Three centuries after the death of the emperor Nero, his name had become a byword for the very worst kind of ruler. For Ausonius of Bordeaux, in his didactic poem the Caesares, Nero was a savage and baleful matricide (saevus, dirus and matricida). By this time, the bad Nero was the only version anyone knew, his reputation distilled from the works of Tacitus and Suetonius, one of them a child and the other not yet born when Nero died by suicide in 68 ad. There was an alternative Nero, however, one whose first five years as emperor, the ‘quinquennium Neronis’ when he was tutored by Seneca and guided by the praetorian prefect Burrus, seemed certain to bring in a new golden age.
A year rarely passes without someone attempting to rehabilitate an emperor. With some of them, Commodus or Elagabalus for instance, the task is impossible. No amount of wishful thinking can make their reigns less calamitous. But Nero is a different story. Beneath the virulently hostile strand of senatorial opinion that dominates the extant sources is a more complicated reality. Nero’s fate as the last of the Julio-Claudian rulers wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The dynasty was established fifty years before his birth, its success resting in part on its founder’s preternatural longevity: Augustus outlived not just the last scions of the old republic, but the memory of it as a functional polity. He also outlived half a dozen prospective heirs, finally having to settle on his unloved stepson, Tiberius, after spending decades studiously excluding him. Tiberius, the son of Augustus’ wife Livia by a previous marriage, was a skilled soldier with no trace of municipal origins (on both counts unlike his stepfather). He would remain ambivalent about the autocracy to which he acceded in 14 ad, but Augustus’ creation was robust enough to weather not just Tiberius’ own eventual neglect, but also the petulant madness of his successor, Caligula, and the indecision and pedantry of Claudius.
It owed its resilience to a helpful failure to be explicit about the system. Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 bc because both his friends and his enemies feared, with good reason, that he intended to make himself king, a title hated by republican aristocrats with a nearly superstitious fervour. Augustus, however, disclaimed regal ambitions and presented his new regime as a restoration of the republic, even though all real military power, and pretty much all civil authority, answered to him alone. Honours, offices and a share in the perquisites of empire satisfied the senatorial order enough to make its lack of actual independence tolerable. There was only one problem: if Augustus wasn’t king (John Drinkwater translates princeps, the evasive, multivalent honorific used by and of Augustus, as ‘boss’), how was power to be transferred when he died? Much care was taken to fudge the answer. With a suitable show of reluctance, Tiberius allowed the senate to bestow on him the powers wielded by Augustus and accepted the acclamation of the army, without whose consent the senatorial grant was moot. Thereafter, the eldest or best available descendant of Augustus was tacitly accepted as heir, and the senate, army and praetorian guard ratified the fiction that there had been a choice.
Tiberius wasn’t related to Augustus, but his designation as heir had sufficed. Caligula, the great-grandson of Augustus, was a Julian on his mother’s side, and a Claudian on his father’s. It required prodigies of incompetence and caprice to squander the goodwill attached to his lineage, especially the heroic memory of his father, the famous general Germanicus, before his assassination in January 41. Caligula’s uncle and successor, Claudius, Germanicus’ younger brother, lacked his nephew’s unimpeachable dynastic claim, and, suffering from a clubfoot and a stutter – a sure sign of moral degeneracy to the Roman mind – had never been considered a serious contender for emperor. The dynastic fervour of the praetorians led them to pluck Claudius from hiding and force his accession on a reluctant senate. Much was therefore expected of Claudius’ postaccession fourth marriage to his niece Agrippina the Younger, mother of 12-year-old Nero, whose claim to the Julio-Claudian inheritance was very much stronger than his new father’s. Nero’s father was descended from the marriage of Augustus’ sister to Mark Antony; his mother was the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, and so the great-granddaughter of Augustus (and the sister of Caligula, who exiled her for plotting a coup).
This rehearsal of family ties is the only way to convey a true measure of the Augustan principate. Romans revered ancestry while affecting to reject dynasty. A Roman aristocrat’s sense of self was the sum of ancestral virtues and vices, successes and failures. Agrippina’s ambitions, for herself and for her son, should be understood in that light. They were destined for greatness; it was both owed to them and demanded of them. Nero lacked the drive to do what the world expected of him, but in 49, when Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile and married her, the prospects must have looked excellent. With the support of Seneca and Burrus, she received the honorific title of Augusta, and persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero, to make him the guardian of Britannicus, Claudius’ male heir by a previous marriage, and to betroth him to Britannicus’ sister Octavia. When Claudius died in 54, poison was suspected – as it tended to be in all but the most incontrovertibly natural of imperial deaths – and Agrippina blamed. Despite this, the transition to Nero’s principate went smoothly enough: he was acclaimed by the praetorian guard, after which the senate voted him the package of powers that had been held by Augustus and made Claudius divus, ‘a god’, and Agrippina his priestess. In his first speech to the senate, written by Seneca, 17-year-old Nero promised to rule as Augustus had, and to eliminate the secret trials and the malign influence of court favourites that had marred the reign of Claudius.
Nero fell out with his mother within the year. Seeking to return to the centre of power, she tried to make use of Britannicus, but he died in 55 – poison was again suspected. Thwarted, she tried again to return to favour, but further alienated her son by opposing his affair with the aristocratic Poppaea Sabina: Poppaea had once been married to Burrus’ deposed predecessor, who was loyal to Claudius’ third wife, Messalina, her own predecessor. For that, and for the beauty visible in her portrait busts, she remained deeply suspect in Agrippina’s eyes. In 59, Agrippina was shipwrecked in the bay of Misenum, west of Naples: attempted murder, people claimed, contrived by means of a boat that was designed to sink. Contradictions among the sources warrant caution. But, whatever the truth, after the shipwreck, and after Nero had been told, prematurely, of her death, Agrippina was stabbed to death at her villa in Baiae on the bay of Naples.
For some ancient writers, the good years ended here, in 59. Nero now felt free to divorce and exile Octavia, who was infertile and would soon be executed on trumped-up conspiracy charges, in order to marry the pregnant Poppaea. Tacitus, however, places the end of the ‘quinquennium Neronis’ somewhat later, in 62, with the death of Burrus and the consequent sidelining of Seneca. That was the year of treason trials for maiestas – lèse-majesté – a deviation from Augustan precedent. Worse than this affront to the senate was Nero’s obvious, and obviously genuine, love of Greek culture: he opened a gymnasium in which Romans were encouraged to exercise in the Hellenic fashion, he wrote poetry, he sang and played the lyre. By 64 ad, he was performing publicly, first at Naples and then in Rome. Aristocratic Romans’ ambivalence about Greek cultural superiority – older and more sophisticated, but soft and unmanly – was triggered.
In July 64, the ‘Great Fire’ of Rome broke out in a shopping arcade near the Circus Maximus, and damaged most of the city’s 14 districts, burning three of them to the ground. When it became clear that Nero intended – along with much other rebuilding – to construct a massive palace complex (the domus aurea, Golden House) on the site of what had been private properties, it was rumoured that he had set the fire, playing his lyre while it raged. Stung by these rumours, the emperor made a new cult – Christians – the scapegoat, burning some alive as symbolic punishment for arson. Though he definitely didn’t start the fire, Nero might well have fiddled while neighbourhoods were razed; but the image was fixed in the collective memory by Christian writers, who demonised Nero as the first of the emperors to persecute believers.
After the fire, the Roman plebs seem still to have been fond of the flamboyant emperor, but the senatorial elite was now hostile. In 65, a conspiracy to place C. Calpurnius Piso on the throne was discovered and a bloodbath ensued. Senators, officers and even one of the guard prefects were executed, and those suspected merely of having sympathy with the plotters were encouraged to kill themselves to forestall execution: Seneca died by his own hand, as did two senators – Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus – who would be remembered as Stoic martyrs. The next year, after Poppaea died, the still childless emperor (the baby had died in infancy) married Statilia Messalina, and visited Greece, where he would compete in public games, including Olympics that were rescheduled for his benefit, as well as declare the Greeks free of Roman hegemony and taxation.
In the meantime, discontent spread to the western provinces. Rebuilding Rome after the fire cost a great deal of money and the emperor’s financial officials resorted to property confiscations on dubious grounds. In addition, though Nero had no interest in military adventure, war had come anyway, between Rome and Parthia over the kingdom of Armenia, with the Britons, after the uprising under Boudicca, and against the Jewish population of Judaea. Fearing their successes, Nero had several generals executed, among them Domitius Corbulo, the finest soldier of his generation. But paranoia did not deter him from spending a long period in Greece, where several false Neros would appear after the real one’s death, one almost at once, others as much as twenty years later. They were eagerly received among those who had taken seriously the dead emperor’s promises of freedom. Others, like the author of the book of Revelation, expected the emperor’s return in the shape of the Beast. The Armenian word for ‘Antichrist’ is a transliteration of the Greek Nerōn.
While the emperor still lived, the fate of Corbulo and his counterparts had alarmed the generals waging war in the west. That was dangerous: conspiracies in the senate or at court could, once betrayed, be suppressed readily enough, but collusion among men at the head of armies couldn’t be. In March 68, one of the governors of Gaul revolted. The neighbouring loyal governor suppressed this rising while Nero dithered – fatally. Africa mutinied, and then the Spanish legate Galba, who minted coins and raised new legions in the peninsula. In Rome, the praetorians were persuaded to declare for Galba. The senate followed suit and declared Nero a public enemy. He died by suicide in the villa of a freedman. Civil war followed, and 69 ad became known as the year of four emperors (Galba was the first of them). Vespasian, who had been sent to Judaea to suppress the Jewish revolt, would prevail. His triumph proved that it was possible to found a ruling dynasty without a Julio-Claudian man at its head – and so the future of the imperial system was secured.
How bad was Nero? Drinkwater presents the case for the defence, in a book aimed at fellow scholars. His great contribution is to pay attention to the overlapping parts of what he calls ‘the establishment team’: the different levels of amici, ‘friends’, who had access to the emperor, as well as the lower ranks of court and palace staff. There can be no doubt that they did as much to keep the imperial enterprise running as the emperor himself. As to Nero, Drinkwater poses every possible objection to every crime and outrage for which he has been blamed. In nearly every case, Drinkwater’s points have merit. The sources are obscure or contradictory, much is ambiguous and always will be. Perhaps the story of the unseaworthy ship was an invention. Certainly, Roman poisoners lacked the fast-acting toxins available to modernity. The Pisonian conspiracy was real.
None of this makes Nero a better emperor. Drawing out, as Drinkwater does, the similarities between the ‘quinquennium Neronis’ and the years that followed only underscores that point. In the late empire, regional power blocs, both military and civilian, needed the imperial system to function, rather than a particular emperor. The extensive bureaucracy also ticked over of its own accord. In Nero’s time, however, the imperial system resembled a hypertrophied aristocratic household staff rather than an effective state, and needed a head capable of managing it. Late Roman generals usually stood at the top of regional establishments whose interests they put first, but Nero’s generals were more concerned with events in Rome, still the centre of the imperial universe. When he lost his generals’ confidence, there were no structural constraints on their actions. Nero pioneered a new model of emperorship, that of a showman revelling in the love of the common people, but it couldn’t compensate for his neglect of the aristocracy. One comes away from this book rather sorry for the sensitive teenager, deeply conflicted about his mother and temperamentally ill-suited for his role – and sorry too for any polity that would gift power to so fragile a narcissist.