ARTicles vol. 5 i.3a: Nero's Toy

Nero and the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire became Nero’s toy at age seventeen. By age thirty-two, Nero plummeted it into civil war, ending the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Flaunting his money, torturing his subjects, killing those closest to him, Nero’s actions show that he had power over everything — except himself. Nero was not a one-dimensional leader, however, but an odd mixture of good and evil in which evil eventually won out. In Nero, we see both the rational and irrational forces that drive all of us: the yearning for love, beauty, and independence alongside the need to dominate, hurt, and destroy. Those complex needs, projected on the vast stage of the Roman Empire, turned Nero into the stuff of legend. When Nero was born, the Empire had become a military state. Nero’s uncle Claudius had used the power of the Praetorian Guard to declare himself Emperor. The members of the Julio-Claudian family lost themselves in plots and counter plots to gain power. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, was a product of this environment and saw in her only son an opportunity to seize the throne. By the time Nero was eleven, Agrippina had scandalized Rome by marrying her Uncle Claudius to put Nero in a power play with Claudius’s son Britannicus. Because of her schemes, Agrippina was exiled, separating Nero from his mother at an early age. When Agrippina returned, she kept Nero on a tight leash, knowing her son was a useful card to play at court. In her struggle with Messalina, Claudius’s third wife, Agrippina’s behavior was described by the Roman historian Seutonius as “masculine.” She gained more power at court than any other woman had achieved before. She had a special door built at the rear of the Senate so that screened from view, she could listen to all discussions that went on. Her presence was not a secret, but a woman could not attend the Senate openly. Agrippina also controlled Nero by carefully choosing his tutors: Seneca, the exiled philosopher, and Burrhus, the head of the Praetorian Guard. Even before Claudius died, Nero began to gain popularity with the Senate by delivering speeches written by Seneca. On the day of Nero’s ascension, the secret password given to the Praetorian Guard was “Best of Mothers.” What Agrippina did not expect was that once Nero became Emperor, Burrhus and Seneca would advise him to act independently of his controlling mother. Given this encouragement, Nero began to make decisions as an act of adolescent rebellion against Agrippina. The beginning of Nero’s reign promised renewal for Rome. The new Emperor revoked many of Claudius’ unpopular policies. Nero himself invoked Augustus, the first Emperor, promising a return to the golden days of his reign. After providing a lavish funeral for his adopted father, Claudius, Nero’s first declarations brought peace to the Empire, corrected the corruption of the court system, and honored the Senate’s integrity. He also promised that “the home and state would be separate,” a public acknowledgement that his personal life would not interfere with his reign. He also ingratiated himself to the public by abolishing some of Claudius’s heavier taxes, distributing forty gold pieces to each citizen, and increasing the salaries of Senators. When asked to sign the execution order for a criminal, he lamented “Ah, how I wish that I never learned to write!” However, none of these policies indicate if Nero was acting from personal benevolence or if he was following his advisors. Because Seneca wrote his speeches, many believe that these early policies only disguised Nero’s cruel nature. Nero sought to display his power through public entertainments, including theatrical performances and chariot racing. But the Emperor shocked his subjects by participating in these extravaganzas because he prided himself on his singing and lyre playing. His acted in such plays as Distraught Hercules, Oedipus, and ironically, Orestes the Matricide. For traditionalists, this activity was more suited to a slave than to the ruler of the Roman Empire. Nero’s sexual behavior also raised eyebrows. Some rumored that he committed incest with his mother. Bored with his virtuous child-bride Octavia, Nero fell in love with Acte, a slave girl at the palace. Driven by passion, he tried to elevate her as a princess from Greece to legitmize his affair. What became a pattern in Nero’s erotic obsessions was his penchant for older, dominating women, replacing his love for Agrippina. One of his mistresses even resembled his mother physically. He divorced Octavia to marry Poppea, the beautiful, older wife of Nero’s close associate Otho. After three years of marriage to Poppea, Nero kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach, killing both her and their unborn child. Nero’s sexual appetites are legendary. Dissatisfied with the women in his life, Nero also took male lovers, a common practice in Rome. One of his lovers was the handsome actor Pallas. His next wedding was a mock ceremony in full view of the court with Sporus, a boy he had castrated and dressed in the clothes of an Empress. A common joke in those times was that the world would have been a happier place if Nero’s father Domitius had married that sort of wife. Since male lovers were common, what made Nero’s sexual behavior so scandalous that even Petronius, author of The Satryicon, found Nero’s behavior deviant? Nero had grown into a sexual monster, dressing in the skins of wild animals and attacking the genitals of men and women who were tied to stakes. This sexual cruelty revolted even the Romans. Petronius’ The Satryicon portrays a world in which all beliefs have crumbled and all classes were affected by Nero’s hedonism and sadism. Nero made his personal passions public policy by declaring that if anyone confessed to sharing similar practices, the Emperor would forgive him of all his other crimes. These public scandals, including Nero’s addiction to theatrical performances, caused a public outcry that led to his downfall. Ignoring pressing military matters and threats of rebellion in Jerusalem, Nero planned a lavish trip to Greece to perform in musical competitions. “The Greeks alone,” said Nero, “are worthy of my genius, they really listen to my music.” But in Greece he stunned audiences with his lack of talent. Back in Rome, Nero received a warning that a rebellion was beginning in Gaul. He ignored these warnings until the Senate, emboldened by the future Emperor Galba’s approaching army, saw their opportunity. Declared an enemy of the state, Nero fled the palace in the middle of the night. “Life has become ugly and vulgar” he exclaimed, stabbing himself in the throat with the help of his scribe Epaphroditus. Although efforts were made to tend his wounds, Nero, resigned to his fate, sighed: “What an artist dies with me!” Heather L. Helinsky is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

Search form