a.d. 37-68

Roman emperor

Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero was emperor of the Roman Empire from A.D. 54 to 68. Although an enthusiastic supporter of art and architecture, Nero is best remembered for his lavish lifestyle, his cruelty to those who opposed him, and the downfall of his government.

When Nero was a boy, his mother, Agrippina, married the emperor Claudius, and Claudius adopted him soon after. In A.D. 53, Nero married Claudius’s daughter, and the following year he succeeded Claudius as emperor. Just 17 years old, Nero was considered too young to govern, and he was advised during the first several years of his reign by his tutor, Seneca the Younger, and Burrus, the prefect, or commander, of the Praetorian Guard*. Burrus and Seneca were capable leaders, and later Romans considered these years a golden age of good government. While his advisers governed the empire, Nero enjoyed entertainments, such as chariot races and performances of poetry and drama. He often gave public performances and entered competitions himself. Nero lived an extravagant and outrageous lifestyle, sometimes even roaming the streets in disguise.

* Praetorian Guard elite and politically influential corps that served as the emperor’s bodyguard

After the death of Burrus in A.D. 62, Nero took full control of the empire himself and forced Seneca into retirement. However, Nero was still more interested in entertainment and the arts than in the responsibilities of leadership, and his government quickly fell apart. A suspicious man, Nero arranged the murder of anyone he believed opposed him, including his own mother and wife. In A.D. 68, the army rebelled against him, no longer willing to support an emperor who was more interested in playing music than visiting them in their camps. Although Nero could have retained power had he responded quickly to the revolt, he panicked instead, fled from Rome, and committed suicide.

Nero’s death ended one of the most colorful periods in Roman history. Roman art and architecture reached their peak during Nero’s rule, and his coins are considered to be the most beautiful ever produced by the Romans. He is also admired for rebuilding Rome after much of the city was destroyed in a great fire. (See also Architecture, Roman; Palaces, Imperial Roman; Rome, History of.)

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