At sixteen, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus stood overlooking the people of Rome. People cheered below as he stepped out on the balcony and he saw the excitement on their faces. He beamed out at his subjects, full of youthful energy and confident that he would bring prosperity to Rome. Right beside him, stood Agrippina the Younger, his mother and the empress of Rome.
As Nero surveyed the people and the architecture of the Roman Empire, he imagined all that he would do. The chance of a lifetime lay before him: the chance to have everything he could ever want and to gain the love of his people. Agrippina saw in the face of her son, the years of toil and hardship it took to get them both there.
The last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero is not one to be passed over lightly. His story is one of a man who rose to power by means of his mother’s ambition and fell as a result of his own selfish decisions. In this story, if evil begets evil, then selfishness begets selfishness which deserves the great tragedy that follows.
The story of Nero is from our book, Famous Men of Rome, a collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth. It’s a perfect addition to the collection of any students and teachers of classical history, from fourth to sixth grade.
Nero was born into an influential family, turned upside down. His father died when he was still a toddler, and his mother, Agrippina the Younger, was an exiled descendant of Roman Emperors. This exile Isolated her from her only son; and she was determined that she would return to Rome and wield the power she believed was hers. When the emperor who exiled her was assassinated, Agrippina decided to return to Rome to vie for political power. So she lured her uncle, the new Emperor Tiberius Claudius, into a trap. First, she eliminated all of her rivals vying for the emperor’s attention and married him herself. Agrippina knew that security for her power rested in her son. In 49 AD she convinced Claudius to officially adopt Nero as his own, naming him co-heir to the throne. A few years later, she cemented Nero’s place in line for the throne by arranging the marriage between Nero and Claudius’ oldest daughter, a marriage that few knew at the time would lead to disastrous results. With her son in the good graces of the emperor and her own royal advisors now in place, she knew it was time to strike.
Many ancient historians agree that when Claudius died in 54 A.D. it was at the plotting hands of Agrippina the Younger. Legend has it that she poisoned him with a plate of mushrooms and that in one fatal bite, the emperor’s fate was sealed. Agrippina’s selfish desire for power was fulfilled through her son who ascended to the throne in 54 A.D. at the age of 16.
Now, we need to highlight something important about this story. Nero’s reign began smoothly, and for a short time people saw him as a great emperor. He appealed against many of the evil laws that his predecessors had established. He openly supported the Senate’s autonomy, argued that slaves could sue unjust owners, and granted aid to Jewish territories. He banned capital punishment unwilling to condemn citizens to death, even going so far as to say, “I wish I had never learned to write, for then I shouldn’t have to sign away men’s lives!” How ironic.
When Nero ascended to emperor, Agrippina ascended to empress, making many of the decisions for the kingdom. If you know your history, this power dynamic was quite unhealthy. She sat side by side with Nero in court and participated in Senate meetings. Roman coins minted in the first two years of Nero’s reign bore the image of both him and her, side by side. And while she had this power, she did everything she could to keep it.
By eliminating competitors, silencing opposition, and manipulating Nero’s relationships she ensured that all the power stayed under one roof. What Agrippina didn’t take into account was the selfishness and treachery she modeled was what her son would learn. It’s unclear exactly which events specifically their relationship, but the Roman historian, Tacitus, suggests it was when Nero fell out of love with his first wife and Agrippina’s favorite Octavia. Nero had begun an affair with another woman, openly rejecting the bride his mother chose for him. This unapologetic departure from his mother’s wishes opened Agrippina’s eyes to the reality of what her son was becoming.
Little by little, Nero was taking this power back for himself.
Well this just wouldn’t do for Agrippina. And so, in an attempt to undermine Nero and remind him who held real control, she threw her support in with Claudius’ son Britannicus. This is important because Britannicus held a potential bloodline claim to the imperial throne of Rome.
Agrippina’s apparent abandonment sent Nero into a spiral. He became concerned that his step-brother might have a more legitimate claim to the throne than he did. Driven by his selfish desire for the throne, and the fear of losing control, Nero took advantage of a banquet in Britannicus’ honor and slipped a powdered poison into his step-brother’s cup, eliminating one more threat to his position as emperor. This murder, the affairs, the opulent lifestyle; all this an ever-growing list of things that drove Agrippina and Nero to detest one another. Evil begets evil.
Once he decided that he was willing to kill to get the things that he wanted, and knowing that Agrippina was willing to do the same, Nero knew that he couldn’t rest until his mother was also out of the way. All remembrance of his mother’s hand in establishing him as emperor was gone. So, he organized a cruise for his mother and several of her attendants. Nero ordered the ship for this cruise to be built so poorly that it would fall apart as it went out to sea. The plan went off without a hitch. The boat split into pieces, and several people died in the accident. However, Agrippina survived, and was able to swim to shore to the applause of the onlooking crowd. But this was not enough to save her. When Nero discovered that she was still alive, he sent his hitmen directly to his own mother’s house to brutally kill her before she could reveal all that he had done. Nero’s once bright future was now unalterably headed down a path of violence.
Nero’s selfish ambition was now no longer held in check by his mother and step-brother. He stopped at nothing to ensure that he would continue to reign supreme. He killed Octavia and two of his other wives in fits of rage, making false accusations against them to make their deaths appear just. He even forced his old tutor, the famous Roman statesmen Seneca, to commit suicide when he heard a rumor that Seneca was plotting against him to take the throne. The power-hungry and selfish spirit that his mother instilled in him at a young age continued to direct his decisions through the rest of his life.
Violence was merely one manifestation of Nero’s selfishness. It also led to an extravagant lifestyle that centered around himself and his desires. He threw parties for the wealthy Romans, inviting hundreds of people and spending a massive amount of money. He was more than willing to display his power by providing the best food, drink, and entertainment. He wasted many of his people’s resources by selfishly enjoying lavish entertainment.
This extravagance would be his undoing.
Nero’s flamboyant arrogance and artisan eye led him to take a special interest in Greek architecture and he aspired to rebuild Rome in a manner that pleased him. He presented to the Senate the benefits of reconstructing many of the buildings in a more Grecian-style. The Senate responded to his requests quickly and succinctly: “no.” Rome simply did not have the funds to cater to Nero’s every whim.
The matter seemed to be over, but in the summer of 64 A.D., Nero left Rome for his palace in Antium. The heat of the summer was brutal and he was chasing a cooler climate to ride out the summer months. Shortly after he left, a massive fire broke out inside the Circus Maximus. The fire raged for almost a week, consuming 10 of Rome’s 14 districts and leading to the death of hundreds. Despite Nero’s speedy return to Rome and the assistance that he provided during the days of the fire, he had acquired such a terrible reputation that it gave rise to much speculation about his involvement in the fire. Rumors spread stating that he intended for the fire to start in order to rebuild Rome in his own image. The people wondered: Did Emperor Nero arrange the fire of Rome?
The anger toward Nero that spread following the fire put fear in his heart. The discontent of the people threatened his power and his ego, so he had to act quickly, and find someone else to blame. He deflected by accusing Christians in Rome of starting the fire. And this blame was enough for the people of Rome. Tacitus describes the torture that he subjected the Christians to: “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). He openly decried Christians, blaming them for all of Rome’s troubles, reducing them to the status of vermin. Nero’s reign marked the first persecution of Christians organized by the Roman government. This persecution and similar decrees that followed would last from 64 AD until the publication of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, almost 250 years of state sanctioned persecution. It was during Nero’s time that the apostles Peter and Paul were both killed. The official number of Christians who died remains unconfirmed and undocumented.
But Nero wouldn’t get away scot free. Beyond Nero’s imperial cult, it appeared to most everyone that Nero’s selfishness had eradicated the last remnants of his humanity. While the people of Rome attempted to recover from the fire, Nero built a magnificent palace for himself, called the Domus Aurea (or Golden House). It was built of pure marble at the center of Rome. Within the palace was a massive bronze statue of Nero himself. Both the palace and the statue were testaments to the vice that brought about Nero’s downfall: selfishness. He built this masterpiece by seizing people’s land that had been destroyed amidst the fire, raising taxes on the people, ultimately devaluing the Roman currency, and causing a huge inflation spike in the empire.
Despite Nero’s attempts to deflect the blame for the fire away from himself, the people rose up against him. They had lost trust in him and were looking for another leader. The Praetorian guard revolted against him. The Senate declared him a public enemy, and with no one left to turn to, Nero fled the palace in the dead of night with a handful of loyal followers. The emperor did not flee far, however, before he realized that his flight was in vain. He heard the sound of horsemen and knew there was no escape. Nero, rather than await an almost certain death at the hands of the people, begged his followers to end his life at the point of the sword. His reign and Agrippina’s legacy had left the empire in fiery and bloody shambles.
Nero’s greatest vice was selfishness. His early reign was marked by deference for his mother and excitement about pleasing the people. At a young age, however, Nero inherited his mother’s selfishness. And only too soon, what seemed like Nero’s innocent desire to please became an all-consuming obsession with “self.” This obsession drove him to assume the worst in those closest to him, and in the end, it nearly destroyed the Roman Empire.
Ultimately, the tragedy of Nero’s self-centered actions was that he hurt the people he was responsible to protect and serve. The vice of selfishness is all consuming, and ultimately, leads us down an inescapable path to our own destruction. As Fydor Dostoevsky noted in The Brothers Karamazov, This perfectly identifies the end of Nero’s life: even though he was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, he had no one left that would stand by him, and in the end, was left with nothing but his own destruction. Now, it’s easy to look at the extremities of Nero’s life and divorce his motivations and actions from our own. However, selfishness and self-centeredness are universal vices. We all fall susceptible to the temptation to see ourselves as better than our neighbor. And as we’ve seen, the end of selfishness is our own undoing. The story of Agrippina and Nero, the story of selfishness begetting selfishness, evil begetting evil, becomes a warning to us to guard against the love of self and to instead grow within ourselves the virtues of generosity and humility.