Nero: The Actor Emperor


Britain and Armenia

Prasutagas, the king of the Iceni, died in 60 without male issue leaving his considerable fortune to his two daughters and Nero in his will. In being so generous to the emperor, Prasutagas hoped his subjects would be treated well. However, the procurator Deceanus Catus, who administered the will, proceeded to annex the territory using cruel and intimidating methods. Tribal noblemen were driven off their lands and Boudicca, Prasutagas’ wife, was flogged and her daughters raped. The Iceni had no desire to be directly under Roman control and rebelled. The rebel tribes were led by Queen Boudicca, portrayed by Dio as tall, redhaired and fierce looking, addressing her troops spear in hand (62.2.3-4). The revolt began at Camulo-dunum (Colchester), which had been a colony for Roman veterans for eleven years and was left unwalled because of the loyalty of the local tribes. The Romanized Britons were slaughtered and the city was burned (Ann. 14.32). Paullinus, the Roman governor, was putting down the last resistance in southern Wales when the revolt broke out. The governor was concerned about protecting Londinium (London) but there were not enough soldiers to defend the city, which was also not walled, and London was abandoned and burned by the rebels. Tacitus says 70,000 people lost their lives numbered by the tribes, numbering 230,000 by Dio’s reckoning (62.8.2; Ann. 14.34-37). By maintaining discipline the Romans decisively defeated the tribes (Dio 62.12). It was reported that 80,000 rebels were killed but only 400 Romans lost their lives. Boudicca committed suicide or, accatalogue on request according to Dio, fell sick and died (62.12.6). The tribes, now leaderless, were pacified and Paullinus carried out vicious reprisals against the Britons.

Nero sent his freedman Polyclitus and the procurator Julius Classicianus to investigate the causes of the rebellion and they reported back that a governor with better diplomatic skills was required. Nero promptly recalled Paullinus, honoring his achieve-ments, and sent Petronius Turpilianus (61-63), a mild administrator for a province that badly needed to be healed (Ann. 14.38-39). The eastern frontier demanded most of Nero’s attention and initiative in the ongoing problem of Armenia. Due to unrest during Claudius’ reign, the Parthian king Vologases was able to place his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. Early in Nero’s reign, a delegation of Armenians visited Rome and asked for help to remove the Parthians. Preparations for war were set into motion and the legions of Syria were brought up to strength with new re-cruitment. The governor of Syria, Ummidus Quadratus, remained at his post but the course of events would be shaped by a new man: Cn. Domitius Corbulo, who was appointed as special governor of Cappa-docia-Galatia in 54-55 (Ann. 13.8). Rath-er than proceed with the outright conquest of Armenia, Nero’s government decided on a different approach whereby Rome would recognize Tiridates as king if the Parthians would acknowledge Nero as his overlord.

This was not immediately acceptable to Tiridates, so over the years that followed diplomacy was mixed with force of arms to come to a settlement for the region. In 60, Corbulo conquered Arme-nia, during which the ancient capitol of Ataxata was burned, and a Roman select-ed king was placed on the throne, but was unacceptable to the Armenians. Eventually, in 64, Tiridates agreed to accept his diadem from the hands of Nero. During the many years Corbulo spent in the East, he never had to fight a pitched battle. The secret of his success was patience and his appreciation of the military situation. He also understood that Rome had expanded as far as it could: If Parthia was conquered, it could not be held. Nero can be credited for recognizing Corbulo’s capabilities and for his eleven years of support, during which the general wielded greater power and had more troops under his command than anyone outside the imperial family.

The agreement with Tiridates allowed Nero to close the doors on the temple of Janus, signifying peace throughout the empire, and he celebrated the event on his coinage. But Tiridates was in no hurry to abase himself before Nero, and his visit may have been postponed by the Great Fire, the Pisonian conspiracy or the death of Poppaea. When Tiridates finally did reach Rome in 66, Nero received an imperial acclamation (his 11’h) and deposit-ed a laurel wreath before the statue of Jupiter on the Capitol as if he had won a triumph (Nero 11). The special significance of this salutation was made apparent when Nero added imperator to his praenomen.

The Second Neronia and the Death of Poppaea

Tacitus refers to the Neronia as a quinquennial contest, apparently to celebrate the end of a five year period in Nero’s reign (Ann. 16.4). But the historian is in-correct since the first Neronia should have been celebrated in 59 not 60. Greek and Roman religious festivals were typically held every four years. Quinquennalis refers to a four-year period because the Romans counted the first and last years of the festival while in modern times we would only count the year of the festival. The later Capitoline games, initiated by Domitian (and based upon the Neronia), was held every four years and was termed a quinquennale certamen by Suetonius There is some confusion over when the second Neronia was celebrated. Suetonius relates that, in 64, Nero, after his great success performing at Naples, went to Rome where he ordered that the Neronia be held before it was due (Nero 21.1). When he had performed to his satisfaction, Nero postponed the remainder of the festival until the following year and put off the awarding of the prize because he wanted an excuse to sing more often (Nero 21.2).

One wonders why Nero would not have come up with other opportunities to sing and why he would be willing to wait a year to resume an unfinished festival. This vacillation by Nero could be due to his capricious nature or confusion over events. Tacitus reports the holding of the Neronia with no comment on a postponement. He relates that after his performance at Naples, Nero intended to go to Achaia to perform at the Greek festivals to gain respect in the eyes of the Romans for the victories he would win (Ann. 15.33). Nero traveled as far as Beneventum where he attended a gladiatorial show and eventually abandoned the idea of going to Greece. At this point, Nero returned to Rome and would have had an opportunity to hold the Neronia as Suetonius relates. However, Nero proceeded to plan a journey to Egypt and the eastern prov-inces until a mysterious visit to the temple of Vesta that led him to cancel this proposed trip. Nero may have postponed the Neronia to make way for his abortive trip to Egypt. As compensation, perhaps, for the cancelled games, Nero held several banquets in Rome for the populace be-fore returning to Naples.

The Senate, to avoid having the emperor perform in public, offered him the prize for eloquence and singing prior to the festival. Nero received the suggestion badly, refusing the honor and declaring that he intended to compete on an equal footing with his rivals and let the jury decide who deserved the crown (Ann. 16.4). Nero recited a poem on stage but apparently had no desire to compete as a singer. But he allowed himself to be persuaded to join the singing competition when the crowd and his augustiani called for him to perform. Nero observed all of the competition rules, having his name inscribed as a competitor and dressing in the proper attire; he won the competition and was given an ovation (Ann. 16.4). Just as the games were concluding, Poppaea died (Dio 62.28.1). Tacitus finds the suggestion that Nero poisoned her to be absurd, especially since she was pregnant and the emperor desperately wanted the child.


The tale most often repeated was that Poppaea reproached Nero when he returned late from a chariot race and, in a fit of tem-per, kicked her in the stomach and caused a miscarriage and her death. Nero did not habitually have such attacks of blinding rage and Poppaea is cast as a nagging wife, having more to do with a comic scene gone tragic than reality. Nero was devastated. Poppaea had not, like Messalina and Agrippina before her, been in-volved in political intrigue and been completely faithful to Nero. The empress was given a magnificent funeral. Her body was taken to the Forum Ronianum where Nero delivered the oration. She was not consigned to the flames but was embalmed and buried in the mausoleum of Augustus. Pliny says that all of the per-fumes produced in Arabia in one year could not equal the amount Nero lavished on Poppaea.

Festivals A highly criticized aspect of Nero was his reported gluttony and that he was a drunkard. He began to indulge his passion for food and drink while still young. Dio marks the beginning of Nero’s cruelty when his moderate attitude to eating, drinking and sex underwent a change toward indulgence Suetonius also noted Nero’s taste for prolonged banquets taking place at mid-day instead of the usual early evening. Emperors were expected to hold feasts for the people of Rome on holidays and religious festivals. Extravagance and generosity was considered a display of imperial virtue, demonstrating the emperor’s liberality. Banquets were also held to hon-or the emperor’s birthday, to mark his ac-cession and some were given just to satisfy the plebs The attendance of the emperor at these feasts was a sign of his virtue to closely associate with his people, a show of unity between the orders. Caligula once feast-ed the Senate and the equestrians and their wives (Gaius 17;
These dinners were meant to foster good relations with the emperor and by feasting the senators in style, the emperor showed his high esteem. This does not mean there was no criticism for an emperor who indulged in too much food and drink. Vitellius was criticized for his excesses at the table with Suetonius decrying his sacrilegious appetite (Vit. 13). Ancient sources accuse Nero of spending too much time eating and drinking, which interfered with his attending to the business of state and, worse, the emperor would be so drunk during his dinners that Agrippina could work her will (Ann. 14.2). Oddly enough, Nero’s famous decocta Neronis, water that was boiled, then cooled in snow, was neither alcoholic nor outrageously extravagant. A more revealing criticism of Nero’s dinners comes from the hostility of the elite members of Roman society being shut out of the emperor’s convivia.

Rather than using these occasions to promote good relations with senators and equestrians, Nero creates a gulf by excluding them. The preferred invitees for his private dinners were poets and philosophers but Nero was also criticized for his frequenting public eating-houses. Dio commented on the double standard he set for spending so much time in taverns and then regulating how much food and drink they could sell Nero 26). The worst part of these nocturnal visits for Suetonius was that the emperor lowered himself to dress like a freedman or pleb so he could enter these popinae (taverns) unrecognized. Popinae were places of low living, a meeting place of prostitutes, gladiators and thieves, places that were subjected to legal regulation.

Nero’s public feasts drew the same criticism for demonstrating his attachment to the plebs. Luxury was being provided for the commoners but not for the more de-serving elite. The banquet that was found most offensive was hosted by Tigellinus and held at a lake on a fabulously decorated raft. On the shore, noble women occupied brothels set up for the pleasure of the plebs and, to top it off, Nero married his freedman Pythagoras. By forcing noble women to act as prostitutes, the emperor forced the immoral life of the commoners on the elite. Tacitus juxtaposed the sumptuous floating banquet with the Great Fire that followed, suggesting the degradation of the former was purged by the fire (Nero 27; Ann. 15.37-38; Dio 61.20.5, 62.15.1-6). Nero directed his energies toward the populace because he thought he could find affection and popularity at the expense of the senators.

When Nero took the stage to perform, he wanted the sympathetic ears of the people, not the scorn of the elite. Suetonius accused Nero of being carried away by a craze for popularity and was jealous of anyone who might threaten the feeling of the plebs for him (Nero 53). Augustus is reported to have dressed up once a year as a beggar to solicit money from passers by and he also enjoyed watching street fighting (Aug. 45; Dio 54.35.3). Such a desire to fraternize with the common people was not criticized in Augustus, and Nero is the only example where doing this activity is considered hostile. The End of Clemency Following the death of Poppaea, Nero’s efforts of exercising clemency were dropped and the unprovoked persecution of senators for treason began.

The Pisonian conspiracy had proved to him the extent of hostility against him, and he was determined to crush all opposition and re-move anyone who could be a possible claimant to his throne. His targets were the Republican nobility and critics of the regime. The Junii Silanii, with their blood connection to Augustus, paid the price of Nero’s anxiety. Lucius, the son of Marcus Silanus, who was the first victim of the new regime, had been brought up by his aunt Julia Lepida and her husband Cassius Longinus. Now Longinus came under suspicion and was forbidden to attend Pop-paea’s funeral. He was accused of sedition for honoring Cassius, one of Caesar’s assassins, and that he planned to place Lucius on the throne. Longinus was sent into exile on Sardinia, perhaps due to his age and that he was blind. He lived to be later recalled by Vespasian; Lucius was killed by a centurion (Ann. 16.7-9; Nero 37; Dio 62.27.2). Tigellinus, jealous over the favor Nero showed Petronius, succeeded in convincing the emperor that his friend, the arbiter of taste, knew about the Pisonian conspiracy since he had often dined with Scaevinus. Petronius had not joined the conspir-acy but since he knew what was being plotted, and said nothing, it followed that he approved of the aims of the conspirators. Tigellinus produced a slave who denounced Petronius as a confederate of Scaevinus. Without bothering to ask for an explanation from his friend, Nero sent a note to Petronius saying he did not wish to see him again. Petronius understood the meaning and ended his life by cutting his veins during the coarse of a brilliant banquet, surrounded by friends and canying on a con-versation on light topics as his life slowly ebbed

Senators, who were considered part of the so-called “Stoic Opposition”, Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus, were prosecuted in the Senate on a charge of treason. Both men were found guilty and ordered to commit suicide. With the loss of Tacitus’ account, only the brief mention of the plot of Vinicianus, Corbulo’s son-in-law, by Suetonius exists. No date is given except that the conspiracy occurred after that of Piso. The Arval Brethren offered thanks for the detection of a plot in mid-May 66, and the lo-cation of the plot at Beneventum suggests that the timing of the plot was to murder Nero on his way to Greece.

The Tour of Greece Nero and a large entourage left Rome around September 25, 66 and traveled to Brundusium by way of Beneventum. Among those with Nero were his new wife Statilia Messalina, whom he married shortly before the tour, Epaphroditus, Vespasian, Sporus and Pythagorus Nero embarked on a two day voyage to Corcyra (Corfu) where, upon making landfall, he went to the tem-ple of Jupiter with his lyre and sang to the supreme god (Nero 22.3). The city of Corinth became Nero’s chosen residence during his stay in Greece the Roman city founded by Julius Caesar as a colony for his veterans. The ancient city of Corinth had been destroyed in 146 BCE and not a trace remained. While Nero was in Greece, the attacks on Republican nobility continued through the use of delatores. Up to 66, no provincial governor had provoked Nero’s suspicion but later in that year, or early in 67, Corbulo was summoned to Greece by Nero. As he disembarked at Corinth, he received the order to commit suicide. The great general is said to have made the enigmatic remark: “I deserved it.

this signaled regret at having served Nero faithfully in the east for many years or that he had conspired against the emperor is unknown. Tigellinus made a case against Corbulo for his involvement in the Vinician conspiracy and, in due course, the general was summoned to Corinth (Hist 3.6). He may have been caught by surprise by Nero’s death order since he had arrived without military escort and his reaction seems to indicate that he was unaware (Dio 62.17.5-6). However, in sacrificing his greatest general, Nero had no idea that in a short time he would wish Corbulo might still have been alive. At the end of November, word of the rebel-lion in Judea reached Nero and the task of pacifying the Jews fell to Vespasian. Nero’s participation in the Greek games was unprecedented. Other members of the imperial family had financed teams in the equestrian events, following the behavior set by Greek kings and aristocrats, but none had appeared as a competitor. The accounts of Nero’s performances at the games are hostile, but they confirm how seriously he took his art and that he complied with all the rules.

In 67, Nero participated in the Olympic Games, certainly the high point of his life where he could prove to the Greeks what a great artist he was. Along with his participation in the chariot race, Nero planned to per-form a tragedy to showcase his acting abilities. On learning the emperor’s intentions the Olympians informed him that there was no theater at Olympia where a play could be staged. Nero simply replied that he would build a temporary theater and the Olympians added the event; Nero was declared the victor (Vita Apol. 5.7). At the chariot race, things did not go as well for the emperor. Nero drove a chariot with an unwieldy team of ten horses; he was unable to control them and was thrown. Although Nero was not hurt, it was out of the question for him to continue, but in spite of this the jury awarded him the prize. Perhaps this did not come as a surprise since Dio says he rewarded the Olympians with 250,000 drachms (63.14; Nero 24). When the announcement came that the emperor was the victor, the crowd erupted with applause that certainly was not spontaneous. While in Greece, Nero is said to have married Sporus.

Tigellinus acted as the father of the “bride” and even supplied the customary dowry. The ceremony took place with a large number of guests. During the honeymoon, Nero hit upon the idea to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. Dio says the idea was a pastime for Nero and Philostratus says the notion came to him while looking at the landscape (63.16; Vita Apol. 4.24). The idea of cutting a canal through the narrow strip of land (between three and four miles) had occurred to Caesar and Caligula but neither had realized the project (Caesar 44, Gaius 21). Possibly, some of the Corinthian leaders might have pushed the idea for trade advantages and reminded the emperor of the glory that the enterprise would bestow on the builder. Nero even neglected his singing in favor of the new project but it was opposed by the Greek people, particularly those who had a traditional view of the gods. Native workers were called up but few volunteered, so Nero wrote to Vespasian to send him as many Jewish prisoners as possible: before long six thousand men were laboring on the canal. Nero inaugurated the construction himself. He emerged from his tent singing the hymn of Amphitrite and Neptune and announced to the crowd that he hoped for the success of the project for himself and the Roman people, deliberately leaving out the Senate. The procurator of Achaia presented the emperor with a golden spade and Nero proceeded to dig (Nero 38). Dramatically, the earth was heard to groan and howl and spurted blood. But Nero was unperturbed and dug three spade-fulls before withdrawing (Nero 19; Dio 63.16).

Toward the middle of November 67, Nero sent a circular to all cities and villages in Achaia inviting all Greeks to come to Corinth for a reward on the fourth day before the Kalends of December (Novem-ber 28). On the appointed day, Nero appeared before the assembled crowd wearing imperial robes. He mounted a podium that had been constructed for the occasion and declared that the Greeks were free from paying all tribute. Copies of the speech were engraved to document the unique gift and is the only example of a speech of Nero that has survived. In freeing the Greeks from paying tribute to Rome, Nero had no political motives for his generosity and merely wanted to re-ward the Greeks. Nero did not journey outside the province of Achaia, indicating that he had an interest in the province. The declaration of freedom from tribute, the construction of a canal at the Isthmus of Corinth and his participation in the games may have been his way of saying that the older, preclassical Greece was now part of Rome —a celebration of imperial Achaia. Apart from the self glorification aspect of the journey, Nero may have wanted to bring the Roman and Greek worlds closer together.

The attendees at the festivals were a mixture of Greeks, Romans and non-Greek easterners that freely mixed together. The message contained in Nero’s speech of freedom was to declare Achaia as having the same claims and rights as Italian cities. His overall plan may have been to more fully integrate Greek culture within the empire. However, given the ambivalence of the Romans toward a culture that was perceived as having a harmful effect on their virtue, such a policy was certain to be greeted with hostility. Had Nero been able to prolong his travels he may have left behind more of a mark in the way of buildings and monuments. The Greek response to Nero’s participation in the games was one of adaptation, after his death the crowns Nero had won were retracted. But the gift of freedom was not forgotten and was appreciated. Plutarch said that the gods owed Nero a kindness for his gift to the noblest and most beloved nation and Philostratus considered the act as one of wisdom and moderation (Plut. On the Delays of the Divine Vengeance 567F-568; Vita Apol. 5.41).
Rebellion During Nero’s absence in Greece the longest since Tiberius went into retirement his freedman Helius had been left in control of the government, with senatorial hostility steadily growing (Dio 62.18.2). When messages failed to persuade Nero of the gravity of the situation, the freed man went in person. According to Dio, the news Helius had for Nero was of an-other conspiracy in Rome (63.19.1).

Nothing is known about the conspiracy, but what actually may have alarmed Helius were rumors that Vindex was planning a revolt. Nero quickly left his beloved Greece behind and landed at the more con-genial Naples early in 68; from there he began a procession to Rome. He entered the city as a triumphant general even though his victories were in the peaceful Greek games. Nero’s victory procession in Rome was a parody of military triumphs. Nero, dressed in a Greek chlamys, drove the triumphal chariot that Augustus used on state occasions, wearing his Olympic crown and holding the Pythian crown in his right hand. He was preceded by a long procession of bearers carrying the remaining 806 crowns and behind them were men bearing placards with the place names in large letters where Nero had won his victories. The emperor was followed by the augustiani who applauded and shouted, “Hail, victor of Olympia! Hail, Pythian conquer-or! Hail Augustus! Glory to Nero Hercules, to Nero Apollo!” (Dio 63.20). So many people had crowded into the Circus Maximus that the only way Nero’s pro-cession could enter was by removing one of the arcades. From the Circus, the pro-cession went through the Forum to the temple of Apollo and ended at the Domus Aurea, where all of the crowns were placed on display.

The next day, games were held in the Circus. The obelisk in the center of the spina was hung with the 808 crowns, and the emperor drove a chariot around the arena in victory (Dio 63.21). When the festivities were over, Nero reluctantly turned to state affairs but soon he returned to Naples. There he heard the news of the revolt of C. Julius Vindex around March 19-23, the anniversary of the murder of Agrippina, while watching a gymnastic competition. The exact date of Vindex’s declaration is unknown. Vindex was of praetorian rank and probably was the governor of Gallia Narbonensis or Lugdunensis, which had no troops. He was descended from the tribal chieftains of Aquitania and was a senator from Tres Galliae. The cause of the revolt has been considered frustration over the crushing taxes Nero had levied, rather than a nationalist revolt. However, there may have been additional reasons at work. Vindex and Galba named avenging the victims of Nero as one of the reasons for their rebellion (Dio 63.22.3; Suet. Galba 10.1). It is possible that the forced suicide of Corbulo provided the spark on which Vindex decided to act. Why the death of Corbulo would have brought about this reaction has to do with the grant of citizenship that Claudius gave the citizens of Tres Galliae in 48. Italian senators had opposed the grant and the word-ing of Claudius’ speech implies that the senators from Narbone had lent their sup-port to their fellow Gauls (Ann. 11.23).

Corbulo was one of these senators and Vindex’s father was among those who benefited from Claudius’ decree. Plutarch says Vindex had sounded out many provincial governors, including Galba, before proclaiming his revolt (Galba 4.2). It is a credit to Nero’s policy to-ward his governors that the majority sent their letters from Vindex to the emperor. Galba’s failure to do this explains why Nero gave orders for his murder (Suet. Galba 9.2). It was the interception of these orders that changed Galba’s mind to join Vindex in April 68. Galba declared him-self legate of the Senate and Roman peo-ple (vacillating on claiming the principate) on April 3, even though he had only one legion at his disposal. He received the support of Otho who, like Vindex, had no troops (Suet. Galba 10.2, 14.2; Plut. Galba 5; Dio 63.23, 64.6.5). Nevertheless, with the few troops at his disposal, Vin-dex opened the revolt by blockading Lug-dunum, which was loyal to Nero. After receiving the news of Vindex’s revolt, Nero did not write to the Senate for eight days (Nero 40.4). This is usually thought to be an indication that Nero was divorced from reality.

However, this was not foolhardiness on his part but unconcernerd from the fact that Vindex had no legions and the emperor could expect that the governor of Upper Germany, Verginius Rufus, would crush the revolt. In the meantime, Nero received insulting mes-sages from Vindex making fun of his singing. Eventually, Nero wrote a letter ask-ing the Senate to stand by him and he re-turned to Rome to consult with his consilium. However, rather than attend strictly to business, he went to inspect a new water organ (Nero 41; Dio 63.26.4). But the news that Galba had joined the revolt spurred him to action and Nero had the Senate declare him a public enemy. He began to recruit a new legion, named I Adiutrix, from the Misenum fleet and other troops in Rome. The legion was placed under the command of Petronius Turpilianus and was stationed in Northern Italy, but Nero did not join his soldiers prefer-ring to remain in Rome (Hist. 1.69, 31, 70; Nero 44.1). At some point after the defection of Galba, news of the revolt of Clodius Macer arrived. The legate of Africa also possessed only a single legion and proclaimed himself a champion of liberty but more alarming was the threat that Macer could cut off the corn shipments from Africa.

Even though the province of Africa was not a principle source of corn the loss would be significant. In May, Verginius Rufus marched to Vesontio where he had a secret conference with Vindex. The subsequent battle that took place was against the wishes of both commanders and resulted in a crushing defeat of Vindex’s forces. Vindex may have died in the battle or by his own hand (Dio 63.24.1-3; Plut. Galba 6.3). The German legions were so elated that they pro-claimed Verginius Rufus imperator. Ru-fus refused, declaring that only the Senate and the People could make such a choice (Hist. 1.8.2; Dio 63.25.1; Plut. Galba 6). Galba heard news of the defeat and despaired. He wrote to Verginius to suggest he join the revolt and went to Clunia, in the interior of Spain, to await his fate. One month later, he was still there (Suet. Gal-ba 11; Plut. Galba 6.4). Paradoxically, the news of the victory depressed Nero and he sent a second commander, Rubrius Gallus, to join his legion in northern Italy. What would appear to be a victory for Nero had a different edge in the result. The German legions under Verginius were clearly in revolt, and even though their commander had refused their acclamation as emperor, he had become a rallying point for his troops in opposition to the emperor. Far from the fighting, Nero had given news of Verginius’ victory the interpretation that the German legions had gone over to Galba, despite assurances to the contrary (Plut. Galba 6.3).


Tacitus claimed that Nero lost his throne because of stories and rumors (Hist. 1.98.2). It was alleged by Dio that Petronius Turpilianus deserted Nero’s cause (63.27.1a) but Plutarch says the opposite (Galba 15.2, 17.3). Certainly Galba’s execution of Petronius would confirm that he had never wavered in his loyalty to Nero. What Dio might be referring to is a rumor of Petronius’s defection that caused Nero to assume he was defeated. His final despair may not have been that of a maniac but a poorly in-formed emperor.A Mysterious End Nero considered leaving Rome for Alexandria unaware that the loyalty of the prefect Tiberius Alexander was wavering. The Praetorian Prefect Nymphidius Sabi-nus, the new colleague of Tigellinus, suggested that Nero would need a reliable guard in Egypt and convinced him to send his German guards immediately. Thus, Nero sent away his most reliable troops when he would need them most. The emperor’s own departure was set for June 9 or 10 and he sent several freedmen to Ostia to prepare the fleet for departure.

In the meantime, Nero installed himself in the Servilian Gardens on the left bank of the Tiber from where he could make a discreet departure (Nero 47). On the afternoon of June 8, he sent for the tribunes and centurions of the Praetorian Guard to inform them that they would ac-company him to Egypt. Nymphidius had effectively turned the loyalty of the guard against Nero and they were not willing to follow him. One of the officers quoted a line from the Aeneid: “Is it so great a misfortune to die?” (12.645). Although Nero failed to convince the Praetorians to accompany him, they remained loyal until he fled. Then Nymphidius and Tigellinus declared the Praetorians for Galba (Nero 47-48.2; Hist 1.5; Plut. Galba 2.2, 14.2). The crucial factor for Nero was the attitude of the Praetorians, not the revolt in the provinces. He considered abdication as long as he would be allowed to keep Egypt and contemplated an appeal to the plebs to forgive his past wrongs. But Nero put off a decision and went to bed. At midnight, he awoke and was surprised by the silence. After walking about he discovered that the guards had deserted him.

Praetorian Guards

Terrified, he called for help and roused Epaphroditus and Phaon along with several servants. Nero sent messengers to find a safe refuge for him but none returned. Tired of waiting, he went to the houses of some unnamed friends but was turned away. While he was gone, the servants ransacked the palace stealing any= thing of value. Nero gave some thought to committing suicide by throwing him-self into the Tiber but could not go through with the deed. Phaon (who held the post of a rationibus) suggested that the emper-or could go to his country home some three or four miles outside the city (Nero 48.1). The house was located on the eastern side of Rome, which meant that the fugitives would have to traverse close to Nero’s enemies. Nero took the suggestion gladly and wearing only his night tunic, armed with two daggers, rode off with Phaon, Epaphroditus and Sporus. In the meantime, Nymphidius called key senators who supported Galba to the Praetorian camp; they wasted no time in declaring Nero a public enemy (Nero 49; ‘Plut. Galba 15). Nero and his party reached Phaon’s house and dismounted in a reedy area before they reached the house itself and walked down a narrow path full of brambles. Because he was bare foot Nero walked step by step on a cloak.

Nero the Actor and Performer

Dio says that Nero was recognized and hid off the road in a place full of reeds until daybreak, fearful that someone was searching for him (63.28.1-2). On reaching the house, Nero and his party had to jump the wall to avoid rousing Phaon’s servants. Apparently, the freedman could not trust his servants from revealing Nero’s whereabouts. Nero, however, refused so a tunnel had to be dug for him so he could crawl on his hands and knees to enter the yard before Phaon’s house. Once there, a makeshift bed was made for the emperor and he was given a coarse piece of bread to eat but he could not swallow it. He did drink from a pitcher of dirty water, commenting about his decocta as he drank. Dio reports Nero going to a cave where he eats some bread and drinks a great deal of wa-ter. Having suffered through all the indignities and ordeal of getting to Phaon’s house, his host now advised Nero to take his own life rather than submit to the out-rages that faced him. Epaphroditus voiced the same opinion. Nero felt trapped and resigned himself to death, asking that his head must not be severed from his body. He requested that a grave be dug for him and as the work proceeded, he repeated: “What an artist dies with me!” (Nero 49). While Nero lamented his fate, a messenger arrived with a note for Phaon. Nero snatched the letter and read that he had been declared a public enemy and would be punished in the ancient fashion (Nero 49.2). One may wonder how this messenger found his way to Phaon’s country villa and did not expect to find him with the emperor at the Servilian Gardens.

Apparently, Phaon and Epaphroditus had defected along with Nymphidius to Galba and led Nero into a trap where he could be taken without a problem.’9 Nero asked what punishment was meant by the ancient style and was told he would be stripped naked, held by the neck in a wooden form and beaten to death with rods. At the news, Nero seized both daggers he had brought but could not bring himself to use them, and asked that one of his companions kill him-self to set an example for him to follow. Then, the sound of galloping horses provided Nero with a bit of courage. He recalled a line from Homer: ‘The sound of the swift-footed chargers strikes my ears” (Iliad 10.535) (Said by Nestor at the approach of Diomedes’ horses). He again seized the daggers and Epaphroditus helped him stab himself in the throat with one of them. Dio relates that Nero stabbed himself and while in agony was dispatched by Epaphroditus (63.29.3). In his final moments, Nero seemed to regain his presence of mind. The centurion, who had come on orders to arrest him, wanted to staunch the flow of blood with his cloak. Nero refused saying bitterly: “Too late. That is your loyalty.” The emperor died with his protruding eyes fixed, filling all present with horror.

News of the suicide of Nero spread quickly and a crowd of the curious came to Phaon’s villa. The Praetorians kept them back and admitted a few individuals to view the dead emperor. Acte somehow obtained permission to remove Nero’s corpse and gave her former lover a funeral costing 200 thousand sester-tii. His ashes were placed in the mausoleum of the Domitii, near the Pincio, where the church of Santa Maria del Popolo stands today. Dio of Prusa (21.9-10) noted that Nero’s end was mysterious, his presumed suicide being witnessed by only a few, and there were those who thought he was still alive and was hidden away. The private funeral reinforced this idea. The Greek population longed for Nero to be alive and some thought he would return from his hiding place. The myth that Nero had survived and was hidden away until he could return was a manifestation of the admiration the Greeks had for him. This notion was so real that Christian writers came to regard Nero as the Anti-Christ: he was the first to persecute the Christians and would not be the last.


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