12 Surprising Facts About the Infamous Emperor Nero

Nero’s Torches/Painting: Henryk Siemiradzki/Wikipedia

Editor's Note:

Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

Nero! The name of ancient Rome’s infamous ruler, who took the reins of an empire at sixteen, resonates and is known all over the world.  He would be pleased with that. The historian Suetonius described his “unreasonable craving for immortal fame” and he certainly has that.

He would be less than thrilled, however, when he saw what he was remembered for. In the popular mind, he is ludicrous, dangerous, decadent, unbalanced, even insane. His real character lies buried in the rubble of time, obscured by sound bytes (“Nero fiddled while Rome burned” – which wasn’t even coined until the seventeenth century), biased hostile accounts, and Hollywood depictions. Here I’ve compiled some of the most surprising but true facts showing what the real Nero was like.

It’s high time he had a chance to clear his name.

He was the last true “Caesar.”
The first five emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero – were all related in some way to the founder of the dynasty, Julius Caesar. With the death of Nero, that remarkable dynasty came to an end. Caesar was the family name of Julius, and although later came to be applied to all emperors as a title, it rightfully belonged only to those five. They have a mystique of their own, unmatched as a group by the later rulers.

He didn’t fiddle while Rome burned.
The stereotype of  “fiddling while Rome burned” came from the rumor that he had performed his epic of the fall of Troy while Rome was on fire, watching the flames for inspiration. This is not true; he wasn’t even in Rome when the fire started, and his palace was on fire – hardly a place he could have performed, as the rumor had it, upon the roof.

He was blond and good looking but had poor eyesight.
When he ascended the throne, he was a slim, blue-eyed, blond, good-looking teenager. As he got older, he put on weight, and astonishingly, recorded his changing looks on a series of coins that depicted him as he really looked, a shocking bit of full disclosure for an emperor.

It is reported that he was “short sighted” and used an uncut emerald to help him see at distance, holding it up to his right eye.

He was a good athlete.
He was a keen competitor and took his training seriously. One of the earliest things he did in his reign was build a state-of-the-art gymnasium with an attached training yard, where he could be seen exercising. He was an especially good wrestler. He  mastered chariot racing (his grandfather was a noted charioteer), raced chariots in Rome, and competed in Greece at Olympia. However, this was considered déclassé for an emperor and earned him much ridicule back in Rome.

He was the first Roman emperor to wear a beard.
Ever since Alexander the Great, men in the west were clean-shaven. Nero was the first emperor to grow a beard. First the now-fashionable stubble, then a chin beard, seen on his statues and coins. After that, other Roman emperors followed suit, most notably Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

He was interested in science.
He had a lively intellectual curiosity about the world around him. He sent explorers to discover the source of the Nile. They penetrated some fifteen hundred miles  south as far as the great marsh in Sudan. He sent others north to find new sources of amber, and when he was in Greece he attempted to measure the depth of the Alcyon lake near Lerna, which was reputed to be “bottomless.”

He was not a sex fiend or a sex pervert.
In many ways Nero was ahead of his time and paid the price for it.  In today’s world, sex fantasy games, gender fluidity, and cross dressing are old hat and mainstream. Nero did not do anything that middle America would find shocking today.

As for being a sex fiend, far from it. He was in love with his wife Poppaea and faithful to her while she lived. The rest of his life, considering what was available to him, he was pretty restrained. He didn’t debauch other men’s wives, like Caligula, or keep boy toys in a stable like Tiberius.

He saw himself as an artist first and emperor second.
He was the first ruler of almost any country, and the only one of a country of real consequence, to see himself primarily as an artist. He had the true temperament of an artist and tried his hand at many things – dance, poetry, drama – but his true calling and talent was as a citharoede player. The cithara was a seven-stringed instrument similar to the lyre but much more difficult to play; it was the instrument Apollo played. Virtuoso cithara players were the music stars in the ancient world and went on tour, making vast amounts of money. A citharoede composed his own music and sang it while playing the instrument. Nero was an acknowledged master of it and his compositions were played after his death.

He shared many traits with his ancestor Marc Antony.
Nero was descended from Marc Antony on both sides of his family, and seems to have inherited many of his traits – generosity to a fault, big spending, romantic notions of love, a desire to shuck duties and escape into another exotic world, popularity with the common man and the crowds, love of drama, and an identification with Hercules.

He wasn’t insane and he wasn’t cruel.
The idea that Nero was insane arose because of his obsession with the arts, toward the end of his reign especially, when he failed to pay enough attention to his duties as emperor. He was not insane, but his priorities were definitely out of order and were the ultimate cause of his downfall as he ignored the military aspects of his government. The empire was in a quiet phase, but it could not run on its own.

Nero was exceptionally tolerant and non-violent.  He overlooked insulting jingles and graffiti about himself; he forbade killing at the gladiatorial games. In the first ten years of his reign there were no executions and only two sentences of banishment for treason. But, when a widespread conspiracy to assassinate him was discovered, including some of his most trusted friends, he did not hesitate to protect himself and punish them. Any other emperor would have done the same, and perhaps worse. The plot, however, destroyed his peace of mind and from then on he was suspicious of those around him. And those whose friends had been executed because of the plot naturally called Nero cruel and a tyrant.

He fell from power not because of his lyre playing but because of lack of interest in the military.
Although he was the grandson of the famous hero-general Germanicus he had little or no interest in the military, and never visited his legions. He preferred diplomatic solutions to military ones, and had no desire to expand the empire. At one point he thought of relinquishing the new province of Britain as not worth the expense of maintaining. In the end the legions elevated their own generals and declared them emperor. Ignoring the military was a mistake no Roman emperor ever made again, since they were the ones who controlled the process of choosing an emperor.

He did not live past the age of thirty.
Nero had a very short and intense life. Through the machinations of his ruthless and ambitious mother, Agrippina – who murdered two of her husbands – he was propelled onto the throne at the age of sixteen, the youngest emperor of Rome until Elagabalus in AD 204. He was a young man in a hurry and began his building programs right away; he had visionary architectural ideas and gifted architects, Severus and Celer, to carry them out. By the age of thirty his reign was over. He was forced to flee in fear of his life and had to commit suicide, where he uttered the famous last words, “Qualis artifex pereo! What an artist the world is losing!”