In the second edition of the Despot of the Week, The Grand Inquisitor takes a trip back through the ages to the Roman Empire in the First Century AD, a time when despicable cruelty and unspeakably foul sexual deviancy were rampant among some elements of the ruling class. Nero was perhaps the worst of a particularly unsavoury bunch of Roman Emperors, although admittedly, he is up against some pretty stiff competition. Nero was especially infamous for his persecution of the then fledgling Christian religion, and was declared the first incarnation of the Anti-Christ by the early Christian Church. He also had a habit of bumping off political rivals, wives, family members and anybody he took a mild disliking to with a reckless abandon. Nero even had his own mother murdered, allegedly after pursuing an incestuous relationship with her.
Country of Rule: The Roman Empire
From: October 13, AD 54 – June 9, AD 68
Official Title: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Demise: June 9, AD 68. Committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat with a dagger. Aged 30.
Death Toll: Difficult to ascertain with any accuracy, but probably in the thousands. Nero’s persecution of Christians was tantamount to religious genocide, and political executions were numerous. Nero also had quite a regular habit of bumping off members of his own family.
Physical Defects: Nero was said to be covered in spots all over his body and to suffer from chronic body odour problems, although it’s possible this has been exaggerated by critical Roman historians. Supposedly had a fat neck and a prominent pot belly.
Bio: The problem with compiling Nero’s biography is that no contemporaneous accounts of his life story have survived, meaning that we have to depend on sources written after his death, a few steps removed from the actual events. We can’t be certain how much of Nero’s story is based on reality, and how much is conjecture. The most well known accounts tend to be heavily critical of Nero, especially Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Ceasers, which portrays Nero as a murderous and deranged tyrant. Suetonius’ account was written some fifty years after Nero’s death and contains a strong streak of dark humour, suggesting that it might have been partly satirical in intent. Suetonius is also quite keen to stress his theory that grotesque levels of sexual decadence led to the moral perversion and subsequent decline of the Roman Empire, and certain facts of his life may have been exaggerated in order to support this claim. A few other sources have suggested that Nero was actually quite popular with the common folk of Rome, and was only truly despised in the nobility. This brief biographical sketch is heavily based on Suetonius’ version of events.
Nero essentially came into power through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina, one of the most calculating and treacherous women in the history of the Roman Empire, if most accounts are to be believed. After earlier being banished from Rome by her brother, Caligula, Agrippina managed to worm her way back into favour and married Caligula’s successor, Claudius. Agrippina somehow convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, as his heir over his own son, Britannicus. Agrippina then had Claudius poisoned and killed, allowing the 16 year old Nero to ascend to the throne.
In the initial stages of the succession, Agrippina acted as reagent and aspired to retain control of the Roman Empire from behind the throne. Nero had other ideas, however. He foiled his mother’s ambitions, shunting her aside and siezeing the reins of power all to himself.
Somewhat surprisingly, Nero’s early years were characterised by sensible legislation and attempts at genuine reform. Backed by the steady guidance of his chief advisers, Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, and the prominent philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Nero set about bringing increased stability and public order to Rome.
Rather miffed over being marginalised, however, Agrippina began sniping against her son’s rule from the sidelines, championing the cause of his 15 year old step brother, Britannicus. Britannicus, as the legitimate heir of Claudius, would have become Emperor if it hadn’t of been for Agrippina’s scheming in the first place. Britannicus, however, was mysteriously dosed with poison at a royal banquet and killed. Nero had learned the lessons of his mother rather too well.
With Britannicus out of the way, Nero set about trying to permanently off his mother. It was strongly suspected that Nero and his mother had been conducting an incestuous affair, and that sexual jealousy as much as political machination was the motivation behind her murder. According to Suetonius, there were three poisoning attempts, all of which were foiled. Nero then attempted to have his mother’s bed booby trapped. Supposedly, the bed was fitted with a mechanism that would trigger the ceiling to collapse when she slept in it. The plan didn’t work. So Nero decided to build a collapsible boat, which would drown his mother in the Bay of Naples. However, Agrippina escaped the sinking vessel by simply swimming to shore. Growing frustrated by the failure of his various plots, Nero dispatched an assassin to do away with his mother. The assassin duly carried out the job by repeatedly bludgeoning Agrippina with a club and then stabbing her to death.
After his mother’s murder, Nero began to withdraw increasingly from his administrative duties in order to indulge in his favourite past times of horse racing, music, acting and large scale sexual orgies. The advisors Seneca and Burrus were able to cover up and curtail Nero’s excesses to some degree, but by AD 62 Burrus had died and was replaced by a rather more malevolent Praetorian Prefect, Gaius Ofanius Tigellinus. Tigellinus wielded a sinister influence over the young Emperor, and went out of his way to encourage and inflame Nero’s penchant for excess. Seneca resigned from his position of advisor in disgust. Something akin to a circus of insanity now held court in Rome.
Nero’s next objective was to set about separating from his wife Octavia, afterwards having her executed under false pretences of adultery. This cleared the way for a marriage to his mistress, Poppaea Sabina, who Nero had long been carrying on an affair with. Nero was later to kick the pregnant Sabina to death when she complained about him coming home late from the horse races.
Life for Nero became a protracted series of sport, music, murder and impossibly depraved orgies. He began to scandalise the Roman populace by appearing in public on stage as an actor. Sometimes he would stage concerts with himself performing on the lyre. This was at a time when musicians and actors were regarded as rather unsavoury in polite Roman society. To make matters worse, Nero especially favoured playing female roles, and relished dressing up in women’s clothing and wearing makeup on stage. During his musical performances, which would sometimes stretch on for hours, the spectators were forbidden to leave until he had finished. This led to infamous accounts of pregnant women actually going into labour mid concert, and men feigning their own deaths in order to leave early.
Much has been said on the subject of Nero’s rapacious and depraved sexual appetite, particularly by Gaius Petronius, who is thought to have written the famous Roman satirical novel, Satyricon. Petronius acted as Nero’s chief advisor in matters of luxury and entertainment. Sort of like an Ancient World version of a party planner. The orgies arranged by Petronius for Nero’s satisfaction reached spectacular levels of debauchery, typically involving hundreds of prostitutes and mass incidents of sodomy and torture. Apart from his allegedly incestuous relationship with his mother, Nero was said to enthusiastically participate in both homosexual and heterosexual rape. One of his favourite activities was to have male and female slaves tied naked to stakes; he would then dress himself up in animal skins and savage their genitals like a wild beast. At one point, Nero had a favourite male lover, Pythagoras, castrated and dressed up in women’s clothing. He then scandalised Rome by “marrying” Pythagoras in a mock ceremony held in front of the court. Supposedly, the couple were often seen out and about in public, kissing and embracing.
In AD 64, a great fire swept through Rome, leading to the famous (and most likely apocryphal) account of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned”. Actually, fiddles didn’t exist in Rome at that time, although Nero was fond of playing the lyre. Several historical accounts make reference to Nero either standing atop his palace roof or in the tower of Maecenas and singing songs while observing the city going up in flames. It is stressed by historians that these reports stem from rumours rather than first hand accounts. To Nero’s credit, he did later rebuild many of Rome’s devastated residential areas out of his own pocket.
Nero did, however, also decide to set aside a substantial portion of the burned city to build himself a massive pleasure palace. This raised considerable suspicion among the populace. It was thought that Nero deliberately allowed Rome to burn, in order to create the space he needed for the construction of his pleasure dome. When the opulent Palace had been completed, along with its 300 acres of private pleasure gardens, Nero is alleged to have commented: “At last I can live like a human being.”
Nobody knows for sure what started the Great Fire of Rome, but Nero required a convenient scapegoat and decided to blame it all on the Christians. At this time, Christianity was still considered a rather arcane cult, but it had been growing in numbers, and was regarded with much suspicion and antipathy by the general Roman population. Nero began rounding up Christians and subjecting them to a variety of cruel torments. They were variously crucified, boiled in vats of hot wax, and thrown to wild beasts in the circus, where thousands of spectators would cheer as the victims were torn into bloody shreds. When Nero threw his grotesquely lavish parties, he would impale Christians on stakes and set them ablaze in order to provide illumination for his palace grounds. Nero’s persecution of Christians reached levels that could only be described as tantamount to religious genocide, and began a trend that was continued sporadically in the Roman Empire for several hundreds of years to come.
Nero’s continued barbarity and life of wanton excess had served to greatly disturb the Roman senate, and in AD 65, there was a serious conspiracy underway to have the Emperor removed from power. The plot was uncovered, however, prompting a wave of executions and banishments. Nero appears to have used the plot as an excuse to begin doing away with anybody who appeared remotely suspicious or threatening, or even people who he had taken a dislike to. There were dramatic purges in the Roman nobility and in the senate.
During this time, Nero decided that he would go and live in Greece in order to devote himself to the theatre, proclaiming that “Greeks alone are worthy of my genius”. Greek audiences, however, were said to be shocked by the Emperor’s complete lack of discernable talent, either as a musician or as an actor. A keen sports enthusiast, Nero also took it upon himself to compete as a chariot racer in the Olympic Games. He actually fell out of his chariot while a race was in progress, but still went on to win the event. Nobody dared to overtake the Emperor of Rome.
Meanwhile, back in Italy, the purging of the nobility continued apace. The situation had gotten so bad that several regional governors were in open revolt, forcing Nero to return home to deal with the rebellion. Instead of attending to his affairs, however, Nero spent most of his time devising ever more elaborate ways to torture arrested rebels. No longer carrying a shred of credibility, Nero’s authority went unrecognised by the senate. The Praetorian Prefect of the time, Nymphidius Sabinus, persuaded Rome’s armies to revolt against the Emperor, giving the senate the clout they needed to remove him from power. They decreed that Nero be flogged to death. Nero received advance warning, however, and decided to preempt the sentence by committing suicide. His last words were said to be:
“What an artist the world loses in me”.
Despot Rating: If the accounts of Roman historians such as Suetonius are to be believed, Nero was perhaps the worst Despot in the history of the Roman Empire. That would make him the worst of a spectacularly repugnant and deviant group. However, it is possible that the accounts of Nero’s unnaturally savage Despotism have been rather sensationalised. Nonetheless, most surviving accounts do portray Nero to be a cruel and debauched man. Although his overall death toll is not anywhere near as high as some of history’s most infamous butchers, Nero does make up for it with the unusual savagery and utterly perverse nature of his crimes. Suetonius accuses him of forever corrupting the rulership of Rome by turning traditional Roman morality and taboos utterly on their head.
4 Hitler Moustaches / 5 for Nero.
* Nero’s inclusion in the Despot of the Week was suggested by Grand Inquisitor reader and suspected closet military Overlord, Daniel (Milanista).