This Week In History: The Roman Emperor Nero committed suicide in A.D. 68

99217737The notoriously brutal Roman Emperor Nero took his own life on June 9, A.D. 68. At that time, military commanders in some Roman provinces had revolted against Nero, and the Roman Senate had declared him a hostis publicus (public enemy).

Perhaps suicide was a fitting end for a man who already had killed so many other people. By the time of his death, Nero had committed or was suspected of committing fratricide (killing one’s brother), matricide (killing one’s mother), uxoricide (killing one’s wife), and just plain old murder. Nero had two of his wives, Octavia and Poppaea Sabina, put to death. He also had many Roman senators and aristocrats killed, including his former tutor, Seneca. He sometimes forced his opponents to commit suicide. In addition, Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, was suspected of mariticide (killing one’s spouse) for Nero’s sake. Many historians believe that Agrippina poisoned her husband, the Emperor Claudius, so that Nero could succeed him. Add to Nero’s actions the rumored burning of Rome, and the persecution of Christians for allegedly setting the fire, and he had quite a rap sheet. The Roman biographer Suetonius (A.D. 69?-140?) wrote of Nero that “He had an insatiable desire to immortalize his name, and acquire a reputation which should last through all succeeding ages.” It would seem that Nero accomplished his goal with flying colors.

Nero was born in Antium (now Anzio, Italy) on Dec. 15, A.D. 37. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the great-granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. After Nero’s father died, Agrippina married the Emperor Claudius, in A.D. 49. Claudius adopted Nero as his eldest son. Claudius died in A.D. 54, and Nero became emperor at the young age of 16. Claudius also had a biological son, Britannicus, who died from poisoning soon after Claudius’s death.

The young Emperor Nero had a greater passion for the arts and performing than for government. At first, Nero was guided by his tutor, Seneca, a well-known philosopher and writer, and by Burrus, the commander of the emperor’s personal bodyguard. Nero’s mother also had a strong influence over him, until he had her killed in A.D. 59. Sources indicate that his early reign was moderate, prudent, and fair. Later, after Agrippina and Burrus had died and Seneca had retired from political life, intolerance, self-indulgence, and cruelty became more prominent aspects of Nero’s rule. Although Nero enjoyed some popular support, he alienated upper-class Romans, some of whom conspired against him. Eventually, the Senate turned on Nero, declaring him a public enemy. Nero fled Rome and killed himself at a freedman’s (former slave’s) country villa.

An excerpt from Suetonius’s The Lives of the Twelve Caesars recounts Nero’s death as follows:

All who surrounded him now pressing him to save himself from the indignities which were ready to befall him, he ordered a pit to be sunk before his eyes, of the size of his body, and the bottom to be covered with pieces of marble put together, if any could be found about the house; and water and wood, to be got ready for immediate use about his corpse; weeping at every thing that was done, and frequently saying, “What an artist is now about to perish!” Meanwhile, letters being brought in by a servant belonging to Phaon, he snatched them out of his hand, and there read, “That he had been declared an enemy by the senate, and that search was making for him, that he might be punished according to the ancient custom of the Romans.” He then inquired what kind of punishment that was; and being told, that the practice was to strip the criminal naked, and scourge him to death, while his neck was fastened within a forked stake, he was so terrified that he took up two daggers which he had brought with him, and after feeling the points of both, put them up again, saying, “The fatal hour is not yet come.” One while, he begged of Sporus to begin to wail and lament; another while, he entreated that one of them would set him an example by killing himself; and then again, he condemned his own want of resolution in these words: “I yet live to my shame and disgrace: this is not becoming for Nero: it is not becoming. Thou oughtest in such circumstances to have a good heart: Come, then: courage, man!” The horsemen who had received orders to bring him away alive, were now approaching the house. . . . he drove a dagger into his throat, being assisted in the act by Epaphroditus, his secretary. A centurion bursting in just as he was half-dead, and applying his cloak to the wound, pretending that he was come to his assistance, he made no other reply but this, “‘Tis too late;” and “Is this your loyalty?” Immediately after pronouncing these words, he expired, with his eyes fixed and starting out of his head, to the terror of all who beheld him. He had requested of his attendants, as the most essential favour, that they would let no one have his head, but that by all means his body might be burnt entire. And this, Icelus, Galba’s freedman, granted.

He died in the thirty-second year of his age, upon the same day on which he had formerly put Octavia to death; and the public joy was so great upon the occasion, that the common people ran about the city with caps upon their heads. Some, however . . . for a long time decked his tomb with spring and summer flowers. Sometimes they placed his image upon the rostra, dressed in robes of state; at another, they published proclamations in his name, as if he were still alive, and would shortly return to Rome, and take vengeance on all his enemies.