Ancient History & Civilisation



The mid-March evening at the fashionable pleasure resort of Baiae passed in gaiety and fun. One aristocratic lady had travelled by sedan chair from Antium, further north along the coast, to join a smart coterie of high-society guests. The event that brought them together was the festival of Minerva, the goddess of art and wisdom. After gazing at the beautiful, anchored ships from a waterside mansion and enjoying a lavish dinner, it was now time for the woman to return home. As the night was starlit and the sea flat, she chose to do this not by sedan chair but by boat. Despite the favourable conditions, however, that decision would prove near-fatal. For on board the garlanded ship a death trap had been devised. The deck had been carefully engineered with lead weights to cave in and crush the female guest reclining below. The woman for whom the trap was intended was Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero. The man who had set the trap was the emperor himself.

Agrippina suspected nothing. After all, Nero had spent the entire evening in her company in a studied spirit of reconciliation and filial love. As the emperor said his goodbyes on the shore, he spoke intimately, childishly with his mother. Lavishing attention on her, he gave her a long, lingering hug. Then Agrippina boarded the ship, went below deck and the boat set off. As soon as it was sufficiently far out at sea, however, a member of the rowing crew activated the device. To Agrippina’s horror, the wood in the deck above her head splintered violently, and suddenly the roof came crashing down. But as the weighted ceiling dropped, it stopped within centimetres of her: the sides of her couch had been high enough and strong enough to protect her from the full impact of the blow. Bewildered, she slowly extricated herself and looked around. One of her companions close by had been killed instantly. While Agrippina gathered her strength below, the crew above made a second attempt on her life by capsizing the boat. Now another companion came to Agrippina’s aid. Realizing what was afoot, the imperial freedwoman declared that it was she who was the emperor’s mother. The crew of the ship, unable to tell the difference in the dark, duly piled in and clubbed her to death with their oars. Meanwhile, as quietly as she could, Agrippina dived into the sea and slipped away.

As she swam ashore, she realized that the whole evening had been nothing but a piece of theatre. The collapse of the boat was no accident, but rather a case of stage machinery gone drastically wrong: the sea had been calm and there were no rocks nearby that might have caused a real accident. She knew full well who had tried to kill her. But before she worked out what to do next, she bought herself time. Once she had returned home to Antium, she decided to maintain the pretence that she had been the victim of an accident at sea by sending a message to Nero. It stated that even though she knew he would no doubt be distraught over what had happened to his dear mother, she now needed to rest and must not be disturbed.

As soon as he heard the news that his mother was still alive, Nero turned to Anicetus, a fleet commander and the man who had devised the death trap. Now, Nero told him, he must be the one to finish what he had started. Accordingly, Anicetus broke into Agrippina’s house with a band of soldiers and surrounded her bed. Her final words, according to the historian Tacitus, were a tragic defence of her son. She knew, she said, that it was not Nero who had sent them to kill her. Agrippina then pointed to her womb and told the soldiers, ‘Strike here’. Despite the fear and bitterness that had made mother and son enemies, she perhaps wanted to ensure with her last breath that nothing would diminish Nero’s hold on power. That was paramount. Her body was cremated the same night on an open couch in a makeshift funeral more fit for a pauper than a descendant of a deity, the first emperor Augustus.

Nero’s final order to kill his mother may have seemed cruelly clinical. In reality, he was rattled to the core. In Roman society piety towards mothers, let alone the mother of the emperor, was an ancient, cherished and sacrosanct virtue. Nero was the fifth emperor of Rome, a member of the Julio-Claudian family, the great-great-grandson of Augustus. He was the man whom many in the imperial palace, the Senate and among the Roman people believed to be restoring the government of the empire to the glories achieved by his ancestor some fifty years earlier. In the year of his mother’s death Nero was hugely popular, but if the news got out that he had committed the heinous crime of matricide, that popularity would plummet. But there was another, more complex reason why he now felt painfully vulnerable.

Nero had risen to be emperor not by destiny, but by cold, calculating design. Agrippina had been his kingmaker. It was true that the empire was, despite appearances, a hereditary monarchy: all the emperors of Rome had so far come from the one dynasty established by Augustus – the family of the Julio-Claudians. It was true too that, through Agrippina, Nero was descended from the divine Augustus. However, as the first emperor had left no clearly defined system of succession, the route to becoming the most powerful man in the ancient world was laden with murderous pitfalls. Agrippina had ensured that her son overcame them and then, to her cost, reminded him of that fact in order to control him. In so doing, she had fostered in the young emperor an insecurity, a fear that was symbolic of both the system of government he inherited and his character. It centred on his right to be emperor. That insecurity would be instrumental in the collapse of Nero’s regime and the crisis into which he would plunge the Roman empire. Yes, Agrippina, the maker of that insecurity, was now gone, but so too perhaps was the one person who could assuage it.

The last years of Nero’s rule created one of the most infamous revolutions in all Roman history. His downfall would fatally discredit the dynasty of emperors founded by Augustus and, to the shock of many Romans, bring it to extinction. It would take the political arrangement of government by a single emperor to the greatest crisis of its history. But that was not all. Of all the fault lines in the Augustan system of hereditary monarchy, Nero’s downfall would become notorious for exposing its greatest inbuilt flaw – a flaw that, until his reign, had been brushed under the carpet. What if the man who succeeded as emperor possessed a character so insecure and self-obsessed that he was completely unsuited to governing the Roman empire? What if the one person who could do or have anything he wanted withdrew from his responsibilities into a world of fantasy? What if the most powerful man in the ancient world went mad?


During the forty long years of Augustus’s reign, civil war had become a thing of the past, and the 20 million Roman citizens across the breadth of the empire had enjoyed a new period of stability. They, like he, wanted that stability to continue and for Rome and her empire to prosper long after his death. So great was his dominance of the government, and so integral was he to the image of Rome, that the people believed the Roman empire depended entirely on him and his family for its future safety and security. Augustus had carefully laid the groundwork for this throughout his reign. In the best court poetry of the day, and on the Altar of Peace, one of the great monuments to Augustus’s reign, it was not just the emperor who was honoured, but his family too. The same was true of the oath of loyalty uttered by Romans around the four corners of the empire: ‘I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus,’ it went, ‘and to his children and descendants all my life in word, in deed and in thought.’1


However, there was a problem: how to legitimize the succession of Augustus’s power and thus maintain the new regime. As his principate was based on the appearance that the Senate and the Roman people were sovereign, and that the mandate enjoyed by the emperor was conferred on him by them, there could be no explicit acknowledgement of the hereditary principle, nor of any law of succession.2 Indeed, the paradox of a hereditary monarchy with no defined system for succession was just the start of the difficulty. Beneath the propaganda of Augustus’s regime, the root of the problem remained: the oneman rule of which Augustus was the architect was at its core more provisional and uncertain than its public image suggested. The emperor had simply innovated as his rule continued, trying one device then another. The question of succession was no different. This state of affairs engendered only uncertainty, an uncertainty that would cast a long, dark shadow over all of Augustus’s heirs.

Augustus had no sons of his own. To overcome this obstacle, he chose the time-honoured Roman practice of adoption. In ancient Rome, there was no recognition of primogeniture as a basis for inheritance, so he had a number of people to choose from. During the course of his rule he adopted his nephew Marcellus and the sons of his daughter Julia, Gaius and Lucius, suggesting that the principle of succession was hereditary. But here he was struck by very bad luck. His favoured nephew and his two beloved grandsons all suffered premature deaths (see family tree, page 188). Would Augustus now adopt not from his own family but from the best of the senators? He was said to have considered this, but by AD 4 he had rejected the idea3. In that year he had adopted his stepson, Tiberius, and named him as his heir in his will. It was impossible to escape the impression, however, that this was a last resort.

Tiberius succeeded Augustus in AD 14, but the problem of legitimizing the hand-over of power did not go away. In fact, it only grew worse. The question of legitimate succession was again open to competing principles. What was now more important: descent from Augustus or descent from the reigning emperor? In the absence of a clear answer, there were a number of people with potential claims to succeed to the supreme position in the state. The climate of uncertainty bred rivalry, intrigue and murder.

One potential successor to Tiberius was Germanicus. He was the grand-nephew of Augustus, the husband of Augustus’s granddaughter Agrippina, and the adopted son of Tiberius. His claim to succession competed with that of Tiberius’s natural son, Drusus. InAD 19 Germanicus, a general and a hero of the wars in Germany, died not on the battlefield but ignominiously, by poison. Many suspected Tiberius. This left the path open to Drusus, but he too was murdered by poison in AD 23. His assassin was another man making a bid for power: Sejanus, the low-born commander of the Praetorian Guard. His claim depended on his affair with Tiberius’s daughter Livilla, whom he hoped to marry and thus enter the dynastic struggle. The emperor refused the marriage of his daughter to a man with the rank of mere knight, so Sejanus’s claim foundered too.

By the time Tiberius died in AD 37, having ruled for twenty years, he still had not made up his mind about a successor. As a result, the decision of who would now rule the Roman empire was eventually made not by an emperor, but by the officers of the Praetorian Guard. It was in their interests that the system of dynastic succession should continue, so now they played their part. The man they chose as the third emperor of Rome met at least one of the criteria for succession: he was the great-grandson of Augustus and the son of Germanicus. His name was Caligula.

It was during Caligula’s reign that the sheer scale of the problem posed by dynastic succession came to light. Throughout Roman history it was the custom of ancient aristocratic families to intermarry. This was how the old families of the republic held on to power, political position and wealth. In the period of the early empire, however, this habit had a new and potentially dangerous consequence. The longer the Julio-Claudian dynasty continued, the greater the number of people who could claim some descent from Augustus. So when, following an illness, the new emperor grew unhinged and tyrannical, there was an ever-increasing pool of rival aristocrats with legitimate claims to the principate who were ready to pounce.

In AD 41 Caligula was assassinated and his wife and daughter murdered. Once again, the Praetorian Guard stepped in to secure a smooth succession, and once again they stuck to the formula for hereditary monarchy, despite its flaws. With the backing of the Roman army they appointed as emperor Caligula’s uncle and nearest surviving male relative, Claudius. Rome’s fourth emperor ruled for thirteen years and brought stability after the short and turbulent rule of Caligula. However, the problem of competitors and rivals within the Julio-Claudian circles of the aristocracy did not disappear. The new emperor’s protected existence before his accession was in part to blame. Claudius had grown up not amid the cut and thrust of public life, but in the imperial palace, surrounded by a coterie of compliant freedmen and slaves. This made his fear of rivals all the greater. It was said that he was responsible for the deaths of thirty-five senators and more than two hundred knights during his time as emperor.4 But his fear of rivals actually stemmed from another source: direct descent from Augustus was still viewed as the golden seal on an emperor’s position. Other aristocrats could boast such a family connection, but not Claudius. Now that was about to change.

When a conspiracy involving Claudius’s third wife was uncovered, she and her lover were executed for treason and Claudius became a widower in search of a new wife. The woman who presented the strongest, most persuasive case was Julia Agrippina. She was Claudius’s beautiful young niece and, more importantly, the great-granddaughter of Augustus. By this one union, Augustus’s dream of an imperial royal family at the heart of Roman government and the empire would once again be alive and well. But that union would also prove crucial for another reason. Agrippina would bring to the marriage a son from her first husband – an eleven-year-old boy called Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the future emperor Nero.

In AD 50 Claudius adopted the young boy as his own son. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus now became Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. The boy could claim descent from both the reigning emperor and Augustus. It was a claim that had the potential to outshine that of Claudius’s own son, Britannicus, and that of all other rivals. It could even be enough to make Nero Rome’s fifth emperor. However, given the absence of any defined succession criteria, Agrippina knew the many slips between cup and lip. To make her son’s rise to power a certainty, she needed single-minded ruthlessness. It was one quality she appeared to have in spades.

Her first victim was the aristocrat and senator Lucius Junius Silanus. He was young, popular and successful in public life. Agrippina, however, viewed him simply as a rival to Nero. Silanus posed a significant threat to the future of her son because he too was a descendant of Augustus. Worse, he was already engaged to Claudius’s daughter Octavia. Agrippina was quick off the mark. She ensured that a rumour was let loose that accused Silanus of committing incest with his notoriously promiscuous sister Junia Calvina. Although the rumour was utterly untrue, Silanus’s name was struck from the roll-call of senators, and his career ended abruptly in disgrace. Claudius cancelled the engagement to his daughter and Silanus committed suicide – on Agrippina’s wedding day. The point was not lost on many people.

Next Agrippina tackled the problem of Nero’s other serious rival, Claudius’s son from his previous marriage, Britannicus. All that was required to destroy his prospects was to establish Nero’s prominence in public life before Britannicus’s. Nero was three years older than his stepbrother, and the small matter of this age difference allowed Agrippina to make rapid progress. Between AD 50 and 53 the young Nero first slipped into the dead Silanus’s shoes and married Claudius’s daughter Octavia. He was then given a raft of honours that reflected his swift ascendancy. In March AD 51, at the age of thirteen, Nero assumed the toga of manhood a year before it was due, and in the same year he marked his debut in public life when he made a speech in the Senate thanking Claudius for these honours. This was followed by statesman-like addresses in both Latin and Greek on behalf of petitioners from Rome’s provinces. The speeches showed the boy’s precocious intelligence and philhellenism. When, in AD 53, he appeared at games given in his honour wearing a triumphal toga alongside Britannicus, who was still wearing the toga of a boy, Nero’s supremacy over his younger stepbrother was plain for all to see.

There now remained only one task to seal her son’s future as the next ruler of the Roman empire: the murder of the present emperor. In AD 54 Claudius was sixty-four years old. Perhaps as a result of cerebral palsy in childhood, he had always suffered from a limp, constant trembling and a speech impediment. Now he was a doddering old man. But Agrippina could not wait for his death to come naturally. Time was against her. Britannicus was about to reach his fourteenth birthday and was eligible to receive the toga of manhood from his father. The natural son of the emperor might still eclipse Nero, so Agrippina seized the initiative. At dinner one evening, so the story goes, some mushrooms were sprinkled with a lethal substance. Claudius ate them under Agrippina’s watchful eye, but the poison resulted in nothing more than a coughing fit. At this point, her doctor stepped in. Ostensibly helping Claudius to vomit, he inserted a poisoned feather down the emperor’s throat and thus completed the job.

On the morning of 13 October AD 54 the palace was buzzing with tense, surreptitious activity. Only Agrippina and her closest confidants, of course, knew that Claudius was dead. While her son was being dressed and readied for the formal accession, Agrippina spent her time deviously detaining Claudius’s children, Britannicus and Octavia, who were waiting to hear about the state of their father’s health. She pretended to seek solace in them during this anxious time; Britannicus, she said, touching his cheek, was the very image of his father. The Praetorian Guard too she kept at bay, fobbing them off with regular messages about the deteriorating health of the emperor. The truth was that she was desperately buying time, ‘waiting for the propitious moment forecast by astrologers’ to make the announcement of the succession.5 Agrippina had been plotting towards this moment all her adult life. Nothing, not even a poor omen, was going to ruin it now.

At midday the doors of the imperial palace were flung open. The emperor was dead, and now before the expectant Praetorian Guard stood not Claudius’s son Britannicus, but Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. Although the sight of the boy took some of the soldiers by surprise, the arranged ceremonies of that day allowed no time for hesitation or doubt. The company of soldiers cheered Nero and speedily put him in a litter to be taken to their camp in the Servilian Gardens in the southeast part of Rome. Here Nero addressed the soldiers and, after promising them the usual gifts of money, the seventeen-year old boy was hailed emperor. With the passing of a decree in the Senate House on the same day, the senators followed suit. No one would ever know whom Claudius himself had intended to succeed him because his will was immediately suppressed.

Agrippina had achieved her greatest ambition. Her son was the most powerful man in the Roman world. At that moment, however, she could not have imagined that the tools she had used to secure power for him were now about to be turned on her. For not long after the young Nero’s rule began, a bitter power struggle developed between mother and son. Publicly Agrippina was given honour after honour. She was allowed a private bodyguard; she was made priestess of the cult of the deified Claudius; she was permitted an indirect hand in government by sitting secretly behind a sheet at council meetings held in the palace. Coins from the first years of Nero’s reign even bear heads of both the emperor and Agrippina. However, behind the polite courtly gloss of this mother–son relationship, the adolescent Nero began to lose patience with his influential, controlling kingmaker. His habitual obedience to her, he realized, was fast becoming a burden.

His mother was hard to please. She disapproved of Nero’s interest in horse racing, athletics, music and theatre. By the second year of his rule, they had clashed over his girlfriend, a former slave called Acte. Motivated perhaps by jealousy, possessiveness and fear of a rival to her son’s affections, Agrippina scolded him for having a love affair with such a vulgar, low-born woman. Nero responded, as a teenager would, by intensifying his relationship with Acte and coming close to making her his lawful wife.6 His next action, however, was tantamount to declaring all-out war. When Nero was still a boy Agrippina had scrupulously filled the imperial household with staff loyal to her. Now Nero attacked that power base by removing one of his mother’s key allies – Antonius Pallas – a freedman in charge of financial matters. Agrippina retaliated, fighting fire with fire. She knew how to win power in the palace. More than that, however, she knew how to hit the new emperor of Rome where it hurt.

One day Agrippina, in a display of anger, went around the palace, flinging her arms about and shouting out loud that she favoured not Nero, but his stepbrother Britannicus. The divine Claudius’s son was now grown up, she said, and was ‘the true and worthy heir of his father’s supreme position’.7 The cold blade of that remark opened a wound – namely, Nero’s insecurity over his claim to be emperor. The reaction Agrippina provoked in her son, however, may well have taken even her by surprise. At dinner one evening a drink was brought to Britannicus, who sat at a junior table with the children of other noblemen. Any poison in it would have been detected by the imperial tasters, so the drink was harmless, but it was deliberately made too hot, and the young boy refused it. Cold water, secretly spiked with poison, was added at the table. Thus cooled, the drink was handed back to Britannicus. Before the eyes of both Agrippina and his own sister the fourteen-year-old boy was soon convulsing uncontrollably. The person who had ordered the murder was widely believed to be Nero.

Reacting with a studied lack of worry, Nero casually claimed that Britannicus was simply having one of his epileptic fits; it was nothing out of the ordinary. The other diners saw through this excuse, but did nothing. There was nothing they could do. Containing their horror beneath glazed, outwardly normal expressions, they were paralysed: to have protested or denied it was a fit would have been to suggest murder. But equally, to have conspicuously agreed that it must have been an epileptic fit would also have been to suggest a crime because it would have been so patently a lie. While everyone hesitated, the teenage boy died. ‘Octavia, young though she was, had learnt to hide sorrow, affection, every feeling . . . After a short silence, the banquet continued.’8

The aptitude for the crimes required to hold on to imperial power had now passed from mother to son. Nonetheless, Agrippina, the determined and seasoned intriguer, did not give up the covert war against Nero for control of the palace. On the contrary, the death of Britannicus now prompted her to lend her support to Octavia; perhaps she could become a political figurehead around whom aristocrats with rival claims to be emperor would rally. A rumour circulated that Agrippina was also promoting the cause of the aristocrat Rubellius Plautus; he was in a position to claim descent from Augustus because his mother was Tiberius’s granddaughter, and Tiberius was the adopted son of Augustus. In response, Nero had Agrippina expelled from the palace and her bodyguard removed. However, it was not long before he devised a more permanent solution to the problem of his mother.

The final straw stemmed from Nero’s love life. He did not feel anything for his wife, Octavia. He wanted passionately to marry his mistress, Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his close friend Marcus Salvius Otho, and the woman who would become the great love of Nero’s life. Nero knew that his mother would never allow him to divorce Claudius’s daughter and marry his mistress. Poppaea knew it too. In private she ‘nagged and mocked him incessantly. He was under his guardian’s thumb, she said, master neither of the empire nor of himself.’9 Poppaea’s skill in needling Nero was reinforced ‘by tears and all the tricks of a lover’. Thus provoked, in the spring of AD 59 Nero summoned Anicetus and sent his mother the fatal invitation to join him for the festival of Minerva at Baiae.

With Agrippina dead, Nero felt released, free at last. The domineering influence in his life had been eliminated, and he could now rule and behave as he pleased. Indeed, there was much to celebrate. Despite the strife within the imperial palace, the first years of his rule had been far from disastrous. In fact, according to all the ancient sources, the empire thrived during Nero’s early years as emperor. Contemporary poets hailed them as a new golden age. Nero rivalled even Augustus for sheer popularity. The people loved him for the games he held, and the Senate for the respect he showed them. Abroad too there were successes to count: Rome was strengthening her eastern frontier in a successful campaign with Parthia. The empire was flourishing.

Given Nero’s youth and inexperience at governing during those first few years, how had this happened? Perhaps the empire, administered by senators and knights, ran itself? Perhaps it did not even need an active, industrious emperor, but simply a celebrity figurehead? Another answer to the question of who, if anyone, was really in charge of the empire can be traced to the two men who, according to Tacitus, had taken control of government in the first years of Nero’s rule. Their names were Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, and they had been the fledgling emperor’s two closest advisers. While the adolescent Nero was growing up, he had sought refuge with them. They protected him from his mother and indulged his interests. In exchange, he listened to their advice. However, these two men were much more than allies with good advice to offer. They were astute politicians on whom the emperor depended entirely for his popularity, for his new golden age.

Now all that was about to change. While Agrippina lived, she had taken the heat off Seneca and Burrus. With her gone, they stood exposed. Now it was they, not she, who were the spoilers of Nero’s fun. With Nero having slipped his mother’s leash, however, they were about to realize that there was nothing they could do to control him. The Roman empire was about to discover what kind of man its emperor really was.


AD 62, the eighth year of Nero’s rule. According to the historian Tacitus, ‘the forces of good were in decline’. Those forces were the voices of Seneca and Burrus. To date, their control over the emperor had been clever and highly successful. Burrus was a knight, born in Gaul, who had risen to become the head of the Praetorian Guard. Severe in character and disfigured in one hand, he acted as a moral barometer for Nero. Agrippina had once been Burrus’s sponsor, and out of loyalty to her he had vehemently opposed Nero in his murder plans, refusing to have any part in her death. Nonetheless, once the murder had been committed, he dutifully ensured that the Praetorian Guards stayed loyal to the emperor. This support was critical to the success of Nero’s regime. But it was his tutor who was perhaps an even more pivotal figure.

Seneca was a senator from an Italian family of Córdoba in Spain. He was also one of the greatest philosophers in Roman history. Urbane, charming and fatherly, he used his intelligence to guide and educate his adolescent charge. In so doing, he became one of the most influential voices in the Roman empire. The importance of Seneca to Nero can be seen in the variety of roles he played. He composed Nero’s inaugural speech to the Senate and people. It was rapturously received. For the festival of Saturnalia in AD 54, he entertained the emperor by composing a satire lambasting the regime of the buffoon Claudius. Playing on the word ‘deification’, it was called The Pumpkinification of Claudius, and it had the court in stitches. As amicus (friend) of the emperor, Seneca also sat on the imperial council, which met in the palace with the leading senators. As a result, those senators heartily approved of Nero’s wise decisions.

Perhaps Seneca’s greatest role, however, was damage limitation; he knew how to clear up Nero’s mess. His greatest coup was to manage the senators’ reaction to the murder of Agrippina. His deft handling of the situation meant that they duly bought the official version of events: Agrippina had been plotting the murder of Nero, the plot had been detected, and Agrippina had paid the price. The emperor was now safe. His public relations exercise was so effective that, far from expressing horror at the matricide, Rome gave thanks to the gods. The state, after all, had been saved. Seneca, one might have supposed, was indispensable to the emperor. But there was one task he set himself that would ultimately prove his undoing. The key lesson he set for his young charge was how to be a good emperor. It would become his life’s greatest project and his life’s greatest failure.

We know what Seneca taught Nero because his great work of political philosophy, On Clemency, has survived. The lesson began with a simple statement of fact. The position Nero held, Seneca would have told the young emperor, was one of supreme power. He was the ‘arbiter of life and death for the nations’; in his power rested ‘what each person’s lot and state shall be’; by his lips Fortune proclaimed ‘what gifts she would bestow on each human being’.10 The key to being a good emperor, however, was not just to acknowledge that power, but to exercise it with restraint. If he could show clemency, he would become a good emperor, like Augustus; if not, he would be nothing more than a despised tyrant. In fact, Nero would do well to emulate Augustus in following this argument to its conclusion: above all, instructed Seneca, the emperor must disguise his absolute power.

Nero at first had been an obedient student. He had revived the traditional partnership with the senators: they and not the cronies of the imperial palace were, after all, the true pillars of justice, political wisdom and administrative experience. Together, Nero and the Senate ruled Rome as if they were equals. The idea that Seneca had sown in the young man was that of civilitas: the affability and accessibility of the emperor ‘that helps to conceal the fact of autocratic power’.11 Nero had at first played his role well, giving the impression that he was just another senator, another ordinary citizen. And yet, despite Nero’s promising start, by AD 62 he was forgetting his lines. By character he was just not cut out to be a politician. Maintaining the pretence, the theatrical illusion, that he cared what the senators really thought was fast becoming yet another burden. The truth was that, despite Seneca’s best efforts, Nero’s passions lay elsewhere.

One of these passions was for a good night out. It would amuse the young emperor and his dissolute playmates from the palace to put on a disguise, such as a freedman’s cap or a wig, and rampage around the streets of the city, drinking, carousing and getting into fights. ‘For he was in the habit of setting upon people returning home from dinner and would hurt anyone who fought back, throwing them into the drains.’12 Another of Nero’s passions from a young age was for horses. With great enthusiasm, he would follow the chariot races and their different teams. He supported the Greens over the Reds, the Whites or the Blues, much as fans follow football teams today. To attend the races and gratify his passion, he slipped out of the palace in secret, so it was said. However, his greatest love was reserved for the Greek arts: for music, poetry, singing and playing the lyre.

Nero was not only very knowledgeable about these subjects, but pursued his own practice and study of them with determination. As soon as he had become emperor, he hired as his tutor the most famous and skilled lyre-player of the day, a man called Terpnus. He even undertook the voice-strengthening exercises of professional singers: ‘. . .he would lie on his back, holding a lead tablet and cleanse his system with a syringe and with vomiting.’ Diet too was important for improving the quality of one’s singing. Apples were to be avoided as they were deemed harmful to the vocal cords, but dried figs were beneficial; and every month for a few days the emperor lived on just chives preserved in oil.13 Nero’s pursuit of these Greek interests worried Seneca and Burrus. It was not the pursuits themselves that were the problem; it was rather that Nero was dangerously close to achieving the standard of a professional performer. In the conservative circles of Roman high society of the day that just would not do.

At that time, when Rome had been the great cultural exchange centre, the exciting cosmopolis of the entire Mediterranean world for nearly two hundred years, and Greece had long been reduced to a Roman province, many Romans in the élite still laboured under an illusion. They were at heart, ran their self-serving myth, a people of tough, sturdy, self-reliant peasant-soldiers who, through grit, determination, fortitude and discipline, had forged their brilliant empire. Roman character and virtue, above all, were revealed in achievements on the battlefield and in public life. Yes, the Greek arts were good for education, perhaps even for relaxation too, but devotion to them would lead only to a breakdown in the moral fibre of Rome, turning a nation of soldiers into one of cowards, gymnasts and homosexuals. Toning up one’s oiled muscles for athletics, prancing around in a theatrical costume or singing poetic compositions to the accompaniment of a lyre had not prevented the fall of Greece. In fact, such pursuits probably caused it.14 The conservatives need only look around the streets of the city to make their point: professional actors were nothing but slaves and common prostitutes.

The chic taste-makers of the fashionable set disagreed. Music, theatre, singing and performing in the Greek style were exquisite, the height of sophistication, the pinnacle of civilization. In ancient Greece aristocrats and citizens had competed to win honours and social status through artistic contests; those contests had been glorified in the works of Homer and Pindar, the founders of epic and lyric literature. So why not in Rome too? To their absolute delight, the hip crowd now at last had a patron. As chance would have it, he was none other than the emperor himself – and he was prepared to lead from the front. In AD 59 Nero celebrated a set of games called the Juvenalia, held to mark the first shaving of his beard and his transition to manhood. They were private games for the government élite, so when the emperor chose to play his lyre on stage, his advisers had been able to pretend it was acceptable. Burrus, who was forced to lead a battalion of the Praetorian Guard on to the stage, grieved as he applauded. The next year, however, Nero really pushed the boundaries of what was proper for the emperor of Rome. He was determined to take his passions to the people.

He first set up a training school for the Greek arts, then asked the sons of the aristocracy to attend it, and later encouraged its graduates to perform in public in a brand new festival of his very own creation. All of Rome was invited. For these games, aristocrats joined professional Greek performers on stage in ballet, athletics and musical contests. To the conservatives of the élite it was a national scandal. The sons of ancient, great, virtuous families, ‘the Furii, the Horatii, the Fabii, the Porcii, the Valerii’, were being forced to dishonour themselves!15 Nero’s view of his novelty games, however, was quite different. He was seeking to lay the foundations of a new age, beginning at year zero. He was civilizing Rome, re-educating the public, weaning them off barbaric gladiatorial games and reorientating the grand sweep of Roman history away from war, conquest and empire towards the more refined ideals of Art. He named the games the Neronia, and decreed that they were to be held every five years. This was how he wanted to lead his people! This was how he wanted to be a good emperor!

The public loved the games. If Seneca and Burrus despaired, they could at least console themselves that, despite the rapturous reception, the emperor had restrained himself from performing before the Roman people – at least for now. By AD 62 Nero showed no sign of outgrowing his Greek habits, his new vision for Rome. This was the year in which he opened his grand Hellenistic gymnasium complex and extravagantly handed out free oil to senators and knights so that they might set an example to ordinary people to take up the very un-Roman, unmanly activities of wrestling and athletics. Seneca and Burrus were fighting a losing battle. The previously harmonious relationship between Nero and his advisers was at breaking point. Two events made it snap.

When a senator by the name of Antistius Sosianus wrote some verses satirizing the emperor and read them out at a high-society dinner party, he was tried for treason and found guilty. Although he narrowly avoided execution, his case spelt the return of the treason law that had so discredited the regimes of Caligula and Claudius. Under its vague terms, an individual could be charged with any form of ‘conspiracy’ against the emperor. To Seneca the law was a clear indication that his life’s project – to make Nero behave and act like a good emperor – was failing. The real impasse, however, for Burrus and Seneca came soon afterwards. Nero told them that he had decided, at last, to divorce Octavia, the daughter of the divine Claudius, and marry Poppaea. Seneca and Burrus were against it: Nero might well be descended from Augustus, but to divorce Octavia was to sever his principal tie with the deified Claudius, a cornerstone in his claim to be emperor. When Nero argued, stamped his feet and insisted, Burrus retorted succinctly, referring to the throne: ‘Well, then, give her back her dowry!’16 With that, the rupture was final.

Events now moved quickly. Burrus soon fell ill with a tumour and died. The rumour went around that Nero had speeded his death by instructing someone to poison him. What is certain is that the emperor wasted no time in replacing the critically important head of the Praetorian Guard. Nero realized that to make the divorce a reality, he did not need nay-sayers, nuisances and pests with ‘right’ on their side, people spoiling his fun and burdening his life with responsibility. He needed new friends. To this end he held a nervous meeting of the council of leading senators and palace advisers. Who on earth, they asked themselves, would Nero choose for the recently vacated post? The emperor was quick to reassure them. His first appointment was a person of integrity and experience – a man named Faenius Rufus. He was popular with the Praetorian officers and had a good track record in efficiently managing Rome’s corn supply without profiteering from it. The council breathed a collective sigh of relief. However, they were soon to be disappointed by the next appointment. Also taking his place as joint commander of the Praetorian Guard, declared Nero, was the emperor’s good friend Ofonius Tigellinus.

Tigellinus’s track record was, to say the least, a little unorthodox. While it was true that he had been prefect of the watch (the head of the fire service in Rome), his reputation rested on totally different credentials. He and the emperor had met during Nero’s childhood on the estate in Calabria belonging to Nero’s aunt. They took to each other instantly, perhaps because they shared a common interest in racing and breeding horses. More than this, however, Nero was fascinated by Tigellinus’s character, by his capacity for evil. He was good-looking, some fifteen years older than Nero, and, although from a poor Sicilian background, had friends in high places. He had insinuated himself into the houses of two aristocrats, where he had earned a reputation for depravity. It was said that he seduced first the men, then their wives, and in this way he rose into the echelons of Roman high society. Now, in the imperial house-hold’s rounds of orgies, revelries and drinking parties, Tigellinus was Nero’s most debauched partner, his trusted playmate, his devilish, amoral master of ceremonies.

The appointment spelt trouble for another reason. With it, a key principle in Seneca’s vision of what made a good emperor was sacrificed. To help him successfully administer the Roman empire, the first emperor, Augustus, had at least given the impression that he relied on independent-minded people from the upper orders. The aristocratic Seneca had maintained that tradition under Nero. He was able to be honest towards the emperor because he had nothing to fear from speaking his mind. His wealth and position in Roman society were not dictated by his status in the eyes of the emperor. The appointment of Tigellinus, however, was the clearest indication that Nero was now surrounding himself with servile cronies. Tigellinus was from an ordinary family and owed his place entirely to the emperor. The fear grew in Seneca that far from standing up to Nero, Tigellinus would slavishly tell him whatever he wanted to hear. He would certainly not advise him on what was right. But Tigellinus was not Seneca’s only fear. His greatest worry was for his own life.

The ascendant Tigellinus set to work. He knew how to play to Nero’s insecurities. He tormented him by saying that Seneca’s wealth and property stood as an insult to the pre-eminence of the emperor of Rome because it rivalled the imperial estate. Nero was duly piqued by envy. Time was running out for Seneca, but he was paralysed – caught in a distinctly unpleasant dilemma: he could either continue advising the emperor but risk offending him, or else compromise and go along with Nero’s whims and fancies. Neither course of action made an appetizing prospect. Eventually, he struck on a solution: he would graciously ask the emperor leave to retire. Seneca found Nero in the imperial palace. In his polished, charming way, he began by citing the example of the divine Augustus. The first emperor, he said, had allowed even his closest advisers leave to retire. Perhaps the emperor might consider granting him the same reward?

Nero politely refused. ‘My reign is only just beginning,’ he said. ‘If youth’s slippery paths lead me astray, be at hand to call me back. You equipped my adulthood; devote even greater care to guiding it!’17 Seneca thanked the emperor and left. His charm offensive had failed. Nonetheless, he found ways to stay out of the line of fire. Under the pretence of ill health and philosophic study, Seneca spent more and more time on his estates in the countryside. He might well have lost his privileged position of adviser, but he was still in possession of his life – for the time being. Now Seneca’s distance from the palace gave Nero time to turn his mind to a third new appointment. This one would be a little trickier than replacing the head of the Praetorian Guard. Now he wanted to promote Poppaea from mistress to imperial wife.

Poppaea was six years older than Nero, a beauty from a wealthy, if not entirely aristocratic, background. While her mother was noble, her father was a knight who had suffered disgrace during the rule of Tiberius. Reflecting her ambitious nature, Poppaea ditched her father’s name in favour of her maternal grandfather’s, and set about taking Roman high society by storm. She married two aristocrats in succession and had a child from the first marriage. Her love of extravagance and luxury made her the talk of the town. Her lavishly appointed family house near Pompeii, the Villa Oplontis, has been discovered and testifies to that reputation; she had the hoofs of the mules that pulled her litter shod in gold, and she bathed daily in the milk of 500 asses to preserve the beauty of her skin, so the rumours went.18 Nero was madly in love with her. Now, without the voice of his dear friend Seneca to advise him, without the conscience of loyal Burrus at his side, Nero took his next gamble alone.

The emperor knew full well that if he divorced Octavia he ran the risk of exposing himself to rivals. Other members of the Julio-Claudian clan among the aristocracy were, like Nero, descended from Augustus, and could therefore legitimately claim descent from the royal and divine bloodlines. As a result, Nero took no chances. There were two potential claimants whom Tigellinus, seeking to cement his position, warned him about. Rubellius Plautus was the great-great-grandson of Augustus via the emperor Tiberius; Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix was the great-grandson of Augustus’s sister. If Nero was without the connection by marriage to Claudius, argued Tigellinus feeding his friend’s paranoia, it meant that either man could challenge him.

Nero was won over. Assassins were immediately dispatched to Asia and Gaul. When they returned to Rome, they carried with them the heads of their victims, Plautus and Sulla. Their crime, according to the emperor, was by now a familiar one: treason. But how on earth would the Senate react to the terrible news that two of the best, most virtuous men from their number were suddenly dead? Not with great integrity, was the short answer. With Seneca gone, the senators knew that any meaningful partnership between Senate and emperor was now as good as dead. So, driven by fear of offending the emperor, they toed the line. In honour of what was put about as Nero’s narrow escape from death, they decreed that thanks be offered to the gods. With his two most prominent rivals dead, Nero now focused on his divorce. All he needed was a pretext.

The imperial rumour machine went into overdrive. Its target? Octavia. A charge was concocted of adultery with a flute-player from Alexandria. To lend the accusation credence, Tigellinus tortured Octavia’s maids to produce testimony. One of them defied her torturer: ‘The mouth of Tigellinus,’ she shouted, ‘was filthier than every part of Octavia.’19 Soon Nero’s wife was banished to Campania under military surveillance. In Rome there was uproar. Nero had underestimated the affection in which the daughter of the deified Claudius was held. Protests quickly turned into riots. Nero panicked. More than the respect of the Senate, he craved the love of the people. He did not want to lose it, so he made a shocking announcement, cancelling his divorce from Octavia. The people’s response was equally wild. They gave thanks on the Capitol, smashed the statues of Poppaea, and, in their exuberance, even invaded the imperial palace. But their joy was to be short-lived. Nero changed his mind again: Poppaea would be his wife after all. One might imagine that Poppaea was relieved and delighted. Far from it. Even though Octavia had been divorced and exiled, she still presented a problem.

Now it was the turn of Poppaea to press Nero’s buttons, to feed his old fear. Octavia, she reminded him, was blue-blooded, popular and the daughter of an emperor. Even in exile, nagged Poppaea, she could become a figurehead for a rebellion and challenge Nero. The emperor agreed. He needed someone to fix the problem. There was one man he could rely on. He summoned Anicetus, the murderer of his mother, to the palace. The offer of a safe, comfortable retirement was on the table, said Nero, but on one condition: Anicetus must confess to adultery with Octavia. With the blood of Agrippina still on his hands, Anicetus had no choice but to agree. All the pieces of the murder plan were at last in place.

Nero called a meeting of senators and advisers at which he made an announcement: Octavia, he declared, had planned a coup, and to effect it had tried to seduce the fleet commander. As the words fell from Nero’s lips, a virtuous girl of twenty, exiled on an island thousands of kilometres from Rome, was restrained by Roman soldiers and her veins were cut open. She who had witnessed her father and brother murdered before her eyes, now faced her own death. But it was too slow in coming. When the Praetorian Guards ran out of patience, they suffocated her in a steam room. Her head was cut off and taken to Rome just so that Poppaea could see it.

Nero was drawing ever closer to a precipice. He was on the verge of exposing what lay beneath the carefully constructed veneer of the emperor’s supreme position. The appearance, devised by Augustus, that the emperor was subordinate to the institutions of the state was now wearing decidedly thin. Nero was, in reality, above the law; he was answerable to no one, and had always known that. What was changing was that he seemed to care less and less about hiding it. This was a highly precarious position – one liable to raise an army of enemies like ghosts from Hades. Nonetheless, fortune was smiling on Nero. Chance would soon throw the young ruler one final opportunity to prove he could yet be a good emperor – that he could live up to the name of Augustus.


With his two new key advisers, Tigellinus and Poppaea, secured in their positions of influence, the good times rolled. In the lake of Marcus Agrippa the height of Roman engineering was put to the uses of pleasure in the most spectacular way. First, the lake was drained so that Nero might put on an entertaining public exhibition of wild beast hunting. Then it was filled once more with water and a stunning sea battle was enacted. Drained again, it became an arena for gladiators to do combat, but even this was not the last piece of theatre to be stage-managed there.20 Nero now appointed Tigellinus to direct the most notorious banquet of the age.

The lake was once more filled with water and a vast platform floating on great wooden casks was created in its centre. Round about it taverns and secret places for trysts and assignations were constructed. In the middle Nero, Poppaea and Tigellinus played host to senators, knights and the general public in the most exquisite fashion. Birds and animals in myriad colours and from all corners of the empire populated the temporary island. For further amusement, role-playing was, appropriately, the tenor of the entertainment: high-born women behaved like prostitutes, and no man, be he an aristocrat or a lowly ex-convict gladiator, was to be refused his pleasure. At the party were all Nero’s aristocratic friends and senators, who were used to enjoying and indulging themselves on such occasions. However, Nero and his court were about to be given a sharp wake-up call from their decadent pleasures.

The fire began in a small shop on 19 July AD 64 in the area of the Circus Maximus. It would quickly swell to become the greatest conflagration that ancient Rome would ever know. As it gathered momentum, it rampaged through the narrow streets, tenement blocks, porticoes and alleyways in the heart of Rome between the Palatine and Capitoline hills. The fire continued for six days and then, just when it was believed to have died out, it reignited and continued for three more days. By the time it had finished, only four of Rome’s fourteen districts would still be intact; three were completely destroyed, and the others largely devastated but for the charred shells of a few buildings. Many people died and thousands of homes were destroyed, from the tenements of low-born plebs to the grand town houses of landed senators. Rome also lost some of her ancient history: the temples and ancient cult sites associated with the city’s forefathers – Romulus, Numa and Evander.

Nero was in Antium, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Rome, where he could now see the fire due to the raging intensity of the flames. He may have paused to play the lyre while the city burnt, but he also responded effectively and with urgency. He ordered immediate relief to be provided for those fleeing the fire. To the homeless he opened up the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings as well as the private gardens of his own palace. The Praetorian Guard, under the leadership of Rufus, was ordered to construct temporary accommodation to house those who had lost everything in the fire. Tigellinus too, who had been the head of Rome’s fire brigade, swung into action on Nero’s orders, responding effectively to the crisis. However, it was only once the Senate had had the opportunity of assessing the extent of the damage to Rome that Nero’s best leadership was revealed.

After surveying the ruins, taking advice from senators and advisers, and agreeing to pay personally for the clearance of debris, Nero stated his desire to make sure that such a tragedy never happened in Rome again. He proposed building regulations that included restricting the height of houses and tenements, and specifying permissible types of timber construction. By law streets were to be a certain width and carefully laid out according to plan. New buildings would have to feature an internal courtyard to ensure that there were breathing spaces between them. They would be in sharp contrast to the rickety tenements that had so recently and tragically collapsed. Porticoes and colonnades along streets and at the front of houses were to be added. The emperor ensured that he paid for these personally. In the event of another fire, Romans must at all costs be protected from falling debris. But such steps were just the beginning. As he formulated all these measures, Nero realized that this terrible tragedy actually presented Rome with an opportunity. To the assembled senators the emperor proposed not simply to rebuild Rome, but to make it more impressive than it was before – even greater than the city built by the first emperor, Augustus. This was going to be a city fit for the new age of Nero.

The emperor’s visionary leadership in the face of Rome’s greatest challenge was met with jubilant, rapturous applause. Nero made good his promises too: there were generous incentives for private investors to complete their building projects, and, as coins ofAD64 describe, Nero ensured the swift restoration of the Temple of Vesta, the Market for Provisions and the popular Circus Maximus. But the applauding senators would soon discover that Nero’s new public plans for Rome included a more personal, private building project: a new palace for the emperor. This was an architectural project that would come to symbolize both the inspiration and tyranny of Nero’s reign.

Nero had already built an elegant mansion for himself on the Palatine Hill, where Augustus had his residence, and which was thereafter associated with imperial homes. Nero’s mansion now became merely an entrance, an elaborate vestibule leading to the vast complex of his proposed new residence. The Golden House consisted of several lavish villas and buildings centred on a lake. The magnificent landscaped gardens featured not just lawns but ‘ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands, and a multitude of all sorts of domestic and wild animals’. This was a kind of fashionable high artifice formed from nature, a style of ‘faked rusticity’ affording exquisite views.21 There were numerous fanciful and playful flights of folly too: grottoes, colonnades, pavilions and arcades. The complex filled the valley between the Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian hills, and is estimated to have covered somewhere between 50 and 120 hectares (125 and 300 acres).

The centrepiece was Nero’s main palace – two grand wings of intricately designed rooms built over two storeys and flanking a central courtyard. Some of it survives today. The architects Severus and Celer introduced daring new styles and techniques, demonstrated by an octagonal hall in the east wing that was topped by a dome incorporating the latest developments in cloister vaulting. Even the lighting was revolutionary: a series of apertures in the circular crown between the eight walls of the hall and the dome above. At ground level too the eight walls lent further sophistication: the front three gave on to the park, four gave on to vaulted rooms, and the last, at the back, featured a flight of steps down which water streamed. The sections of the palace that are visible today reveal that Nero also employed the greatest painters of the day. They provided exquisite paintings, chic frescoes and decorated panels in the many bedrooms and reception rooms that led off the hall.

The palace was also a showcase of technical innovations and novelty gadgets. The baths boasted both flowing salt water from the sea and sulphurous water from natural springs. In the dining rooms movable ivory panels released flower petals on to the guests seated below, while disguised pipes sprayed them with perfume. The pièce de résistance was a constantly revolving ceiling in one banqueting hall, the design of which reflected the day and night sky.22 The Golden House was the very height of fashion and good taste, utterly exquisite in every detail. Anyone entering it would have been seduced by its mesmerizing elegance and artistic ambition. But outside lay a reality check: to most Roman citizens, Nero was simply turning the very heart of the city into a private residence devoted to his pleasure.

The Golden House robbed the plebs of places to live; graffiti and satirical verses claimed that the palace was swallowing up Rome itself. Conservatives denounced the break with Rome’s ancient history; Nero’s pleasure palace had even devoured the site dedicated to the temple to his adoptive father, the divine Claudius.23 This, said Nero’s critics, showed that filial piety, a traditional Roman virtue, had been destroyed. Accordingly, people spread malicious rumours suggesting that the fire had been started deliberately to clear Rome for Nero’s megalomaniac vision. This accusation was fuelled by a further rumour that the second fire had begun on the estate of Tigellinus. Indeed, such was the persistent power of the rumours that Nero resorted to drastic measures. He made scapegoats of the sect of Christians in Rome. They were arrested and, as a form of public entertainment, Nero hosted the spectacle of their deaths in his own gardens and in the restored Circus Maximus. The Christians were dressed in wild animal skins and ravaged to death by dogs, or else crucified, their bodies torched to light up the night sky.24

A fitting symbol of Nero’s excesses was provided by the sculpture that was erected in the vestibule of his new palace: a bronze statue 36 metres (120 feet) high portraying the emperor, a crown of sunrays around his head. With such extravagances as this, it soon became clear to Nero, his advisers and the Senate that the rebuilding of Rome and, above all, the dream palace was going to cost a vast amount of money. What the senators did not reckon on, however, was that Nero would sanction outrageous means to obtain it:

Italy was ransacked for funds, and the provinces were ruined – unprivileged and privileged communities alike. Even the gods were included in the looting. Temples at Rome were robbed and emptied of the gold dedicated for the triumphs and vows, the ambitions and fears of generations of Romans.25

To pay for his new Rome Nero was not only riding roughshod over every ancient tradition. To inaugurate his new age he seemed prepared to bankrupt the empire. On his orders, a financial and political crisis was beginning to envelope the management of Rome and her provinces. Why was Nero doing it? The significance of the Golden House runs deeper than the financial crisis that the spiralling costs brought in their wake. At the same time it provides an insight into why opposition to Nero now accelerated.

The Golden House was an artistic endeavour to prove Nero’s primacy, his superiority over others, his right to be the most powerful person in the Roman state. He felt the need to do so because of the insecurity that Augustus’s hereditary monarchy promoted and that Agrippina had fostered. Now Nero believed he had found the way to settle this issue once and for all. When the palace was partly habitable, Nero was reported to have said, ‘Good! Now at last I can live like a human being’.26 Only the grandest palace the world had ever seen could mean normal living for Nero. Underlying this attitude was the reality and expression of Nero’s superiority to all others in the Roman state. Yes, parts of the palace grounds were open to the plebs, and yes, Nero certainly gave the impression of opening up his home to ordinary citizens. But even these concessions painted a picture not of a people’s palace, but of a monarch generously bequeathing gifts from his position of supremacy.27 The change in style of government from Augustus to Nero could not have been more clearly expressed. The first emperor had stressed the modesty of his villa. His house on the Palatine said, ‘I am just like any other senator.’ Nero’s said, ‘I am like no other; I am better.’ Why did he need to stress this?

When Augustus ended the civil war and established a new state around his position of emperor, the lion’s share of power was self-evidently in his hands: he had the loyalty of the army, and he had amassed an incredible personal fortune by conquering the wealth of Egypt. That power set him above all others in Rome as the first citizen, and gave him the licence to dominate the state. So long as Augustus behaved tactfully and disguised his supreme power within a form of constitutional government, others in the élite tolerated this situation. By contrast, Nero’s claim to the same position was not self-evident. He enjoyed no great respect among the armies, having had neither opportunity nor interest in winning it through military conquest. He had no outstanding sources of wealth. Heredity alone was responsible for his position. He was there by birth – just.

By AD 64 the murders of his mother Agrippina, the great-granddaughter of Augustus, and of his wife Octavia, the emperor Claudius’s daughter, had further weakened Nero’s claim to the throne. He feared that other descendants of the Julio-Claudians could make as good a case as he, and that they were now waiting in the wings, potential rivals for power. The final straw was Seneca. Increasingly estranged, Nero’s old tutor was no longer at hand to advise him on how to conceal his power, handle the Senate and govern affably with tact, openness and clemency. For all these reasons, in order to assuage the insecurity he felt over his right to be emperor, Nero turned to one solace above all: pursuing a style of rule that asserted explicitly, and offensively, his primacy over his rivals.

Through the unrivalled glories of the Golden House, through its artistic virtues and ambitions, Nero stressed not just his excellence, but his superiority and eminence over everyone else. It was utterly unpalatable to senators and knights with ambition. By the following year a small core of them were plotting in earnest to get rid of him.


What turned the grumblings and mutterings of a few disaffected aristocrats looking to improve their lot into a serious attempt on the life of the emperor was the participation of the joint head of the Praetorian Guard, Faenius Rufus. In AD 65 the able and efficient Rufus had suffered three years of insults and slanders from Tigellinus while watching him grow more powerful as the whispering voice in the infinitely suggestible emperor’s ear. Rufus brought with him other key members of Nero’s guard: colonels, company commanders and officers. Their support was critical.

The plotters were led by the senator Flavius Scaevinus, and their plan was simple: to replace Nero with one of their own, Gaius Calpurnius Piso. To their minds Piso was the ideal candidate. He came from an illustrious, aristocratic family of the republic; in more recent times it could trace associations with the Julio-Claudian dynasty as far back as Julius Caesar and Augustus. He was also popular with the plebs as a senator and lawyer who had often acted in their defence. Affable, suave and a sparkling guest at high-society parties, he was a politician who counted even Nero among his friends. But now he was preparing to betray that friendship, forced to this extreme plan, he said, by the need to rescue the freedom of the state from a tyrannical, avaricious emperor who was running Rome into the ground. Others, meanwhile, said he was motivated by pure self-interest.

The plotters hesitated until their plan was in danger of being exposed. A freedwoman named Epicharis had tried to win over Proculus, a captain of the fleet, mistaking his disaffection with Nero’s regime for a willingness to join the plot. In response, Proculus, though he had none of the conspirators’ names warned Nero, and Epicharis was kept in custody. The pressure to act was now on. The plotters gathered discreetly to decide how to kill Nero. One person suggested inviting the emperor to Piso’s luxury villa in Baiae, but Piso refused to defile the sacred guest–host relationship: it would, he said, look bad. Secretly, however, he feared that if Nero’s life were to be taken outside Rome, another rival aristocrat, Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, a descendant of Augustus, could take control of events and rob him of the fruits of the plot. Finally, the conspirators settled on taking action during games at the Circus Maximus, a place that Nero could be counted on visiting.

Before they dispersed, they acted out how they would attack the emperor. The strongest of the senators would approach Nero with a petition for financial assistance. He would then seize Nero and pin him to the ground while the disenchanted Praetorians would stab him to death. In this bloody act they would be led by the senator Scaevinus, who had taken to carrying a dagger in his toga as a totem of his intent. He had taken the weapon from a temple dedicated to the deified virtue ‘Safety’. The murder in the name of the state’s welfare, thought the assassins, would thus be lent extra credence. In reality the enactment was closer to a piece of macabre theatre – an unimaginative rerun of the assassination of that other tyrant, Julius Caesar.

The night before the crime was to take place, Scaevinus was in melancholy mood. He signed his will and settled his affairs, even freeing his slaves and giving them gifts. One slave, Milichus, was charged by his master with two final tasks: to sharpen the dagger and to prepare bandages for wounds. Milichus’s suspicions were immediately aroused, but then some guests arrived for dinner and the senator gave the impression of being as entertaining as usual. His cheerful conversation, however, could not disguise his distraction.

Milichus too was distracted that night. Encouraged by his wife to reveal any danger to the emperor in the hope of receiving a reward, and tormented by the possibility that he would miss the opportunity to be the first to reveal the danger, Milichus sneaked out of the house the next day to report his suspicions to Nero. At first he was ignored by the gatekeepers, but eventually his perseverance prevailed. Accompanied by one of Nero’s freedmen, Epaphroditus, he finally won an audience with the emperor.

Immediately Scaevinus was arrested and brought to the palace. Here he faced Tigellinus. The senator, a picture of calmness and ease, denied all the allegations; the dagger, he said, was a family heirloom that this ungrateful, dishonest ex-slave had stolen. And the will? Well, came the reply, I have often added new clauses and freed slaves to stave off my creditors. These responses undermined Milichus’s evidence and gave the advantage to Scaevinus. The official investigation of treason had been transformed into a scene of social awkwardness and embarrassment. But just as the whole sorry business was winding down and Scaevinus was preparing to leave, Milichus spoke up one last time. He had one last suspicion to voice. He had seen Scaevinus, he said, talk at length with the knight Antonius Natalis.

Scenting blood, Tigellinus agreed to see if Scaevinus’s and Natalis’s stories matched up. The knight was promptly arrested and brought to the palace. The two men were interrogated separately and their stories immediately differed. To get at the truth Tigellinus now exchanged the nicety of questioning for the sharper tool of torture. And sure enough, in a short space of time, he learnt a great deal. With only the slightest threat of pain, Natalis broke down first – in Nero’s presence. He denounced Piso, but then, in his panic, he also blurted out the name of another: Seneca. Tigellinus quickly went to the other interrogation room and confronted Scaevinus with Natalis’s confession. Defeated, the senator duly named the others involved. The discovery of such a widespread plot cut straight to the source of Nero’s insecurity: after all his magnanimous generosity, and after all he had given the senators, was this how they showed their gratitude to him?

The notion that Nero’s regime was becoming anything other than tyrannical was abandoned in the terror that now followed. The walls of Rome and its neighbouring towns were overrun with the military and blockaded; everywhere there were signs of a state of emergency. Each and every one on the confession list faced Nero’s wrath. Tigellinus’s soldiers rounded up as many as possible and chained them outside the gates of Nero’s palace. Although most at first refused to confess, every one eventually gave way either to torture or the bribe of immunity. In the process, they incriminated their associates and even members of their own families. Trials, such as they were, were informal; people were incriminated on the flimsiest of evidence. In Nero’s campaign of terror an association with a known conspirator, ‘or a chance conversation or meeting, or entrance to a party or a show together’ was tantamount to guilt.28

No one, however, had yet denounced the joint head of the Praetorian Guard, Faenius Rufus. To conceal his involvement in the plot from Tigellinus and Nero, he bullied, tortured and interrogated more viciously than the others. During one violent ‘trial’, a Praetorian officer who had also not been detected, surreptitiously flashed Rufus a glance; he was looking for a sign that he should go ahead and assassinate Nero. But as the officer prepared to draw his sword, Rufus lost his nerve and stopped him. With that last opportunity abandoned, the dying embers of the conspiracy were put out.

Meanwhile, Nero’s bloody purge of the aristocracy grew in ferocity. During the early stages of the exposure of the plot, Piso had been encouraged to go to the Praetorian camp, to go to the Forum, to go everywhere he could and rally the soldiers and the people against the emperor. But he had decided against it. Instead, he committed suicide by opening his veins before Tigellinus’s soldiers could get to him. The spectacular collapse of the conspiracy was symbolized by Piso’s will: in order to protect his wife from the emperor’s vengeance, it flattered Nero. Seneca, however, was not so quick to give in.

Nero’s tutor had wanted no part in the conspiracy; Natalis had only informed against him because he wanted to please Nero. Although retired, Seneca was a thorn in the emperor’s conscience, and Natalis knew that Nero had secretly long wished to be rid of him. Natalis’s cowardly attempt to avoid death by ingratiating himself with the emperor worked, and Nero seized his opportunity to silence Seneca for ever. When the guards arrived and surrounded his house, the old senator was at dinner. With nothing to hide, Seneca stated his innocence with dignity. The commanding officer, Gavius Silvanus, reported this back to Nero. Seneca’s former pupil, however, chose to ignore the small matter of his tutor’s innocence, and sent the officer back to the countryside with a death sentence.

Silvanus, however, was bearing a terrible secret: he himself had been one of the conspirators. Now he found himself perpetuating the crimes that he had joined the conspiracy to avenge. He could not bear to give the order directly, so he sent in one of his subordinates. Like Piso and many others, Seneca too chose to commit suicide by opening his veins. He began by severing those in his sinewy arms. When this failed to work fast enough, he cut the veins in his ankles and behind his knees. Seneca’s wife Paulina insisted on dying with her husband, and she had done the same. But, Seneca, fearing that the sight of each other would only weaken their resolve and intensify the agony, asked her to move to another room. Nero had anticipated this marital pact and in a final act of vindictiveness – or was it clemency? – had ordered his soldiers to prevent the death of Seneca’s wife. Paulina was resuscitated, her wounds bandaged, and she survived, a living ghost in mourning.

Inevitably, Rufus was betrayed by his co-conspirators; there were simply too many who wanted to see him exposed for his role in their downfall, not least the imprisoned senator Scaevinus. When, during an interrogation, Rufus pressed the senator for more information, he pushed Scaevinus too far. The leader of the plot retorted coldly, ‘Ask yourself. No one is better informed than you.’29 Rufus’s stunned silence betrayed his guilt and he was seized. Tigellinus perhaps took most pleasure in seeing his colleague’s career come to an abrupt end.

Aided by Nymphidius Sabinus and the fawning senator Petronius Turpilianus, both loyal allies of the emperor, Tigellinus mopped up the remaining conspirators among the Praetorian Guards and the Senate. To ensure the future loyalty of the Praetorians, Nero gave each soldier a reward of 2000 sesterces and a free supply of corn. Honorary triumphs were awarded to Turpilianus and Tigellinus, while Sabinus received a consulship and promotion to succeed Rufus as joint head of the Praetorian Guard. Finally, there was the usual round of congratulations, celebrations and thank offerings to the gods led by Nero. Cowed, the Senate slavishly joined in the ceremony.

With the state secure and the emperor pre-eminent once more, Nero showed a modicum of balance and restraint by pardoning Natalis for his confession and sparing others. However, his progress towards overt tyranny now took a step forward when he declared that he wanted to fulfil the greatest ambition of his entire life. To act. In public. In Rome.


In the colonnades of the streets of Rome, in the houses and baths of leading statesmen, the whispering ran rife. The senators were now desperately trying to avert a new crisis. The lowly profession of acting, utterly scorned by the conservative élite of Roman society, was about to be embraced in all earnestness by the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world. The venue? The theatre of Pompey the Great. The occasion? The second Neronia. In the republic and during the early days of the empire, leading magistrates had hosted games as a way of asserting their family prestige and winning influence in the state. Now Nero was asserting his primacy by paying for the Neronia, the greatest games of the age, himself. All Roman citizens from Italy and the provinces were invited, and the humiliation and discrediting of the emperor, went the rumour, would be total.

The senators quickly came up with a plan: at a meeting of the emperor’s private council at the palace they gently suggested awarding him in advance the prize for first place in the category of song – and also in the category of political oratory to detract from the show-business nature of Nero’s chosen field of expertise. The emperor rejected their hypocrisy outright: he was to perform in public, he said, and he was to be received on equal terms with the other artists competing in the competition. There were to be no special favours.

While the emperor rehearsed assiduously, the games’ presiding officer chose a theme: the golden age. This was attributed to the fact that the Neronia was due to coincide with Nero’s search for treasure to which he had been alerted by an opportunistic Carthaginian called Caesellius Bassus. So successful was Bassus in convincing Nero of the existence of the treasure that the emperor continued to spend money on the games, as well as the palace and the rebuilding of his new Rome, in the expectation that it would materialize. It never did. Meanwhile, as the theme suggested, the games were going to be glorious and lavish. There would be elaborate sacrifices and extravagant, gaudy processions featuring images of the gods and the emperor. The Greek-style contests between athletes and guilds of performing arts would range from chariot racing and gymnastics to poetry, heraldry, lyre playing and acting in comic and tragic set pieces. There was even a titillating, transgressive element – the athletic games – which featured nude men, and from which Augustus had once banned women. Now they were to be honoured by the presence of not just Roman noble-women and plebs, but the vestal virgins too. These sacral aristocratic maidens devoted thirty years of their lives to the service of the goddess of the hearth. Their inclusion also had a Hellenic origin: the Greeks included priestesses at similar events, so Nero wanted them too. All his wishes were granted, but disgrace was waiting in the wings.

When Nero took to the stage for his chosen contest, the recital of tragic material, he was accompanied by members of the Praetorian Guard; the military backbone of Rome, the élite police force of the emperor was reduced to carrying Nero’s musical instrument. The emperor himself looked unsteady and grotesque in the authentic garb of an actor: he wore the appropriate mask – a haunting face with an elongated forehead, high platform shoes, an ornately embroidered and colourful tunic and, underneath it, padding for his chest and torso designed to emphasize his presence on the stage. Following his recital, he performed a section of his own composition about the fall of Troy. The Roman plebs were rapturous in their applause. Dazzled and delighted that the emperor of Rome was performing for their pleasure, they called him back for more.

In the wings an aristocratic friend called Aulus Vitellius encouraged the emperor to follow their wishes. His entreaty gave Nero the excuse to yield to their demands and return to the stage, this time to play the lyre and sing. Genuinely fearful of the judges’ verdict, and convinced that he was competing with the other performers on a level playing field, Nero took his performance seriously and followed the rules to the letter: he maintained the dignified poses required, he avoided using a cloth to wipe the sweat away, and showed no visible clearing of the throat and nose. At the close of his song, on bended knee and deferring to the crowd, Nero awaited the verdict. The judges put on their own very best performances as they made their assessments before awarding the first prize. The winner was Nero.

Again the urban masses of Rome stamped, applauded and cheered. It is recorded, however, that in disgust many knights voted with their feet and walked out. In their urgency to leave, some were crushed. Indeed, beneath the jubilation were sinister signs of tyranny. The more conservative citizens from Italy and the provinces were also horrified by what they saw. Nonetheless, they clapped with the rest. They had no choice: they were chivvied along by Nero’s professional cheerleaders, planted in the audience by the emperor. These young and ambitious men were called the Augustiani, and they were a special, 5000-strong division of knights appointed by Nero and formed from aspiring artists. As the emperor’s official fan club, they cuffed, cajoled and harassed the bored and the horrified among the audience. They also acted like secret police, for they spied on the crowd and noted down the names of those who did not attend or those who did not look as though they were enjoying themselves.30

Lack of support for the emperor’s performance was tantamount to treason. But that was just one aspect of the games that the senatorial élite found hard to stomach. For not only was Nero strong-arming them into applauding him; through the Neronia, the emperor was also wooing the people in a way that completely cut out the Senate from the political process. The magnificent games made a mockery of any equality between the first citizen and the Senate. This was a naked example of Nero setting himself above the institutions of the state: he was seeking to win the people over by appealing to their emotions, inspiring awe and exaltation of himself as an individual. No one else, muttered the senators in envy, could possibly put on games that would match these. None of them could ever win favour with the people in the way that Nero did.

Over the next year yet more extravagant and offensive spectacles were staged, and on each occasion the same image of Nero was presented – that of a tyrant retreating into a world of fantasy, unable to distinguish what was real from what was illusion. The state funeral of Poppaea was one such moment. Soon after the games, Nero had kicked his wife and their unborn child to death because he was in a rage when he returned from an evening out at the chariot races. Poppaea had said that she wanted to die before she passed her prime, so she had her way.31 The public funeral, full of procession and ceremony to reflect Nero’s grief, again flouted all tradition and sense of Roman decorum: Poppaea was not cremated in the Roman style, but embalmed and stuffed with spices in the manner of eastern potentates. Nero took the platform, eulogized his love’s virtues and announced the deification of a woman whom many aristocrats considered to be of questionable birth and ancestry. Nero saved the final affront for last. He ordered her body to be laid to rest in the mausoleum of the divine Augustus.

Unsurprisingly, one senator found this a desecration too offensive to endure. Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus was a principled rebel senator who had dared to challenge Nero’s decisions in government. He had walked out during the vote on the fictitious charges brought against Nero’s mother and now once again he broke cover. He made his disgust public knowledge by not attending Poppaea’s funeral. From that day on Nero would look for any excuse, no matter how corrupt, to remove this dignified aristocrat permanently. His chance was not long in coming.

At the start of the year AD 66 Tigellinus’s son-in-law, Cossutianus Capito, brought a charge against Thrasea. The senator was accused of not honouring the emperor’s welfare: he had not attended the ceremony of swearing the oath that augured the new year. Secretly, Capito was motivated by an old grudge he bore Thrasea; the senator had helped a deputation from the Roman province of Cilicia to successfully bring charges against him for extortion while he was governor. The trial against Thrasea began in May. It was clear from the hundreds of soldiers anxiously guarding the approaches to the Senate House, law courts and nearby temples that there was much more at stake than Thrasea’s innocence. In reality, battle lines were being drawn up between two warring factions: on one side the emperor, his cronies and various servile senators; on the other side the backbone of the Senate trying to assert its authority once again. The covert war was breaching the veneer of harmonious imperial government between emperor and Senate. As usual, however, there was only one winner. After a series of vicious denunciations, Thrasea was found guilty and chose his own death: suicide. The fight against corruption and tyranny, and the battle for senatorial dignity, prestige and responsibility in government were being lost quite publicly.

The plebs of Rome, however, did not seem to care. Their attention was distracted from Thrasea’s ugly trial by another expensive state occasion that had been timed by Nero for that very purpose: the crowning of King Tiridates of Armenia. The occasion was a piece of political pageantry staged to represent the victorious pacification of the Roman empire’s eastern border with her hostile neighbouring empire Parthia. Tiridates was to be installed as Rome’s client-king in the buffer kingdom of Armenia, which lay between the two. The general who achieved this successful pacification was the brilliant, honourable Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. For the ceremony, however, he remained in the east.

No expense was spared for the king’s reception. It cost Rome 800,000 sesterces a day for Tiridates and his train of family, servants and 3000 cavalry to make the nine-month journey to the capital. When the royal entourage arrived it was welcomed by a megalopolis decked out in garlands, colourful banners and fancy lights; the Praetorian soldiers guarded the roads in their finest armour, and the citizens wore their best clothes as they flooded in their thousands to the Forum, or thronged streets and even rooftops to catch a glimpse of the grand occasion.32

The crowning was to take place in the Great Theatre of Pompey, the interior of which had been gilded with gold leaf for the occasion. On the stage where Tiridates would kneel before Nero, a massive cloth awning had been set up to shade the proceedings from the sun; on it was the embroidered figure of Nero driving a chariot and surrounded by heavenly constellations. When Tiridates compared the emperor to the eastern god Mithras, the disenchanted senators looking on were apalled. The contrast between the trial and suicides of dignified senators and the theatrical glorification and submission of a foreign potentate for which Nero could claim little responsibility was truly nauseating. Surely things could get no worse? Indeed, they could.

The cumulative costs of Nero’s Golden House, the second Neronia, Poppaea’s funeral and now the reception of Tiridates meant that the finances of the Roman empire were quickly spiralling out of control. To avoid financial ruin the coinage was devalued, but inAD 66 and 67 Nero turned to more extreme measures. He was already fearful of any aristocrat who could rival him for wealth. He believed that his homes, estates and possessions provided the very basis, the proof of his eminence in the state; men of conspicuous wealth were, as a result, rivals who could undermine him.33 Now, however, he began murdering them for their money. It was like a continuation of the purge that he had carried out the year before, but this time without even the excuse of an assassination plot to justify it.

Tigellinus was again instrumental in the purge, and the process of elimination was simple. An aristocrat whose wealth was desired was falsely accused of treason: some slave, crony, or servile senator or knight seeking to win favour, eliminate an enemy or settle an old score could always be found to turn informer and make the accusation. The charges were many and various. Cassius Longinus was accused of honouring his ancestor Cassius, the assassin of Julius Caesar, the founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty; the charge against Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus was that he had given his slaves and staff titles usually bestowed on members of the imperial household, as though he himself were aspiring to be emperor; others were accused of incest, black magic and consulting astrologers about the death of Nero. All the charges, according to Tacitus, were fatuous.

Often the accused would do the honourable thing and commit suicide after signing over much of his wealth to the emperor in order to protect some small part of it for his remaining family. If, however, there was any resistance in signing the will, as in the case of Anteius Rufus, Tigellinus would bring along a lawyer or a witness who would forcibly sanction it and ensure that the money went either to the emperor or directly to Tigellinus himself before the victim died. While many were murdered in this way, others escaped death by ‘purchasing their lives’ from Tigellinus.34

With this spree of tyrannical murders, many below the upper echelons of the élite – the families, allies, associates, friends and dependants of those connected to the persecuted senators and knights – now also turned against the emperor too. The ordinary people of Rome continued to love their populist emperor; they marvelled at his lavish shows and grand spectacles.35 Those of more substantial means took a very different view. They now saw their money stolen, their chances of inheritance destroyed, and their prospects for future advancement and achievement in Roman public life evaporate. If further evidence were needed, they only had to look at the temples of Rome and Italy. These were further plundered and the ancient sacred relics, statues and treasures won during the centuries of the glorious republic were melted down. It was as if the heart was being ripped out of the character of the Romans and their ancient virtues.

Nero took this growing disenchantment as a personal rejection. He was hurt by the ingratitude he was being shown after all he had done for the Roman people. Far from tackling the mounting crisis head-on, Nero’s response was to retreat further into fantasy. He said he wanted to escape from the world of Rome, which he increasingly disliked, to a place of like-minded souls who really appreciated him and who were worthy of his talents. So in September AD 66, with an entourage of servants, freedmen, compliant senators and knights, and some Praetorian guards led by Tigellinus, Nero left for Greece.

Before departure there was one final insult to level at the Roman élite, the clearest sign yet that they counted for nothing. It lay in his choice of the person left in charge of affairs in Rome. The man chosen to stay behind was not the consul for the year, not even a senator, but a vicious former slave from the imperial household: Helius. He was given complete authority to banish, confiscate from and even put to death citizens, knights and senators. The historian Cassius Dio was moved to quip:

Thus the Roman empire was at that time a slave to two emperors at once, Nero and Helius; and I am unable to say which of them was the worse. In most respects they behaved entirely alike, the one point of difference being that the descendant of Augustus was emulating lyre-players and tragedians, whereas the freedman of Claudius was emulating the Caesars.36

Away from the capital, Nero saw his tour of the great pan-Hellenic games of Greece as a chance to express the full flowering of his artistic career. And in that ambition the Greek city-states were happy to accommodate him. Although some of the four-yearly festivals, such as the Olympic Games, were not due for the year of Nero’s visit, the Greeks simply brought them forward to coincide with it. To Nero, however, his participation in the competitions represented much more than artistic freedom. It was an opportunity to silence his critics and vanquish his rivals in Rome. For a militaristic society that valued virtue and excellence above everything else, Nero would assert once and for all his primacy as emperor; his chosen field to prove his excellence was not the theatre of war, as it was for Augustus, but the theatre itself.

At the Pythian, Nemean, Delphic and Olympic Games, Nero won prize after prize in the contests for chariot racing, lyre playing and recitals of tragic material. Indeed, the organizers of the Olympic Games had to add musical contests to the competition because it traditionally included only athletic events. Through these victories Nero continued to show his ascendancy over the senators. And yet his insecurity never left him. He sent a message commanding Helius to murder Sulpicius Camerinus and his son for simply having the family name Pythicus, believing that it diminished the glory he gained from the Pythian Games. However, Nero saved the most outrageous murder for Greece. He invited the general Corbulo, the man to whom he owed all the successes of Roman foreign policy in the east, to join him in Greece. He addressed him as ‘father’ and ‘benefactor’ in his correspondence. When Corbulo came ashore unarmed in Corinth, however, he was not given a war hero’s welcome by the emperor. He was met by Nero’s henchmen, who forced him to commit suicide. The rumour went that Nero was preparing to go on stage, and while dressed in the long, unbelted tunic of an actor, he simply could not face greeting the man who had pacified Rome’s eastern frontier with Parthia, the man who represented all that was virtuous and excellent.37

In addition to his fear of rivals, other demons, anxieties and insecurities played on Nero’s mind during his grand tour. He refused to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries near Athens for fear of raising the wrath of his mother’s ghost. The ghost of Poppaea loomed large too, as the masks of the female characters he performed on stage were deliberately made to resemble her features. He also called Sporus, one of his freedmen, ‘Sabina’ (Poppaea’s other name) because of his resemblance to her. In fact, Nero even had him castrated and underwent a mock marriage ceremony with him, at which Tigellinus gave the ‘bride’ away. Henceforth, Nero affectionately called Sporus his ‘queen’ and his ‘lady’, as though Poppaea were alive and well and a part of the tour. ‘After that, Nero had two bedfellows at once: [the freedman] Pythagoras to play the role of husband to him and Sporus that of wife.’38

Thus the rounds of partying, pleasure-making and pursuing the arts continued. Nero was on the trip of a lifetime. He plundered many of Greece’s most famous works of art in a nakedly imperialistic fashion, and the subject Athenians emblazoned their emperor’s name in bronze above the entrance to their most treasured and sacred building, the Parthenon.39 In early AD 68, however, Nero was abruptly brought down to earth with a bump when a visitor arrived from Rome with some bad news.

Although Helius had for some weeks been sending Nero messages that a rebellion was being organized, it took his arrival in person to convince the emperor to return urgently to Rome and face the crisis. In Nero’s absence, Gaius Julius Vindex, the Roman governor of a province in Gaul, had sounded out opinions of Nero among other commanders in the provinces. Word had got back to Helius in Rome, and now here he was, face to face with Nero, telling him that Vindex’s rebellion was serious. Nero dismissed the idea. Vindex, a Romanized Gaul, had no real aristocratic pedigree to mount a serious challenge to the emperor; and anyway, he had no army at his disposal. Nonetheless, Nero agreed to return to Rome ahead of schedule. It was a return that the Roman people would not quickly forget.

Just as Nero had left Rome to conquer his rivals through art, so he now returned as though from war in a spectacular parody of the triumphal procession usually reserved for great generals. This was a triumph to match those awarded to Pompey for his conquest of the east, or to Caesar for his conquest of Gaul. In his lavish train, men carried the crowns that Nero had won, while banners of wood bore the name of the festival and the contest in which he had been victorious. As the herald announced that Nero had won 1808 crowns during his tour, his cries were reciprocated with shouts of ‘Hail Olympian victor! Hail Pythian victor!’ from the crowds who filled the streets. The finishing touch was Nero’s specially chosen vehicle – the triumphal chariot of Augustus, in which the first emperor had celebrated his many military victories.

In all the excitement a theatre producer offered Nero one million sesterces if he would perform in public, not in the state festivals organized by the emperor, but in the producer’s private theatre. Nero agreed to appear, but refused the money on grounds of principle – although Tigellinus promptly took the producer aside and demanded the money anyway ‘as the price of not putting him to death’.40 However, behind the warm welcome for the emperor, Rome, half rebuilt and with the scaffolding around its reconstruction lying abandoned, showed signs of financial suffering. Worse was to come. Although the plebs welcomed Nero as a popular saviour, he would soon prove otherwise, for his first decision upon reaching impoverished Rome was to leave it for some more fun in the most Greek of Italian cities, Naples. This was the breaking point.

Vindex now publicly declared his rebellion in Gaul. He minted local coins with the slogans ‘Liberty from Tyranny’ and ‘For the Salvation of the Whole Human Race’. It was clear his cause was not to promote Gallic nationalism and a secession from the Roman empire, but simply the removal of Nero. Of course, Nero had heard all this before. The critical development, however, and the key difference from previously was that Vindex had support on a massive scale: he was able to raise a local army of 100,000 Roman Gauls. Clearly, Vindex was tapping the deep well of hatred accumulated over the previous four years when Nero had raised taxes and plundered the wealth of the provincial élites. He had done so not as a thoughtful king making difficult decisions, but as a wilful, capricious tyrant more interested in his performing career. Now, in Gaul, he was paying the price. Yet when news of the rebellion was whispered to him, Nero blithely showed no concern; in fact, he said he was pleased because it would give him the opportunity provided by the laws of war to despoil Vindex’s province even further. Nero returned to watching the athletic competition at hand, stung less by the news of the rebellion than by an insult Vindex had levelled at him: that he was terrible lyre player.41 But a week later he would be genuinely rattled for the first time.

The news that caused Nero to collapse in a heap and lie paralysed as though dead was that five other provincial commanders had joined Vindex’s campaign. Foremost among them were his old friend Otho, governor of Lusitania (modern-day Portugal), and Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of the Spanish provinces and figurehead of the rebellion. The elderly and arthritic Galba was an aristocrat from an ancient patrician family that had long moved in the most elevated circles of Roman society. Although he was not a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he stood for core, old-fashioned values and a connection with Rome’s traditions and history in a time of turmoil, decadence and amorality that was characteristic of Nero’s regime. Galba’s army proclaimed him ‘legate of the Senate and people of Rome’ on 2 April AD 68. The rebellion had finally found its leader.

At long last Nero took action. He proposed a military expedition to tackle the rebellion head-on, made himself sole consul and, with the agreement of the Senate, which remained notionally loyal, declared Galba an enemy of the state. The emperor gave orders to organize a military line of defence along the river Po, deploying units from Illyricum, Germany and Britain, as well as a legion from Italy. Nero placed all these troops under Petronius Turpilianus, the senator who had helped uncover the Piso plot. Crucially, however, Nero did not take command of the forces himself.

Perhaps as a result of this, a rumour went around Rome describing the following fantasy. Nero was preparing to go to Gaul unarmed and show the rebelling armies his tears in the hope that this would persuade them to recant. Another rumour had it that he hoped singing a victory ode would do the trick. Finally, to quell the crisis, the emperor had settled on an equally fantastic solution – a full-scale drama production. He would ride out with an army of mythical Amazons (actually prostitutes and actresses dressed up and equipped with bows, arrows and axes), and the vehicles accompanying the expedition would carry not provisions and supplies, but stage machinery.42 Although the Senate and Praetorian Guard had so far remained nominally loyal, now they waited, primed for the moment to jump. That moment came in May, when the crisis reached its climax in a series of damaging blows.

First, the Roman governor of North Africa, Clodius Macer, joined the rebellion by shutting down the grain supply to Rome. The city was already suffering a shortage of food, and the corn supply was its lifeline. Macer was backed by his one standing Roman legion, an auxiliary force and an alternative provincial senate. They were motivated perhaps by Nero’s murder of six North African landowners, who between them owned half of the agricultural land.43 The prefect of Egypt, the other granary of the Roman empire, also wavered in his allegiance. Then news came that the army once loyal to Nero in Gaul, which had even fought Vindex’s recruits on his behalf, had now switched its allegiance to Galba. The final blow was the discovery that Turpilianus, the commander of the armies defending Italy from Galba, had now sided with him. When Nero heard this, while he was having his lunch, ‘he tore up the letters brought to him, overturned the table, and hurled to the ground two of his favourite goblets, which he called his “Homerics” as they were decorated with scenes from Homer’s poems’.44

Tigellinus, now ill, had long realized that Nero was doomed. While in Greece he had lost control of the Praetorian Guard to his colleague Nymphidius Sabinus, and now, in secret, he secured a neat exit (as well as his safety) by ingratiating himself with Galba’s envoy in the city.45 The Senate waited for the Praetorian Guards to declare their position. Sabinus bribed them with money given in the name of Galba, and with that they abandoned their loyalty to the emperor. As with Nero’s coronation, so it was with his downfall: the Senate soon followed suit, this time declaring Nero an enemy of the state.

After considering various options for escape, Nero put off his decision until the following day. In the early hours of 9 June, however, he woke up in his palace alone. He quickly realized that the Praetorians had indeed defected. Further investigation of the rooms and corridors showed that his friends and even the caretakers had gone. There remained only four loyal freedmen for company, among them Sporus, Epaphroditus and Phaon. When Nero said that he wanted to hide somewhere, Phaon suggested his own villa 6 kilometres (4 miles) outside the city. The emperor, shoeless and dressed in a plain tunic covered by a dark cloak to avoid being detected by the search parties now looking for him, mounted his horse and set out with the others.

At some point, Nero’s horse suddenly reared. It was shying away from the stench of a dead body abandoned on the road. ‘Nero’s face was exposed and he was recognized and saluted by a man who had served in the Praetorians.’46

The last part of the journey was undertaken on foot. The emperor and his petty entourage reached Phaon’s villa via a path overgrown with thickets and brambles. A robe was laid on the ground so that Nero could protect his feet. The path eventually led to a back wall. While Nero waited for a hole to be made in it, he picked out the thorns from his torn cloak; then he climbed through the narrow passage. Once inside the villa, the freedmen pleaded with him to put himself beyond the reach of his enemies by killing himself. It was the opportunity for one last piece of stage management – his own death scene. Nero gave instructions about making a grave and the disposal of his body, all the while repeating the words, ‘What an artist dies with me’.47

Despite news that the search party was getting closer and that he would be punished as an enemy of the state, Nero procrastinated further. He directed Sporus when and how to weep, and begged the others to set an example first. Finally, as the sounds of horsemen drew near, Nero, aided by Epaphroditus, drove a dagger through his throat. He was thirty-one years old. His dying wish for a funeral was granted, and his blotchy, full body was afterwards cremated. At the ancestral monument of his natural father’s family, the Domitii, Nero’s nurses and his former mistress Acte buried the remains of the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


Nero left no heir or successor, so control of the Roman empire was now up for grabs. Between the summer of AD 68 and December AD 69 Rome was shaken by a civil war in which contenders staked their claim to the empire. Hoisted on a tide of support from their armies, three provincial commanders – Galba, Otho and another old friend of Nero’s, Vitellius – became emperor in quick succession, only to be defeated by a stronger candidate a few months later. What is striking is that, despite the meltdown of effective government in the empire, there was no suggestion during this time of once again making Rome a republic. Now, as in 31 BC and the end of the great civil war, everyone seemed to agree that in exchange for peace and stability, power had to reside in one man. But what kind of man?

Certainly not an aristocrat of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Few now existed, for Nero had killed most of them during the last bloody years of his regime. Indeed, the tide of opinion was turning away from the idea that the royal bloodline was the best measure of who should be emperor. While the hereditary principle would in part remain, the élite believed it should be secondary to a new basis on which to choose future emperors: merit. In his history of the civil war of AD 68–9, Tacitus touches on this significant shift. In choosing a successor, the short-lived emperor Galba wanted to cast the net wider than a single aristocratic family: ‘. . .my introduction of the principle of choice will represent a move towards liberty.’48 These were the words that the historian Tacitus, writing less than forty years later, put in Galba’s mouth. Whether or not Galba was really able to conceptualize the problem as clearly as this at the time is open to dispute. However, it is revealing that, even with hindsight, the historian was able to pinpoint the change in the tide’s direction.

The move away from birth as the criterion for selection was also reflected in the reality of the civil war. Galba, Otho and Vitellius could all claim some high-born ancestry, and this would have pleased some conservative senators. However, what the civil war would show was that their opinion was increasingly irrelevant: it was not the senators who were putting forward candidates to be emperor, but the armies in the provinces. The deciding factor in who should be the next emperor was force of arms and success on the battlefield. The general who could command the greatest and widest support among the army would not only win the civil war, but would also be victorious in becoming emperor.

The Senate and the Roman people would come up with a means of explicitly conferring the supreme power. Where Augustus and his descendants had disguised that power to varying degrees, it was now to be made public and explicit, as an inscription of the time reveals. The new emperor would be conferred ‘the right and power. . .to transact and do whatever things divine, human, public and private he deems to serve the advantage and overriding interest of the state’.49 This blunt statement perhaps made up for the prestige and authority that the new dynasty, which had risen by merit alone, lacked through ancestry. But there was a more important lesson to be learnt from Nero’s life: the successor dynasty to the Julio-Claudians would need to put that power to a different end; it would need to create a new image for the position of emperor.

The new emperor of Rome might not use his power to become a gift- giving monarch or an aristocrat vaunting his generosity to his subjects and asserting his eminence above them and the institutions of the state. Rather, he might become an executive of the Roman people – a man who would restore to them what was theirs by right.50 In particular, after Nero’s extravagance, the new emperor needed to be an efficient administrator and organizer, a leader who could bring discipline to the armies after the civil war, and a statesman who could balance the books of Rome’s economy by raising money judiciously and spending it wisely. Part of his proving ground would be the fate of Nero’s hubristic folly – the Golden House.

Galba lived in Nero’s palace only briefly; Otho spent money putting the finishing touches to it; and Vitellius and his wife ridiculed its grandiose decoration. Nero’s ultimate successor, however, had the place demolished, keeping just a small section of it. The father of a new dynasty ordered the palace lake to be drained and here inaugurated the construction of a new, far more public building; a monument not to a private king, but to the Roman people: the Colosseum. The story of who that new emperor was and how he came to power is entwined with the next great revolution in Roman history.

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