Nero died on 9 June 68, 112 years after the murder of Julius Caesar. He was the last of the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first dynasty. The narrative of the emperor’s fall from power, his flight from bounty hunters and the account of the words and actions of his final moments, is the most detailed episode in Suetonius’ life of the doomed emperor.
Here’s a taste.
Then, as every one of this attendants urged him to place himself beyond the reach of the abuses which were imminent, he gave orders that a trench be made at once to the dimensions appropriate for his own body, and at the same time that fragments of marble be collected, if any could be found, and water and firewood be brought for the disposal of his corpse. He wept as his directions were carried, and repeated during the commotion, ‘What an artist dies with me,’. While these preparations were being made, a runner brought a message to Phaon, which Nero grabbed, learning from it that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate and the object of a search, so that he might be punished according to ancestral custom. He asked what this manner might be and when he discovered it meant that a man was stripped naked, his neck placed in a fork, then this body beaten until he died, he was overcome with terror and snatched up two daggers, which he ahd brought with him, but having tried the blade of each one, he put them away again, saying that the fatal hour had not yet come.
Tunc uno quoque hinc inde instante ut quam primum se impendentibus contumeliis eriperet, scrobem coram fieri imperavit dimensus ad corporis sui modulum, componique simul, si qua invenirentur, frustra marmoris et aquam simul ac ligna conferri curando mox cadaveri, flens ad singula atque identidem dictitans: ‘Qualis artifex pereo!’. Inter moras perlatos a cursore Phaonti codicillos praeripuit legitque se hostem a senatu iudicatum et quaeri, ut puniatur more maiorum, interrogavitque, quale id genus esset poenae; et cum comperisset nudi hominis cervicem inseri furcae, corpus virgis ad necem caedi, conterritus duos pugiones, quos secum extulerat, arripuit temptataque utriusque acie rursus condidit, causatus nondum adesse fatalem horam.Svetonius Vita Neronis
The emperor Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December 37. Agrippina, his mother, was the great-grand-daughter of Augustus. Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was his father and great-grandson of Lucius Domitius Ahenobrabus, the committed, haughty and bumbling enemy of Julius Caesar who was killed after the decisive Battle of Pharsalus. Nero, then, was the descendant of one of the most stalwart defenders of the moribund Republic and the founder of principate.
Nero was born at Antium, nine months after Tiberius died, on the eighteenth day before the Kalends of January, just as the sun was rising, so that he was touched by its rays almost before he could be laid on the ground. Many people made numerous and sinister predictions about his birth signs. Among the warnings was even the pronouncement of his father, who responded to his friends’ congratulations, saying that nothing that could be born of himself and Agrippina that would not inspire loathing and bring disaster for the state.
Nero natus est Anti post VIIII. mensem quam Tiberius excessit, XVIII. Kal. Ian. tantum quod exoriente sole, paene ut radiis prius quam terra contingeretur. De genitura eius statim multa et formidulosa multis coniectantibus praesagio fuit etiam Domiti patris vox, inter gratulationes amicorum negantis quicquam ex se et Agrippina nisi detestabile et malo publico nasci potuisse.
Nero natus est Anti post VIIII. mensem quam Tiberius excessit, XVIII. Kal. Ian. tantum quod exoriente sole, paene ut radiis prius quam terra contingeretur. De genitura eius statim multa et formidulosa multis coniectantibus praesagio fuit etiam Domiti patris vox, inter gratulationes amicorum negantis quicquam ex se et Agrippina nisi detestabile et malo publico nasci potuisse.Vita Neronis
The emperor Claudius, who married his niece Agrippina, adopted Nero on 25 February 50. After his adoption, the boy was known as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Nero was made emperor after the murder of Claudius on 13 October 54.
When the death of Claudius was announced publicly, Nero, who was 17 years old, approached the guards between the sixth and seventh hour, for in consequence of the terrible omens that had occurred throughout the day, no earlier time had seemed suitable for embarking on his reign. In front of the steps on the Palatine, the guards saluted him as emperor and conveyed him by litter to the the Praetorian camp, where he addressed the soldiers, then went to Senate house, where he remained until evening. Of all the great honors that were heaped upon him, he refused just one, the title ‘Pater Patriae,’ which he deemed unsuitable because of his youth.
Septemdecim natus annos, ut de Claudio palam factum est, inter horam sextam septimamque processit ad excubitores, cum ob totius diei diritatem non aliud auspicandi tempus accommodatius videretur; proque Palati gradibus imperator consalutatus lectica in castra et inde raptim appellatis militibus in curiam delatus est discessitque iam vesperi, ex immensis, quibus cumulabatur, honoribus tantum patris patriae nomine recusato propter aetatem.Vita Neronis
The fire that consumed much of Rome in July 64 is the most famous event of Nero’s reign. Tacitus tells the story best: its cause (‘Whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act of the emperor is uncertain—both versions have supporters.’); the significance of the date (‘It was noted that the fire started on July 19th, the day on which the Senonian Gauls had sacked and burnt the city’); the terror of the fire (‘As those in flight looked back, flames sprung up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed …’); the scapegoating and persecution of Christians (‘Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited as torches to illumine the streets after nightfall’); and the confiscation of property for Nero’s own use (“But Nero profitted by his country’s ruin to build a new palace.’).
For Tacitus, the most serious effect was the erasure of Rome’s patrimony.
To count the mansions, blocks and temples destroyed would be difficult. They included shrines of remote antiquity, such as Servius Tullius’ temple of the Moon, the Great Altar and holy place dedicated by Evander to Hercules, the temple vowed by Romulus to Jupiter the Stayer, Numa’s sacred residence, and Vesta’s shrine containing the Rome’s household gods. Among the losses, too, were the precious spoils of countless victories, Greek artistic masterpieces, and authentic records of old Roman genius.
Domum et insularum et templorum, quae amissa sunt, numerum inire haud promptum fuerit; sed vetustissima religione, quod Servius Tullius Lunae, et magna ara fanumque, quae praesenti Herculi Arcas Evander sacraverat, aedesque Statoris Iovis vota Romulo Numaeque regia et delubrum Vestae cum penatibus populi Romani exusta; iam opes tot victoriis quaesitae et Graecarum artium decora, exim monumenta ingeniorum antiqua et incorrupta.Tacitvs Annales
The emperor appreciated the finer things in life. His approprition of land in the devestated center of the city and the construction of the enormous palace called the Domus Aurea revealed his megalomania.
There was, however, nothing in which he was more prodigal than in construction, extending from the Palatine as far as the Esquiline the palace which he called first the House of Passage, then, after it had destoryed by fire and rebuilt, the Golden House. It should suffice to relate its extent and splendor. There was a vestibule area in which stood a colossal statue, 120 feet tall, in the image of the emperor himself. So great was its extent that its triple colonnade was a mile in length. There was also a lake, which resembled the sea, surrounded by buildings made to look like cities. Besides this, there were grounds of all kinds, with fields and vineyards, pasture and woodland, and a multitude of wild and domestic animals. Other areas were covered with gold and embellished with jewels and mother-0f-pearl. The banquet halls had coffered ceilings fixed with panels of ivory that would revolve, scattering flowers, and pipes that would spray perfume on those beneath. The principal banquet room had a dome that revolved, like the world itself. There were baths running with both sea and fresh water. When the house was completed, he said nothing more to note his approval than that at last he had begun to live like a human being.
Non in alia re tamen damnosior quam in aedificando domum a Palatio Esquilias usque fecit, quam primo transitoriam, mox incendio absumptam restitutamque auream nominavit. De cuius spatio atque cultu suffecerit haec rettulisse. Vestibulum eius fuit, in quo colossus CXX pedum staret ipsius effigie; tanta laxitas, ut porticus triplices miliarias haberet; item stagnum maris instar, circumsaeptum aedificiis ad urbium speciem; rura insuper arvis atque vinetis et pascuis silvisque varia, cum multitudine omnis generis pecudum ac ferarum. 2 In ceteris partibus cuncta auro lita, distincta gemmis unionumque conchis erant; cenationes laqueatae tabulis eburneis versatilibus, ut flores, fistulatis, ut unguenta desuper spargerentur; praecipua cenationum rotunda, quae perpetuo diebus ac noctibus vice mundi circumageretur; balineae marinis et albulis fluentes aquis. Eius modi domum cum absolutam dedicaret, hactenus comprobavit, ut se diceret quasi hominem tandem habitare coepisse.