Nero has been accused of numerous crimes and extremely brutal actions. He was indeed a criminal personality, but not to the extent he was assigned to be and certainly not more than other Roman emperors who have been assigned a ‘positive’ historical image (i.e. Constantine the Great). Most importantly, Nero grew up in a environment based on criminality, because of his ruthless mother, Agrippina. This influence accounted for the many murders committed by Nero even after Agrippina’s death, in order to consolidate his rule, because he learned this lesson repeatedly from his mother during her whole life. Agrippina saw her son only as a tool to control the empire. This is the reason why Nero eventually killed her, having no other choice. It is considered most likely that Agrippina who had seduce many men to gain power, had also seduced her own son.
Most scholars consider now almost certain that Nero did not set fire to Rome. This strange rumor was quoted mainly by the ancient historian Cassius Dio (and also by the not really reliable Suetonius and possibly by Pliny) who lived a century after Nero and reproduced the “gossips” during Nero’s reign. Indeed Cassius Dio “places” arbitrarily Nero in the Palatine hill, watching Rome burned and playing his lyre inspired by the fire. Of course, this is not a real incident because Nero could not even approach the Palatine, because the fire had closed the road to the hill. When the fire broke out, Nero was in the city of Antium, in the south of Rome. He returned hastily and did everything he could to save as many citizens as possible, and relieve those affected by the fire. Throughout his life, he was rather characterized by the tendency to help the people, especially the lower social strata, and he used to murder only those who were really threatening him, including his own mother. He detested violence, despite being forced to use it to survive. But the hostile sentiment that it had been created against him in the Roman Senate and nobility (because of his permanent friendly attitude towards the lower social strata, and because of his controversy with the Senators and the aristocrats) turned from the beginning the suspicions about the arson to him. This happened not because the charges against Nero were really logic, but as a pretext to be discredited by his enemies, the senators and the aristocrats (I think that they diffused the rumors that Nero was the arsonist of Rome). And suspicions were intensified when Nero taking advantage of the public space that was “cleaned” by the fire, built there a magnificent palace covering an entire city block. It seems that Nero simply exploited the disaster by the fire, in order to construct the palace that he was planning to build in the suburbs of Rome.
On the other hand, Nero was friendly to the lower classes of Rome probably not really from charity, but for the need to gain their support in his ongoing controversy with the nobles and the senators who questioned his authority due to the unscrupulous acts of his mother.
But who or what was responsible for the burning of Rome? Mostly the Praetorians and the Christians have been accused for it, because they both hated Nero. The Praetorians does not seem to be the alleged arsonists because firefighting was one of their duties. Nor does it seem possible that the Christians were responsible for the fire. The Christians were considered as the arsonists of Rome by some modern historians, including Adolphe Lods, mainly because of their religious fanaticism. Indeed Lods cites a testimony of Nero’s time about a threat of the Christians against an imperial officer (probably Tingelinus) as a retaliation for the prosecution against them. They allegedly said to the officer: “One night, a few of us, with a few torches …”. But in my point of view this is a fake “evidence” to support the charges against them (ancient and/or modern).
Whoever was responsible for the destruction, somebody had to be charged officially in order to stop the rumors that the emperor was responsible for the arson. And the scapegoat was found easily in the Christians, the new religious group that was very disliked throughout Rome, so no one would object to their doom. Besides, some Christians rejoiced openly for the burning of Rome, because they have suffered persecutions by the Romans, and they used to proclaim publicly that they wanted to change completely the world. Fire is the best “cleansing” for this change, but unfortunately for the Christians, it was also the most obvious reason for them to be accused for the arson. Nero who despised them because of their fanatic controversy to the Greco-Roman culture, blamed them unfairly for the burning of the city and gave them a terrible punishment: he tied them up to stakes in Rome and burnt them alive to serve as torches to illuminate the city. It is estimated that from the approximately 3,000 Christian inhabitants of Rome, the Roman authorities executed 300 of them.
Most probably the fire was a coincidence, as most researchers believe. A fire in Rome was not something uncommon and the unbearable heat of those days favored a good blaze. In all likelihood the fire had started by the food marketers of the central market, who came from distant places and not having shelter, they bed down overnight in the market place where they used to light bonfires and drink alcohol all night. They usually got drunk and combined with the heat and the humidity of those days, it was very easy to lose control of the fire being lit for cooking or lighting, or to drop a lighting lamp in their tent, or to drop by mistake a strong alcoholic drink in the bonfire. A destructive fire could start from such carelessness, like the one that burned Rome that night.
Nero took part in music competitions and chariot races in Greece, but the ridiculous narrative of his participation provided by the ancient authors that detested him, was not real of course. The Greeks actually gave away victory to Nero in order not to displease the fanatic pro-Greek (‘philhellene’) emperor (a real worshipper of Greek civilization), but not in the blatantly and slimy way that is described by the ancient chroniclers, mostly the Latin/Roman authors who were very displeased by Nero’s permanent favor to Greece. Apparently Nero himself would not like this and he would surely be offended. Most probably the stewards of the games just placed as opponent competitors against Nero, some Greek musicians and poets who were inferior to the emperor, in order to ensure his victory, but the competition took place on equal terms. The best Greek musicians and poets did not took part, out of respect and appreciation for the philhellene emperor. Nero of course was neither mad nor stupid. And his musical works was not of poor quality, as it has been written. A contemporary chronicler of Nero and hostile to him, wrote that the emperor was dissonant but his musical work was not bad.
German map of the Roman empire, with the province of Achaea/Achaia (Southern Greece).
Nero gave ‘Freedom’ to Southern Greece (Roman province of Achaea), an act that displeased a lot the senators because they would no longer extract any taxes from Greece (the province belonged to the “senatorial provinces”, meaning those whose taxes were received by the Senate). But the “Freedom of Greece” applied only to the tax exemption, because the Helladites (Southern metropolitan Greeks) were unable to have their own foreign policy. Actually they could not have their own foreign policy in any case, because the whole Mediterranean world belonged to the Romans. Only the German and Sarmatian barbarians of the north or the Parthians could have interstate contacts with the “freed” Greeks, something impossible of course because it would be dangerous for the Romans. Moreover this was not feasible because Southern Greece (Achaea) was surrounded on all sides by extensive Roman territories. Greece of this period had not any significant native military forces, since the Greeks were then warless, so they needed the Roman army for their defense. Chances are that the metropolitan Greeks themselves probably did not want to break off the Roman Empire. The political status that Nero gave them was the best possible for them: tax-freed and protected by the Roman shield. For that reason the Greeks had always good memories from Nero. The first act of his successor was to revoke the “Freedom of Greece”.
Nero could easily crush the revolt that broke out against him in the provinces, which ultimately cost him his life (he committed suicide because of it). But his permanent mistake was that he always paid more attention to what the others were telling him, despite the realistic need to investigate himself what was really happening. So a ‘trusty’ courtier who was actually acting against Nero, told him that not only the two military commanders that had actually risen against the emperor, revolted against him, but almost all the commanders and generals of the empire revolted, something that it was not true. Instead, the other commanders remained loyal to Nero and thus they could easily crush the revolt of the two rebel generals. Nero believed that he was left without adherents, but instead of investigating himself what was really happening, he believed the treacherous courtier. Initially he decided to resign from his imperial authority and find peace as a private citizen, dealing with his love for music and Greek culture. Unfortunately for him, merciless Rome did not know any former emperors but only dead emperors. Nero had to commit suicide to avoid a dishonorable death in the hands of the usurper successor Galva.
Nero certainly was not an insane or an incompetent emperor as he is known in History. Perhaps for this distorted historical image of him, is to blame largely the imputation of guilt for the burning of Rome to the Christians, and also Nero’s constant confrontation with the Senate and generally with the ruling class of Rome. Also, the distortion of his historical image seems to be due to his dislike for the Christians. It is characteristic that those Roman emperors who were especially opposed to the spread of Christianity, were designated by the Christian chroniclers (“makers” of the history of those centuries) as “paranoid, insane, incompetent” etc, i.e. Nero, Heliogavalus, Julian “the Apostate”, Theodosius the “Lesser” etc. Indeed, the “historical designations” of some of these emperors (Apostate, Lesser) is characteristic of the empathy of the subsequent Christian chroniclers for them.
Finally, perhaps Nero holds a relatively unknown “lead”: it seems that he was the first emperor of Rome who was not of Roman origin. He was likely a Volscian (like his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus). The Volscians who lived south of Latium, had already been latinized when Nero was born, but they were a southern Umbrian people and not of Latin stock. After Nero, the overwhelming majority of Roman emperors had no longer Roman origins.
SOURCES & RELATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cassius Dio, Roman History
Plutarch, Parallel Lives (Galva)
Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Life of Nero
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
Philostratus II, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Books 4–5
Warmington, B. Η.: Nero: Reality and Legend. London, 1969.
Holland, R.: Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, London 2000.