Born into the world feet first, “an omen of ill fortune amply fulfilled in his case as in that of his uncle Caligula” (1931:57), and raised by the infamous Caligula’s sister, Agrippina – Emperor Nero was heralded as the “antichrist” (Ascension of Isaiah Chapter 4.2.), and was destined to change Roman life indefinitely. The primary sources in this investigation; namely Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio corroborate and collaboratively agree on Nero’s monstrosity. The condemning nature of their writing however, makes it difficult to form an unbiased account of Nero’s reign. Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the fifth and final emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He is infamously known for ordering many executions, including those of his mother and step-brother (1342:57). According to Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, Nero was a rather cruel and excessive man but he was also a man who was very much focused on the economic welfare of his empire (cited in Gibbon). Nero was described as being a shy man at the beginning of his reign, but towards the end, becoming more confident and powerful. However, his increasing confidence was strongly criticized by ancient historians as he became known for bribery and enforcing his status on others. The reign of Nero comes last in the Annals of Tacitus, with the final part of his reign missing. In this final section of the Annals, Tacitus charts the downfall of the young emperor, from his beginnings as a young man (“still almost a boy”) surrounded by manipulative advisers and relatives to his eventual, violent demise as an extravagant, tyrannical madman. The story of Nero’s reign is skillfully written in Tacitus’ trademark “silver Latin”, and proves to be an invaluable source of information, given that Tacitus was the only primary source contemporary with Nero’s reign. As Tacitus states in his ‘Principle of Adoption’, “Let Nero be ever before your eyes, swollen with the pride of a long line of Caesarsâ€¦ an Emperor condemned by his own peopleâ€¦ Nero will always be regretted”.
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Nero’s reign was controversially heralded as the golden age by the Senate and many in the Roman world who, influenced by oracles and prophecies, were looking for the appearance of a divine savior. The 17 year old emperor, who had been tutored in the classics by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, set out to play the part. He banned capital punishment and public spectacles focused on bloodshed. He reduced taxes & gave slaves the right to file complaints against their masters. Unlike previous emperors he did not prosecute people under the laws against treason and freely pardoned prisoners who were arrested for sedition, including his own critics. To fill the entertainment void left by the absence of gladiators, he sponsored theater, athletics & poetry contests. And he gave the Senate greater freedom than at any time since before the rise of Julius Caesar (Smith, M.).
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Nero’s reign however, was that of “The Great Fire of Rome” which began on the night of the 18th of July, according to Tacitus (Annals, XV.38). It was widely believed that Nero, the emperor himself, was the arsonist; however this idea was not supported by Tacitus, who states that “[The fire], whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts” He also maintains that “Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his house, which he had built to connect the palace with the gardens of Maecenas. It could not, however, be stopped from devouring the palace, the house, and everything around it. However, to relieve the people, driven out homeless as they were, he threw open to them the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude.” Suetonius and Cassius Dio, however, record the event differently, maintaining that “Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he [Nero] said, in “the beauty of the flames,” he sang the whole of the “Sack of Ilium,” in his regular stage costume.” This event, controversially, was only mentioned by four of the many historians who lived through the era – Suetonius, Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Pliny the Elder. Other historians, including Josephus, Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, and Epictetus, make no mention of it. The disagreements and fragmentation of these source’s accounts on the fires proves that the reliability of the historians can be questioned indeed. That being said however, the sources corroborate and agree on what happened after. As the rumor of Nero’s arson spread, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians” (Tacitus, Annals XV. 44). Suetonius also mentions the torture and executions of the Christians, however he does not connect it with the fires, but instead, he does so as praise.
The final hours of Nero’s life are recorded in Cassius Dio’s “Histories”, Tacitus’ “Annals”, and Suetonius’ “Life of Nero”. In March 68, Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies (Dio, Roman History LXIII.22). Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and further, to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Life of Galba 5). At the Battle of Vesontio in May 68, Rufus’ forces easily defeated those of Vindex and the latter committed suicide. However after putting down this one rebel, Rufus’ legions attempted to proclaim their own commander as emperor. Rufus refused to act against Nero, but the disgruntlement of the legions of Germany and the continued opposition of Galba in Spain did not bode well for him. While Nero had retained some control of the situation, support for Galba increased despite his being officially declared a public enemy. The prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus, also abandoned his allegiance to the emperor and came out in support for Galba. In response, Nero fled Rome with the intention of going to the port of Ostia and from there to take a fleet to one of the still-loyal eastern provinces. However he abandoned the idea when some army officers openly refused to obey his commands, responding with a line from Vergil’s Aeneid: “Is it so dreadful a thing then to die?” Nero then contemplated the idea of fleeing to Parthia, throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba, or to appeal to the people and beg them to pardon him for his past offences “and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt”. Suetonius reports that the text of this speech was later found in Nero’s writing desk, but that he dared not give it from fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum (Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Nero 47).
Suetonius maintains that Nero returned to Rome that night and stayed in his palace. He “awoke about midnight and finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends.” There were no replies. The sources agree at this stage that Nero feared for his life, and so called for a gladiator, “or any other adept at whose hand he might find death” (Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Nero 47.) Again however, there was no reply. Nero sought for some place where he could hide and collect his thoughts. An imperial freedman offered his villa, located 4 miles outside the city. Travelling in disguise, Nero and four loyal servants reached the villa, where Nero ordered them to dig a grave for him. As it was being prepared, he said again and again “What an artist dies in me!” (Suetonius, Nero, xlix).
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Suetonius records the culmination of Nero’s life, maintaining that a courier arrived with a report from the Senate which had declared Nero a public enemy and that it was their intention to beat him to death. Dio corroborates this notion and claims that Nero “prepared himself for suicide” and drove a dagger into his throat before quoting Homer’s Illiad, “Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!” When one of the horsemen entered, upon seeing Nero all but dead he attempted to stop the bleeding. With the words “Too late! This is fidelity”, Nero was dead.
Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio – the major primary sources in relation to Nero’s reign – agree that, overall, Nero “will always be regretted” (Tacitus, Principle of Adoption). Although they collectively condemn Nero, there are some significant differences in the accounts of these primary sources, which lead to a questioning of their reliability. The secondary sources in this inquiry are skeptical of the legitimacy of the ancient historians’ account, in particular Suetonius and Dio, who wrote their histories 50-150 years after the death of Nero. There is no doubt that Nero was “truly a monstrosity” (Tacitus, Annals XIII. 45), however the fragmented, biased, and unreliable nature of the primary sources concerning the emperor make it impossible to distinguish the facts of his reign from the rumors and gossip of the time.
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