the second day, Nero, who was for centuries after his death acknowledged on medallions as the world’s greatest ever party-giver, had the whole of Pompey’s theatre gilded (in twenty-four hours) and an awning stretched over the auditorium depicting the heavenly orbs with the sun at their centre, and in the centre of the sun, his face. (For Nero saw himself as Apollo, the Sun King, a conceit emulated by Louis XIV, imitating that god by playing the zither and driving a chariot with two white horses.) King Tiridates prostrated himself before the Emperor, reciting a Persian prayer of oriental adulation which would have embarrassed the Roman audience had they understood it. Some scholars have solemnly dated and stated Nero’s conversion to Mithraism from this event, and certainly Tiridates was well paid for his performance, with an 800,000 sesterces per diem expense allowance and 100 millionsesterces ‘take home’, but Suetonius denies Nero any serious religious belief and, knowing as we now do from excavations of the Domus Aurea – the Golden House – about Nero’s taste, it is more likely to have been an expression of his pleasure in the very high camp.
This enormous, breathtaking, environmentally unfriendly – because, with its dimensions of 2,000 by 1,000 metres, it took up so much of other people’s environment – complex of palaces and pavilions, disliked as much by his contemporaries as George IV’s miniature at Brighton was by his, was revolutionary in concept, design, decoration and even construction; for a technique of combining rubble with cement to create vaulted domes was used for the first time, models for Hadrian’s revised Pantheon and many churches of the Renaissance, and was as significant architecturally as the discovery of reinforced concrete.
Nero was a science buff. In the middle of the Vindex revolt he insisted on taking a day to show the consuls and praetors a new hydraulic organ from the ‘polytechnic’50 in Alexandria which he proudly dismantled and reassembled himself. The wonder of the Golden House was a revolving dome which turned day and night in harmony with the stars. No Roman historian has bothered to tell us how it worked, but it must have been powered by a flow of water, like the ‘machine’ which produced such a heavenly show for Louis XIV in the gardens of his pet palace at Marly.
The magistri et machinatores, master workmen and engineers, must have been thrilled to be employed by an autocrat (cf. Speer and Hitler) on grand and glamorous enterprises, quickly decided, quickly executed and quickly paid for. The Neronian team of technicians, headed by two Italians but manned by experts from Alexandria or supplied, at a price, by Tiridates, ‘were clever, and bold enough,’ explains Tacitus, ‘to use technical means to overcome Nature itself, and make light of the requirements of the Prince’. The imperial fiscus was quickly exhausted and Nero began to raid the rich, driving them to suicide having first forced them to make him their substantial heir. One man, seeking to protect his grandchildren, slit his own, his mother’s and his daughter’s wrists in the same bath, having manumitted and tipped all his slaves, rather than comply.
The style of the Golden House, as well as the depredations necessary to create it, offended the older and richer of Roman society. The traditional domus of a good family in Rome was modest, introvert, familial and severe, like the Domus Livia where Augustus lived and died, symmetrical and, in every sense, square. Nero’s dream palace was vast and open, yet at the same time secretive, curved, carved, despotic, more of a harem than a house, designed to impress and even terrify. The person of the patron was represented by a bronze statue, 100 feet high, impressive enough to be left standing until the Goths captured Rome. The swamp where the Colosseum was later built became a lake with an imitation port, surrounded by artificial meadows, plenished with wild animals and beeches designed to look like forests. Within, according to eighteenth-century reproductions like Tiepolo’s, the ceilings and walls were heavily ornamented and decorated – the work of one Fabullus, a correct, middle-aged Roman gentleman, who wore his toga as he executed the bizarre romantic frescoes. The Golden House, still unfinished at Nero’s death, ruined the treasury, and, more than any other extravagance, the reputation of its builder. At first his successors tried to finish it, but finally Trajan, contemptuous, buried it. However, the chance discovery, intact, of some parts of this fantasy in cement, 1,500 years later, astonished and inspired architects and artists of the Renaissance like d’Udine and Caravaggio, who went underground to scratch, in admiration, their names on Nero’s gilt.
All in the Julio-Claudian clan were skilled in the deployment of their Latin tongue, which became as crucial an element of conquest in the Roman Empire as English, or perhaps really American, after the Second World War.51 They were the most literate rulers the world has ever known – Charlemagne could not read or write – and rejoiced in the Latin language, that most pungent, vivid, versatile vehicle for human expression, writing their own speeches (except for Nero, who had Seneca, but then who has a thoroughbred dog and barks himself?). Unselfconsciously, and for pleasure, they practised all forms of belles lettres. Caesar the military historian and master of the soundbite, wrote a play, suppressed, it was said, out of kindness. Augustus wrote long letters to Horace and Virgil and had a sharp line in obscene epigrams (pornography being considered a legitimate art form). Tiberius wrote Greek and Latin verse. He also wrote his memoirs, as did Agrippina hers, both suppressed by their alarmed descendants. Caligula was an impressive orator but threatened to remove the works of Virgil from the public libraries simply because they bored him. Claudius wrote volumes of history, eight of them in Greek, and gave public lectures, but Nero was the most lavish, effective and genuine patron of them all. ‘Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus!’ wrote Lucillius, the epigrammatist, ‘I would be finished, had not Nero Caesar given me cash.’
Nero’s phil-Hellenism was such that he fell for a Chatterton-style forgery, buying the translation of a diary of the Trojan War, written in Punic, allegedly discovered in a collapsed tomb in Crete. Troy obviously fascinated him. The biggest mural in the Domus Aurea depicted the wooden horse arriving within the walls of Troy at night and just after the fire of Rome – he did not start it, he was not there, he did not fiddle – he sang about the capture and fire of Troy in his private theatre, or so the rumours ran. He had, all agreed, an agreeable voice.
His first ‘Neronia’, a literary festival, was in AD 60, and at the second, in AD 65, he recited (part of) his epic Troica, whose hero was, typically, not the macho figure Hector, but the soft-skinned androgynous Paris. Quite a bunch of talent, some found by Seneca, assembled at Nero’s literary ‘academies’, at whose ‘working’ dinners Nero was accepted as a fellow, and though Tacitus was bitchy52 about them, even he allowed that Nero could be considered a serious poet. Nero patronized wildly the young and the unknown but his most famous protégé was Petronius, whose Satyricon, coruscating with charm, corruption and subversion, is a constant world-seller. The satire is set in Puteoli, a new city, encouraged by Nero, in the Bay of Naples; the characters are culled from the lower classes and the richest; Trimalchio, who gives the dinner party where a sow is revealed to be stuffed with live partridges, is a fabulously vulgar freedman. The love interest is homosexual.
Those of the figures round Nero’s literary dinners who were knights and senators were his only link with the upper classes of Rome, but even this was broken when in AD 65–6 they joined Seneca’s nephew in the conspiracy of Piso, also a poet. Indeed Miriam Griffin thinks they joined the political opposition out of literary pique towards the Emperor, who had become aggressively jealous of their success.
‘Music,’ a headmaster of Eton once observed, ‘is the least dangerous of the arts’,53 but it was the stage performances of the Emperor which caused his downfall. The acting profession was not esteemed in Ancient Rome. Actors, as we have seen, were synonymous with male tarts and it was often proposed, for one reason or another, that they be flogged. Nero began quietly, performing as a charioteer and actor in his private circus and private theatre, but he craved awards and public applause, accepting the former before a contest and organizing the latter. (Vespasian once fell asleep during a performance by the Emperor and was sharply nudged by an attentive freedman.)
He chose Naples, more Grecian and lax than Rome, for his big part. The Senate, ashamed of the offence he would cause, offered him crowns for his singing and oratory, hoping he would neither sing nor orate, but Nero wanted the real thing and brought to Naples his Praetorians and a claque of 5,000. Those who did not listen in silence and applaud noisily were reported and rebuked, giving a special twist to the phrase ‘captive audience’. On this occasion, Nature intervened with a small earthquake, collapsing the theatre but causing no deaths (for it was empty) and therefore being interpreted by Nero as a sign of divine approval, an excuse for a poem and yet another celebration. Although Roman historians have lingered on the monstrous aspects of his personality, he was full of gaiety and bonhomie and genuinely hurt that Romans did not recognize his ability. ‘The Greeks alone,’ he said, ‘appreciate me and my art.’ So to Greece (where he could be sure that if he brought his lyre to a party, everyone would ask him to play) he went – on an elaborate tour, city by city. Nobody in Rome recorded his successes. When he returned via Puteoli, Naples, Antium and Alba Longa, with processions in each, imitating the Triumph of a conquering general, riding in the chariot designed by Augustus for such occasions, borne before him were banners with the titles of his victorious songs, as if they were the names of the cities he had captured for Rome. Such was Nero’s Triumph, Rome’s indignity.
Enter Poppaea. Poppaea was a rich girl from Pompeii, where the family owned five houses and sponsored Games. Her father had been a friend of Sejanus, Tiberius’s disgraced number two, and she had adopted the name of her grandfather, a consul and governor for twenty-four years of Moesia in the Balkans. She was beautiful, ambitious, enchanting and, compared to Messalina or Agrippina, only mildly wicked, and Nero fell and remained in love with her till the end – hers. She became his mistress when he was still married to Octavia, whom he feared to divorce because she was so popular. Octavia was a gentle, blameless lady, but Nero accused her of adultery (which her maid, under torture, denied). She was taken to an island and her wrists were cut in pretence of suicide; the charge that she had tried to seduce Anicetus and subvert the fleet convinced no one and increased the distaste felt at her murder. Octavia’s death provoked the same reaction in the plebs as that of George IV’s daughter Charlotte, also rumoured to be murder, provoked in the British public, both monarchs being considered by their subjects capable of any wickedness, on account of their jealousy.
One of Nero’s friends was Otho, a young man-about-town of odd appearance, for he was knock-kneed, flat-footed, prematurely bald and supposed to shave his body hair.54 He must have developed characteristics which overrode these defects, because he did become an Emperor, but at this moment in time, he is simply a good enough friend of Nero to oblige by marrying his newly beloved, to tide her over an awkward divorce and keep her warm in his house, until the right moment, or such was the plan. According to Suetonius, Otho also fell for the enchanting Poppaea and, when the Emperor’s people came to claim her, he locked his doors and refused to give her up. Then Nero himself went to Otho’s house and made a scene, enjoyed by passers-by, alternately begging him to deliver her and threatening punishment if he would not. The punishment for the twenty-six-year-old quaestor was the governorship of Lusitania (Portugal), where he took to religion – the cult of Isis – and ruled admirably.
Poppaea became Empress and queen of extravagant fashion – the Eugénie of Rome. Her carriage mules were shod in gold and the milk of 500, yes 500, wild asses was needed for her daily bath, so important for her complexion. She was not, like the last two Empresses, politically inclined, though she so favoured Jews at court, she might have been a proselyte, and protected them from persecution after the fire of Rome but together with the new man Ofonius Tigellinus, who had replaced the old reliables, Seneca and Burrus, her influence on the Emperor was disastrous.
Tigellinus was a handsome two-way stud, who had had affairs with the husbands and wives of two grand Roman households before graduating to Agrippina and her sister which had earned him a spell out of Rome. He bred horses in Calabria and met Nero when young and encouraged his interest in racing. He was made prefect of police, then of the Praetorian Guard, where he uncovered the conspiracy of Piso.
This was a miserable affair compared with the boldness and despatch of the groups of assassins who killed Julius Caesar and Caligula. Tyrannicide was an Ancient Roman tradition and the personnel were always patrician, but these conspirators were different in that they invited one of their number, C. Calpurnius Piso, to become Emperor, showing how deeply the imperial concept had sunk into the psyche of the once republican Roman upper class. The conspirators were shopped by a disloyal freedman and Piso himself developed cold feet at the last moment. Nero was shaken by the numbers of the patriciate involved. He did not know he was so disliked. He reacted moderately, forgiving some and forgetting others, but by AD 65, affected by the death of Poppaea and his unborn child – had he lost his temper and kicked her in the belly? – he began to hound important senators on the usual trumped-up charges of treason.
Poppaea, too beautiful to become ashes, was, unusually, embalmed and her obsequies cost a fortune. He proved, to himself, his undying devotion to her by having a freedman, Sporus, a lookalike of Poppaea, castrated and ‘marrying’ him in Greece.
Nero, this madman as people have said, was Emperor in Rome for fourteen years and though he contrived to alienate every section of his sophisticated contemporaries in that city, including and perhaps especially the Stoics, he never lost the affection of the populace and was respected in the provinces, particularly in the East. He accepted and discharged the then traditional basic duties of an Emperor to provide bread, water and circuses, the last considered even by the sage Seneca to be as important as military successes. In his foreign policy Nero was effective, choosing governors and procurators wisely – perhaps the success of his old companion Otho was not entirely by chance? – and behaving, even according to Tacitus, rationally in the face of military disaster.
He was imaginative – sending a couple of centurions to look for the source of the Nile, dreaming of the Corinth Canal and driving in the first golden spike, invoking the glories of Rome, without, it was noticed, mentioning the Senate – but the provincial event of his reign has to be the revolt of Boadicea (Boudicca or Biudica). Nero never liked the idea of Britain and would have withdrawn from that relatively cold and unproductive island were it not for the memory of his father. Britons were quarrelsome and violent and it was said that it was only for their own country that they did not know how to die. This was not true of Boadicea, who also ‘had uncommon intelligence for a woman’ (Dio Cassius). She was the daughter of a client king of the Iceni (Suffolk), to which tribe Romans had lent a lot of money for the furbishing of their homes with curtains and other luxuries. Seneca, attracted by the high rate of interest, had lent 40 million sesterces and when a governor was imposed in replacement of the royal family, ‘called it in at once and not very gently’ (Dio Cassius). The strong-arm Roman soldiers looted the palace, raped her daughters and flogged the queen herself. When she recovered, Boadicea raised the flag of revolt and with an army of 120,000 razed two Roman cities.
‘Every kind of atrocity was inflicted upon their captives . . . they hung up the noblest and best-looking women naked, cutting off their breasts and stitching them to their mouths, so that the women appeared to be eating them and after this they impaled them on sharp stakes, run up the body’ (Dio Cassius). Tacitus describes how she repeated the performance in Verulamium (St Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester), killing 80,000, ‘taking no prisoners, sold no captives as slaves and went in for none of the usual trading of war. They wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning and crucifying.’ (This last technique Boadicea must have picked up from her enemies, though the Romans did not adopt hers, of attaching the blades of scythes to the wheels of her chariots – as shown in her statue on the Embankment, Westminster – because, for the Romans, the chariot was a sporting vehicle.)
The rebellion was squashed by Nero’s freedman Polyclitus, at the head of a vast army – to the astonishment of the snobbish Britons – and he not only reconciled the warring Roman governor and procurator, but was tactful enough to play down his own role in the pacification. (Nero appreciated the talents of freedmen, who were recruited from all over the Empire to serve, without passing Foreign Office examinations, in high office at the centre of power. He promoted Claudius Etruscus, who died at the age of eighty loaded with wealth and honour, a former slave from Smyrna who worked for ten emperors, six of whom died under him, to be controller of finance, in place of Pallas.) After the failure of the rebellion, successive governors, including Tacitus’ father-in-law, Agricola, attempted to Romanize Britain, favouring the sons of the elite with a Roman education, building baths, assembly rooms, temples, public squares and introducing the usual Roman apparatus, but the investment did not pay off, as Appian, writing under the Emperor Antoninus Pius a century later, says: ‘The Romans rule the greater part of it [Britain] and have no need of the rest; in fact the part they have brings them in little money’ Nero’s instinct was correct.
The great fire broke out early a.m., under a nearly full moon, on 19 July AD 64, in some shops round the Circus Maximus. It lasted six days, levelled totally three of the fourteen regions into which Augustus had divided the capital, and damaged another seven. The grandest houses in the heart of the city were destroyed and the rumour that the Emperor was the arsonist might have begun with their owners. In fact, though Nero flung himself with zest into the town planning necessary after the event, with his new palace as its crowning feature, he had no interest in starting the fire himself. Great fires, like that of London 1,600 years later, for which an apprentice French baker was hastily hanged, aren’t started by anybody; they happen; but sinister persons have to be found to take the blame.
Nero, deflected by Poppaea from the Jews, chose to blame the Christians ‘on account of their sullen hatred of the whole human race. They were put to death with exquisite cruelty . . . and many were lighted up, when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night.’ This is the first reference in history to the sect, not yet named, whose members were forced to wear a tunica modesta (a leather jerkin) smeared with tar and set on fire, to illuminate the parties in the gardens which the Emperor opened for those made homeless by the fire. Tacitus adds that they behaved so bravely that ‘humanity relented in their favour’. It was also the first time in history that a distinction was made between Jews and Christians, a distinction, ironically, laboured for by St Paul. The last verse of the Acts of the Apostles reads: ‘And there [Rome] he stayed for two full years at his own expense with a welcome for all who came to him, practising without let or hindrance the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.’
St Paul was in Rome under house arrest, waiting to appear ‘before Caesar’, in AD 62. In fact he would not have been tried by Nero himself but by the consular who dealt with Syrian affairs, but he could have been still in Rome during the fire and would surely have been broken-hearted – perhaps unto death? – at the decision of the Roman authorities, whom he had spent his life trying to conciliate, to persecute his new religion. Boadicea, Nero and St Paul were, oddly, exact contemporaries – with Seneca as the loose connection.
Towards the end of his short life – thirty-two years – but relatively long reign – fourteen years – Nero lost touch with the real world. The palace was run by freedmen, the senatorial and equestrian ranks having become suspect to the Emperor, whose greed had made the profession of delator (denouncer) the surest route to a fortune – a quarter of the victim’s property was the reward. Seneca, trembling in a remote corner of his palace before the imperial jealousy had finally and grandly and stagily made him do away with himself, manumitted his slaves, and so Nero had been left to the care of his freedmen, two of whom, Sporus and Pythagoras, he had ‘married’, with public simulation of the bridal nights. Then he decided, at quite the wrong time, to leave Rome, with his freedman Helius in charge of life, death and confiscation.
Julius Vindex, a governor in Gaul, had been circulating his colleagues, proposing an uprising, and they had obligingly forwarded the letters on to the Emperor, who reacted sluggishly. Galba and Otho, governors in Spain and Portugal and both to attain the purple briefly in the year of the four Emperors which followed Nero’s death, were in revolt. Nero was dragged back from Greece by Helius, who went to fetch him. Vindex was defeated and committed suicide but the successful troops wanted to make their commander Emperor. He refused on the grounds that this was a decision for the Senate and People of Rome, but the feeling in the air, shared gloomily by Nero himself, was that the present Emperor had to go. The trouble was, where? Even the Prefect of Egypt, the imperial province, was not necessarily sound. Then the Praetorian Guard declared for Galba, the Senate outlawed him and Nero did not have quite enough time to stab himself properly, before the horsemen cantered up to the villa where he was hiding . . . ‘Qualis artifex pereo!’ (‘What an artist dies with me!’) were his determined last words, and they promised not to mutilate his body. He was buried by the faithful freedwoman Acte, who had been the first of so many to share his couch, and for years afterwards there were flowers on his grave in the spring.