Ancient History & Civilisation



Mamma Mia

No member of the August Family had ever swung between such extremes of calamity and triumph as Agrippina. Alone among the numerous descendants of Augustus sentenced to exile, she had clawed her way back from ruin. She could never forget what it was to fail. For a year and more, the island to which she had been dispatched by her vengeful brother had mocked her with a barren parody of greatness. To the Roman elite, nothing screamed success quite like a sprawling estate with water features; and this, in her exile, Agrippina had been granted. Her prison had boasted much that would not have disgraced a villa on the Bay of Naples: artificial fishponds, fresh shellfish and – of course – a sea view. All these various luxuries, though, had only emphasised the misery of exile. Isolation corroded every delight. It was ambience as well as setting that made for pleasure. Even Baiae, despite its exquisite beauties, would have counted for little without the strains of gossip and music that were forever drifting on its perfumed breezes.

Without its marinas too. The Bay of Naples, churned though its shipping lanes were by hulking freighters bound for Puteoli, and by the galleys of Caesar’s fleet, was far from devoted to the demands of trade and defence. To drift past the various piers and grottoes that adorned the shoreline, escaping the heat of summer on the cool and crystalline waters of the bay, had long been a particular delight of the Roman elite. Caligula, predictably, had taken it to a new level of excess. Even as his sisters were rotting on their prison islands, he had cruised the coast of Campania in specially commissioned galleys, complete with baths, fluted pillars and vines. Nothing quite so exclusive as a palace that could float. Indeed, so close was the association in the minds of the Roman super-rich between pleasure and water, and between luxury and boats, that the bays of Campania were hardly sufficient to meet it. Any stretch of water was a potential source of enchantment. Caligula, when not in the mood to head for Baiae, had been alert to alternative options. Some twenty miles south of Rome, for instance, set among a ridge of hills above the Appian Way, stood the peaceful, grove-fringed lake of Nemi. Here, eager to sample its delights in style, Agrippina’s brother had ordered the construction of a mammoth houseboat.*1 No expense had been spared – that, of course, went without saying. Mosaics, marble inlay, gilded roof tiles: Caligula’s pleasure barge boasted them all. Even the lead pipes had been carefully stamped with his name. To Agrippina, long since redeemed from her exile, the boat served as a reminder of everything that had been denied her during her term of disgrace. That the same vessel commissioned by the brother who had incarcerated her was now the property of her son could hardly help but bring a certain smile to the Augusta’s face.

Or perhaps not. Sumptuous though the boat was, and stunning its setting, on a lake so perfectly circular and glass-like that it was known as the Mirror of the Moon, there was, for anyone as alert to the demands of power as Agrippina, a hint of the sinister about Nemi. This was not at first apparent. Like the Bay of Naples, the slopes of the lake appeared monuments to suburban chic. Julius Caesar himself had once built a villa there; Augustus’s mother had come from the nearby town. Yet just as in Rome, amid the concrete and the marble of the Palatine, there remained memorials to the distant age of Romulus, so at Nemi, casting a chill over the scenes of luxury, there flickered the shadows of something very ancient indeed. Aeneas was not the only hero to have travelled to Italy in the wake of Troy’s fall. In Greece, Agamemnon, the king who had served as commander-in-chief of the returning armies, had been murdered by his queen, Clytaemnestra; and she in turn, on the command of the gods, had been killed by their son, a young man named Orestes. Fearsome demons known as the Furies, armed with whips and torches of fire, had then pursued him for the monstrous crime of matricide. Orestes, in the course of his wanderings, had headed west, bringing with him a statue of Apollo’s twin, the virgin huntress Diana; and at Nemi, in a grove above the lake, he had established a shrine to the goddess. From then on, in memory of the founder of the cult, its priest had always been a fugitive: an escaped slave who, after breaking into the sanctuary, had challenged the incumbent and succeeded in slaying him. A fatal victory – for every priest had to live with the knowledge that the time would come when he in turn would perish at the hands of his successor. For a thousand years and more, murder had followed murder in an endless cycle. Caligula, arriving at the shrine, and learning that the priest had been in situ for years, had amused himself by sponsoring a younger, fitter contender; but the last laugh had been on him. No less than the sanctuary at Nemi, the household of Caesar was a potential killing zone, where death might come at any minute to those who failed to watch their backs. Like the priest of Diana, Caligula had ended up sprawled in a puddle of blood – and Agrippina, whose own return from exile would never have happened without his elimination, had no intention of suffering his fate.

Certainly, she had good cause to keep the goddess of Nemi in mind. Already, on her marriage to Claudius, she had sought to expiate the offence of incest by sponsoring propitiatory rites with her husband in the sacred grove. Then, a few months later, Claudius had made a formal dedication to Diana: a request to the goddess that she keep both him and Agrippina safe, and Nero and Britannicus too. It had not been enough. The goddess had abandoned Claudius. Lamps still blazed in the shrine that he had commissioned at Nemi; but now he was dead, and it was widely rumoured that his wife had been responsible. True or not, Agrippina knew better than to rely for her own security on lighting candles to Diana. The lesson of the sanctuary at Nemi had not been lost on her. The goddess favoured those who made their own luck. So it was, with Claudius barely dead, that Agrippina had dispatched orders to her agents in Asia, instructing them to poison the province’s governor – who, like her son, happened to be a great-great-grandson of Augustus. Such, at any rate, was the assumption in Rome, when the news arrived there of the wretched man’s death. It was a perfectly reasonable one to make. The fate of Narcissus, arrested as he hurried back from Campania, had left no one in any doubt that Agrippina was clearing the decks. The suicide in custody of Claudius’s favourite freedman had set the seal on her control of the Palatine. With Pallas now even more securely in charge of its finances than he had been before, Burrus in command of the Praetorians, and Seneca on hand to orchestrate dealings in the Senate, she could boast placemen everywhere. When senators voted her the Priesthood of the Deified Claudius, and double the number of lictors granted to Livia in her widowhood, it set the seal on an astonishing comeback. ‘She dared to strive after the rule of the sacred world.’1 Never before had the Roman people been able to say that of one of their women.

Yet the summit attained by Agrippina was a precarious one. Her very feat of scaling it could hardly help but inspire in most men bitter mistrust. Senators, summoned to meet on the Palatine, deeply resented what all of them knew was her brooding presence behind a curtain, listening in on their every word. Seneca too, despite everything that he owed her, was profoundly unsettled by her pretensions. Daughter of Germanicus that she was, Agrippina saw no reason why she should not stamp her authority as firmly upon the frontiers as upon domestic affairs. She certainly had form when it came to setting her mark on military matters. Back when the chained Caratacus was led before Claudius, there had been Agrippina as well, sitting directly beside her husband, enthroned beneath the eagles – ‘an unprecedented thing’.2 Her abiding interest in Germany, where her father had performed such heroic deeds and she herself had lived as a child, had seen the capital of the Rhine renamed after her, so that the Altar of the Ubians had become Colonia Agrippinensis – the future Cologne. Now, though, in the first months of her son’s reign, attention was focused not on the northern frontier, but on Armenia, where the Parthians were busy attempting to replace a Roman-backed king with a puppet of their own – a crisis which Agrippina was resolved to take the lead in handling. When an Armenian embassy arrived in Rome, she took for granted that she should be seated beside her son to receive them. Seneca, an inveterate civilian, but whose scholarly temperament and lifelong respiratory problems had only heightened his respect for the martial traditions of the Roman people, was appalled. Determined that at least some bounds of propriety be respected, he instructed Nero to rise from his seat, step down to meet his mother and take her to one side. Scandal was duly averted.

‘It was I who made you emperor.’3 So Agrippina was forever reminding her son. Nero, barely sixteen, and schooled as only a Roman child could be in the habit of deference to his parent, had little choice but to listen. Various innovations proclaimed as much to the Roman people. On Nero’s coins, his profile and Agrippina’s, of matching size, were shown facing one another, as though in celebration of their partnership; on his inscriptions, he made sure to include the line of descent from his mother as well as his father. Nevertheless, there had to be limits. He was ruler of the world, after all. He could not afford to appear henpecked by his mother. Instead, shrewd enough to recognise just what a consigliere he had in Seneca, Nero was content, even now that he was Caesar, to remain the student of his old tutor. Advised to meet the crisis in Armenia with iron-fisted determination, he boosted troop numbers along the eastern front and dispatched a veteran of the German frontier to take command of the situation – with the result that, soon enough, the Parthians were scrabbling to sue for terms. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Nero continued to pose with great aplomb as the model of a beneficent ruler. Graciously, he refused an offer from the Senate to erect statues of him fashioned out of gold and silver. He declared an end to the treason trials that had so stained the reputation of Claudius – and kept his word, what was more. On one occasion, brought a death warrant to sign, he sighed, then lamented with great theatricality that he had ever learned to write. ‘No chance did he miss, in short, to parade his generosity, his mercy and his graciousness.’4

It was the nature of the factions lurking beneath the surface of Caesar’s household always to seek out fresh battlefields. Now, in the struggle to market the young emperor, Agrippina and Seneca had found the perfect focus for their growing rivalry. Two potent but contradictory versions of Nero’s image were being sold to the world: as the dutiful son of the Augusta, the daughter of Germanicus, without whom he would have been nothing; and as the father of his people, wise beyond his years, ‘always forbearing in the care of his children’.5 Nero himself, like a doll, found himself forever being draped in robes that others had chosen for him. Yet it was not easy to kick against this indignity. Agrippina had allies everywhere, and the burnishing that her incomparable ancestry gave to Nero’s legitimacy was beyond price. Seneca, meanwhile, learned like no one else in the traditions prized by the Roman establishment, was invaluable for his ability to shape them to his master’s needs. Neither could be jettisoned; and Nero, alert to the weakness of his own position, knew better – as yet – than to try.

Nevertheless, the more wearisome he found his mother and tutor, the more he yearned to flex his muscles. Opportunities were hardly lacking. When, chafing against the marriage to Claudius’s daughter forced on him by Agrippina, he began to look around for a woman better suited to his tastes than the earnest and high-minded Octavia, he soon found one in the shape of a former slave named Acte. Agrippina was predictably appalled. ‘A housemaid as my daughter-in-law?’6 It was not to be borne. Rather than back down, though, Nero turned for assistance to his tutor – who promptly arranged for one of his associates to serve Acte and her lover as a go-between. Yet Seneca, even as he was assiduously promoting his youthful pupil as the model of responsibility, faced challenges of his own. Nero, bored of spending his time living up to his tutor’s stern ideals, wanted to let off steam. He was strongly encouraged in this ambition by a young rake named Marcus Salvius Otho, whose flamboyant extravagance and taste for tossing unfortunates up and down in military cloaks made him very much a man after Nero’s own heart. Otho, unlike Seneca, was not forever nagging him about his duty; Otho, unlike Seneca, was familiar with the seamiest, the most vice-ridden quarters of Rome. Whole new dimensions of experience and opportunity, barely hinted at in books of philosophy, were waiting to be discovered in the streets of the city: a thrilling prospect for any young man who, like Nero, ‘had a love of the incredible’.7 Increasingly, it was not Seneca who ‘shared with him all his plans and secrets’,8 still less Agrippina, but companions like Otho.

Nevertheless, there remained at the heart of the young Caesar’s regime the same throbbing, ominous tension between the show and the reality of power as had been present from the moment of his accession. Nero knew – because his mother was always reminding him of it – that he would never have ascended to the rule of the world without her manoeuvrings and manipulations; he knew too that he was not the only candidate to rule as Caesar. Always, hanging over his head, a reminder to him that he was not indispensable, lurked Britannicus. This had been brought unsettlingly home to Nero during the first Saturnalia of his reign, when his stepbrother, ordered as a forfeit to stand up and sing, had intoned a lament for his displacement. Agrippina, determined to keep her son in check, did not hesitate to menace him with the prospects of his rival. When Nero, greatly daring, dismissed Pallas from his post on the Palatine, his mother’s fury at the sacking of her most valued agent was something terrible. ‘I will take Britannicus to the Praetorian camp! The soldiers there will listen to the daughter of Germanicus!’9 A mortal threat – and Nero knew it. Agrippina, as she had done all her life, played hard, and she played to win – even against her own son.

Bitter and humiliated, Nero vented his fury in the readiest way available: by repeatedly sodomising his stepbrother. Rape was, of course, the most physically brutal means a Roman had of asserting his dominance over a rival; but it was, in Nero’s case, an expression of impotence as well. His mother, it seemed, had won. When, midway through 55, he invited Agrippina to a feast, making sure to host Britannicus and Octavia as well, there did not appear much doubt as to who held the whip-hand in the August Family. Then, in the course of the meal, Britannicus abruptly began to choke. His eyes bulged, he gasped for breath, his body went into spasm. All around him, his fellow guests rose in consternation – but Nero, lying back on his couch, watched on unconcerned. ‘Epilepsy,’ he murmured coolly – then glanced across at his mother. Agrippina, her face set, did her best not to betray her horror; Octavia too. The corpse of Britannicus, painted white to disguise its hideous discoloration, was bundled out of the Palatine that night.10 As it was being borne across the Forum, so rain began to fall and washed the powder away. The storm, though, did not prevent a pyre from being lit on the Campus Martius and the body hurriedly cremated. The remains were buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. With Britannicus dead, the line of the Claudians – that most formidable of all Roman families – was dead as well. Nothing was left but ‘dusty ash and pale shadow’.11

Agrippina, who had fought so hard to disinherit Britannicus, now found herself mourning him with unforced abandon. Whether, as Nero solemnly persisted in claiming, he had succumbed to an epileptic fit, or else to something more sinister, the consequence was the same: there was no longer a ready heir on the Palatine. Any prospect of keeping Nero on a tight leash was now effectively gone – as Nero himself soon made clear. Politely but firmly, Agrippina was ushered from Caesar’s house into her grandmother’s old villa next door. She was stripped of her bodyguard; her face began to vanish from the coinage. No longer did suitors flock to her doors in the hope of patronage: an infallible symptom of trouble in a city such as Rome. Nostrils alert to the scent of blood duly began to flare. Agrippina had many enemies – and they were hungry to drag her down. Prominent among them, of course, was Domitia, her old rival for Nero’s affections, and whose sister, Domitia Lepida, had been convicted on a capital charge just prior to Claudius’s death. Agrippina’s fingerprints had been all over that particular case; now, eager for vengeance, Domitia sought to pay her back in like coin. Her chosen agent was one of her freedmen, an actor much admired by Nero named Paris. Arriving on the Palatine under cover of darkness, and ushered into the Emperor’s presence, he levelled a range of sensational accusations against Agrippina. That she was the lover of Nero’s cousin, a great-grandson of Tiberius’s by the name of Rubellius Plautus. That she intended to marry him. That she was plotting to replace her son with her new husband, and then to rule the world by his side. Nero, all the more paranoid for having drunk too much, was thrown into a full-scale panic. Summonses were immediately sent to Seneca and Burrus. Seneca arrived first, and Nero – according to one report – talked wildly of sacking the Prefect for being his mother’s creature. The prospect of how the Praetorians might react to this move was a sobering one, though, even for someone as furiously inebriated as Nero; and sure enough, by the time of Burrus’s arrival on the Palatine, he had repented of it. On one thing, though, he remained set. The time had come to solve the problem of his mother’s mischief-making once and for all. The command he gave Burrus could not have been more explicit or shocking: to kill Agrippina.

But even Caesar could go too far. Burrus told Nero to his face that he was drunk, and would see things differently in the morning. Blunt by nature, the Prefect spoke with the self-assurance of a man alert to how loyal his men still remained to Germanicus’s daughter. Sure enough, the attempt to eliminate Agrippina ended up spectacularly rebounding on its perpetrators, for it had shocked Seneca and Burrus into recognising just how exposed they would be without her. Ultimately, they had little choice but to sink or swim with the Augusta. A cursory investigation into the charges against their erstwhile patron, and their triumvirate was quietly patched up. Rather than challenge it, Nero opted to beat a tactical retreat. Not only was Agrippina fully exonerated of the charges against her, but she took the opportunity to seize back lost ground. Domitia was publicly humiliated by having her rights of patronage over Paris abolished, while others among Agrippina’s accusers were banished, and her own partisans promoted. No one familiar with the constantly shifting balance of power on the Palatine could doubt what had happened. Nero had been forced into open concessions. The limits of his authority – Caesar though he was – stood glaringly exposed.

‘Power comes in many forms.’ So Seneca, after Nero’s first turbulent year as emperor, reminded his master. ‘A princeps has the sway of his fellow citizens, a father his children, a teacher his pupils, officers the soldiers appropriate to their rank.’12 Yet Seneca, despite recognising that the very word ‘princeps’ had become something of a misnomer, and that Nero’s powers were more properly those of a king, was betraying his blinkers. His understanding of how power should properly be exercised still drew on the primordial traditions of the Roman people: obedience to those placed in command; admiration for the iron disciplines of family and legion; respect for duty. These were the virtues of which Augustus had approved, and Tiberius, and Claudius. And yet all the while there lay over the teeming and brilliant capital, with its theatres and circuses, its games and plays, its processions and festivals and races, the heady perfume of a very different brand of power. Seneca, it was said, had dreamed the night after he had first been introduced to Nero that he was teaching Caligula; and perhaps the vision had been prophetic. To win the love of the people; to pander to their enthusiasms; to woo them with entertainments beyond their wildest imaginings: these were the policies by which Nero’s uncle had lived and died.

Fifteen years on from his assassination, the hatred of the Roman elite for Caligula remained as venomous as ever. To Agrippina, in particular, the notion of presenting her brother to Nero as a role model could hardly have been more monstrous. To Seneca too: for Caligula had despised and mocked the philosopher as a pedlar of platitudes, and flirted with putting him to death. There were some in Nero’s circle, though, who had fonder memories. Aulus Vitellius, that seasoned veteran of Caligula’s revels, had made sure, with the practised smoothness that came naturally to his family, to slip into the new emperor’s affections; and he, as a man who had raced chariots and bore the sports injury to prove it, could hardly have been more sympathetic to Nero’s taste for glamour. Across the Tiber from the Palatine, marked by Rome’s tallest obelisk, stood the private racecourse begun by Caligula but never finished: a dereliction which, encouraged by cronies such as Vitellius and Otho, Nero intended to correct. Like uncle, like nephew: compared to spectacle, and boldness, and the approbation of the Roman people, who cared what po-faced conservatives might think?

Except that, for the moment, Nero’s dreams outpaced his nerve. When Seneca, appalled that his erstwhile pupil should be flaunting an interest in the Circus, let alone angling to ride chariots himself, sought to check his enthusiasm, the two men arrived at a compromise. Even though Nero’s grandfather had been celebrated for his skill on the racecourse, and his father, scandalously, had run down a child while speeding on the Appian Way, Nero himself was content to practise in private. That the sport was unworthy of him, though, a distraction from worthier pursuits, he refused point-blank to accept. It was, he informed Seneca, the pastime of ancient kings, fêted in the songs of poets, favoured by the gods. For Caesar to drive a chariot was not, no matter what the fustier brand of senator might insist, an offence against the majesty of Rome – it was the opposite. Times had changed. To veil the blaze of charisma such as Nero’s was pointless. One might as well hood the sun.

Even Augustus, after all, despite his posing as a magistrate of the Roman people, had dared to hint at what it meant to rule the world. It was why he had fostered the rumours that his mother had been impregnated by a snake; why, at his wedding feast, he had come as Apollo; and why, in the library on the Palatine, he had sanctioned a statue of himself dressed as his divine patron. Many were the attributes of the god. Climb from the Forum to Caesar’s house, and there, above the road, surmounting the great arch built by Augustus, citizens could behold the famous sculpture of Apollo driving the chariot of the sun; if they continued to the summit of the hill and entered his temple, they would find waiting for them in the sanctum a very different portrayal of the god, garbed in the robes of a professional musician and holding a lyre, the seven-stringed cithara. What Augustus, nervous of how the Roman people might react, had been content merely to insinuate, Nero, youthful and golden, exulted in. Not content with completing the private circus begun by Caligula, he aimed to go one better by mastering the notoriously challenging cithara and singing his own compositions to it. Rare was the spare moment that he did not spend picking at its strings or fine-tuning his voice. Light and music, attributes of the most beautiful, the most terrible of the gods, were attributes worthy too of a youthful Caesar. Far from disgracing him, as Seneca charged, Nero’s mastery of chariot and lyre, once honed to a superhuman pitch and made manifest to the Roman people, would serve to proclaim a golden age.

Such, at any rate, was the long-term ambition. For the moment, though, it remained a fantasy. Not yet out of his teens, Nero still struggled to dazzle the world as he knew himself capable of dazzling it. Too much stood in his way. The sour disapproval of withered and bony-fingered senators; the perpetual ebb and surge across the Palatine of the various tides of faction; the precarious loyalties of the Praetorians: all served as a block on the ambitions of the youthful Caesar. Nevertheless, the more habituated to power Nero became, the readier he was to explore what he might achieve with it. In 57, when he was nineteen years old, he inaugurated a new amphitheatre on the Campus Martius. Built in under a year, and incorporating beams fashioned out of ‘the largest tree ever seen in Rome’,13 it was constructed on a scale commensurate with its sponsor’s ambitions. Nevertheless, despite the vastness of the space, he had no interest in staging anything so vulgar as a simple bloodbath. Just as the amphitheatre itself, with its nets of gold wire suspended over the arena on elephant tusks, was decorated with an artist’s attention to detail, so did the entertainments reflect Nero’s fascination with dissolving the boundaries between the everyday and the fantastical. Those who crammed onto the bleachers were being invited to enter a world ancient and cruel, in which monsters were bred of unnatural lusts, and men with wings fashioned out of wax and feathers sought to fly. For the entertainment of the spectators, a woman imprisoned inside a heifer made of wood might be mounted by a bull, or a performer suspended high above the arena be let drop. Myth was rendered a thing of thrilling spectacle in which the screams, the scents of fear and the carnage were viscerally real. On one occasion, Nero himself was splattered by the blood of a man who had flown too close to the sun.

As Claudius had demonstrated, there were few limits to what a Caesar might commission, if he only had the vision and the cash. Nero prized ingenuity, and was certainly no less fascinated than his predecessor by great feats of engineering. In Ostia, the quays and breakwaters of the emerging port continued to swarm with workmen, and Nero, when it was formally completed, did not hesitate to take the credit.14 Merely to bend the sea to his will, though, was inadequate to the scale of his ambitions. ‘Never have there been spectacles to compare – for they put everything we have seen into the shade!’15 The enthusiasm felt for Nero’s shows, even among the most jaded of the Roman people, was as joyous as it was unforced: due reflection of the remarkable feats achieved by those responsible for their staging. Even as engineers at Ostia were turning the sea into dry land, so their colleagues in the heart of Rome, on the Campus Martius, were turning dry land into sea. The great naval battle of Salamis, re-enacted decades earlier by Augustus, was staged a second time in Nero’s amphitheatre. Scenes were laid on to stupefied spectators that might have seemed conjured up from Puteoli or Baiae: the beating of oars; the gliding of war galleys; the surfacing of strange creatures of the deep. Indeed, so daring were some innovations that they would have startled onlookers even in the Bay of Naples. Particularly wondrous was a mechanical yacht that, as though it were being shipwrecked, ‘seemed to disintegrate, releasing wild animals as it did so – and then, reassembling itself, to appear as good as new’.16 Even Nero was impressed.

Agrippina, marking her son’s taste for lavishing money on wonders and entertainments, was less so. As only a woman who had lost a fortune could do, she valued money. Incontinent spending struck her as both unwise and dangerous. When Nero bestowed a spectacular bonus on one of his freedmen, she ordered the money tipped out in a great pile in front of him, so that he could see for himself how much of a fortune he was squandering. Nero, with an insouciant shrug, immediately ordered it doubled. ‘I hadn’t realised that I was being so stingy.’17 The older he became, the more tedious he found his mother’s constant nagging. The demands of duty, of responsibility, of statecraft, increasingly oppressed and aggravated him. Infuriatingly, though, he found them impossible to dismiss. He was married to them, after all. His wife, the earnest and austere daughter of Claudius, was a living, breathing reminder of everything he owed his mother. That Agrippina was as close to Octavia as Nero found her uncongenial only intensified his irritation with the pair of them. Uxurious by nature, he deeply resented his loveless marriage. Acte, whose enduring hold on his affections had enabled her to grow sensationally rich, remained much cherished by Nero; but she, of course, as a one-time slavegirl, could not possibly become his wife. Then, in 58, he fell in love again – and this time the object of his passion was a very different class of woman. Poppaea Sabina, the daughter and namesake of the rival hounded to her death by Messalina, was beautiful, intelligent and stylish; but crucially, she was also the granddaughter of a man who had won a consulship. Her breeding, while hardly on a level with Octavia’s, was far from contemptible. It was possible for Nero to look at her and imagine her his wife.

Naturally, there were various obstacles to be cleared first. The first of these, and the least insuperable, was Poppaea’s husband – who happened to be Nero’s close friend, Otho. Out on the streets of Rome, where the details of Caesar’s love life were relentlessly picked over, the precise circumstances of Poppaea’s bed-jumping were much debated: had Otho boasted of his wife’s sex appeal once too often, or had he married her to facilitate his friend’s cheating on Octavia? Whatever the precise truth, it is certain that by 58 Nero had decided that he wanted Poppaea exclusively for himself. Weighing up whether to have his friend put to death or merely banished to the limits of the world, he opted for the course of mercy, dispatching Otho to Lusitania, out on the Atlantic margins of Iberia, there to serve as its governor. Bosom companion or not, Poppaea’s husband had outlived his usefulness. Keeping things under wraps had never been Nero’s style. He preferred to flaunt his passions. There was to be no more veiling the affair.

Nero himself, of course, could afford to shrug aside the resulting scandal; and so, as it turned out, could Poppaea. The jealous hatred of those who traduced her as ‘an arrogant whore’18 was a price worth paying for Caesar’s devotion. As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’,19 it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city. Set against Poppaea’s allure, the unhappy Octavia could hardly help but seem further diminished. The prospects of Agrippina too: indeed, it was the measure of just how challenging it had become for her to keep Nero in check that the rumours of her desperation alleged some shocking details. That she was aiming to wean her son from Poppaea by seducing him herself. That she had begun to make moves on him, painted and dressed like a prostitute, whenever he was drunk. That Seneca was so anxious about Agrippina’s behaviour that he had sent Acte to warn Nero of the damage to his reputation. There were others, though, who alleged the opposite: that it was Nero himself, and not his mother, who had made the first move. The reality, of course, was lost to impenetrable murk. The delight that rumours of incest brought the Roman people was invariably exceeded only by the impossibility of knowing whether they were true.

Yet when it came to identifying the source of the gossip, the challenge was not insurmountable. Agrippina was a woman respected even by her enemies for her iron self-discipline – whereas Nero positively loved to shock. It was noted that he kept as one of his concubines a woman who looked exactly like Agrippina, ‘and that whenever he fondled her, or showed off her charms to others, he would declare that he was sleeping with his mother’.20 An outrageous boast – but almost designed, it might have been thought, to test the waters of public opinion. It was as though Nero, by deliberately scandalising the bounds set on the common run of humanity, wished to test just how far he dared to go. How did it feel, he seemed to be asking himself, to break a fatal taboo?

Long before, back when Nero was born, Agrippina had consulted an astrologer to discover what was written in the stars about her son. Two things, the astrologer had informed her: that he would rule the world – and kill his mother. ‘Let him kill me,’ Agrippina was said to have retorted, ‘provided only that he rules.’21 Was the story true? If so, then the fraying of relations with her son would doubtless have brought the prophecy often to mind. By early 59, though, the tensions between them appeared to be easing. Nero, in an ostentatious gesture of goodwill, invited his mother to share a holiday with him at Baiae. In mid-March, Agrippina arrived by ship from Antium, the town just south of Rome where her son had been born twenty-one years before. Nero greeted her in person, then escorted his mother to her villa, a sumptuous mansion once owned by Hortensius Hortalus. Here, leading her down to its jetty, he presented her with a splendidly outfitted gift: her very own yacht. That evening, Agrippina took a litter north along the coast to Baiae, where Nero was staying. Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’22 A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’23 while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.

Then abruptly the roof fell in. Agrippina herself was saved from being crushed to death only by the raised sides of her couch; but when the yacht, after drifting idly for a few minutes, began to rock and tilt, she was flung into the sea. A friend of hers, bobbing beside her, was so frantic to be rescued that she cried out, ‘I am Agrippina’; but no sooner had she done so than she was being clubbed to death by oars and poles. Agrippina herself, keeping as silent as she could, swam away from what now stood revealed as a death-trap; and as she swam, she met with some fishermen, who pulled her from the waters and rowed her ashore.24 From there, shivering and bleeding, she staggered back to her villa. All too aware of who most likely lay behind her attempted murder, but painfully conscious too, cornered as she was, that she had little choice save to play the innocent, she sent a message to Nero informing him of what had happened. Then she tended to her wounds.

Meanwhile, outside, crowds had gathered along the shore, a blaze of lanterns amid the dark of early morning. The bay echoed at first to their lamentations and prayers; but then, informed of Agrippina’s survival, they gathered around her villa and made ready to rejoice. Suddenly, though, there sounded the beating of hooves. A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’25 she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.

The shock of the crime echoed to the heavens. After the hurried disposal of Agrippina’s body, her ashes were interred beside Julius Caesar’s old villa, on a promontory overlooking the sea; and from this headland, it was reported, would repeatedly sound the blare of trumpets, to be echoed by other blasts from around the bay. Some said that Nero, retreating from the scene of the murder to Naples, was visited by his mother’s ghost; and that he was haunted in his dreams, just as Orestes had been, by the whips and fiery torches of the Furies. His taste for bringing to life ancient myth had long been on show; but now, in the most shocking and audacious manner, he had himself taken centre stage as a hero of legend. All his devotion to theatricality, all his enthusiasm for stagecraft, all his relish for posing as someone infinitely beyond the run of common mortals, had contributed to an incomparable spectacular – and the news of it filled the world. The yacht that had capsized his mother was modelled, it was reliably reported, on the collapsing boat witnessed by Nero back in Rome; viewing Agrippina’s corpse prior to its cremation, he was said to have stripped it naked, inspected it closely and then murmured, ‘I did not know I had so beautiful a mother.’26 Nero himself, far from punishing those who spread such rumours, seemed to revel in the melodrama of it all. When graffiti appeared in Rome, charging him with matricide, he made no effort to track down the culprits; and when a famously stern moralist by the name of Thraesa Paetus, rather than concur with the formal condemnation of Agrippina as a traitor, opted to walk out of the Senate House in protest, Nero overlooked the offence. He knew the Roman people and he had judged their response correctly. He had gauged that his crime, precisely because so titanic, would end up only adding to his charisma. No mean or squalid matricide, he had successfully cast himself as a figure of tragic glamour, as a new Orestes. When he returned to Rome from Campania, the crowds lined up to meet him as though for a triumph.27

Nero’s feelings of relief could not have been sweeter. He had played for perilously high stakes – and he had won. Right up to the end, Agrippina had maintained her hold on the affection of the Praetorians. When Nero, brought the news of her escape from the booby-trapped yacht, had ordered a detachment of them to her villa, there to finish her off, Burrus had told him flatly that they would never kill the daughter of Germanicus. Only with her execution by a specially commissioned hit-squad, and the coming of dawn, had Nero been able to relax: for Burrus, bowing to the brutal change of circumstances, had ordered his senior officers to present themselves to Caesar and congratulate him ‘on foiling his mother’s evil schemes’.28 Nor had Seneca managed to keep his hands any cleaner. Obliged by Nero to ghost a letter of self-exculpation to the Senate, he too had found himself complicit in the murder. The only saving grace for him and Burrus was that at least they were not alone. Nero, on his return to Rome, proclaimed games that were to be ‘the greatest ever’,29 a celebration of his victory over his mother. The entire Roman people were summoned. All were invited to dabble their fingers in the blood of Agrippina.

It was an offer which few refused. Staged in a range of venues across the city, the games were as spectacular as Nero had promised. An equestrian rode an elephant down a tightrope. Plays with the latest in special effects thrilled audiences with fiery spectacles of destruction. Lavish numbers of tokens were scattered among the crowds, entitling the lucky recipients to everything from jewels to wild animals, from blocks of flats to gold. Meanwhile, in the Forum, Nero himself was busy offering up sacrifice. That a lightning bolt had recently incinerated the table at which he was dining; that a woman had given birth to a snake; that there had been an eclipse: these, under normal circumstances, might have appeared menacing portents of doom. And perhaps they were; but if so, then they served only to enhance, not diminish, the glitter of Nero’s stardust. By killing his mother, after all, he had saved Rome from her inveterate and ruinous lust for power; and he had done so at heroic cost. It was for the sake of his fellow citizens that he had taken upon himself the guilt of matricide; now, by celebrating their own salvation, the Roman people could share a role in the remarkable drama. When a comet, bright and ominous, appeared in the cloudless skies above Rome even as the festivities were in full swing, many feared the worst; but many more looked to Nero as what he claimed to be – their saviour. A century before, in the wake of the Ides of March, the blaze of a star across the heavens had heralded calamity for the entire world; but not now. Seneca, with no choice save to carry on playing the role of Nero’s accomplice, duly hailed the role of his master: ‘He has succeeded in redeeming comets from their evil reputation.’30 A fitting tribute: for Nero, that summer of 59, had successfully transfigured murder into sacrifice, ambition into selflessness, and matricide into piety. Comet or not, there could be no doubting who was the star.

But it was not enough for Nero merely to play the impresario. That same summer of 59, he hosted another festival, a private celebration staged to mark the first shaving of his beard. The games were held on the far side of the Tiber, between the lake where Augustus had hosted his famous re-enactment of the battle of Salamis and the river itself. The entertainments lasted into the early hours. There were banquets held on barges, groves filled with grappling couples, and at midnight Nero himself, to exultant cheers, sailed out from the lake into the Tiber: touches of Baiae in the heart of Rome. The main focus, though, was on theatrical extravaganzas – and these, as the public games had done, featured performers from the cream of the elite. ‘Neither breeding, nor age, nor public office served to inhibit them.’31 One dancer, a former sister-in-law of Claudius’s, was in her eighties.32 The climax of the entertainments, though, was the stage debut of Nero himself. Plucking at the lyre, he sang to his audience of gruesome maimings and murders from ancient myth: of a boy castrating himself; of a mother killing her son. It was, for the twenty-one-year-old Caesar, a moment of the giddiest rapture. The spectators cheered and applauded. ‘Our Apollo,’ they cried, ‘our Augustus!’33 For some, though, the delight rang rather hollow. Burrus was there, with officers and soldiers of the Praetorians; so too Seneca, whose elder brother had introduced Nero onto the stage, and who himself had been obliged, in company with the Prefect, to serve as their master’s cheerleaders, waving their arms and flapping their togas. ‘The more instruments of torture the torturer has on display, the more he is liable to achieve – indeed, the very appearance of them is likelier to break a man than the patient endurance of pain.’ So Seneca, without ever mentioning Nero, would later confide to a friend. ‘In a similar manner, nothing is better able to brainwash and enslave us than the dazzle of spectacle.’34

And Nero, having now successfully tested the waters, had only just begun.

All the World’s a Stage

In AD 60, almost two decades after crossing the Atlas mountains, Suetonius Paulinus was near to completing an expedition at the opposite end of the world.35 As in Mauretania, so in Britain: his progress had been gruelling. The capture of Caratacus, far from signalling the end of British resistance, had provided only a brief respite from the task of pacification. Wales, where the Catuvellaunian chieftain had made his last stand, was the particular challenge. Mountainous and inhabited by notoriously untameable tribesmen, it had defied a succession of Roman governors. Suetonius, whose record in crossing mountains was second to none, had been the obvious man to finish the job. Sure enough, two years on from his appointment to Britain, he had succeeded in stamping the mark of Roman supremacy upon even the wildest reaches of the country. Only the island of Mona – modern-day Anglesey – still held out. And now, with his infantry massed in flat-bottomed boats and his cavalry instructed to breast the shallows, Suetonius was ready to cross the straits and finish off resistance for good.

But would his soldiers do as commanded? Mona was crammed with refugees; and these, crowding the shoreline, howled and chanted to such baleful effect that the legionaries found themselves briefly frozen with terror. There were women brandishing torches, who, with their black robes and tangled hair, looked like nothing so much as Furies; and there were Druids. But then, summoning up their courage, Suetonius’s men began to make for the opposite shore. In the event, it proved a walkover. Soon the defenders were being set ablaze with the flames of their own torches. Charred corpses were left scattered across the beaches. Then it was the turn of the island’s sacred groves to be felled: for Mona was dreaded by the invaders as the chief shrine of the Druids, and of the terrifying spirits appeased by their murderous rites. The defeat of barbarian savagery and the purging of shrines festooned with human entrails – Suetonius had achieved a double exorcism. The news of his feat, when it was reported back in Rome, served as a stirring reminder to the inhabitants of the capital that there still existed, in the remote corners of the world, thrilling dimensions of heroism and sorcery. Nowhere, it seemed, no matter how distant, lay beyond the reach of the Roman people.

A message that Nero, despite his own complete lack of military experience, was naturally keen to promote. Why should the blaze of his charisma not find reflection even in the darkest wastes of the North? A particular triumph was achieved when one of his event managers, sent to source amber directly from the Baltic, returned laden with spoils. The agent had made such a success of his mission that he brought back riches sufficient to adorn an entire arena. Nets; weapons; even the stretchers used to remove dead gladiators: all were made to gleam the colour of Poppaea’s hair. ‘So globalised has everything become,’ wrote Seneca in wonder, ‘that nothing is left in its accustomed place.’36 Whether in Nero’s amphitheatre, with its glint of amber and its bears set to hunt seals, or amid the bustle of markets selling goods from as far afield as India, or on the hill above the Campus, where a great map illustrated for the benefit of passing citizens the full, dazzling extent of their sway, reminders of Rome’s status as the ultimate in world cities were inescapable.*2 All roads led there, and all roads led from there. In the Forum, to mark the official spot where they began and ended, Augustus had erected a milestone sheathed in bronze: the centre of the world. Contemplating the immense spider’s web that Roman greatness had succeeded in spinning across mountains, forests and seas, some still wondered just how far its threads might end up reaching. ‘Perhaps, in time to come, an age will dawn when the Ocean loosens the bonds of things, when the full breadth of the earth will stand revealed, when new worlds will be disclosed, and when Thule itself serve merely as a way-stop to other lands.’37

Seneca, when he imagined Roman ships powering their way to as yet undiscovered continents, did not necessarily approve. As a philosopher, he saw nothing to celebrate in perpetual motion. The prosperity that was the mark of a great empire was, in his opinion, a treacherous and soul-destroying thing, characterised by perpetual restlessness, and destined only to torment itself. Yet even as he praised the delights of poverty, he could not help but be swept along by what he condemned. Nero’s matricide, far from shocking Seneca into resignation, had only confirmed him in his determination to cling to power. The less inclined the youthful Caesar was to take his advice, the more of a responsibility he felt to continue providing it. So Seneca remained at Nero’s side; and by staying there found himself prey to the manifold temptations that power on a global scale presented. ‘The wise man has no need to send legates overseas, to mark out camps on enemy shores, to decide where best to plant garrisons and forts.’38 No doubt – and yet Seneca himself, as Nero’s most trusted advisor, had little choice but to immerse himself in precisely such details. He was up to date on reports from the British front, and alert to conditions on the island. He had convinced himself that there existed, in the ambition of its chieftains to conform to the new order, a rare investment opportunity; and so he had lent them the funds they required to build, to dress and to live like Romans. But he had miscalculated. The Britons had little understanding of the workings of finance, nor were they in any position to pay back the hefty interest being charged on their borrowings. Adding to Seneca’s discomfort was his growing awareness of how great a drain on Roman manpower the conquest of the island was proving to be. Access to British hoodies and hunting dogs hardly compensated for the huge expense of keeping four legions in the field. There had even been talk of cutting Rome’s losses and withdrawing altogether.*3 Seneca, better placed than anyone to do a spot of insider dealing, duly ordered his agents in Britain to call in his loans.

The timing proved unfortunate. Debt collectors were already out in force across the new province. Officials with responsibility for its finances, determined to screw out such income as they could, had begun to exact demands of tribal leaders who ranked legally, not as subjects, but as allies of Rome. One such was Prasutagas, king of the Iceni, a tribe in the flat and rolling lands to the north of Camulodunum. Anxious to safeguard the interests of his daughters, he had named them as his heirs alongside Nero. On his death, though, the Roman authorities had moved to annex everything. The entire kingdom was stripped bare. Prasutagas’s two daughters, far from being treated with the respect due their rank, were both raped, and his wife, a flame-haired warrior queen named Boudicca, bound to a whipping post and lashed. It was to prove a fatal error.

Seneca, had he been present, would not have been surprised, for he had no illusions as to the nature of human rapacity. ‘Were a true representation of our lives to be flashed before your mind’s eye, you would think yourself watching a city just taken by storm, in which all regard for modesty and right had been abandoned, and the only counsel was that of force.’39 Yet Seneca himself was hardly innocent of what he condemned. Two years earlier, Suillius Rufus, the muckraking prosecutor who had helped to bring down Valerius Asiaticus, had publicly charged him with draining the provinces dry; and even though Seneca, pulling strings, had arranged for his accuser to be convicted of embezzlement, and sent into exile, the allegation had stung. After all, seated as he was at the heart of the great web of Roman power, he had only to tug upon a single thread of it for villages at the far end of the world to be trampled down by soldiers, and women left bruised and bleeding. For all his scruples, and even if he had not intended it, Seneca too had played his part in the harrowing of the Icenian tribal lands. Doubtless this was why the gods, when they warned, in the wake of the whipping given to Boudicca, of imminent and terrible calamity, chose to send portents both to Britain and to Rome. Even as flood-tides in the Thames estuary turned to blood, leaving shapes like corpses on the beaches, so was barbarous laughter heard coming from the empty Senate House, and screams from Nero’s amphitheatre. The world had shrunk for ill as well as good.

News that Boudicca, with the scars still fresh on her back, had summoned the Iceni to revolt and was sweeping all before her, reached Suetonius even as he was catching his breath after the capture of Mona. Mustering a squad of cavalry, he climbed back into his saddle at once. Then, instructing the two legions under his immediate command to follow as fast as they could, he made directly for the eye of the storm. The nightmare that had never ceased to haunt the invaders since their first arrival in Britain, the dread that their occupation would end as Roman rule beyond the Rhine had ended, amid slaughter, fire and ruin, appeared on the verge of fulfilment. Camulodunum, rebuilt in the wake of its capture by Claudius as a showcase of what Roman town-planners could achieve, had been levelled to the ground. Littering the debris were the corpses of butchered prisoners and the bronze fragments of dismembered Caesars. High-born women, their severed breasts sewn to their mouths, rotted on spikes. Meanwhile, of the two legions not serving in Wales, one had already been ambushed and almost completely wiped out, while the second, summoned by Suetonius to join him, was ordered by its own acting commander to stay in barracks. Many senior officials, rather than risk the fate of Varus’s men, had already fled to Gaul. A single error by Suetonius, and Britain would be lost for good.

In the event, though, the province was saved. Suetonius, after taking the pulse of the insurrection in person, retreated, successfully made a rendezvous with his advancing legions and then waited to meet the firestorm. Two more Roman settlements were left as smoking rubble before the fateful moment came. The Britons, rather than adopt the tactics of Arminius and melt into the landscape the better to wage guerilla warfare, opted instead for a full-frontal assault. The result, secured in the teeth of satisfyingly massive odds, was a massacre. When the casualty figures were published, it was claimed that some eighty thousand Britons had perished for the loss of only four hundred Roman dead. Boudicca, whose gender and general savagery had made her seem to her adversaries an Amazon unleashed from the realms of myth, committed suicide. So too, brought the news of Suetonius’s victory, did the legionary commander who had refused his summons to battle. It was all thoroughly stirring: ‘a day of great glory, redolent of some victory won in ancient times’.40 The Roman people, thrilling to the dispatches from the British front and revelling in how disaster had been averted, could enjoy the reassurance that they remained the same people they had ever been.

Not that martial virtue alone had ever been sufficient to explain their rise to greatness. The genius granted them by the gods was for peace as well as war. When the reprisals launched by Suetonius threatened to get out of hand, Nero was sufficiently perturbed to send one of his freedmen to report back to him on the situation; and sure enough, soon afterwards, Boudicca’s conqueror was recalled. From the earliest days of their city, Rome’s leaders had appreciated that generosity in victory was the surest way of securing their ends: ‘for little is gained by conquest if it is followed by oppression’.41 Romulus’s abduction of the Sabine women, although inevitably it had led their outraged fathers and brothers to descend on Rome vowing vengeance, had culminated, not in slaughter, but in a peace treaty, and in the Sabines becoming Roman. Since then, many other Italian peoples had followed along the same path. The Marsians, the Samnites, the Etruscans: all had come to rank as the fellow citizens of their conquerors. No longer, though, were Rome’s horizons confined to lands south of the Alps. If Italy could end up Roman, then why not the world? It was her mission, some had begun to claim, ‘to unite previously distinct powers, to soften patterns of behaviour, to provide a common language to the numerous peoples hitherto divided by their savage tongues, to civilise mankind – in short, to unite all the peoples of the world, and to serve them as their fatherland’.42

Amid the charred fields of Britain, such a claim might have seemed grotesque; except that the official appointed by Nero to stabilise the shattered province’s administration, and who had first called for Suetonius to be replaced, was not an Italian but a Gaul. Julius Classicianus served as a living reassurance to the Britons that Roman rule offered more than simple oppression. Citizen of Rome, yet married to the daughter of a Gallic chieftain, he was ideally placed to mediate between conquerors and conquered. Rather than tighten the screws on his subjects, he opted to build bridges. The Britons, having been brutally taught the price of resistance, were now graced by Classicianus with the benefits of submission. The policy proved strikingly effective. Wounds began to heal, the embers of insurrection to fade. Soon, even with memories of Boudicca’s revolt still raw, it was being decided in Nero’s councils to reduce the garrison in Britain from four legions to three. The Ocean remained to Rome.

Naturally, there were limits to what could plausibly be achieved. No matter how successful the process of pacification, chieftains as barbarous as those of the Britons could never hope to share in the rule of the world. There were many in Rome who felt the same about Classicianus and his kind. Although the aristocrats of southern Gaul had been under Roman rule for almost two centuries, and had bred, in the flamboyant form of Valerius Asiaticus, a man who had briefly aspired to rule as Caesar, resentment at their presence in the Senate House had never entirely faded. In AD 48, in a debate on whether to admit chieftains from the central and northern reaches of Gaul, opposition to the prospect had been ferocious. Allow the descendants of men who had fought Julius Caesar, worn trousers and dripped gravy from their facial hair, into the Senate House? ‘Why, it would be to import hordes of foreigners, in the manner of a slave-dealer.’43 In truth, though, such complaints about Gallic savagery were disingenuous. It was not the backwardness of the Gauls that provoked the true resentment but the opposite: their growing wealth. Many a senator, denied the opportunity to boost his fortunes as his ancestors had once done, by looting barbarians, found himself impoverished by comparison with Gallic magnates.

Yet this, to those with an eye to the future, was precisely what made it so pressing to recruit them into the ranks of the Roman elite. Gaul, with its fertile soil and manpower, was already richer than many regions of Italy. Its aristocracy could not possibly be permitted to go their own way. Claudius, with the perspective that came from his deep reading in history, had made this argument with typical subtlety and erudition. ‘Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition,’ he had reminded his fellow senators, ‘was a novelty once.’44 Why, Clausus, his own ancestor, the founder of the Claudian line, had been an immigrant. Senators had duly approved Claudius’s speech. Gauls had been admitted into their ranks. The Senate House had ended up just that little bit more multi-ethnic.

Meanwhile, beyond its walls, in the teeming streets of a city whose population now numbered well over a million, many had begun to wonder what precisely it meant to talk of the Roman people. Rome, as Claudius had reminded the Senate in his speech, had been founded on immigration. Exotic languages had been heard in the city for centuries. Street names still bore witness to the settlement of foreigners on them in ancient times: the Vicus Tuscus, where Etruscans had once congregated, and the Vicus Africus. Yet even as many Romans saw in their city’s diversity the homage paid by the world to its greatness, and a potent source of renewal, so others were less convinced. All very well to host immigrants, so long as they ended up Roman; but what if they preserved their barbarous ways, infecting decent citizens with their superstitions? ‘In the capital, appalling customs and disgraceful practices from across the world are forever cross-pollinating and becoming fashionable.’45 A sobering reflection, to be sure: that to serve as the capital of the world might render Rome less Roman.

Such an anxiety was nothing new. Back in the first century of the Republic, a mania for outlandish cults had seen the Senate legislate to ensure that only the traditional gods be worshipped, and only with traditional rites. Since then, there had been numerous attempts to purge the city of alien ways. In 186 BC, the Senate had even launched a campaign of suppression against the worship of Liber, on the grounds that a Greek soothsayer had perverted its rituals and fostered unspeakable orgies. Egyptians and astrologers from Mesopotamia also tended to be regarded by most right-thinking citizens with profound suspicion. More alarming yet were the Syrians, with their devotion to a goddess, lion-flanked and jewel-adorned, whose cult, sinister as only a Syrian cult could be, had long been a thing of revulsion to every decent Roman. There was no value so fundamental, no propriety so settled, that her worshippers might not trample on them, and howl in exultant frenzy as they did so. Appearing to slaves in visions, the Syrian Goddess had been known to encourage them to rebel; driving mad her most frenzied devotees, she would inspire them to make a sacrifice of their testicles.Galli, these self-castrated priests were called: wretches who, abandoning the privileges and responsibilities of manhood, had willingly chosen to become women. With their painted faces and their feminine robes, their depilated bodies and their braided hair dyed blonde, they could not possibly have been more offensive to Roman sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, then, the authorities had done all they could to prevent their fellow citizens from joining their ranks, banning the practice of self-castration outright at first, and then, from 101 BC, permitting it only under the tightest of regulations. Yet this had done nothing to diminish the popularity of the cult: disturbingly, it had turned out, some Romans quite fancied living as women. By the time that Claudius, surrendering to the inevitable, finally lifted all legal restrictions on citizens becoming Galli, processions in honour of the Syrian Goddess, complete with flutes, tambourines and spectacular displays of self-laceration, had become a common sight in Rome. Naturally, those who held fast to traditional values continued to find it all revolting. ‘If a god desires worship of this kind,’ Seneca declared flatly, ‘then she does not deserve to be worshipped in the first place.’46 For those on the cutting edge of fashion, however, a protestation of devotion to the Syrian Goddess had become an easy and entertaining way to shock. Rumour had it, for instance, that she was the only deity for whose cult Nero had any respect.

Yet when it came to sheer jaw-dropping weirdness, not even the beliefs of the Syrians could compare with those of their near neighbours, the Jews. Immigrants from Judaea had been settling in Rome for two centuries, mainly in the cheap housing on the far side of the Tiber, where the principal temple of the Syrian Goddess was also to be found; and in all that time, they had never lost their distinctiveness. No people in the world had customs more perverse or ludicrous. They abstained from pork; they took every seventh day off; they obstinately refused to worship any god save their own. Yet Jewish practices and beliefs, although self-evidently grotesque, were not without a certain glamour. Like the cults of the Egyptians or the star charts of the Mesopotamians, they were capable of seducing those with a taste for the exotic. This was why, from the moment that Jews had first settled in the city, the authorities had periodically sought to expel them. The policy, though, had never proven effective. Whether in 139 BC, when the Jews had been banned from Rome ‘for trying to corrupt Roman values’,47 or in AD 19, when Tiberius had repeated the measure, or thirty years later, when Claudius had banished them yet again for making trouble at the instigation of a sinister-sounding agitator named Chrestus,*4 they had always crept back. A decade on from their expulsion by Claudius, they had once again returned to Rome. The fascination that they were capable of exerting, and the corresponding sense of alarm that they provoked in those contemptuous of foreign rituals, reached to the very top. ‘They are the most wicked of peoples.’48 Seneca’s mistrust of the Jews would only have been confirmed for him by the reported interest of Poppaea in their teachings. The appeal of alien superstitions, it seemed, reached even into Caesar’s bedroom. Many in Rome, when they contemplated the slave quarters of their own homes, or the shrines in the streets raised to mysterious gods, or the tenements crammed with immigrants from every corner of the world, dreaded what loathsome practices might be brewing in their city.

Nervousness about mass immigration and the peculiar cults that it had brought to Rome came to a head in 61, when the City Prefect, the man charged with the maintenance of order in the capital, was stabbed to death. His killer was one of his own slaves – and this, by the terms of a stern law passed half a century before, required that every slave in the murdered man’s household be executed. The savagery of the penalty generated widespread revulsion; and it seemed, in a debate on the matter in the Senate House, that clemency might prevail. In the event, what swung senators into backing the execution of the many hundreds of slaves owned by the murdered Prefect was a blood-curdling reminder of the numerous alien practices that had been imported into Rome. ‘Nowadays, the slaves in our households come from across the world, and engage in every kind of weird cult – or none at all. Terror tactics alone can serve to keep this rabble in check.’49 The law was duly upheld, the death sentence confirmed. Out on the streets, where many of the protestors were themselves freedmen, or else the descendants of slaves, furious demonstrations were held. Crowds armed with stones and torches sought to prevent the sentence from being carried out. Nero, rather than permit agitators to override the law, issued them with an official rebuke, and ordered soldiers to line the route along which the wretched slaves were led to their deaths. Yet there were limits to the vindictiveness that he was prepared to sanction. When it was proposed that the freedmen of the murdered Prefect be rounded up and deported, Nero vetoed the motion. ‘What mercy has failed to moderate,’ he declared, ‘should not be aggravated by savagery.’50

Nero had a particular talent for judging the mood on the street. Unlike most senators, whose prejudices against the plebs sordida were rarely bred of personal experience, he was familiar with the seamiest reaches of the city. As a young man, he and Otho had often gone slumming together. Disguised as slaves, they had drunk, pilfered and brawled their way through the reddest of red-light districts. Respectable opinion, naturally enough, had been scandalised – particularly when a senator who had punched the man attempting to mug him, only to discover later that it was Caesar and make the mistake of apologising in public, had been obliged to commit suicide. Yet Nero, by plunging into the bowels of Rome, was educating himself as surely as he had done by listening to the lectures of his tutor. Virtue, Seneca taught, was a thing of the city’s heights, where the air was rarefied and regal; vice a thing of its murkiest depths. ‘It tends to skulk in the shadows, around the public baths and the saunas, in places nervous of the authorities, soft, enervated and dripping with wine and perfumes, either pallid or made up as one would paint a corpse.’51 Fulminations like this, far from warning Nero off the city’s lowlife, had naturally only encouraged him to sample its pleasures. When it came to breaking the Roman people to his will, he was seasoned as Seneca never would be. He knew when to feed them a carrot; and he knew when to wield a stick.

A clear measure of this was provided by the man appointed as Prefect of the Vigiles. Ofonius Tigellinus was a notorious chancer who might easily have ended up being fingered by the Watch rather than serving as their commander. As good-looking as he was impoverished, his initial career as a gigolo had seen him bed – or so it was rumoured – both Livilla and Agrippina. Convicted of adultery and exiled to Greece, he had been reduced to the humiliating extremity of working in trade, before a pardon from Claudius had enabled him to return to Italy and set up as a racehorse trainer. It was in that role that Tigellinus had become an intimate of Nero – who made him rich, and an equestrian to boot. Thuggish enough to keep order in the streets, but steeped at the same time in their pleasures, he was ideally suited to his master’s purposes. Tigellinus’s elevation to the prefecture of the Vigiles was to prove just a start. In 62, the most sensitive of all the posts open to an ambitious equestrian became vacant when Burrus, after a long fight against throat cancer, finally died. Honest and trustworthy, he had been a very different order of man from Tigellinus; and Nero, in recognition of this, made sure to split the command. Nevertheless, as one of the two Praetorian prefects, Tigellinus was now ideally placed to do his master’s dirty work – and there was, as it happened, a particularly urgent job that needed doing.

Three years had passed since the murder of Agrippina, and now at last Nero was ready to cut the final thread that bound his regime to that of his predecessor. Despite her husband’s humiliatingly flamboyant affair with Poppaea, Octavia had been safe for as long as Burrus was alive. Beautiful, dignified and pathetic, she was precisely the kind of woman whom the Roman people loved. When Nero had once floated the possibility of divorcing her, Burrus had been openly dismissive. ‘Sure,’ he had scoffed, ‘and be certain to return her dowry.’52 Now, though, Burrus was gone; and his replacement had no loyalty to the family of Germanicus. When Nero instructed his new Prefect to dispose of Octavia, Tigellinus did not hesitate. The charge, as it invariably was whenever it became necessary to dispose of an inconvenient princess, was adultery. That the Prefect was a man as notorious for his promiscuity as his victim was celebrated for her modesty did not for a moment give him pause. ‘Her private parts are cleaner than your mouth!’53 So spat one of Octavia’s attendants after being tortured by Tigellinus to make her testify against her mistress. He shrugged the insult aside. Most of Octavia’s maids were all too ready to jump from a sinking ship. She was duly convicted of an affair with a slave. Yet just as Burrus had warned they would, the Roman people refused to tolerate the disgrace of Claudius’s daughter. Rioting broke out. Poppaea’s statues were toppled, Octavia’s garlanded with flowers. Briefly, Nero wobbled. He proposed to remarry his unhappy wife. But then, with the fabrication of an altogether more detailed and watertight case against her, he rediscovered his courage. A second conviction was secured, and Octavia imprisoned on Pandateria. There, not long afterwards, she was put to death. Her head, dispatched to Nero, served as a trophy for his new wife: Poppaea Sabina.

A century before, when assassins in the employ of the Triumvirs had made a harvest of aristocratic heads, the winnowing had heralded global war. Not now, though. Poppaea’s cradling of Octavia’s head, no matter how indignantly the news of it might make crowds in the Roman streets seethe, did not threaten the order that Nero, for almost a decade, had provided the world. The provinces remained at peace; the frontiers held secure. In 63, a year after the decapitation ofOctavia, an enduring peace was negotiated between Rome and Parthia. It was agreed that Tiridates, a son of the Parthian king, should sit on the Armenian throne, but that at some point soon he should travel to Rome, there to receive his diadem in person from the hands of Caesar. A spectacle was thereby promised that could not have been more calculated to tickle Nero’s fancy. For centuries, the Roman people had seen it as their birthright to grace kings with their favour; but never before had there been the prospect of seeing it staged for real in the heart of their city.

True, Nero himself had been nowhere near Armenia. When the Senate hailed him as Imperator, or when an arch was raised in honour of his victory on the summit of the Capitol, complete with a statue of him in full triumphal regalia, the fact that he had never seen a legion, still less led one into battle, was a minor detail. Nero understood that image, to a people far removed from the rigours of army life, was infinitely more vivid than garbled rumours of distant battles. What mattered to his fellow citizens was not whether flies had crawled over his wounds on some hellish and barbarous frontier, but the conviction with which he could embody their yearning for a prince of peace. ‘There will be no more civil wars of the kind with which Rome once convulsed the globe; no more battles like Philippi to lament.’54 Nero’s task was to make the city, and the world, believe it.

The same responsibility, of course, had animated the career of Augustus and led to the establishment of the rule of the Caesars in the first place; but times were now far different, and the opportunities open to a talented and ambitious Princeps with them. Such, at any rate, was the conviction that Nero, after almost a decade in power, had come to hold. The old, uptight way of doing things, and the tedious inheritance from the past of obligations and taboos, were no longer to be borne. Restrictions on Nero’s freedom of action had become intolerable to him. All were to be swept away. Octavia’s head was not the only one to have been delivered to the Emperor in 62. His assassins had also been commissioned to eliminate two prominent senators linked by blood to the August Family. One was Rubellius Plautus, the great-grandson of Tiberius rumoured to have been Agrippina’s lover, and who had been living in placid exile on the Aegean coast; the other a descendant of Augustus’s sister. Brought the news of these murders, senators shuddered. This was not least because, for the first time since Nero’s coming to power, one of their own had just been condemned on a charge of maiestas. It was an agent of Tigellinus, informed that a magistrate had not only written a satire on the Emperor but actually read it out at a dinner party, who had brought the prosecution; and even though the death sentence, following an intervention by the indomitable Thraesa Paetus, had been commuted to one of exile, every senator could recognise the warning that had been served.

To Seneca, in particular, it had come as both a shock and a humiliation. Lashed as he was to the wheel of Nero’s regime, he found himself powerless either to change what he saw as its increasingly disastrous course or to abandon ship. The best he could manage was to secure from his erstwhile pupil permission to retreat into semi-retirement. There, his mood continued to darken. Whether in his worsening health, in the person of a decrepit and toothless porter whom he had last seen as a handsome slaveboy, or in a clump of gnarled plane trees planted by his own hand in his youth, he found marks of decay everywhere. Even the world itself, it seemed to Seneca, was faced with ruin. His imaginings were haunted by the threat of a universal apocalypse. The end, when it arrived, would come from the sea: ‘From the West the waves will roll in, and from the East. A single day will suffice to entomb the human race. All venerable things that have been preserved by fortune’s favour and exalted by it, everything that is noble and beautiful, every great throne, every great people – all will be swallowed up.’55

Destruction, though, might be creative. This was what Nero had come to believe. No bad thing, in his opinion, for a world grown smoky and dull to be washed clean. Better a new beginning than a living death. The same crowds who had rioted in favour of the dull and sober Octavia would never, had they succeeded in their aims, have come to enjoy the spectacle of Poppaea as Caesar’s wife. Proclaimed Augusta by a besotted Nero only a few months after their marriage, she blazed and glittered as neither Livia nor Agrippina had ever dared to do. Her mules were shod with gold; she bathed in ass’s milk to preserve her perfect complexion; she gave her name to entire brands of beauty treatment. ‘I hope I die before I get old’56 – this prayer of Poppaea’s, uttered after catching herself at an unfavourable angle in a mirror, summed up everything that her husband most adored about her. It spoke to one of his profoundest convictions: that it was only shallow people who did not judge by appearances. Spectacle, illusion, drama: these were the dimensions of rule that truly mattered. Attentive though Nero might be to the grind of business, his true obsession was with a project that he felt to be altogether worthier of his time and talents: to fashion reality anew.

In the summer of 64, he duly set himself to transforming his capital into a setting worthy of his hopes and ambitions for it. Rome’s public places became the venue for a series of spectacular banquets. ‘It was as though the entire city were now to serve as Nero’s palace.’57 Most extravagant of all was a party hosted by Tigellinus beside a lake on the Campus Martius. As he had done at the games held on the opposite side of the Tiber four years before, Nero gorged himself on a raft luxuriously outfitted with soft purple rugs and cushions. Boats adorned with ivory and gold towed him across waters filled with exotic sea beasts. The oarsmen, grouped according to age and specialisation, constituted the cream of Rome’s male prostitutes. Meanwhile, on the banks of the lake, the Roman people flocked to a sensational array of entertainments. The clamour for these was hardly surprising. Food and drink were provided indiscriminately, while on the quays stood brothels staffed by the most remarkable array of whores in the history of Rome. There were slaves and free; professionals and virgins; the dregs of the slums and the wives of eminent senators – and none was permitted to refuse a client who wished to sleep with her. It was, for the crowds who flocked to use them, a dream come true: a magical fusion of the pleasures of the street with those of the palace.

Nero, familiar with both, had recognised a profound truth about the Roman people: that in their fascination with the shocking and illicit there lurked opportunity as well as menace. Scandal was corrosive to the authority of a natural showman only if there were an attempt to cover it up. Flaunt it, revel in it, rub the noses of the dull, the dreary and the unfashionable in it, and the authority natural to a Caesar would grow only the more brilliant. A few days after Tigellinus’s great banquet, Nero was ready to put this thesis to an even more extravagant test. Like one of the Galli, he had himself painted and dressed as a woman, and then, amid a blaze of wedding torches, married to one of his freedmen. Far from veiling a ceremony that could not have been more perfectly calculated to outrage conservative opinion, he staged it in public – ‘even the part that night hides when the bride is a woman’.58 It was all a sham, of course. That Nero meant nothing serious by it was precisely the point. Even his veneration of the Syrian Goddess was not what it had been. Time would see him urinate on her statue. As a comet glowed eerily in the skies above Rome, and those appalled by their ruler’s antics dreaded the worst, those with a keener understanding of fashion could not help but revel in the world of fantasy that Nero had conjured into being. It was one in which anything had come to seem possible.

And so it proved. On the evening of 18 July, two days after the comet had finally faded from sight, and as a full moon gleamed bright in the sky, fire broke out in Rome.59 It began at the southern end of the Circus, in shops packed with flammable materials, and in next to no time was raging out of control along the entire length of the valley. Soon it was spreading at terrifying speed through the cramped wooden tenements of quarter after quarter, and racing up the slopes of Rome’s hills. The Vigiles proved powerless to stop it. Panic swept the city. Many rallied to the support of their neighbours, helping those who were disabled to escape the onslaught of the flames; but others, roaming the streets in gangs, set to looting abandoned homes and to torching areas that were not yet on fire. Who these vandals were, no one could be certain, for rumour spread as wild through the city in its agony as the savage flames themselves. Crowds of refugees, smoke-blackened and homeless, took refuge where they could; and Nero, who had been away in Antium when the fire began, but had come hurrying back to take charge of the disaster, opened up both the public buildings on the Campus and his own private estates. Meanwhile, as shanty towns sprouted amid marble and flowerbeds, the silhouette of the city behind them was topped across its expanse by a towering tsunami of flame. Only after six days, and a frantic labour of demolition to create a firebreak, was it finally stopped. Even then, the nightmare was not over. Fire broke out a second time, raging for a further three days before once again being extinguished – this time, as it proved, for good.

The devastation had left anything between a quarter and a third of the world’s capital as smoking rubble.60 Nero, anxious to know the worst, and also to prevent the looting of such valuables as had survived, forbade anyone to return to the districts scorched by the fire until his own work-gangs had sifted the rubble. The reports brought back by the Emperor’s surveyors could hardly have been more grim. Many of the city’s most celebrated landmarks lay in ruins. From temples founded by Romulus and Servius Tullius to Nero’s own great wooden amphitheatre, buildings from every era of Rome’s history had been reduced to ashes. Irreplaceable trophies and treasures, priceless memorials to her past, were lost for ever. So too, more pressingly for the homeless, was an immense proportion of the city’s housing stock. Hundreds of thousands of people had been left without either belongings or shelter. The mood, not surprisingly, was as angry as it was desperate. That a fire so calamitous and extensive could have been the result merely of accident seemed to defy all probability. People had not forgotten seeing gangs of mysterious hooded figures flitting amid the smoke and flames, brandishing torches. Who had they been? Feverishly, both in what survived of the city and in the immense expanse of tents and ramshackle hovels that now covered both the Campus and Nero’s private gardens, the question was asked and debated. Rome’s suffering citizens were sure of only one thing: that the arsonists, once they were identified, deserved to suffer a fate as monstrous and terrible as their crime.

All of which played to Nero’s strengths. Who better to devise a theatrical display of retribution than the man who had attempted to drown his own mother with a booby-trapped yacht? Sure enough, once the guilty had been successfully identified and arrested, they were subjected to deaths as grotesque as they were excruciating. Some, for the entertainment of spectators, were torn to pieces by hunting dogs; others were crucified in ways calculated to make them look ridiculous. The need to mock the arsonists as well as to punish them was a pressing one – for otherwise they would have risked haunting the imaginings of the Roman people. The culprits turned out to be the embodiment of everything that decent citizens had always most feared about immigration: the adherents of a sinister, not to say sociopathic, cult. ‘Christians’, they were called, after their founder, a criminal who had been executed in Judaea back in the days of Tiberius. Worse even than the Jews – whose teachings were at least ancient ones – they were motivated by ‘a hatred for the norms of human society’:61 contempt for the gods, and scorn for all those not in their sect. Who could doubt, gazing at the smoking ruins of Rome, that they were the very embodiment of the enemy within? Now, though, thanks to Caesar’s tireless efforts, they had been identified, and all was well. Nero, ever the showman, devised a particularly brilliant reassurance of this to his fellow citizens. Not all the Christians were hunted like wild beasts or nailed to crosses. Some, smeared with pitch and set alight, served as human torches: a punishment to fit their crime.*5 Erected in the Emperor’s private gardens, they illumined the flowers and grottoes which Nero had invited the Roman people to come and explore. Nero himself, dressed as a charioteer, wandered affably among them, mingling with the crowds: the very model of a responsible and popular Princeps. The message was clear. Fire had been tamed, and a menacing superstition with it. The future, thanks to Caesar’s stewardship of it, was radiant. Where before there had been darkness, now all was light.

And already, barely the moment the rubble had cooled, this was becoming manifest across the blackened and traumatised capital. Nero had exciting plans for Rome. A city notorious for the cramped and twisting alleyways of its slums, in which teetering, wooden high-rises had always cast entire neighbourhoods into permanent shadow, was to receive a comprehensive upgrade. As no one had been in a position to do for centuries, Nero aimed to redraw the map. There was to be no place for ugliness, cheapness and squalor in his capital. Boulevards that were broad and spacious; apartment blocks that did not reach for the sky, but were instead built on a human scale; street-fronts built of stone and adorned with colonnades: these were his prescriptions for a Rome renewed. Even as workmen grateful to be rescued from destitution laboured to clear up the rubble and dump it in the marshes beyond Ostia, Nero was busy with his architects, poring over plans. There was no time to lose. With incentives on offer to those who completed their projects of rebuilding fast, a city brought utterly low was soon being raised back to its feet. Seventeen years earlier, in the Saepta, Claudius had exhibited what was claimed to be a phoenix: a miraculous bird that, every 540 years, would incinerate itself in a mighty bonfire and then emerge from the flames reborn. The display had not been a success. ‘No one doubted that it was a fake.’62 What Nero was sponsoring, though, was far from a fraud. Rome had been consumed by fire; now, amid a mighty shimmering of golden plumage, she was coming back to life. A phoenix, beautiful and splendid, was emerging from the ashes.

Nowhere was this more dazzlingly evident than in the valley between the Palatine and a pair of hills to its east, the Caelian and the Oppian. Here, the damage had been particularly devastating. Fire had incinerated everything in its path, including a palatial development of Nero’s and a half-built temple to Claudius. Even the Palatine had been swept by the inferno. Flames had lapped at the temple of Apollo itself. Buildings dating back to the time of the kings were gone, and all the venerable houses of the aristocracy that still, a century after the Republic’s collapse, had lined the road that led from the Forum and served as a memorial to the power of Rome’s ancient families. In disaster, though, lay opportunity. The fire had left free for development the primest real estate in the world. It was hardly in Nero’s nature to let such an opportunity go to waste. Ambitious though his plans were for his fellow citizens, they were not as ambitious as his plans for himself. How could an artist of his vision possibly be expected to confine his living quarters to the Palatine? It was far too cramped, too stuffy. Extend his house to the bounds of the Caelian and the Oppian, though, and at last Nero would be able to live as a man properly should. Like Apollo, whose genius for poetry and music he was so touched by, and like the sun, whose proficiency at driving a chariot he had been emulating for many years, he merited a home appropriate to his infinite talents. He deserved a house that would induce gasps of wonder from the Roman people, and dazzle them with its blaze: a Golden House.

So that was what Nero commissioned. His two architects were justly celebrated, engineers famous for their ability to work with rough terrain and turn it to their advantage; his chief painter, a man so conscious of his dignity that he only ever did his decorations in full toga. Men like these, rising to the challenge set them by Caesar, proved fully equal to his hopes. The Golden House, as they sketched it out for Nero in their plans, was to offer the Roman people nothing less than a vision of what it meant to rule the world. Naturally, the complex would consist of exquisite living quarters, imposing façades and great works of art – that much went without saying. More than that, though, planted in the heart of the largest city ever known, they planned to build something utterly unexpected: a beautiful park. It was to feature a great lake, with buildings set around it to represent cities; tilled fields and vineyards; woods and pastureland. Animals both wild and domesticated were to roam it. Not just a palace, it offered infinitely more. It was to be a portrayal of all the lands and seas that lay under the sway of Caesar.

The world ruled by Rome was to be brought to the very heart of Rome.

Gilding the Darkness

In May 64, three months before the firestorm that engulfed Rome, Nero travelled to Naples. Although he had never needed any excuse to visit the city, his purpose on this occasion was a specific one. Five years after the party held to mark the first shaving of his beard, Nero had decided to go public with his talent for the lyre. Where better to make his debut than in Italy’s most celebrated Greek city? Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, Naples promised just the kind of audience that Nero wanted. He knew that traditionalists in Rome were bound to fume. Indeed, that was all part of the fun. The spectacle on offer was not merely innovative, after all, but positively avant garde: ‘an emperor treading the boards’.63

Nothing was left to chance. Nero’s preparations for the great event were meticulous. For months, he had been doing all the obvious things that a singer could do to strengthen his voice: giving himself regular enemas, lying on his back with a lead weight on his chest, eating nothing for days at a time but chives soaked in oil. He had even brought along a claque of five thousand cheerleaders, and ordered his guards to swell the audience so that there would be no chance of empty seats. He need not have worried. The shows were a sell-out. It was not only locals who flocked to the theatre, but fans from out of town as well. Among them were a posse of visiting Alexandrians, whose rhythmic style of applause so delighted Nero that he ordered his own personal cheerleaders to learn from them how it was done. Every inch the personable superstar, he would mingle with his audience after each show, bantering with them in Greek and dining in public. It was all a great success.

Except that one night, during the run of Nero’s shows, an earthquake hit the theatre in which he was performing and badly damaged it. Nero himself, pointing to the fact that no one had died, hailed it as a sign of divine approval, and promptly wrote a poem announcing as much. Others were not so sure. To those appalled by Nero’s flouting of traditional sensibilities, it seemed as though the foundations of everything that had made Rome great were being violently shaken. Put to the torch as well – for the inferno later that summer was on a scale so patently calamitous as to suggest a fateful disorder in the affairs of gods and men. Although, in the immediate wake of the fire, Nero made efforts to appease the heavens with supplications as showy as he could possibly make them, neither they nor the execution of the sinister and patently seditious Christians prevented whisperings against Caesar himself. No matter how energetic he might show himself in tackling the aftermath of the catastrophe, and no matter how glittering his plans for the reborn city, he could do little to alleviate the immediate misery of people who had lost everything to the fire. Even as the months passed, and the rubble was cleared away, anger continued to fester. Many citizens, nostalgic for the cramped quarters which on Nero’s orders were being replaced with sweeping boulevards and low-rise accommodation, complained that in the new city there would be no escaping the sun. Others, even more agonisingly, had to watch as surveyors mapped out the lineaments of lakes and fields over what only a short while before had been their homes. ‘An overweening estate has robbed the poor of their dwellings.’64

And not only the poor. Senators too had lost properties to the Golden House. Even those whose real estate had not been appropriated knew that Nero, by planting a park in the middle of the city, was placing his foot directly on the corpse of their prestige. For a century and more, the shade of a garden perfumed with exotic blooms had been the ultimate badge of status in Rome. From Maecenas to Messalina, the elite of the city had hankered after them with slack-jawed longing. Now, though, the game was up. Ringed as it was by hills, the sprawling parkland of the Golden House offered to the gaze of everyone in Rome a glimpse of the pavilions and lawns that previously had been the prerogatives of the super-rich. To the poor, at least, it offered a feel of fresh breezes, a break from the monotony of smoke and brick; to senators only a confirmation that they were as nothing compared to Caesar. ‘There stands in the city now only the single house.’65

That the familiar sights of central Rome should have been lost to countryside bore witness to what senators found most disorienting about Nero: his ability to dissolve the boundaries of everything that they had always taken for granted. To many it seemed an unnerving power, for it hinted at something more than human. Nero himself, it was true, hardly seemed sprung from a dimension of the supernatural. Bull-necked and podgy, he had never quite lost his baby fat. The image of Caesar, though, was not bound by flesh and blood. Nero, who had transformed a yacht into a death-trap, and the Campus into a brothel, knew how to play tricks with people’s expectations. In the workshop of Zenodorus, the world’s most famous sculptor, a head almost four metres high was being fashioned out of bronze.66 Designed to top an immense statue that, when completed, would stand guard over the entrance to the Golden House, it portrayed that golden charioteer of the heavens, the Sun. There was, though, in the contours of the god’s face, more than a suggestion of a second charioteer. The Colossus, as the bronze would come to be known, ‘was designed to resemble the Princeps’.67 When completed, the statue was to be crowned by the rays of the sun and portrayed as the guardian of the world. Visible from across the city, it would hint at a status for Nero verging on the divine.

Yet if his face, seen from a certain angle, seemed ablaze with the eeriness of someone more than human, then so also, seen from another, did it seem shadowed by the savagery of a beast. Of the many strange sex games with which Nero was reported to have indulged himself, none was more unsettling than one which had combined a simulation of criminals being torn to pieces with the nauseating practice of oral sex. Men and women – or boys and girls, according to some reports – had supposedly been bound to stakes; Nero, dressed in the skins of a wild animal, had then been released from a cage and pretended to gnaw at their private parts.68 Scandalous on every level, as his floor-shows were invariably devised to be, the performance had made sinister play with the origins of the Roman people – whose city, as everyone knew, had been founded by a wolf-suckled king. Now, with much of Rome in ruins, it was as though Nero intended to found it anew. It was even claimed that he wished to rename it after himself: ‘Neropolis’69 True or not, such rumours had wide currency. Of a man whose face, seen from a certain angle, might seem that of a god, and from another that of a werewolf, almost anything could be believed. And so it was, in the months that followed the catastrophe of the fire, that a claim was first heard in elite circles so stupefying, so utterly monstrous, that to countenance it was to cast Nero as a criminal without parallel in the history of his city: that he, the heir of Augustus and First Citizen of his people, was the very man who had burned Rome down.

The surest evidence for this appalling charge was, of course, the use to which he had put the calamity; but it was noted as well that the fire, when it began again the second time, had originated on an estate owned by Tigellinus. Flamboyant and murderous, Nero certainly had form when it came to crimes on a mythical scale. What was a spot of arson, after all, to a self-confessed matricide? Just as the guilt he had shown at his mother’s murder was as theatrical as it was self-indulgent, so in a similar manner, it was claimed, he had been inspired by the spectacle of Rome burning to play on his lyre and sing of the fall of Troy. Quite where Nero was supposed to have given this performance was much disputed. Some said in his palace, others on its roof, others yet on the tower in Maecenas’s gardens. The precise details, to those convinced of his culpability, were unimportant. Rumour, as ever in Rome, had a habit of fuelling itself. That the moon had been full in the sky on the night of the conflagration, rendering it most unsuited to a project of arson; that Nero had thrown himself into the task of fighting the blaze with energy and commitment; that the costs of repairing the damage were crippling: none of these considerations served to extinguish the talk of his guilt.*6 Instead, just as the fire itself had done, it spread furiously, and it spread fast – and soon enough, come the New Year, it was starting to lick at the foundations of Nero’s regime.

‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation. Large numbers of senators and equestrians were recruited to the conspiracy; so too, no less crucially, assorted Praetorians. Most senior of all the officers to join it was Faenius Rufus, who, on the death of Burrus, had been appointed prefect alongside Tigellinus, and whose reputation for honesty was as impressive as his colleague’s was shameful. The presence of such a man in the ranks of the plotters helped to boost numbers, steady the waverers, and give to the conspiracy a broader base than any since that against Julius Caesar, more than a century before. Not that the conspirators had any intention of restoring the Republic. Thrasea Paetus, the man who more than any other had come to serve as the conscience of the Senate, and who sedulously marked the birthdays of Brutus and Cassius, was not invited to join the plot. Instead, the intention was to replace Nero with a new Caesar. Almost half a century after the disgrace and suicide of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, it was a scion of the same illustrious family whom the conspirators had fixed upon to serve as their figurehead. Gaius Calpurnius Piso combined a distinguished career of public service with an easy and ready charm: men could imagine him as emperor and not shudder at the prospect. True, he lacked even the vaguest link to the August Family; but that could be overcome. Octavia had not been the only daughter born to Claudius. There was a second, still alive, and in her thirties: Antonia. It was agreed among the conspirators that Piso should divorce his wife and marry her. The link that this would establish to Augustus, although tenuous, would be sufficient – it was hoped – to satisfy the Roman people. Piso’s own talent for popularity could then be relied upon to do the rest. Even Seneca, torn between residual loyalty to Nero and horror at what his pupil had become, was prepared to countenance the prospect of a new Caesar. Some among the conspirators went so far as to hope that he might end up emperor himself. Although the ailing philosopher, now in semi-retirement, refused to receive Piso in person, he did not betray the pretender when sounded out. Instead, he temporised. ‘Let him know,’ he told Piso’s emissary with pointed ambivalence, ‘that my own security is bound up with his well-being.’71

Visions of a universal cataclysm continued to haunt the old man. In his nightmares, he could imagine the sky turning to black, and the whole world lost to darkness. There was, though, in the contemplation of utter calamity, a kind of liberation. When the worst came to the worst, submission could no longer be an option. ‘No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.’72 Time was when the leading men of the Senate would have demonstrated the truth of this maxim on the line of battle, serving the greatness of their city amid viscera and swarms of thirsty flies, or else perishing in the attempt; but those days were gone. Now, the field of courage open to Rome’s most eminent citizens was shrunken and diminished. Not, though, the qualities required to take up position on it. ‘No matter how it manifests itself, the measure and value of virtus never change.’73 The courage required to strike at Nero in the Circus, in the full view of the Roman people, as the conspirators planned to do, was a fearsome thing. When it had been suggested to Piso that he invite his victim to Baiae, to the luxurious villa that he owned there, and commit the deed in private, he had refused in tones of contempt. It had to be public, or not done at all. Unless Nero’s blood were spilled in the capital, it would never serve to wash clean his crimes. So it was that Flavius Scaevinus, the senator who had laid claim to the honour of striking the first blow, did not trust to his own dagger, but removed one from a temple. The murder was to be nothing squalid. Rather, it was to be a sacrifice.

Yet to live in hope, as Seneca knew, was to live as well with the prospect of failure. ‘Those who do so find that the immediate future is forever slipping their grasp, and that desperation then steals in, and the dread of death, that curse which renders everything else a bane.’74 And so it proved. When news was finally brought to Seneca, waiting anxiously on his estate, of how the conspiracy had fared, it could not have been worse. A freedman in the household of Scaevinus, his suspicions roused after being asked to sharpen his master’s dagger, had betrayed the plot. Piso, despite being urged by his backers to launch a coup, had reflected in despair on Nero’s popularity with the Roman people, and killed himself. Arrests had been made across the city. Line after line of shackled suspects had been put on trial. Informers had been marshalled, confessions taken, the guilty put to death. ‘The origins, progress and suppression of the conspiracy had been fully documented.’75 There was nowhere left to hide. When Seneca, returning to Rome from Campania, was stopped four miles outside the city by a Praetorian officer and asked to explain the message he had sent to Piso, he knew that nothing he could say, no denials or protestations of innocence, were liable to save him. All his life he had been obsessed by death. The ability to stare it in the face – and if needs be to welcome it – had always been for him the measure of a man. Now at last the moment of his own trial had come. Seneca prepared himself to pass it.

Official confirmation from Nero that he was indeed to kill himself arrived at his villa borne by a squad of Praetorians. His suicide, in the event, was to prove protracted and agonising. First he cut his wrists, then his ankles, and finally behind his knees; but not enough blood would flow. A cup of hemlock, prepared for just such an eventuality, failed in its work as well. Only when Seneca was taken into his bath-house and placed by his slaves in steaming water did he at last feel his life ebb away. He died as he had lived, a philosopher. In his last moments, though, even as he dictated edifying precepts to his attendant secretaries, he could not help but linger on the supreme, the scarring failure of his life. Just before slitting his wrists, Seneca had formally accused his erstwhile pupil of the crimes that he had been obliged for so long to whitewash. ‘After Nero had murdered his mother and brother, what remained for him save to kill his teacher and mentor?’76 These words, as the dying man had known they would be, were widely bruited, a prosecution from beyond the grave. Nero himself, for all the delight that he reportedly took in the news of Seneca’s suicide, could hardly help but be stung. First his mother, now his tutor: both had perished with condemnations of him as a monster on their lips.

Ever since his adoption by Claudius, Nero’s longing to bask in the cheers of the Roman people had been at war with his sense of paranoia. It was in the struggle to balance these instincts that he had repeatedly sacrificed those who were closest to him. Now, though, with the revelation of Piso’s plot, the full scale of his unpopularity with the Roman elite had been starkly exposed. A stone had been lifted, and hatreds rendered visible to Nero’s gaze that seemed to him as contemptible as the scurrying and writhing of a multitude of creeping things. That the Senate had turned out to be consumed by its hatred of him came as no great surprise, for Nero had delighted in scandalising it and scorning its ideals. Altogether more of a shock had been his discovery of treason in the camp of the Praetorians. Faenius Rufus, their prefect, had played a desperate double game, torturing and executing his fellow conspirators even as he sought to tip them the wink whenever no one else was watching; but that particular game had been brought to an end when his cover was blown by an indignant Scaevinus. Other officers, though, rather than conceal their role in the conspiracy, had gloried in it. Why, Nero demanded of one, had he broken his oath of loyalty? ‘Because,’ the centurion replied, ‘there was no other way to redeem you from your crimes.’77 Most, though – so Nero had to reckon – were less fastidious in their morals. Accordingly, in the wake of the conspiracy’s suppression, and the execution of the various officers who had proven themselves treacherous, he made sure to throw money at the problem. Massive bonuses, fresh privileges: nothing was too good for the Praetorians. As for prefects, Nero had wearied of men with scruples. Tigellinus’s new colleague was a man with a reputation as evil as his own. Nymphidius Sabinus was a tall, grim-faced man, the grandson of Claudius’s potent freedman, Callistus. His mother was rumoured to have worked as a whore in the slave quarters on the Palatine. His father, so the rumour had it, was Caligula.

Well might the Senate cower. Nero’s boredom with its pretensions, long self-evident, had now patently metastasised. The promotion of Nymphidius, the awarding to Tigellinus of a statue both on the Palatine and in the Forum, the lavishing of honours on henchmen who had helped to secure convictions during the treason trials: all proclaimed it loudly. It was not only Nero’s suspicion of the nobility, however, that had been confirmed for him by the exposure of Piso’s conspiracy. So too had his need to be loved. Sure enough, barely had the blood of the executed conspirators dried than Nero was readying himself to fulfil at long last a much-cherished ambition and perform on the ultimate public stage: Rome itself.

The background to the occasion was sombre. Plague had struck the city. The streets echoed to mourning and were filled with funeral fires. The crowds, as they filled the theatre, were in a mood to have their spirits raised. Nero duly obliged. To the horror of watching senators, but the delight of his adoring fans, Caesar appeared on stage and recited a poem. He then left the theatre; but the assembled crowds, stamping and applauding, demanded his return, urging him to ‘make a public show of all his various talents’.78 Aulus Vitellius, skilled in the stage-management of such things, promptly hurried after his master. Declaring himself the spokesman of the people, he announced that it was their universal desire to see Caesar enter the contest for best musician. Coyly, Nero allowed his arm to be twisted. Changing into the long flowing robe and platform heels of a citharode, he returned to the stage, lyre this time in his hands. His fingers brushed the strings; he cleared his throat; he began to sing. Not even the sweat that was soon pouring down his face could bring him to pause. Only when he was finally done with his performance did he sink to his knees and soak up the ecstatic applause. The verdict of the judges, when it was announced, came as no great surprise. Nero, awarded the palm of victory, had the grace to look relieved; but the true prize was to be heard in the cheering of the crowds. Rhythmic and measured, it echoed to the Roman sky. Nero, as he soaked it up, was able to know himself truly adored.

Which was just as well – for the memory was one that he would soon have all the more reason to cherish. Profoundly though he craved the devotion of the Roman people, there could be no doubting the true love of his life. As glamorous, fashionable and unfeasibly sexy as ever, Poppaea Sabina was now doubly precious to Nero – for she was pregnant too. Already, a couple of years earlier, she had borne her husband a daughter; although the baby had died young, there could be no doubting her ability to give him an heir. It was, then, doubly a calamity when Nero added to the long list of people whose lives he had brought to an end the one that he could least bear to lose. He had never meant to kill Poppaea. It had been foolish of her to nag him, of course, especially when all he had done was to come home late one evening from the races. He had been tired, and pretty much bound to lash out; but even so, he should never have kicked her in her swollen stomach.

Nero’s grief, suffused as it was with guilt, was of a suitably titanic order. At Poppaea’s funeral, he incinerated an entire year’s supply of perfume – and then burned some more, just for good measure. Rather than watch the body of his beloved turn to ashes, he chose, like a pharaoh of old, to embalm it, before consigning it to the Mausoleum of Augustus. Poppaea herself was declared a goddess, and money extorted from the leading women of Rome to build her a temple. No longer the wife who had died in squalid and miserable circumstances, her swollen belly livid with bruising, she reigned instead eternal in the heavens, the presiding deity of beauty and desire: ‘Venus Sabina’.79

It was all very Nero. Those who had come to dread and detest him could hardly help but recognise in Poppaea’s unhappy fate something of Rome’s own. A city too, after all, might be abused, and pummelled, and kicked. Poppaea’s death, coming as it did so soon after the suppression of Piso’s conspiracy, had done nothing to calm Nero’s nerves. ‘No matter how many people you put to death,’ Seneca had told him in the wake of Agrippina’s murder, ‘you can never kill your successor.’80 The warning was one to which Nero, at the time, had been content to pay lip-service; but not now that he had lost his unborn child. With no one of his own blood now to succeed him, his dread of potential rivals had become even greater. He and his mother between them had already done much winnowing, and there remained, with the exception of Nero himself, only a single male descendant of Augustus left alive. Lucius Junius Silanus was young, but he was not naïve. When a posse of soldiers arrived in the remote Italian town to which he had been exiled, he resisted arrest. The attempt was doomed. Strong though he was, he had no sword. The centurion in charge of the death squad cut him down. Other eminent victims soon followed. Some, like Thrasea Paetus, were old enemies of an emperor no longer prepared to tolerate so much as a hint of opposition. Others were men altogether too seasoned in the command of legions for Nero’s comfort. Others yet were men famous for their wealth. A year on from the judicial killings that had followed Piso’s conspiracy, and it seemed to Rome’s elite that the entire nobility was drowning in a superfluity of blood.

Yet the perfumes that Nero had burned in Poppaea’s honour and the spices with which he had packed her corpse were reminders that what he could brutalise he could also beautify. The money plundered from senators executed for treason did not just sit in his coffers. Nor did the ever heavier taxes that he had begun to impose on the provinces, nor the income from the fertile estates of Africa that he had moved to appropriate from their owners, nor the treasures that his agents were looting from temples across the entire span of the Roman world. Desperately expensive though it was to rebuild a city as vast as Rome, Nero was hardly the man to stint on the repairs. He had no option but to extract money from whatever source he could – for to economise was unthinkable.

Any lead was worth following up. When an equestrian from Carthage reported a sensational dream, in which he had been shown a great cache of bullion buried under his fields, left there a millennium before by the founder of his city and waiting to be discovered, Nero had dispatched an entire squadron of treasure-hunters to recover it. That a long and increasingly frantic excavation had turned up nothing, and that the Carthaginian himself, mortified in the extreme, had ended up killing himself, was an embarrassment, to be sure; but not a terminal one. Nero remained true to what he saw as his highest responsibility: to delight his fellow citizens. In the early summer of 66, the long-anticipated arrival in Rome of Tiridates, who had at last travelled from Armenia to receive his crown, provided a perfect opportunity to dazzle the Roman people – literally. On the day of the ceremony itself, the sun rose over a Forum crowded with citizens dressed in togas of blinding whiteness, and lined by Praetorians whose armour and standards ‘flashed like shafts of lightning’.81 Once the coronation had been completed, it was staged a second time in the Theatre of Pompey, where the stage, the walls and even the props had been gilded to extravagant effect. There, beneath a rich purple awning which portrayed Nero as a celestial charioteer surrounded by golden stars, Tiridates paid him obeisance. No one could doubt, looking at the king in his barbarous robes prostrating himself before Caesar, that the far ends of the world had come in submission to its centre. It was indeed, as everyone said, ‘a golden day’.82

What did it matter that shanty towns filled with those made homeless by the fire continued to dot the city’s outskirts, or that in close rooms heavy with the sweat of desperation there was no proroguing the treason trials just because the king of Armenia was in town? And later, when Tiridates had gone back home, the gold had been stripped from Pompey’s theatre and the rose petals swept up from the Forum, still there was no diminution in the blaze of Nero’s glamour. Looming beyond the Forum rose the base of the massive bronze fashioned by Zenodorus, the half-constructed Colossus that, when completed, would brush the stars with the rays of its diadem. Beyond it in turn stretched the lake, the forests and the fields which simulated, in the heart of the capital, all the manifold natural beauties of the world. Meanwhile, gilded and adorned with jewels, the façade of the Golden House extended from the side of the Oppian Hill, and all the summer long seemed lit by fire. It was as though, in the midst of the scorched and nervous city, the Sun himself had built his palace.

Nero could afford to scorn his enemies. For a decade and more he had been straining on the leash, eager to break free from the prescriptions of a crabbed and superseded order and to create, as befitted the supreme artist that he was, his own reality. The Senate, wounded and demoralised, appeared powerless to resist him; the people, enraptured by his command of fantasy and spectacle, eager to participate in his reconfiguring of what it might mean to be a Roman. There seemed nothing that Nero, if he wished it, could not ultimately bend to his will.

Back to Reality

Early in the autumn of AD 66, a great fleet of ships bearing Caesar and his entourage pulled into the harbour of Corinth.83 Situated on the narrow isthmus that separated mainland Greece from the Peloponnese to the south, the city was very much Nero’s kind of place. Celebrated for its prostitutes and bronzes, it also boasted a famous festival: the Isthmian Games. Every two years, huge crowds would gather outside Corinth to gawp at a variety of sporting and artistic contests. ‘All of Asia and Greece come together for these games.’84 Now, though, a visitor from Italy was planning to make his presence felt at the event. Nero, fresh from his triumphs in Naples and Rome, was ready to take the festival circuit of Greece by storm.

Obedient to his orders, organisers of the most prestigious games had rescheduled their events to ensure that they could all be held in the single year. As a result, the Olympics had been postponed for the first time in their history, while other festivals had been specially brought forward. Nero intended to compete in them all. That done, he aimed to continue eastwards, there to win yet further glory by subduing the barbarians who lurked beyond the Caucasus. Not since Claudius’s expedition to Britain had a Caesar left for the provinces; and not since Augustus had toured the eastern Mediterranean and won back the eagles from Parthia had quite such an extended absence from Rome been planned by a ruler of the world. The hype, as Nero headed east, was immense. One astrologer foretold that he would make an island of the Peloponnese by cutting a canal through the Isthmus, a second that he would sit on a golden throne in Jerusalem. The whole of Greece was agog.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, there were plenty who regarded Nero’s eastern adventure with disgust. The more exclusive the circles, the greater the sense of outrage tended to be. The contempt was, of course, entirely mutual. To watch Nero’s travelling companions descend the gangplanks onto Corinthian soil was to know that the Roman elite had been put decisively in the shade. Not since Tiberius’s retirement to Capri had access to Caesar been so humiliatingly barred to them. Heading down the Appian Way to take ship for Greece, Nero had been alerted to yet another plot against his life, its exposure confirming him in a suspicion of the Senate that would have done credit to Caligula. ‘I detest you, Caesar, for being of senatorial rank.’85 This joke, often repeated in his presence by a particular henchman of his, a hobbling one-time cobbler named Vatinius, never failed to bring a smile to Nero’s lips. True, not all senators were banned from his presence. Looking ahead to the projected campaigning in the Caucasus, Nero had made sure to bring with him on his travels the odd seasoned campaigner. Typical was a former consul by the name of Vespasian. A veteran of the conquest of Britain, his war record had just about served to compensate for his unfortunate habit of falling asleep during Nero’s recitals. Yet in truth, Vespasian was only of marginally better stock than Vatinius, and not all his commands and magistracies could obscure the fact that his grandfather had worked as a debt collector. For those in the Senate who could still trace their ancestry back to the heroic beginnings of Rome, it was a profound humiliation. What was there to choose between a former cobbler and a peasant who had risen to become a consul? That Vatinius was a malicious and disreputable parasite and Vespasian a decorated war hero made barely a difference. Both had the ear of Caesar. The world was turned upside down.

But there was worse. Soldiers and courtiers were not the only people in the retinue of Augustus’s heir. There were also to be found in it teeming hordes of musicians, voice coaches and personal trainers – for Nero, as a contender in the Olympic or Isthmian Games, could hardly be expected to function without vast numbers of back-room staff. In Greece, the home of drama and competitive sport, the notion that what happened in a theatre or on a race track might hold up a mirror to the broader world was a familiar one; but never before had anyone thought to blur the boundaries between them to quite such dizzying effect. Nero was not, as most visitors to the province were, a tourist. He had no interest in merely poking around the sights. The Greece that he had come to experience was not the land of art and antiquities, but of still living myth. A games staged in Olympia, or on the Isthmus, or in Argos, where Agamemnon had once reigned, or at Delphi, where Apollo had his most famous shrine, offered communion with the legendary heroes of the past in a way that no corresponding festival in Rome ever could.

It was this that gave to all those who competed in them their glamour; and it was why, despite his status as Caesar, Nero refused to take first place for granted. Without the edge of genuine competition, after all, his victories would be worthless. Hence, just like any other entrant in the games, he was prey to stage-fright, bitched about his rivals behind their backs and lived in dread of the judges. Ruler of the world or no, he could not afford a performance that would make him look a fraud – and everyone knew it. That the judges, at event after event, had little choice but to award him first prize did not diminish the genuine awe felt by many spectators at his feats. The greatest festivals in Greece had all been founded by gods or heroes of royal blood; and now, with the arrival of Caesar to headline at them, the ancient days of song and legend seemed renewed. Across the East, wherever theatres were to be found and sporting contests staged, the glamour of his achievements could hardly help but blaze. Senators in Rome might scoff, but Nero had his eyes fixed, not just on the capital, but on all the lands that he ruled.

In Greece, he could breathe more freely. Visitors to the great festivals there were attuned to his sensibility. Back in Rome, for instance, even Nero had hesitated to perform as an actor. Those who made a show of their bodies before the public gaze, draping themselves in exotic costumes and speaking other people’s lines, were regarded by upstanding citizens as little better than whores. It was this that explained their presence alongside adulterers and gladiators among the class of people defined by the law as infames. Disapproval of the theatre was a venerable Roman tradition. Moralists had always condemned it as a threat to ‘the qualities of manliness for which the Roman people are renowned’.86Actors, it was sternly noted, were inclined to effeminacy. They rarely had due respect for the boundary that existed between male and female. Only strictness could serve to patrol it. An actor who had found it amusing to keep a married woman as a page, her hair cut short to look like a boy’s, had been whipped and banished from Rome on the personal instructions of Augustus himself. Those who played others in public threatened subversion at every level. Even the most basic fundamentals risked being undermined. Seneca, watching a play in which a slave played Agamemnon and imperiously threw his weight around, had been prompted to reflect on the illusory nature of rank itself. ‘Who is the “Lord of Argos”?’ he had mused. ‘Why, only a slave!’87

No such anxiety, though, was likely to trouble Caesar. That Nero, like so many of the heroes who featured in the repertoire, was descended from a god, and wielded kingly power, gave to his appearance on the stage a quite exceptional heft. Acting came naturally to him. Back in the first days of his rule, addressing the Senate, he had delivered a speech composed for him by Seneca and been roundly mocked for it behind his back: ‘for those with long memories noted that he was the first emperor to rely on borrowed eloquence’.88 Even then, though, Nero had penetrated to the heart of what it meant to be a Princeps. To rule as Caesar was to play a part. The performance was all. Now, arrived in Greece, Nero’s aim was to make this apparent to the entire world. Taking to the stage, sometimes his mask would be painted to look like the hero he was playing, sometimes to look like himself. No one could mistake the point that was being made. The events of Nero’s life, its many trials and tribulations, were as worthy a subject of drama as anything conjured up from myth. To watch him star as Orestes was to know that the murder of Clytaemnestra had been rivalled by a second, no less terrible act of matricide. When he played the part of a woman giving birth, who could not reflect on the tragedy that had seen him lose his heir? When he wore a mask fashioned after the features of Poppaea, who could not be reminded of the homicidal fits of madness sent by the gods upon many an ancient hero, and pity Nero likewise? It was a bravura act. Vision, audacity, conceit: his performance boasted them all. Only Nero could have attempted it; only Nero could have pulled it off to such stunning effect.

Resurrecting Poppaea on the stage was only a beginning, though. Beyond the theatre too, Nero aimed to bend reality to his will. His sense of bereavement remained unassuaged. In the wake of Poppaea’s death, he had briefly considered marrying Antonia, the only surviving child of Claudius; but when she, not surprisingly, had shown herself reluctant to wed her sister’s killer, he had opted instead to have her put to death for treason. Tellingly, his choice of a new wife had been a woman very like Poppaea. Statilia Messalina, lately married to a consul executed in the wake of Piso’s conspiracy, was stylish, beautiful and clever. Nevertheless, not even the fascination she shared with Nero for training and strengthening her voice could compensate, in her new husband’s opinion, for her one abiding drawback: she was not Poppaea.89 This was why, just as Nero had once delighted in sleeping with a whore who looked like his mother, he had ordered a hunt to be made for a doppelgänger of the wife he had kicked to death. Sure enough, a woman with a close resemblance to Poppaea had been located, and delivered to his bed; but he had soon wearied of her. Then someone else had been tracked down: someone soft-skinned, amber-haired, irresistible. To Nero, brought this prize, it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave. Nevertheless, there was a twist. For all the eeriness of the resemblance, it was not a woman who had been found for Nero – nor even a girl. The lookalike, so perfect as to convince a grieving husband, was not perfect in every detail. The double of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s greatest love, was a boy.

Nothing was more ephemeral than beauty of such a kind. Like the blossoms of spring, it afforded a delight that was all the sweeter for being so fleeting. It was this quality that rendered boys with exquisite looks such luxury items of merchandise. Rather like Lucrine oysters, they were prized highly by those who bought them precisely because they were so quick to go off. A slave-dealer, desperate not to lose value on his merchandise, might use ants’ eggs to retard the growth of hair in a boy’s armpits, and blood from lambs’ testicles to keep his cheeks smooth; an owner, rather than accept that a treasured catamite had hit puberty, might dress him as a girl ‘and keep him beardless by smoothing away his hairs, or else plucking them out by the roots’.90 The grim truth was, though, that there existed only one reliable option for preserving the springtime of a boy’s looks; and Nero had duly taken it.

Sporus, he had nicknamed his victim, ‘Spunk’. Even when mocking traditional values, Nero remained sufficiently a Roman to find eunuchs a bit of a joke. If not quite as sinister as the Galli, whose castration was self-inflicted, boys gelded on the orders of their masters trailed after them the unmistakable perfume of the countercultural. Soft, infertile and indelibly associated with the harems of eastern despots, they could hardly have been less in tune with the stern virtues of Roman manhood – which was, of course, for those with an eye to fashion, precisely the point. Maecenas, while administering Italy during the Actium campaign, had scandalised conservatives by appearing in public with an escort of two eunuchs; Sejanus, confirming moralists in their loathing for him, had owned one called ‘Boy Toy’, whose record sale-price, even decades later, could still provoke gasps of wonder.91 Nero, though, as was his invariable habit, had gone just that little bit further in scandalising respectable opinion. Yes, Sporus had been gelded to ensure the preservation of his beauty – but that was not the only reason for castrating him. It was not a eunuch that Nero was interested in taking to bed, after all, but his dead wife. He wanted Poppaea Sabina back.

And so that was the name given to her double. As his instructress in becoming an Augusta, Sporus was assigned a woman of high rank named Calvia Crispinilla, whose qualifications as a wardrobe mistress could hardly have been bettered. Modish and aristocratic, she had also won herself a notorious reputation as ‘Nero’s instructress in sexual pleasures’.92 Delivered into Calvia’s hands, Sporus was duly arrayed in Poppaea’s robes, his hair teased into her favoured style and his face painted with her distinctive range of cosmetics. ‘Everything he did, he had to do it as a woman’93 – and a wife of Caesar’s at that. As Nero toured Greece, so Sporus travelled with him, borne in the litter of an Augusta and attended by a bustling train of maids. Only one thing remained to complete the transformation. The nuptials, when they were staged during the course of Nero’s sojourn in Greece, positively screamed tradition. The bride, veiled in saffron, was given away by Tigellinus; wild celebrations were held throughout the province; prayers were even raised to the gods that the happy couple would have children. Only one thing prevented the illusion from being complete: the new Poppaea Sabina’s lack of a woman’s anatomy.

Even that was not for want of trying. Nero, if he could have done, would have excised the maimed remnants of genitals from Sporus altogether, parted the living flesh of the wretched boy’s groin and opened up a passageway to an implanted uterus. The blatant impossibility of fulfilling such an ambition did not prevent huge rewards being offered to anyone who might achieve it – whether by surgery, or else by darker means. The cutting of a channel where before there had been none was precisely the kind of project that had always tickled Nero’s fancy. Back in Italy, he had ordered the construction of a canal stretching all the way from Puteoli to the Tiber, a distance of some 150 miles. Then in Greece, rising to the challenge set by the oracles, he had no sooner arrived in Corinth than he was giving orders for a canal to be hacked out through the Isthmus. An engineering project designed to facilitate the flow of trade, it was also something much more. The ceremony which inaugurated the project could hardly have made this more explicit. Emerging from a sumptuous tent, Nero kicked things off by singing a hymn about sea nymphs; then, taking a golden pitchfork, he struck the earth with it three times. Snipping the Peloponnese from mainland Greece, he proudly declared, would be on a par with anything achieved by the heroes of legend. Fantasy and a spectacular infrastructure project; golden pitchforks and gangs of toiling prisoners; songs about sea nymphs and the sweat and strain of cutting through hard rock: it was all inimitably Nero.

But what if reality, rather than submitting to the dictates of his imagination, insisted on defying them? Sporus’s groin remained without a vagina; the canal that was supposed to link Puteoli to the Tiber appeared stuck in the Bay of Naples; the excavations at the Isthmus prompted dark warnings behind Nero’s back that he was trespassing on the affairs of the gods. Meanwhile, beyond the stadia and theatres of Greece, on distant frontiers and in remote provinces, the affairs of the world did not stay still. Reports from the East were particularly ominous. In Judaea, long-simmering tensions had finally exploded into open revolt. News of a failed attempt to restore order in Jerusalem had been reported to Nero shortly after his arrival in Corinth. Rather than abandon his tour of Greece and head to Judaea himself, he had opted to send the best man ready to hand: Vespasian. Meanwhile, back in Rome, rumours that the Senate was to be abolished, and responsibility for the provinces handed over to equestrians and Nero’s freedman, were doing nothing to steady nerves. Spies, keeping track of potential conspiracies, noted an alarming increase in correspondence between various governors in Gaul and Spain. Prominent among them was Nero’s legate in Lugdunum, a senator descended from one of the Gallic royal families, by the name of Gaius Julius Vindex. ‘Physically fit and mentally alert, seasoned in war and bold enough not to shrink from a perilous enterprise, he combined a deep love of liberty with immense ambition.’94 Such qualities, in the death throes of the Republic, might well have marked him out as a contender in the great game of the civil wars; but those days were long gone. No one now could hope to rule the world who was not a descendant of Augustus. Of that much Nero was confident. Nevertheless, when it was reported to him that Vindex had been in communication with Galba, who for eight years had been serving as a governor in Spain, he did feel a slight fluttering of alarm. Seasoned by now in what it took to nip treachery in the bud, he gave orders to his spymasters. Galba was to be eliminated. Then, having issued those instructions, Nero turned his attentions back to a more important matter: his ongoing tour of Greece.

His boldest and most hair-raising feat was achieved, fittingly enough, on the greatest sporting stage of all. Of the many events staged at Olympia, none could compare for sheer peril and excitement with the chariot race. Reaching back to the origins of the games, it was the festival’s ultimate showcase for skill and courage. Nero, by entering it, was taking his life in his hands – and all the more so because, rather than the normal complement of four horses, he intended to race with a team of ten. It was the god-like thing to do, of course; but it also required extremes of practice that no one distracted by the care of the Roman world could possibly have attained. Unsurprisingly, then, amid the dust, the collisions and the hairpin bends, Nero was thrown. Watching as he lay on the baked dirt of the race track, curled up against the lethal passage of the other chariots, inches from being crushed to death, no one would have blamed him for retiring from the contest. But he was Caesar, and made of sterner stuff. Dazed and bruised, Nero insisted on clambering back into his vehicle and renewing the contest. Although it proved beyond him to complete the race, the crowds still rose to applaud him. The judges awarded him first prize.

The seal was set on a remarkable love affair. For the first time, a Caesar had appealed over the heads of the senatorial elite, not simply to the Roman people, but to those without citizenship, to provincials. On 28 November 67, at a grand ceremony in Corinth, Nero made this official. ‘Men of Greece, I bestow on you a gift beyond your wildest expectations.’ Their taxes, he informed them, were abolished – a magnificent gesture. ‘I grant you this favour out of good will, not pity, and as a mark of gratitude to your gods, whose care for me both by land and sea I have always found so constant.’95

Meanwhile, though, across the remainder of the Roman world, there was no let-up in the screwing out of taxes. Even as Judaea burned, provincials elsewhere were being bled white to pay for Nero’s rebuilding of Rome and his projected campaigns in the East. In Gaul, in Spain and in Africa, resentment of his agents, ‘whose exactions were as criminal as they were cruel and oppressive’,96 was steadily mounting. Whereas in Greece and the provinces to the east Nero’s achievements were widely bruited, in Spain mockery of him was widespread, and satires against him openly repeated. Galba, who had intercepted the message sent from Greece that he should be put to death, pointedly made no attempt to suppress them. Still, though, he hesitated to make his opposition to Nero’s regime public. Other governors too, terrified of provoking their master’s suspicions and mistrustful of each other, likewise preferred to lurk and wait, and see what might happen.

Few had any doubts as to the stakes. For a century, the world had been at peace. No one could remember a time when citizen had fought with citizen. Nevertheless, memories of the great blood-letting of the civil wars, when the Roman people had almost destroyed themselves, and the world with them, remained vivid. Seneca, in plighting himself to the service of Nero, had reached for language that he knew his young master would particularly appreciate. Only if kept hitched to the chariot of a Caesar, he had declared, would the Roman people be spared calamity: ‘for were they to slip the reins, then all their greatness and power would surely be shattered into splinters’.97 The conceit was not his own. Maimed horses, splintered wheels, corpses lying broken in the dust: again and again, in the world before the rise to supremacy of Augustus, men had glimpsed in these spectacles an image of much greater ruin. What feeling more terrifying for a people, after all, than to know themselves hurtling out of control, and powerless to stop it? ‘As when chariots burst out from the barriers, gathering speed with each lap, and the driver, borne along by the horses, tugs upon the reins in vain, and finds the car does not obey them.’98 Understandably, therefore, those with legions at their backs hesitated to come out in open insurrection; understandably, too, the news of Nero’s crash in the Olympic Games, when reported back in Rome, prompted considerable reflection.

In the event, the freedman he had appointed to administer the capital in his absence had to travel to Greece in person, to persuade his master of the scale of the gathering crisis and the desperate need for his return. Spited of the chance to proceed to the Caucasus and play at being a general, Nero was not the man, of course, to let that stop him making a splash. His entry into Rome was as spectacular as any procession ever witnessed in the city. Indeed, in a conscious echo of the triumphs awarded his great-great-grandfather, he rode in the chariot once used by Augustus. Nero, though, was celebrating victories that no Roman had ever won before. He wore on his head the wreath of wild olive that proclaimed him a winner at the Olympic Games; by his side stood the world’s most famous citharode, whom he had defeated in open contest. Banners proclaimed Nero’s titles, and all the numerous crowns that he had won in Greece were borne before him, for the edification and delight of the Roman people. Meanwhile, along the perfumed procession route, songbirds were released, and ribbons and sweets tossed to the cheering crowds. ‘Hail to Nero, our own Apollo!’ they cried. ‘Augustus! Augustus! O Divine Voice! Blessed are they that hear you!’99

No matter the gloomy warnings of his security advisors, Nero could feel confident that he still enjoyed the love of the Roman people. He had always relied upon his incomparable mastery of image to dazzle and confound his enemies, and he had no intention of changing that now. Yet the ultimate test was fast approaching. In Gaul, where Julius Vindex had been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to raise the banner of rebellion, Nero faced an adversary with a mastery of propaganda almost the equal of his own. In March 68, a coin was minted on Vindex’s orders which showed two daggers, and a cap of the kind worn by slaves when granted their freedom. It was a pointed illustration. One hundred and twelve years earlier, in the wake of the Ides of March, Brutus had issued a near-identical design; and now it was the Ides of March again.100 Nero, who had retired to Naples for the spring, received the news of the revolt from Vindex himself. A letter from the rebellious governor reached him on 19 March, the anniversary of his mother’s death. The coincidence, once again, was pointed. Vindex had a talent for drawing blood. Not content with addressing Nero as ‘Ahenobarbus’, he rubbed salt in the wound by deriding the Emperor’s ability as a musician. Nero, stung to the quick, could not help but betray his indignation. ‘Repeatedly he would corner people, and demand, did they know of anyone who ranked as his equal?’101

In general, though, he affected dismissive contempt towards the threat of rebellion. More than a week had passed before he made a formal response to Vindex’s insulting letter, and in that time he had made sure to pursue his customary interests with a perfect show of calmness and indifference. Nero knew what he faced in Vindex. The muscle-bound sense of duty, the parading of martial values, the harping on moral codes bred of an age when the Roman people had subsisted on turnips: it was everything he most despised. In his attempt to reach over the heads of the senatorial elite to the masses who cared nothing for their antique pretensions he had deliberately mocked everything that Vindex represented: and he continued to mock it now. Rather than address the Senate in person, he sent them a letter, explaining that he had a sore throat and needed to save his voice for his singing. When he did invite some prominent senators to a consultation, he spent most of the meeting showing them his plans for a new kind of hydraulic organ, and even promised to play it for them in due course – ‘just so long as Vindex does not object’.102 Nero’s sarcasm was bred, not of insouciance, but of the very opposite: determination never to respond to his enemies’ propaganda on its own terms. Leaving a drunken banquet one evening, he declared his intention to appear before Vindex’s legions unarmed and do nothing but weep; ‘and then, after he had persuaded the rebels by that means to change their minds, he would the next day rejoice among his rejoicing subjects, and sing hymns of victory – which, indeed, he ought at that very moment to be composing’.103

Behind the scenes, though, Nero was taking the threat to his regime very seriously indeed. Although he could not resist commissioning a wagon train to transport his various props to the front, nor arming his concubines like Amazons and giving them all a military short back and sides, he knew better than to rely on theatricals. So it was that he summoned the expeditionary force he had readied for the Caucasus campaign to Italy, conscripted vast numbers of marines, and even slaves, into hurriedly raised legions, and dispatched them northwards, there to patrol the frontier with Gaul. To command them, he chose a former governor of Britain by the name of Petronius Turpilianus, who had proven his loyalty to Nero’s satisfaction by taking a prominent role in the suppression of Piso’s conspiracy. Simultaneously, letters were sent to the recently appointed General of the North, a man of noted integrity named Virginius Rufus, with orders to muster the legions of the Rhine and march south against Vindex. So it was, then, even as he chatted away nonchalantly to senators about musical instruments, that Nero could contemplate with satisfaction the pincer movement threatening his foes. The rebels appeared certain to be crushed. For good measure, though, Nero made sure to offer a fortune to whomever could bring him Vindex’s head.

But then, in mid-April, the news took a turn for the worse. Galba, showing his hand at last, had declared himself a legate, not of Caesar, but of the Senate and the Roman people. Recognising in the blue-blooded veteran of the German front an altogether more formidable class of adversary than Vindex, Nero promptly fainted. When he came to, and was reassured by his old nurse that many princes in the past had faced similar evils, he brushed aside this well-meaning attempt to console him by informing her, in a tone of some asperity, that his own woes were wholly without precedent. Worse, though, was to come. Galba’s rebellion prompted numerous others who had been patiently biding their time to join him. Some familiar names were among their ranks. Otho, erstwhile husband of Poppaea, had leapt at the chance to return from Spain, where he was serving as one of its governors, and had unhesitatingly pledged his loyalty to Galba. Meanwhile, in Africa, the sinister Calvia Crispinilla, tutor to the wretched Sporus in the arts of being an Augusta, had thrown in her lot with the province’s governor, and incited him to join the insurrection. Then, in May, came the bitterest blow, a defection all the more cruel because it came garbed in the robes of triumph. The armies of the Rhine, meeting with Vindex’s forces, had annihilated their opponents. Vindex himself had committed suicide. Rather than renew their oaths to Nero on the battlefield, though, the victorious legions had hailed their general as emperor. Virginius, true to his reputation for moral probity, had turned them down; but only then to declare his neutrality in the looming struggle for control of the world. Meanwhile, it was reported of Petronius, the general entrusted by Nero with the defence of northern Italy, that he too was wavering in his loyalties. The habit of obedience to the House of Caesar, forged by Augustus and his heirs over a century and more, appeared suddenly on the verge of collapse. The old wolfishness, the savagery that in the earliest days of Rome had seen Remus felled by Romulus, had not, after all, it seemed, been tamed for good. Rushing to meet each other in the ecstasy of mutual slaughter, the legions of Virginius and Vindex had both ignored their commanders’ efforts to hold them back. ‘The crash of the battle had been terrible – like that of charioteers whose horses refuse to obey them.’104 As in the terrible days before the rise to supremacy of Augustus, so now. Events were careering madly out of control.

And Nero, seasoned charioteer that he was, knew it. Brought the news of Petronius’s defection while he was dining, he tipped over the table in his fury, and dashed a couple of precious goblets to the floor. Then, after making sure to source a supply of poison, he left behind him the sprawling magnificence of the Golden House and headed for one of his estates further out of town. Here, wrestling with his options, he abandoned himself to despair. Even the Praetorians, whose love he had always gone to such extremes to court, appeared to be wavering. When Nero urged their officers to rally to him, they temporised. ‘Is it really such a terrible thing to die?’105 These words, addressed by a Praetorian officer directly to Nero’s face, were like a touch of ice. Evidently, the cancer of disloyalty was starting to reach into the very heart of his regime. Were there any so close to him now that they could still be trusted not to switch sides? Certainly, there was no sign either of Tigellinus or of his colleague as Praetorian prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus. Both, Nero had to reckon, had abandoned his cause. Both, in his hour of need, had proven themselves true to their reputations as venal and treacherous.

In a mood of mounting desperation, Nero now began to turn other plans over and over in his mind. Perhaps, come the morning, he should head to the Forum dressed in black and make a direct appeal to the Roman people, employing all his talent for pathos? Or perhaps he should flee to Alexandria? Nero decided to sleep on it. His dreams, though, were fitful. Waking up at midnight, he found to his horror that the villa was almost empty. His guards had gone, and his friends, and even the caretakers – who, to add injury to insult, had stolen his supply of poison. Briefly, Nero wondered whether to hurl himself into the Tiber; but then, after a histrionic dash out into the night, he decided that he was not yet ready to abandon hope altogether, and returned inside. A few loyal companions still remained to him: Sporus, his beautiful woman’s face and amber hair a reminder of happier days, and three attendants. One of these, a freedman by the name of Phaon, offered his master the use of a villa to the north of Rome. Unable to think of any better bolt-hole, Nero accepted. Still barefoot, he wrapped himself up in a faded cloak and covered his head, and then, after mounting a horse, held a handkerchief up to his face. As lightning jagged in the sky, and the earth quaked, he and his four companions cantered out into the streets and embarked on their escape from Rome.

The journey was a hair-raising one. Riding past the Praetorian camp, the five horsemen could hear wild slogans being shouted: prophecies of doom for Nero and of success for Galba. A passer-by, seeing the speed at which they were riding, assumed that they were hunting the fugitive emperor, and cheered them on. Most heart-stopping of all, when Nero’s horse was startled by the stench of a corpse abandoned in the road, and he let slip the handkerchief covering his face, a retired Praetorian recognised him. The soldier did nothing, though, beyond saluting him; and so Nero, against the odds, was able to make it to Phaon’s villa. Yet even here, there were fresh indignities to endure. Because Phaon insisted that they enter by the back, Nero was required to stumble through reeds and brambles, and then, after his companions had dug a tunnel, to squeeze himself under the wall. Shattered and despairing, he tottered into the slave quarters and flung himself down in the first room he came to, a mean and squalid chamber with no furniture for him to rest on beyond a lumpy mattress. Here, mourning the ruin that had overwhelmed him, Nero ordered his companions to prepare him a pyre and dig him a grave. Still, despite the urgings of his companions, he hesitated. The scale of his downfall numbed him. He could not bring himself to take the final step. Instead, he could only weep, and lament the loss to the world that his death would spell.

Then a letter arrived, borne by one of Phaon’s couriers.*7 Nero snatched it from the man’s hand. He read it, and as he did so, he turned paler still. The Senate had declared him a public enemy. No mercy was to be shown him. Senators, as though in honour of a time when there had been no Caesars to put them in the shade, had sentenced him to a death as antique as it was savage. He was to be stripped naked, yoked and led through the streets, and beaten to death with rods. Rather than suffer such a fate, Nero knew, he had no choice but to finish things off himself. He picked up a pair of daggers, tested their points, then put them down again. ‘The fatal hour,’ he cried out, ‘has still not come.’106

But it had. Even as he was instructing Sporus to mourn him as a wife properly should, by wailing and tearing at her hair and robes, he heard the sound of hoofbeats thundering towards the villa. Again, he reached for his dagger. This time, with the aid of a freedman, he summoned the courage to drive it into his throat. A centurion, rushing into the room, attempted to staunch the flow of blood with his cloak, but it was too late. ‘Such loyalty,’107 the dying man murmured; and then his eyes began to bulge horribly. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was dead.

And with him the entire dynasty of which he had been the last surviving member. Its extinction came as no surprise to those versed in the art of reading omens. In the villa once owned by Livia, in the laurel grove, stood four withered trees. Each one had been planted by a Caesar; and each one, shortly before the Caesar’s death, had died. Then, shortly before Nero’s suicide, the tree that he too had planted had begun to wither – and with it, from the roots up, the entire laurel grove. The chickens too, bred of the hen dropped miraculously into Livia’s lap, had all expired. The meaning could hardly have been any clearer. The line of the Caesars was destined to end with Nero – and so it had proved. To be sure, emperors would follow in his wake, and all would be graced with the title of Caesar. None of them, however, would rule as descendants of Augustus. Galba, too old, too stern and too mean to delight a people still half in love with Nero, did not last long; and sure enough, in January 69, beside the spot in the Forum where Marcus Curtius had once vanished into the abyss, he was hacked to death. Otho followed three months later; eight months after him, Vitellius. Three emperors had perished in the space of a year. In the end, it was left to Vespasian, back from the Jewish war, to establish himself as master of the world. More than that, he succeeded in founding a new dynasty. When he died in his bed a decade later, he was succeeded by his eldest son, who in turn was followed by his younger brother. Like Augustus and Claudius, Vespasian even ended up a god.

Never again, though, would the Roman people be ruled by emperors touched by the sheer mystique and potency that membership of the August Family had bestowed upon the heirs of Augustus. Nero, taking to the stage, had been right to recognise within himself the quality of myth. All his family had possessed it. The blood in their veins had been touched by the supernatural. The dynast who had healed the wounds of civil war, and planted in the midst of a king-hating people an impregnable and enduring autocracy, was justly reckoned a god. The name of Augustus would remain a sacred one for as long as there were men who wore the title of Caesar. It served as an assurance to humanity that a man midway between the earthly and the divine might indeed reign as a universal prince of peace, and ascend triumphant to heaven. Augustus, victorious over his enemies as no man in history had been, had triumphed eventually over death itself. So too had his heirs. Even Caligula had haunted the house where he was murdered, and the gardens where his body was burned. When Nero killed himself, and brought the bloodline of Augustus to extinction, many simply refused to believe it. Decades on, across the Roman world, people were convinced that he would come again. ‘Everybody wishes he were still alive.’108

Even those who had suffered most terribly at his hands, and had every reason to execrate his memory, could not help but acknowledge the charisma of the House of Caesar. Some three decades after Nero’s suicide, a Christian named John recorded a vision of the end days revealed to him by an angel. Out of the sea he had seen a seven-headed beast rise; ‘and one of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound’.109 What was the wound, so many who read John’s vision would wonder with dread, if not the sword blow to the throat with which Nero had ended his own life?*8 The wound, so the angel had revealed to John, was destined to be healed; and the beast, which ‘was, and is not’,110 would rise from the bottomless pit. On its back would ride a woman; and the woman would be ‘arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication’.111 Rarely before had the Rome ruled by the August Family been made to sound so glamorous.

‘What an artist perishes with me.’112 So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.

*1 Two ships were built on Caligula’s orders at Lake Nemi: the first seems to have been a floating palace, the second a floating temple. They were still afloat in Nero’s lifetime, but were then dispatched to the bed of the lake, where they remained for almost two thousand years. Recovered in 1929, they were destroyed in 1944 – though whether by American artillery fire, German arson or the cooking fires of Italian refugees has never been conclusively settled.

*2 There is an intriguing possibility that the bears which are described by the poet Calpurnius Siculus as savaging seals in Nero’s wooden amphitheatre might be polar bears. Tellingly, though, there is no mention of their fur being white, and so the balance of probability must sadly be against it.

*3 It is Suetonius (Nero: 18) who tells us this. Although he does not specify a date, it is evident from Nero’s determination to crush the insurrection in Britain that he would never have countenanced the province’s abandonment in the wake of Boudicca’s revolt.

*4 Suetonius. Claudius: 25.4. It is possible, indeed probable, that this is an allusion to arguments in Rome’s Jewish community about the claims to messianic status of Jesus. Chrestus, it is true, was a common name, particularly for slaves; but against that, there is no recorded instance of a Jew in Rome ever being called it. A number of scholars have suggested that Suetonius might have derived his information from a police report, and that ‘Chrestus’ is a mistransliteration of ‘Christus’ – Christ. The truth, though, is ultimately unknowable.

*5 According to St Jerome, the total number of Christians martyred by Nero was 979.

*6 All the ancient historians of antiquity whose work has survived take Nero’s guilt for granted, with the telling exception of Tacitus. ‘Whether the disaster was the result of accident or the criminality of the Princeps,’ he tells us, ‘is uncertain. There are historians who back both points of view.’ The same is true today – although with a substantial majority of historians inclined to exonerate Nero. The verdict I would deliver is one of ‘not proven’ – which is, under the circumstances, more than damning enough.

*7 An intriguing implication of this letter is that Phaon had tipped people off as to where he was going. The arrival of a death squad soon afterwards implies that agents of Galba would have been among them.

*8 Victorinus of Pettau, a bishop from Pannonia who was martyred in AD 303, was the first Christian writer to interpret the wound to the beast’s throat as an allusion to Nero’s suicide. The Geneva Bible comments on it: ‘This may be understood of Nero, who moved the first persecution against the Church, and after slew himself, so that the family of the Caesars ended in him.’

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!