‘What an artist the world is losing.’ –– Nero’s last words
Ranking high on the list of historical figures subjected to memory sanctions and false hidden histories is Roman Emperor Nero (0037-0068 A.D.). Nero was a populist, an authoritarian ruler, who appealed directly to the people (plebs). He bypassed and circumvented the elite oligarchs of Rome. He also got on the wrong side of the budding Jewish sect, later to be known as Christianity. He sent an army to deal with Jewish zealots as the first Roman-Jewish War erupted (0066 – 0073 A.D.). These groups largely controlled the presentation of Nero’s history for the next two millennia.
Bad Rap No. 1: Murder of His Mother, the Treacherous Agrippina
Relations between mother and son had deteriorated almost from the moment the cold and domineering Agrippina had engineered her teen-aged son’s accession as emperor in 0054. A letter to the senate from Nero explained everything after her death: Checked in the sharing the emperor’s power, Agrippina had insulted the senate and the soldiers, endangered the leading men of state, and sent a freedman with a dagger to murder her son after a banquet. For these, and many other crimes, her death had been for the common good.
Nero professed that he had acted more in sorrow than in anger, he claimed that his sleep was now disturbed by horrifying dreams, and to the bafflement of hostile historians he showed extreme leniency toward anyone who dared criticize his deed in public. He did not try to hide the murder. He agreed that he was guilty, and he took to the stage in the role of Orestes to defend himself.
A Civic-Minded Artist and World-Class Builder
The baths of Nero were built in 0062 A.D. and covered an area of about 190 by 120 meters. It became a focal point and social center for all the people of Rome regardless of class and endured until the fifth century.
In 0064 A.D., Rome was poor, overcrowded, poorly built with wood and cheaply built dwellings. It was a disaster waiting to happen. On the night of July 18-19, 0064, the city began to burn fiercely. More than half of Rome was destroyed over nine days.
Nero returned to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds. Nero’s contributions to the relief extended to personally taking part in the search for and rescue of victims of the blaze, spending days combing through the debris without even his bodyguards. After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless and arranged for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors.
Bad Rap No. 2: Nero Started The Great Fire and Persecuted the Proto-Judaeo Christian Sect for No Good Reason
This is a recurring theme that is glossed over throughout history. Both Judaism and its offshoot, Christianity then and now, have history-influencing, crackpot, apocalyptic, end-of-world elements that historians ignore. Professor Gerhard Baudy of the University of Konstanz in Germany spent 15 years studying ancient apocalyptic prophecies. He has learned that in Rome, proto-Christians were circulating vengeful texts predicting that a raging inferno would reduce the city to ashes.
“In all of these oracles, the destruction of Rome by fire is prophesied,” Baudy explains. “That is the constant theme: Rome must burn.”
Moreover, the Book of Revelation, written a mere 30 years later, seems to equate evil with Rome. An ancient Egyptian prophecy that would have been well-known in the Judeo- proto-Christian quarters of Rome foretold the fall of the great evil city on the day that the dog star, Sirius, rises. In 0064 A.D., Sirius rose on July 19, the very day the great fire of Rome started.
Nothing like helping the prophecy along. The proto-Jewish Christian sect likely started the fire (at the Circus Maximus) in a tinderbox city ready to burn down anyway. The historian Tacitus wrote, “Nobody dared fight the fires, and were opposed by menacing gangs.” And Tacitus, who was no friend of Nero, called the sect “a most mischievous superstition.” The now-inverted, warped history that portrays the Judeo- proto-Christians as gentle, benign people couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the Romans’ eyes, they were dealing with yet another troublesome and dangerous Jewish cult. In addition, the eastern Mediterranean was aflame with what conventional history calls “zealots,” ultimately leading up to the first Roman-Jewish War of 0066 – 0073. Nero pointed the finger at the fire’s culprits and proceeded to bring justice against this abhorrent hateful sect by executing and persecuting them.
Two years later, he sent legions east to crush the zealots. This decisive antipathy toward Jews and proto-Christians earned Nero the smear of 666, The Beast.
Actions Speak Louder than Words: Nero Rebuilds a More Modern, Enduring City
While his enemies and detractors schemed, plotted and spread rumors against him, Nero provided, mostly out of his own pocket, extensive and even heroic measures to relieve widespread suffering and to resurrect the city on a much sounder basis and with a strict and sensible building code.
Nero as a designer was very hands on and worked alongside the best builders of the era, or any era. Brick-faced concrete was developed, and soon it was produced all over the Roman Empire on an industrial scale. A modern building code was put in place. Houses built after the fire were properly spaced and faced by porticoes on wide streets and roads.
Unwilling to Bow to Rich Oligarchs at the Expense of the People
To summon the necessary funds for the reconstruction, tributes were imposed on the provinces of the empire, and the elites were levied. The cost to rebuild Rome was immense, requiring funds the state treasury did not have. Nero conducted a controlled emergency devaluation of the Roman currency for the first time in the Empire’s history.
An empire-wide program of public and private works was funded by a rise in taxes that was much resented by the upper classes.
Bad Rap No. 3: Nero Used a 3rd of Rome’s Land to Build His Own Private Palace, The Domus Aurea
Nero also built a new palace complex known as The Domus Aurea (also called The Golden House) in an area cleared by the fire. The Domus Aurea included lush landscapes and parks. A lake was developed on the site of today’s Colosseum. Sadly, within just 40 years of Nero’s passing, The Golden House was completely obliterated.
Professor Edward Champlin, writing in “Nero, Reconsidered,” deconstructs the bum rap about Nero being selfish and puts it to rest. Certainly Nero at this point was a megalomaniac and built a 30-meter-tall statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero. But architecture has always been used by effective leaders to project power. Champlain explains:
Nero’s Golden House and its park had always been essentially open to the public. I think that this is right, for all sorts of reasons. When the graffito said that one house was taking over Rome, it was merely distorting something Nero himself had proclaimed just before the Fire: he meant to treat the whole city as his house and the citizens as his closest friends – that is, the intention was to include, not exclude, everyone. To the annoyance of the aristocracy, Nero was in fact positioning himself as the great patron and friend of his people, offering them banquets all over the city and grand public spectacles in the theater, in the circus, in the forum, and now in his own home.
Ultimately, the elitists in the Roman Senate unified in a scheme to depose Nero in 0068 A.D., and he committed suicide. His downfall may have been signaled by too many gestures of mercy and lack of ruthlessness against his enemies. This is typified by what was thought to be a mad speech about Gaul to the Senate. Nero in his own wonderful theatrical way was suggesting friendship, collaboration and the tool of high culture might work better than bloodshed.
Contemporary Views About Nero
The smear version of history of Nero that we all grew up with is well known. But other than his enemies, who rewrote the history, what did his contemporaries say?
The “Annals” by Tacitus (c. 0056 – 0117) is the most detailed and comprehensive history on the rule of Nero. By Tacitus’ own admission, he owed much to Nero’s rivals. Realizing that this bias may be glaringly apparent to others of that age, Tacitus doth-protests-too-loudly that his writing is true.
Tacitus mentions that Nero’s death was welcomed by Senators, nobility and the upper class. He then grudgingly admits the lower-class, the slaves, the frequenters of the arena and the theater and “those who were supported by the famous excesses of Nero,” on the other hand, were very upset with the news.
Members of the military were said to have mixed feelings, as they had allegiance to Nero but had been bribed to overthrow him.
Lucanus (c. 0039 – 0065) has one of the kindest accounts of Nero’s rule. He writes of peace and prosperity under Nero in contrast to previous war and strife.
Philostratus II in the Athenian (c. 0172 – 0250) spoke of Nero in the “Life of Apollonius Tyana“(Books IV – V). Though he has a generally bad or dim view of Nero, he speaks of others’ positive reception of Nero, especially in the Hellenic East.
Josephus (c. 0037 – 0100), while calling Nero a tyrant, was also the first to mention bias against Nero. Of other historians, he addressed the concept of ignoring original research and just circle jerking the same historical script. Nero revisionism was suppressed.
But I omit any further discourse about these affairs; for there have been a great many who have composed the history of Nero; some of which have departed from the truth of facts out of favour, as having received benefits from him; while others, out of hatred to him, and the great ill-will which they bore him, have so impudently raved against him with their lies, that they justly deserve to be condemned. Nor do I wonder at such as have told lies of Nero, since they have not in their writings preserved the truth of history as to those facts that were earlier than his time, even when the actors could have no way incurred their hatred, since those writers lived a long time after them.
The Nero Redivivus Legend
There is further evidence of his popularity among the Roman commoners, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, where a popular legend arose that Nero had not died and would return. At least three leaders of short-lived, failed rebellions presented themselves as “Nero reborn,” to enlist popular support.
This popular belief started during the last part of the first century. The legend of Nero was so strong that it persisted as a common belief as late as the fifth century.
Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) wrote that some believed “he now lives in concealment in the vigor of that same age which he had reached when he was believed to have perished and will live until he is revealed in his own time and restored to his kingdom.”
Dio Chrysostom, a Greek philosopher and historian, wrote, “Seeing that even now everybody wishes [Nero] were still alive. And the great majority do believe that he still is, although in a certain sense he has died not once but often along with those who had been firmly convinced that he was still alive.”