Over the years the name Nero has not had a pleasant connotation. When you type Nero’s name into Google the following questions pop up: Why was Nero a bad emperor? Who was the cruelest Roman emperor? Pretty much sums the guy up.
Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to Agrippina the Younger and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus sometime in December in the year 37 A.D. His mother was great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus and therefore Nero, or Lucius at the time, had a privileged childhood.
After the death of his biological father, supposedly poisoned by Agrippina, Lucius was adopted by his mother’s new husband, his great uncle Emperor Claudius. Agrippina persuaded Claudius to set aside his own son Britannicus and adopt 13-year-old Lucius as his son and heir. It was through this adoption that Lucius’ name changed to Nero.
Agrippina enjoyed enormous power while Claudius ruled but she wanted more. In 54 A.D. Claudius died, again allegedly poisoned by Agrippina. Nero became Emperor at the age of 17. For the first five years of his reign, he was actually known for his political savvy and generosity. However, Agrippina was the one pulling the strings. She thought she could control Nero and be the true ruler in Rome, but when she fell out of favor she started supporting Britannicus’ claim to the throne.
Nero learned some tricks from Agrippina and had Britannicus murdered with, shockingly, poison. He also tried to have his mother drowned by a boat ‘accident’, but when that didn’t work he had her stabbed to death instead. After that things went downhill for Nero.
Three years after Agrippina’s murder Nero allegedly flew into some sort of temper tantrum and literally kicked his wife to death. That same year a fire occurred almost destroying half the city. Historians believe Nero may have been to blame as he was looking for space to expand his palace. Nevertheless, Nero redirected the blame to the Christians and began systematically killing them. He made these deaths quite theatrical; he had some dressed as animals then ripped apart by his dogs while others were burned alive.
A year after that Nero discovered an assassination plot against him. One of his closest advisors was even caught up in the plot which was probably a heavy blow to Nero’s ego. Following this failed coup, Nero decided to take an extended holiday to Greece. Nevermind that Rome was in debt up to their eyeballs thanks to Nero’s spending habits, the emperor needed a vacation.
Unfortunately, time away didn’t make things any better for Nero. Upon his return, he failed to put a stop to several revolts happening throughout his empire. Eventually, the Senate turned against him and Nero killed himself rather than face the will of the people. His last words were reportedly, “What an artist dies in me!” A little melodramatic but seems fitting based on his personality.
Since his death, history has not been kind to Nero. He left Rome in a state of political upheaval and effectively brought an end to his family’s dynasty. He even earned the reputation as the Anti-Christ among Christians who escaped his persecution. But when you kick your wife to death and kill thousands of innocent people you probably shouldn’t expect historians, or even your subjects, to be singing your praises.