Latin Language Blog

The “madness” of the emperors: Nero I Posted by on Jun 23, 2012 in Roman culture

Did you know that it is suspected that the origin of the “madness” of certain Roman emperors such as Nero or Caligula, was due to the ingestion of residual lead from the welding plates and glasses? Lead is a very harmful¬†metal for health.

Among the Roman emperors there were many insane people and dangerous as Nero, who thought he was a god. His madnessmade him kill his two wives and his mother, Agrippina, and sent many Christians to the beasts in the Colosseum in Rome, until he was forced to commit suicide.

“What an artist dies with me!” Nero said moments before throwing himself on his sword, when hearing the hoofs of the horses sent by Galba in his pursuit. The one who according to historical chronicles burned Rome to throw the burden then to Christians to erect a insane necropolis, died convinced that he was a great artist, not a dangerous despot who had lost all support.


Although, under his government, there were not committed the daily cruelties of his predecessors, various circumstances conspired to make Nero the emperor best known and most reviled of all the “mad and tyranic” emperors. It is estimated that this misclassification was related to the fact that during his government, died beheaded and crucified the apostles Paul and Peter, primitive representatives of this new religion that arose in Palestine, founded by Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the tragic end of the apostles and of many other Christians, led to the black legend of Nero. From this fact, Christian historiography, would regard it as the precursor of the further persecutions of Christians.

This emperor was born in Antium. He was the son of Julia Agrippina and Enobarbus, though they also said that the true father was the brother of Agrippina, Caligula. When he was born, his father, in the midst of a delirium tremens product of alcohol, said: “From Agrippina and me (prophesied), only a monster can be born.” These were not strange words for a parent who had incestuous relations with his sister Lepida.

However, soon Nero would be fatherless, and his mother would be banished. Nero, lived with his aunt Domitia Lepida, ” of highly debatable customs and repute”. The libertine life of her aunt would be confirmed with the appointment of his tutors: Domitia Lepida ordered the child’s education to her two friends (a dancer and a barber). When returning from exile his mother, Agrippina, got back her child, replacing his tutors by Anicetus, an person even more immoral than the others.


At age 13 Nero was adopted by the Emperor Claudius, under pressure from his mother Agrippina, so, after the death of the Emperor, the young Nero would inherit the imperial throne. One hypothesis believes that Claudio’s death was related to the supply of poisoned mushrooms prepared by Locusta obeying an order of Agrippina. Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had bought the Praetorians (which previously had bribed with 15,000 sesterces not to hesitate when choosing the new emperor).

Thus began a new reign and a new Emperor on the list of the largest empire then known, who would rule over more than 70 million Roman citizens. Of course, hidden behind the figure of her son, who was taking the reins of imperial business would be that still young and beautiful wife, Agrippina.

However, the son of Enobarbus, at first did not want to occupy the imperial throne. He was aware that it would alienate him from his true good life. This good life of the young Nero was centered in the practice and knowledge of the arts, of which he was a convinced and enthusiastic amateur, and he considered himself as good a singer, poet, sculptor, actor and even a dancer. Besides, he was also convinced of his expertise in other activities such as driving in chariots.

Nero believed that all these activities would take a back plane when he became an emperor, which explains his reluctance to take up the new place. He even tried to refuse the arranged marriage with Octa ia when he was just thirteen years old. This marriage took place but was never consummated. Instead, Nero stated that his real wife was a woman named Actea, she was a very popular liberta and prostitute in the city. The weakness of Nero for this woman would last throughout his life, fighting against the opposition of his mother. Agrippina not only hated the love of his son to a lower class woman, but -according to legend- she was also jealous, since Actea came to stand in the relation between mother and child.

Nero began his reign at age 17 peacefully, advised by his teachers Burrus and Cordovan philosopher Seneca (he would be the lover of his mother, Agrippina, and it would be she who introduced him at the imperial court). The teachings of the philosopher had taken a toll on the tender young Emperor, who nonetheless have tried to soak the heart of Nero with good lessons, but he really was so attached to the pecuniary, that his fortune had grown enormously with the imperial family (some historians speak of a fortune of 300 million sesterces when he died).


Nero appeared to all as a¬† benefactor. I.e. once, having to put his signatures to a death sentence, he refused to do so, writing it at last, but so upset that he exclaimed: “I wish I could not write! “. Another time, they wanted to put up a statue of gold of Nero but he refused to accept it: “Wait until I deserve it.” Also, he was content just to send into exile to a writer named Gallus Veientus, because he had confessed to write some terrible writings against the Senators and the priestly caste.


Tags: , , ,
Keep learning Latin with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. Keith Shelley:

    You are right he was crazy! Good thoughts.