Rome’s Emperor Nero Was a Top Class Villain
Only 25% of Roman emperors died of natural causes and many of those ‘unnatural’ deaths weren’t without good reason.¹
Of Rome’s 70 emperors, a few were brilliant, inspiring, and rightfully immortalized in marble. Others were profoundly twisted. Their perversion was boundless, their violence propelled by malice, insecurity, and a complete lack of mercy.
Nero embodied tyranny and madness. In his shadow, most modern political ‘bad guys’ look like peace figures.
Why Were so Many Corrupt and Perverted Emperors in Power?
Roman emperors ruled through subordinates, who enacted laws to regions on their behalf. In turn, a chosen few had direct access to the emperor. Advisors were ‘yes men’, sycophants, in the purest definition. They insulated the ruler and, quite often, propped up his madness as it preserved their own influence.
This, combined with heavy indulgence and near-unlimited power, caused downward spirals for already-broken men.
Caligula is often cited as the quintessential ‘crazy emperor’ but Nero is right there with him. Were this a contest of emperors-gone-mad, it would be a photo finish. It isn’t surprising that Caligula is Nero’s uncle.
His Ascent and Matricide
Nero was crowned in 54 AD after Emperor Claudius died.
Nero’s ascent may have inspired Lord Geoffrey from Game of Thrones. Nero was only 16 and not physically imposing. His power-hungry mother was his doting advisor, in his ear on every decision and giving elaborate opinions on all who attended his court.
Nero’s penchant for violence was a quick and natural development. If anything, his mother was encouraging. However, Nero’s relationship with his mother declined three years in. The details of this breakdown are murky.
Some historians suspect the tension was related to Nero’s affair with Poppae Sabina. Others attribute it to his mother’s increasing levels of control over him. What isn’t contested, is that Nero killed his own mother around the five-year mark. Specifically, he ordered his military to sink her ship during a trip, which they did.
She survived and when her escape boat landed on shore, Nero’s soldiers were waiting. They finished the job. From there, things only got worse.
His First Marriage Ends in Violence
Nero’s murder of his mother, or matricide, had lasting repercussions on his sanity. He was plagued by guilt yet it did little to stop an emerging, terrible pattern of flipping between two selves.
Upon stress, frustration, and paranoia, Nero’s sense of agency crumbled. Like a wild beast, he defaulted to unbridled violence. By age 22, his grounding and rationality were mere flickers of normalcy.
Nero’s marriage to Octavia declined after only two years. It was unfortunate as she was highly regarded and loved. By all accounts, she was a great wife: beautiful, kind, stoic, and generous.
Rather than divorce Octavia, Nero attempted to strangle her, which failed. Then, he accused her of adultery and ordered her execution. There was a widespread backlash in the streets. Protestors were met with military force, leading to the slaughter of hundreds of civilians.
Those close to the emperor knew Octavia was innocent. Many of them cared for her. During her execution, those tasked with the job were dangerously reluctant. Yet they invariably gave in and performed the dark deed for fear of their own lives.
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Being a praetorian guard for Nero was not for those of strong conscience. Outside of this murder, there were many others. The reasons and methods were even more ghastly and not worthy of description.
With each act of violence, Nero fell further. Per Oxford historian, Miriam T Griffin, “Nero lost all sense of right and wrong and listened to flattery with total credulity”²
His Next Marriage Also Ends Very Poorly
Nero remarried within a year. His wife, Poppae, was a teenager and also pregnant at their wedding.
Initially, things were fine, until their daughter died three months after birth. Nero declared his deceased baby a goddess. Then Poppae became pregnant again in what should have been a beautiful moment.
With the flip of a switch, Nero’s affection changed. Poppae’s pregnancy was cut short, along with her life. The cause of Poppae’s death is disputed. One account claimed he kicked her in the stomach, another that she was strangled.³
One thing remains true: being a loved one of Nero was a very dangerous endeavor.
The City Is Burned to the Ground
In 64 AD, a fire broke out at Circus Maximus and spread across Rome. If you’d been standing and watching from elevation, the inferno appeared to consume the entire city.
An urban legend emerged that Nero played fiddle on the roof of his palace while this happened. This wasn’t possible because the fiddle hadn’t even been invented yet. But most agree he was seen singing with joy per his advisor’s accounts³. Many also suspect he initiated the fire himself.
Days later, in another display of his sickness, Nero’s joy flipped to rage. He blamed the Christians and used this event to persecute and conduct mass killings throughout the empire.
Then, he flipped again, claiming the event was a blessing in his favor. He announced they would rebuild the city in his honor. But not before ordering his soldiers to loot the smoldering resident’s homes along with their local temples. There were also widespread reports of rape and assault by his troops, which Nero permitted.
The public’s patience was running out.
Nero’s death and strange romantic affairs
In 66 AD, Nero began a love affair with a pre-pubescent boy, Sporus, who was “pauer delicatus”, a term given to beautiful young boys. Boy love was common in Rome, partially because it was more accepted than homosexuality.
Unfortunately, for the boy, this led to his castration per Nero’s orders. This violent act lent credibility to his wedding, in which the boy was dressed up as a bride. He was also referred to as Empress for the duration of their relationship and always wore women’s clothing per Nero’s orders.
Nero’s end came in 68 AD after several waves of bloodshed and slaughter roiled through the Roman empire. Thousands of innocents were killed for frivolous reasons as Nero’s madness pulsed across the populace. The economy was crumbling. There was no food or opportunities. They saw Nero building a golden palace in tribute to himself while they were starving.
In rapid succession, several military leaders declared Nero an enemy of the people. Nero retreated to his estate, knowing the end was near. He attempted to commit suicide but could not will himself to do it.
He paced up and down his hallways frantically. Finally, he shouted at one of his guards to do the deed. The guard, not needing much encouragement, impaled him with a spear, ending his life.
The next time someone mentions Caligula, remind them of who Nero was.
Nero killed his own mother. He had both of his wives executed. He murdered thousands on a whim and likely burnt down Rome on purpose. He mutilated a young boy to turn him into his husband.
Nero was so hated, that for centuries, there were countless false stories about him. Historians of his era made it a point to bury him and present him as a hyper-tyrant, as a form of retribution.
Though Nero wasn’t all that has been written of him, he was surely a very, very bad man.
 Jacobs, Frank (2017)Veni, Vidi, Gone: A Death Map of Roman Emperors
 Griffin, Miriam T (2013). Nero: the end of a dynasty. London: Routledge
 Jarus, Owen (2013) Emperor Nero: Facts & Biography