The “madness” of the emperors: Nero VI Posted by on Jul 22, 2012 in Roman culture

Nero would be considered by Christian historians as the precursor of the persecution of the followers of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Without the insistence of literature and the Christian saints, which stimulated the legend of the evil Emperor, Nero may be just another emperor. However, it was an undeniable fact that, during the reign of Nero, a persecution of the “evil cult” (as roman historians called the first christians) began. Nero killed many of those Christian slaves, used as guinea pigs on which the accomplice of the Emperor, the poisoner Locusta, used to test the new poisons prepared continuously following orders from the Emperor.

Also during his administration the burning of Rome in year 64 took place. This fire was the best known of the history and perhaps the most falsely told, it seems that the alleged arsonist would not only set fire to the city but, once destroyed, he started the task of building it up again, but more monumental and extraordinary than it was before.

The fire began on 18 July in the year 64, Nero was enjoying his summer retreat in Anzio. At night, the Emperor was awakened by a mail informing him of the casualty, Rome burned after the start of the flames near the Circus Maximus. Concerned about the spread of the flames, Nero immediately mounted his horse, and rode the 40 miles that separated him from Rome to glimpse the splendor of the great fire which devoured the capital of the Empire. He even considered the possibility that the fire reached his mansion on the Palatine, and consumed their beloved artworks locked in the imperial residence. From a strategic viewpoint he appreciated the gravity of the disaster: more than 500 meters of flame spread and were advancing on that city of over one and a quarter million inhabitants.


The fire lasted five days and destroyed 132 private villae and four thousand houses of neighbors. It will be centuries later when the fathers of the Church put the blame of the fire on the Emperor, as Nero had blamed of the fire the subversive worshipers of Jesus.

The emperor held a policy to counteract the damage caused by the catastrophe. In this sense, he built up many huts to host the victims of the flames and even, at first he opened the doors of his palaces and gardens to welcome those who had lost everything. In addition, Nero imported supplies quickly and cheaped stock for a while. He intended to completely rebuild the city by removing the wood in the uprising of new houses and trying to build them with stone. Nevertheless, he began rebuilding his own properties, taking advantage of the pieces of land born of the disaster. Nero began building his new palace called Domus Aurea, a waste of marble columns, lush gardens, beautiful fountains and artificial lakes.

Nero was soon besieged by rumors and severe criticism to his government. He called the only woman that remained at the palace, the poisoner Locusta. Nero begged her to prepare a strong bilious tincture and save it in a golden box. More and more mad, he thought about scaping to Egypt, where he believed he would not find the soldiers of General Galba. The revolted General and de facto ruler had warned that he did not want to be named with the title of Emperor as it was very discredited, and he had enought with being the General of the Roman people.

Soon would be the end. Given the fact that Nero had nobody to communicate his escape plans, he decides to told his servant Faonte, who offered to hide Nero in his house, a cave. Nero accessed along with some of his supporters, but upon reaching a field he attempted suicide with a knife without success. Given the failure of suicide, Nero called his secretary and equerry, Epaphroditus, to take forward his arm with strength and cause him death, the order was fulfilled instantly. Before expiring, the Emperor still had humor to say: “Qualis artifex pereo“, meaning “What a great artist dies in me!”. The bright eyes of the corpse of Nero, terrified those around him. His body was wrapped in a white robe embroidered with gold. The funeral expenses were paid by his two nurses, Eclogue and Alexandria, and his humble ex-lover (maybe it was the only one that loved), Actea.

With the permission of Galba, the humble and sweet Acte, had access to the illustrious dead. Thus, stripped him, washed him and wrapped him in that white robe embroidered in gold that Nero was wearing. She moved the body to Rome and ordered him a discreet funeral. Then took the remains to the Domitian monument on the hill of Gardens, a place chosen by Nero to build a tomb of porphyry and marble. After preparing him on his way to eternity, she remained a full-time static and silent in the grave.

It is estimated that Nero’s desire for immortality through time had two examples: his desire to call the month of April Neronian, and his idea to give Rome a new name on the projected future times: Neropolis. At death time, Nero was 32 years old and and hadĀ  reigned during 14 years. Both contemporary and future historians would show no mercy with his reign. However, the Roman people refused to accept the disappearance of Nero, waiting for his return. This rather strange situation was not repeated with his predecessors. It was rumored that he had actually landed in Ostia and then travelled to Syria. From there, they said, Nero would return and regain his throne and rule the Empire again.

Nero’s life would also be recreated in films: in 1906 a film, entitled “Nero burning Rome,” another Italian film was “Nero and Agrippina,” and finally in 1930 Alessandro Blasetti filmed “Nero”. In all cases the role of the Emperor was a gift to the actors. But where this would be dramatically evident, to the point of identifying a character with the actor, was in the American film Quo VadisĀ  (Mervyn Le Roy) in 1951, in an overacting play by the actor Peter Ustinov.

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