by John Thomas Lowe
Scullard writes that Nero's mother, Agrippina, "meant to rule through her son." Agrippina murdered her political rivals: Domitia Lepida the Younger, the aunt that Nero had lived with during Agrippina's exile; Marcus Junius Silanus, a great-grandson of Augustus; and Narcissus. One of the earliest coins that Nero issued during his reign shows Agrippina on the coin's obverse side; usually, this would be reserved for a portrait of the Emperor. The Senate also allowed Agrippina two lictors during public appearances, an honor that was customarily bestowed upon only magistrates and the Vestalis Maxima. In AD 55, Nero removed Agrippina's ally, Marcus Antonius Pallas, from his position in the treasury. Shotter writes the following about Agrippina's deteriorating relationship with Nero: "What Seneca and Burrus probably saw as relatively harmless in Nero—his cultural pursuits and his affair with the slave girl Claudia Acte—were to her signs of her son's dangerous emancipation of himself from her influence." Britannicus was poisoned after Agrippina threatened to side with him. Nero, who was having an affair with Acte, exiled Agrippina from the palace when she began to cultivate a relationship with his wife, Octavia.
Jürgen Malitz writes that ancient sources do not provide any clear evidence to evaluate the extent of Nero's involvement in politics during the first years of his reign. He describes the policies explicitly attributed to Nero as "well-meant but incompetent notions," like Nero's failed initiative to abolish all taxes in 58 AD. Scholars generally credit Nero's advisors Burrus and Seneca with the administrative successes of these years. Malitz writes that in later years, Nero panicked when he had to make decisions on his own during times of crisis.
Nevertheless, his early administration ruled to great acclaim. A generation later, those years were seen in retrospect as an example of excellent and moderate government and described as Quinquennium Neronis by Trajan. Especially well-received were fiscal reforms that put tax collectors under more strict control by establishing local offices to supervise their activities. After the affair of Lucius Pedanius Secundus, whom a desperate enslaved person murdered, Nero allowed enslaved people to file complaints about their treatment to the authorities.
Modern scholars believe that Nero's reign had been going well in the years before Agrippina's death. For example, Nero promoted the exploration of the Nile river sources with a successful expedition. After Agrippina's exile, Burrus and Seneca were responsible for the administration of the Empire. However, Nero's "conduct became far more egregious" after his mother's death. Miriam T. Griffins suggests that Nero's decline began as early as 55 AD with the murder of his stepbrother Britannicus, but also notes that "Nero lost all sense of right and wrong and listened to flattery with total credulity" after Agrippina's death. Griffin points out that Tacitus "makes explicit the significance of Agrippina's removal for Nero's conduct."
He built a new palace, the Domus Transitoria, from about AD 60. It was intended to connect all imperial estates acquired with the Palatine, including the Gardens of Maecenas, Horti Lamiani, Horti Lolliani, etc.
In 62 AD, Nero's adviser Burrus died. That same year Nero called for the first treason trial of his reign (maiestas trial) against Antistius Sosianus. He also executed his rivals, Cornelius Sulla and Rubellius Plautus. Jürgen Malitz considers this a turning point in Nero's relationship with the Roman Senate. Malitz writes that "Nero abandoned the restraint he had previously shown because he believed a course supporting the Senate promised to be less and less profitable."
After Burrus' death, Nero appointed two new Praetorian Prefects: Faenius Rufus and Ofonius Tigellinus. Politically isolated, Seneca was forced to retire. According to Tacitus, Nero divorced Octavia on the grounds of infertility and banished her. After public protests over Octavia's exile, Nero accused her of adultery with Anicetus, and she was executed.
In 64 AD, during the Saturnalia, Nero married Pythagoras, a freedman.
The Great Fire of Rome
The Great Fire of Rome
The Great Fire of Rome began on the night of 18 to 19 July 64, probably in one of the merchant's shops on the slope of the Aventine overlooking the Circus Maximus or in the wooden outer seating of the Circus itself. Rome had always been vulnerable to fires, and this one was fanned to catastrophic proportions by the winds.
Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and modern archaeology describe the destruction of mansions, ordinary residences, public buildings, and temples on the Aventine, Palatine, and Caelian hills. The fire burned for over seven days; then it subsided, and then it started again and burned for three more. It destroyed three of Rome's fourteen districts and severely damaged seven more.
Some Romans thought the fire an accident; the merchant shops where it probably started were timber-framed, they sold flammable goods, and the outer seating stands of the Circus were timber-built. Others claimed that it was arson committed on Nero's behalf. The accounts by Pliny the Elder, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio suggest several possible reasons for Nero's alleged arson, including his creation of a real-life backdrop to a theatrical performance about the burning of Troy. Suetonius wrote that Nero started the fire to clear the site for his planned, palatial Golden House. This would include lush artificial landscapes and a 30-meter-tall statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero, sited more or less where the Colosseum would eventually be built. Suetonius and Cassius Dio claim that Nero sang the "Sack of Ilium" in stage costume while the city burned. The popular legend that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned "is at least partly a literary construct of Flavian propaganda ... which looked askance on the abortive Neronian attempt to rewrite Augustan models of rule".
Tacitus suspends judgment on Nero's responsibility for the fire; he found that Nero was in Antium when the fire started and returned to Rome to organize a relief effort, providing the removal of bodies and debris, which he paid for from his funds. After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless and arranged for food supplies to be delivered to prevent starvation among the survivors.
Tacitus writes that Nero accused Christians of starting the fire to remove suspicion from himself. According to this account, many Christians were arrested and brutally executed by "being thrown to the beasts, crucified, and burned alive." Tacitus asserts that in his imposition of such ferocious punishments, Nero was not motivated by a sense of justice but a penchant for personal cruelty.
Houses built after the fire were spaced out, built-in brick, and faced by porticos on wide roads. Nero also built a new palace complex known as the Domus Aurea in an area cleared by the fire. The cost to rebuild Rome was immense, requiring funds the state treasury did not have. To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, Nero's government increased taxation. In particular heavy tributes were imposed on the provinces of the Empire. To meet at least a portion of the costs, Nero devalued the Roman currency, increasing inflationary pressure for the first time in the Empire's history.
In 65 AD, Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a Roman statesman, organized a conspiracy against Nero with the help of Subrius Flavus and Sulpicius Asper, a tribune and a centurion of the Praetorian Guard. According to Tacitus, many conspirators wished to "rescue the state" from the Emperor and restore the Republic. The freedman Milichus discovered the conspiracy and reported it to Nero's secretary, Epaphroditus. As a result, the conspiracy failed, and its members were executed, including Lucan, the poet. He denied the charges but was still ordered to commit suicide as, by this point, he had fallen out of favor with Nero.
Nero was said to have kicked Poppaea to death in 65 AD before she could have his second child. Modern historians, noting the potential biases of Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio and the likely absence of eyewitnesses to such an event, propose that Poppaea may have died after miscarriage or in childbirth. Nero went into deep mourning; Poppaea was given a grand state funeral and divine honors and was promised a temple for her cult. A year's importation of incense was burned at the funeral. Her body was not cremated, as would have been strictly customary, but embalmed in the Egyptian manner and entombed; it is not known where.
In 67, Nero married Sporus, a young boy who is said to have significantly resembled Poppaea. Nero had him castrated, tried to make a woman out of him, and married him in a dowry and bridal veil. It is believed that he did this out of regret for his killing of Poppaea.
Revolt of Vindex and Galba and Nero's death
A marble bust of Nero, Antiquarium of the Palatine.
In March 68, Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero's tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex's rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his province, Vindex called Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and declare himself Emperor in opposition to Nero.
At the Battle of Vesontio in May 68, Verginius' forces easily defeated those of Vindex, and the latter committed suicide. However, after defeating the rebel, Verginius' legions attempted to proclaim their commander Emperor. Verginius refused to act against Nero, but the discontent of the legions of Germania and the continued opposition of Galba in Hispania did not bode well for him.
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