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Roman Emperor Nero, named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus at birth, ruled almost 2,000 years ago. He was born Dec. 15, 37 A.D., not long after Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified between two thieves.

I recall hearing that while Rome was burning, Nero was playing the fiddle. Fake news, maybe. So I sought the truth. According to the ancient biographer Suetonius, Nero was the son of the first emperor’s only daughter, and his ancestors were not what you would call hospitable folks. His grandfather enjoyed “violent gladiator games”; his father was “irascible and brutal.”

His father, Domitus, had apparently been involved in a political scandal and died in 40 A.D., when Nero was 3. Before that, his mother, Agrippina, had her own scandal and was a “suspect of adultery with her brother-in-law.” Quite a group running things back then, replete with banishments, power grabs and plots to take control — even an assassination.

Just the kind of environment for someone to seize control. His great-uncle Claudius took Nero’s mother for his fourth wife and added Claudius to his name “to mark the adoption.” And so he became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and entered public life as an adult at 14 years old.

While there were differing accounts about how Claudius died in 54 A.D., most think Agrippina helped to make sure her son would become emperor. So with a little manipulation, Nero rose to power.

All reports from ancient writers say Nero was extravagant in his construction projects and spending the country’s funds and left the provinces ruined. But historians today take a different view, believing he was really interested in making things better with public-works projects and charity — which took lots of cash and seems likely for someone leading his country to make it great.

Still, Nero’s policies were deemed “well-meant but in-

competent notions.” Like a failed initiative to abolish taxes in an effort to help the people.

Just 16 when he became emperor in 54 A.D., Nero had no experience in governing. His tutor, Seneca, is said to have written his first speech before the Senate, and it’s been reported that his mother “meant to rule through her son.” While she was doing that, they say she got even with her political rivals, murdering three of them. How’s that for taking care of business?

Nero followed in her footsteps by getting rid of people who didn’t share his beliefs. He was also said to be having an affair with a slave girl, and he poisoned his half brother Britannicus because his mother sided with him when she saw Nero was following his own mind. That got her exiled.

Later, Nero had his mother killed, possibly because of her disapproval of his affair with Poppaea Sabina while she was still married. The modern scholar Miriam Griffiths suggests things really went downhill after that, saying “Nero lost all sense of right and wrong and listened to flattery with total credulity.”

Prior to this, his relationship with the Senate had been relatively good. But scholar Jurgen Malitz writes, “Nero abandoned the restraint he had previously shown because he believed a course supporting the Senate promised to be less and less profitable.”

He divorced another of his wives, Octavia, on grounds of infertility, banished her, and when there were public protests, accused her of adultery and executed her.

He married again in 64 A.D., the same year The Great Fire of Rome erupted. That was the night of July 18-19, when many mansions, residences and temples burned. The fire lasted a week, destroying three of 14 districts and severely damaging seven more.

Differing accounts of the cause have described it as an accident, a plot by Nero or simply “unsure.” Some said a plot arose from Nero’s dislike of the ancient construction and desire to build his own lush palace and a “30-meter-tall statue of himself, the colossus of Nero.” So he accused the Christians of starting the fire and had many arrested and brutally executed by “being thrown to the beasts, crucified and being burned alive.”

More than 2,000 years later, scholars and historians continue to research and argue over whether Nero started the fire, then sang and played the fiddle while Rome burned. But he ruled his kingdom for several years and did pretty much what he wanted.

By 65 A.D., though, there was a conspiracy against him, with many wanting to “rescue the state” and restore the republic. Nero got wind of it and executed its leaders. Even his old adviser, Seneca, was accused, but denied being involved. Nevertheless, he was ordered to commit suicide.

Then, some said, Nero kicked his next wife, Poppaea, to death before she had her second child. Other historians suggest she may have had a miscarriage and died.

Later, his tax policies caused a rebellion. The rebel leader lost the battle and committed suicide, while followers of Nero’s commander wanted him as emperor. The commander wouldn’t act against Nero, but others stepped up, and his officers stopped obeying him.

Nero couldn’t leave Rome, the palace guard left, and most of his friends abandoned him. At this point, he wanted someone to kill him. But he couldn’t find anyone and reportedly cried out, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran to throw himself in the Tiber River, but couldn’t do it.

A friend offered his villa outside Rome, and some of Nero’s loyalists accompanied him in disguise. Once there, he ordered them to dig a grave for him. He knew the Senate had declared him a public enemy and planned to execute him by beating him to death. The Senate actually hoped to find a compromise, but Nero didn’t know that and so prepared to commit suicide. He begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself.

When he heard horses, and knew they were coming for him, he pressed his private secretary to kill him. In the end, he finally got the job done, becoming the first emperor to do so.

One of the horsemen tried to stop the bleeding, but was too late. His last words were reported to be, “Too late. This is fidelity.”

That was June 9, 68 A.D., more than 1,950 years ago. What a time and place in which to have lived!

Ray Elliott is an author and former high school teacher who lives in rural Urbana. He can be reached at

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