The accusations, roundups, and interrogations that followed the discovery of the Piso plot against the life of Nero caused fear and consternation in Rome and beyond for several weeks. Yet for all the fuss, only forty-one men and women were actually implicated in the plot, and of them, just eighteen died—either losing their heads to the sword of a Praetorian tribune or centurion or, like Seneca, committing suicide. Others were banished.
Seneca’s younger brother Mela, a very wealthy knight who had never bothered to seek entry into the Senatorial Order, followed the example of his son Lucan and also slit his veins. Although Lucan had implicated his own mother, Mela’s wife, Atilla, Nero never proceeded against her. Nero did take action against Seneca’s friend Novius Priscus, owner of the house where Seneca died, no doubt assuming that Priscus was aware of Seneca’s intent to become emperor once the Piso plot succeeded. Priscus also was one of those who forfeited their lives. While charges were brought in the Senate against Seneca’s elder brother Junius Gallio, the majority of senators expressed the belief that enough was enough, and the charges against Gallio were dropped.
This same year, as Rome was coming to grips with this drama and its aftermath, Nero suffered a personal tragedy. His wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he truly loved and who was again pregnant, died suddenly. She was probably taken by illness or a miscarriage, although some classical authors were to write that Nero flew into a rage when she was ill and kicked her to death. He quickly remarried, taking Statilia Messalina for his new bride. Her previous husband, a consul, had been one of those to perish during the purge following the Piso plot.
The following year, Nero began preparations for two major military campaigns, perhaps believing that military conquests would improve his popularity with the public, which was at an all-time low. One plan provided for an expeditionary army pushing south into Africa from Egypt. The other plan called for an invasion of the homeland of the old enemy Parthia. Preparations for these operations were well under way by the summer of A.D. 66, with a new legion created, and existing legions, auxiliaries, and militia units assembling in the East. Nero himself transferred to Greece, to be closer to the scenes of action, taking his staff with him. Once there he seemed more interested in theatrical performances and athletic contests than military conquest.
The Jews of Judea now chose this time to rise in revolt against their Roman overlords. After massacring the Roman legionary garrisons at Jerusalem, Masada, and Cypros, the Jewish rebels overran most of Judea, Idumaea, and Galilee. A Roman army led down into Judea from Antioch by Cessenius Gallus, the current governor of Syria, was repulsed by the Jews, with heavy losses to the Romans, and Nero was forced to put his ambitious military plans on hold while the Jewish problem was dealt with. The general he chose for the new counteroffensive was Titus Flavius Vespasianus—Vespasian, as we know him. The most successful Roman general during Claudius’s A.D. 43 invasion of Britain, Vespasian had been accompanying Nero on his Greek tour, and was sent south by the emperor to assemble and lead the new Roman army, which advanced into Galilee and Judea from Syria in the spring of A.D. 67. This campaign would last four years and result in the bloody termination of the revolt and the total destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian’s army.
Judea was not the only seat of rebellion in A.D. 67. Although Gaul had been conquered for Rome by Julius Caesar in 58–51 B.C. and divided into Roman provinces, every once in a while revolt flickered among the Gauls. In A.D. 67, no doubt inspired by the Jewish Revolt on the other side of the Roman world, which was sure to attract Rome’s attention and resources, Gaius Julius Vindex, Roman governor of the Gallic province of Lugdunensis in France, and himself a native of Gaul, led a Gallic uprising against Nero. By the end of the year, Rome’s Army of the Upper Rhine had marched down into Gaul and defeated Vindex’s rebel army, which, apart from a cohort from Rome’s City Guard stationed at Vindex’s capital, Lyon, was made up of untrained locals. With his army routed, Vindex committed suicide.
But the spirit of revolution was by now in the air. In the spring of A.D. 68, Sulpicius Galba, seventy-year-old governor of Nearer Spain, rebelled against Nero’s rule. Having given moral and physical support to Vindex, Galba had little choice, for Nero was now sure to send a Praetorian execution squad to Spain looking for him. Galba was quickly joined by the governor of neighboring Lusitania, Nero’s onetime best friend and Sabina’s former husband, Otho. By the end of May, Galba’s troops had hailed him Rome’s emperor, in competition with Nero, and he was marching on Rome with a modest army made up essentially of a new legion, Galba’s 7th, which he had raised in the Spanish recruiting grounds of the existing 7th Claudia Legion.
An army sent by Nero to counter Galba deserted to him, and by early June Praetorian Guard commander Tigellinus also deserted Nero and, as Galba’s force daily drew closer to Rome, the men of the Praetorian Guard swore loyalty to Galba. When the Senate, in fear of the Praetorians, then declared Nero an enemy of the state and put a price on his head, the German Guard also refused to serve or protect Nero. All of a sudden, with head-spinning swiftness, the emperor found himself without support, without power, and without protection. He ordered fast ships readied to enable him to flee to Egypt or North Africa, but on June 9 a decree of the Senate calling for his execution forced him to flee his Golden House, as word spread that Praetorian troops were on the way to arrest him.
What took place next is open to conjecture. The biographer Suetonius, who was prone to sensationalizing his accounts of the emperors’ lives and deaths, gives a questionable account of the death of Nero, an account repeated two centuries later by Cassius Dio. According to Suetonius, Nero’s freedman Phaon offered the emperor the use of his villa four miles outside Rome while he himself remained at the capital to gain intelligence for his master. After nightfall, Nero rode out of town disguised in a plain hat and cloak, and accompanied by four servants, including his secretary Epaphroditus and the eunuch Sporus. At one point along the route a soldier of the Praetorian Guard recognized the emperor and gave him a loyal salute. Midway between the Salarian and Nomentan ways the party dismounted and slithered through undergrowth to the rear of Phaon’s villa, and gained entry.
A little later, a runner arrived at the villa from Phaon in the city, warning Nero that the Senate intended flogging him to death if he were taken alive. A troop of Praetorian Guard cavalry was then seen approaching the villa; they had perhaps followed the runner from the city. Nero had brought two daggers with him, but couldn’t pluck up the courage to use them on himself. In tears, he begged Sporus to kill himself first, to prove his devotion to his emperor, but the eunuch refused. Then Nero pulled himself together, and, with the help of Epaphroditus, pushed a dagger into his throat. His last words were said to be, “So great an artist dies.”¹
According to Suetonius, the centurion in charge of the cavalry troop that soon after arrived at the villa dashed inside and tried to use his cloak to stanch the blood flowing from Nero’s throat, but he was too late. There, in the centurion’s arms, says Suetonius, died thirty-year-old Nero, fifth emperor of Rome, grandson and last surviving descendant of Germanicus. According to Suetonius, Nero’s ever-faithful mistress Acte and his childhood nurses Alexandria and Ecloge carried Nero’s body to the Pincian Hill outside Rome, where he was cremated. His remains, according to Suetonius, were placed in a white porphyry casket and deposited in the tomb of his father’s Domitius family. According to Suetonius, too, this casket supposedly containing Nero’s remains was to be seen in the Domitius family tomb in his day, during the early first century, when people were still putting spring and summer flowers on the tomb in fond remembrance of Nero.²
Whether Nero did die in the manner described by Suetonius, and at the time stated by Suetonius, is open to question. Tacitus was to say that there were various rumors in existence about his death, and with no confirmation of how or where Nero died, many people believed that he was still alive.³ Suetonius gave credence to this belief; for years after Nero disappeared, he says, many people were convinced that he was still alive. For some time after, edicts continued to be circulated at Rome in Nero’s name, and there was an expectation among a large number of people that he would one day return, reclaim his throne, and punish his enemies.⁴
One of Nero’s freedmen escaped to North Africa by ship, and there would be a number of cases of men claiming to be Nero appearing in the East over the coming years. By the spring of A.D. 69, less than a year after his disappearance, news spread through the provinces of Achaia and Asia that Nero had been seen there. A man looking very much like Nero and declaring himself to be the emperor arrived at the Greek island of Cythnus, today’s Kythnos, in a ship containing a band of military deserters who supported him. To back his claim, apart from his striking Nero-like appearance, the man possessed the skills of a singer and lyre player. There was considerable disaffection in the region; the new emperor, Galba, had been assassinated at Rome on January 15, and his replacement as emperor, Nero’s former friend Otho, was fighting a civil war in Italy against Aulus Vitellius, commander of the Army of the Lower Rhine, whose legionaries had proclaimed him emperor in opposition to Otho. In this uncertain and unstable atmosphere, the people of Kythnos flocked to the Nero figure.
A detachment of legionaries sailing from the East to Italy in support of Otho landed on Kythnos, and this Nero figure ordered them to join him. Some refused, and he had them executed. The commander of the detachment, a centurion named Sisenna, had custody of the symbol of the clasped hands, traditionally a symbol of friendship, which the legions in the East under the general Vespasian and Mucianus, governor of Syria, were sending to the Praetorian Guard to show their support for the Guard and for Otho. Sisenna had his doubts about this imperial pretender. Escaping the island, he spread the word that there was a fake Nero on Kythnos.
On hearing of this, Calpurnius Asprenas, the governor of Galatia and Pamphylia in southern Turkey, set sail with two triremes of the Tyrrhenian Fleet and quickly reached the island. There the governor found the pretender’s ship, which his marines boarded and secured. The pretender was arrested. He begged the trireme captains to take him to Syria or Egypt, but they ignored his pleas. The Nero of Cythnus was beheaded. The severed head was sent to Rome, where people marveled at the dead man’s likeness to Nero. Tacitus would say the general belief was that this pretender had been either a freedman from Italy or an escaped slave from Pontus.⁵
Suetonius was to write that toward the end of the first century, when he was a young man, a mysterious individual appeared in Parthia claiming to be Nero. The Parthians believed he truly was Nero, and supported him, until Rome demanded that he be turned over, which they reluctantly did.⁶This Nero was apparently quickly executed once he came into Roman hands.
Despite the fact that Nero’s rule, so full of early promise, became erratic and despotic, his death was lamented by many Romans for many years. The emperor Otho restored Nero’s statues. The emperor Vitellius, who defeated Otho and ruled for seven months in A.D. 69, came from a family with strong connections to Germanicus and his family. Once he took the throne, Vitellius celebrated funeral rites for Nero, punished men who had betrayed Nero in his last days, and renamed his own infant son Germanicus.
Perhaps Nero did escape to the East. Perhaps he was one of the pretenders executed over the years. Perhaps he died years later in obscurity. But the fact that Nero ceased to be emperor of Rome in June A.D. 68 is beyond dispute. A year in which Rome saw four emperors followed his disappearance. Whether he died sooner or later, the demise of Nero, grandson of Germanicus, the last male survivor of the Caesar family, ended Germanicus’s line. It also ended the hopes of the Roman people that a descendant of Germanicus would give them the golden age they had expected from the great hero himself.
With the end of Nero, the end of the family of the Caesars that had been sparked by the murder of Germanicus was complete.