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.

This Week in History: Napoleon escapes from Elba in 1815

Portrait of Napoleon in exile. Credit: © Thinkstock

Portrait of Napoleon in exile. Credit: © Thinkstock

Napoleon I, also known as Napoleon Bonaparte, became emperor of France in 1804. From 1805 to 1809, Napoleon’s armies won a string of victories over the armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The French Empire expanded to cover nearly all of Western Europe. However, serious military setbacks in 1812 and 1813 badly depleted Napoleon’s army, his empire, and his power. After a bruising defeat at Leipzig, Germany, in the Battle of the Nations, Napoleon retreated into France. By March 1814, the French army was so reduced that it could not protect Paris, and the city fell to an alliance of enemies. In April, Napoleon abdicated (gave up) the imperial throne. In May, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, an Italian island some 12 miles (20 kilometers) off the coast of Tuscany. There he ruled the small island and its few thousand people as emperor.

After a brief period of depression, Napoleon set about organizing Elba. He created a government and ordered the construction of hospitals, roads, and water systems. He introduced methods to improve the island’s agriculture and iron mining. For himself, Napoleon built a small navy and drilled the few hundred soldiers who had volunteered to accompany him. He spent time with his mother, his sister, and his mistress. He also arranged concerts, balls, and theater performances.

Napoleon claimed to be content to live out his days on the sleepy little island. However, he appeared to grow bored with the place. A man of adventure, ambition, conquest, politics, and war does not slow down easily. Napoleon’s guardian, British Colonel Neil Campbell, grew bored with Elba too. He found the Italian mainland much more interesting than his work on Elba, and he spent much of his time in Florence and Livorno. The British Royal Navy screened ships coming to and from Elba. Floating aimlessly on the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the sailors probably grew bored as well.

Being something of a tourist attraction, Napoleon entertained many visitors. Most of his visitors were merely curious (and wealthy). But some were also spies for European governments meant to keep track of Napoleon’s every move. Napoleon, however, used his visitors—and his spies—to keep track of moves and political currents in Europe. He learned of the rather unrevolutionary actions of his royal replacement in France, King Louis XVIII. Napoleon also learned of his own enduring popularity in France. Rumors eventually reached Napoleon that his enemies—too many to count—considered Elba too close to France for comfort. They intended to send him much farther away to the barren South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Napoleon could tolerate exile no longer.

On Feb. 26, 1815, with Campbell away on the mainland, Napoleon and his followers eluded Royal Navy patrols and sneaked away from Elba. On March 1, they landed on the sunny French Riviera. Napoleon and his entourage began marching to Paris, gathering supporters and troops along the way.

Marshal Michel Ney, once one of Napoleon’s best and most trusted officers, had pledged himself to the new regime in Paris. Determined to prove himself to Louis XVIII, Ney gathered a force to stop Napoleon. The opposing forces met at Auxerre, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Paris. Instead of fighting, however, Ney’s troops flocked to Napoleon. Reluctantly, so did Ney—and everyone else. Louis XVIII, acutely aware of his desperate situation, fled France as Napoleon approached.

On March 20, Napoleon entered Paris and was carried on the shoulders of cheering crowds. His restoration as Empereur des Français began the “Hundred Days,” one of many electric, bloody, and chaotic periods in French history. With his enemies preparing to invade France, Napoleon struck first. He marched into Belgium where he “met his Waterloo” on June 18. Defeated, Napoleon was again dethroned. On July 8, Louis XVIII returned to Paris with the “baggage train of the enemy (British troops),” ending the Hundred Days. Napoleon then got his fill of dreary St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

Charlemagne was born on this date in A.D. 742

Let it be known that Charlemagne, the great king of the Franks, was no April Fool. At least he probably wasn’t. Most histories list his birth date as April 2, A.D. 742. However, if Charlemagne had been born on April 1, or April Fools’ Day, no European would have been fool enough to call him a poisson d’avril, or April fish, as the French say. Why? Well, let’s explain.

1. Charlemagne, also called Charles the Great, was king of the Franks, a powerful Germanic people. In the Middle Ages, nobody held more power in Western Europe than the king of the Franks. When Charlemagne took power in 771, the kingdom covered what is now Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and part of western Germany. Charlemagne, not content to slumber on the throne, added parts of present-day Italy, Denmark, eastern Germany, and northern Spain to his kingdom. As the ruler of most of Western Europe, no one fooled with Charlemagne.

2. Despite being the son of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne was a big guy. According to Einhard, one of Charlemagne’s court attendants, Charlemagne stood over 6 feet (2 meters) tall. In the 700’s, this was much taller than the average man. Charlemagne also had piercing eyes, a thick neck, and a potbelly. He was fond of exercise, and he had an alert mind and a forceful personality. As if this wasn’t enough, later legends gave Charlemagne superhuman wisdom and strength. No one called Charlemagne an April fish. Not to his face, anyway.

3. The church was on his side. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne followed a policy of friendship and cooperation with the Christian church. He protected the church and continually extended its considerable power. In recognition of Charlemagne’s vast power, and to strengthen the king’s alliance with the church, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800. Few people fooled with a favorite of the church, or with a Roman emperor.

4. To further bolster his credentials, Charlemagne was devoted to justice and good government. He oversaw the building of roads, schools, and courts, and brought light to the “Dark Ages.” Charlemagne probably wouldn’t have minded being called Charles, maybe even Chuck. But no one called him a fool.

This map shows the growth of Charlemagne’s empire. In A.D. 768, Charlemagne and his brother Carloman became joint rulers of the Frankish kingdom, which covered present-day Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and part of western Germany. Charlemagne’s share of the kingdom consisted of Austrasia, Neustria, and half of Aquitaine. Carloman died in 771, and Charlemagne became king of all the Franks. He enlarged his empire by conquering Bavaria, the Kingdom of the Lombards, Saxony, Carinthia, the Papal States, Spoleto, Corsica, the Belearic Islands, and the Spanish March.

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