A brief look into why historians are changing their opinion on the infamous emperor
“…Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare…” — Percy Shelley (From Ozymandias)
This article began as a glimpse into the mystery surrounding the fate of Colossus Neronis, more commonly known as the Colossus of Nero. However, while researching the statue, I wanted to add a brief history of the vain, evil tyrant who cared more about extravagance and debauchery than the well-being of his own people. But the more I investigated Nero’s descent into depravity, the less evidence I found supporting the claims and legends. In fact, all contemporaneous testimony during Nero’s reign has been lost over time, with most of what we know about the man being documented after his suicide in 68 A.D. In fact, as of late, many of the claims against Nero have faced scrutiny for being heavily biased, lacking evidence, and contradicting themselves. While no emperor’s record is pure — and taking into account the fact that Roman political standards at the time were treacherous —can we really claim that Nero was any worse than the others who came before and after him? Was he really a scourge so great and terrible that he was deserving of the branding by Christians as the biblical “Beast,” immortalized in the book of Revelation? Or, was he simply an instrument used by an overly-ambitious mother, and after a brief rise and fall, became the product of a smear campaign by ancient historians who preferred the tales of the monster over the truth of the man?
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Julia Agrippina, known as Agrippina the Younger. Originally born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, his name was changed after his father died and Agrippina married emperor Claudius. Claudius adopted Lucius as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, which then changed from Drusus to Augustus once Claudius died and Nero became emperor.
Agrippina the Younger played a vital role in Nero’s reign, and had lifelong experience within the political realm. She was the great-granddaughter of first Roman emperor Augustus, daughter of the infamous Roman general Germanicus, niece (and later wife) to emperor Claudius, and the younger sister of emperor Caligula. Due to Nero’s age, having become emperor at 17, his mother was the dominating factor behind his decisions and guided his rule. Historians describe Agrippina as a ruthless and domineering woman who exerted commanding political influence until 56–57 A.D., when Nero forced her out of the palace and stripped her of her security detail and authority. Their power-struggle continued until, as written by Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius — three of the biggest sources on Nero’s reign, written 50–150 years after his death — Nero arranged to have her killed. The problem with this, is that there would have been no advantage to committing matricide for Nero. Nothing would have been gained from killing her, and even though Nero removed her from the palace, they remained close. In fact, despite her removal from royal duties, Agrippina was allowed to keep her imperial titles. It is more likely that the most Nero contributed to her death was by removing the security detail. Agrippina gained many enemies during her life, by dismissing her guards, Nero may have unintentionally presented an opportunity for her to be murdered by a political rival. So, how likely is is that Nero plotted the death of Agrippina — which involved a boat built to sink and later an assassin who made her death look like a suicide after she didn’t drown in the sinking boat — according to modern historians: highly unlikely.
That brings us to the legendary burning of Rome. The great fire that that Nero ordered his men to start in 64 A.D., so that he could destroy the homes on the land he had planned to build his fantastical palace, and gives us the greatest legend of Nero: that he fiddled — or, more accurate for the time, played the lyre — whilst it burned. I’m not sure how this legend has lasted for two thousand years when Tacitus actually wrote that Nero was in Antium during the fire and when he was told about it, he immediately returned to Rome and organized relief efforts paid from his own funds, as well as opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless. However, the response was still not enough to be met with gratitude, and instead sparked a rumor that Nero went to his private stage and had sang about the destruction of Troy. The only evidence we have for that is what Tacitus writes in the Annals, so there is no way to ever know if it actually happened. Tacitus also wrote that Emperor Nero tried to avoid suspicion for the fire by blaming the Christians for starting it, and that is what began the empire’s first persecution against the Christians. To refute this, I turn to historian Brent D. Shaw, who goes into extensive detail on the myth of Neronian persecution, especially in regard to the Great Fire. One argument he makes is that Pliny the Elder only held Nero to blame for the fire, but that nowhere in the 20,000 facts collected from 2,000 books and 100 different authors in Pliny’s work Natural History, does he so much as refer to any people called Christians, much less any account of Nero blaming them for the fire. So, according to modern historians, the account of Nero singing while Rome burned or blaming Christians for starting the fire: highly unlikely.
So, if Nero did not blame the Christians, then why did he persecute them to the point they actually wrote about him rising again as the Antichrist in the book of Revelation? Again, the evidence for such a persecution lies solely within the pages of the Annals of Tacitus, whom no other writer of that time corroborates. While it is true that Nero — like the other emperors who ruled before and after him — did in fact kill Christians, it was not for the fire but for routine offenses. Christianity was beginning to take hold in the Middle East and had only started making its way to Rome in recent years, so the idea that Nero saw them as a force great enough to warrant persecution doesn’t make sense. In fact, Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome during his reign due to the constant disturbances they caused by constantly fighting with Christians. There was also a letter by Clement to the Corinthians (dated around 96 A.D.) that stated Nero ordered the execution of the apostles Paul and Peter during the Neronion persecution. However, there is no evidence that Peter was ever in Rome. As for Paul, evidence does show he was there from 60 to 62 A.D., and he could have died there — but that was 2 years before the Great Fire that supposedly led to the persecution of Christians, so that wouldn’t have been a reason for his death. So, as for the widespread persecution of Christians, modern historians are beginning to view this account as: highly unlikely.
Nero was not a great emperor, and there are countless stories that show he was not fit to rule. But given the evidence — or lack thereof — there is nothing that suggests this emperor was the cruel maniac whose depravity knew no bounds. Ancient Roman politics often saw the disposal of ones political enemies, friends, and family. The murders he ordered were not out of the ordinary for a ruler of that time. But history loves a villain and given that the only writings we have don’t paint him in a sympathetic light, Emperor Nero is still considered, almost 2,000 years later, to be one of the worst.