Although a patron of the arts, his reign is remembered as one indicative of the decadence and eventual fall of Rome—the emperor who "fiddled while Rome burned" and possibly one referenced in the New Testament’s Revelation.
Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus during the reign of the emperor Caligula, his maternal uncle. Caligula expected to have sons to succeed him, but despite his sexual misadventures (all three of his sisters were reputed to have been among his lovers) that did not occur.
Instead, Claudius, uncle of Caligula and Lucius’s mother, Agrippina—and a disabled stutterer who had never been considered a likely emperor—succeeded Caligula after the emperor’s assassination. Claudius adopted Lucius, who was older than his natural children and became heir by default. In order to better ensure an adult heir, Lucius was made a legal adult at a younger age than most children.
He married Claudius’s daughter Octavia a year before the emperor’s death, a death with which he was in some way involved. He repudiated Claudius after his death, declaring him insane and incompetent, and frequently praised mushrooms, the poison which had killed him.
The ultimate cause of Claudius’s death was probably a conspiracy involving Agrippina and several of the emperor’s servants, and its goal may have been to put Nero on the throne before someone else could be named heir.
Only 17 years old when he ascended to the throne, Nero most likely deferred to Agrippina in the early years of his reign, as may have been her intent. He continued to be tutored by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), the Stoic philosopher and playwright. These first five years of Nero’s reign, the Quinquennium Neronis, were uneventful.
With Claudius’s son Britannicus approaching the age of adulthood and Nero’s advisers jockeying for position, the stability of Nero’s reign began to fray. Brittanicus died suddenly, most likely of poison.
Aggripina died four years later, the victim of another of the many conspiracies in Nero’s life. Nero began to surround himself with people of his own choosing rather than the tutors and advisers of his childhood.
According to the historian Suetonius, Nero attempted to kill his mother numerous times, finally charging her with participation in a plot to kill him, having her executed, and claiming that she had committed suicide out of guilt.
Nero executed many more of his relatives, on one pretense or another. Otho was sent away, and when his mistress Poppaea became pregnant, he divorced Octavia and married her 12 days later. Octavia was sent to an island in exile and was later executed.
Though his matricide had harmed his relationship with the Senate, nothing would jeopardize his popularity as much as the Great Fire of Rome. In 64 c.e. a fire began in the Circus Maximus on July 18 and spread quickly throughout residential areas.
The fire continued for six days, and even once under control it reignited and burned for another three days. At its worst the fire was hot enough to melt the metal nails used in construction. Most of Rome was destroyed—about three-quarters of the city. There are no indications as to a cause, but large-scale accidental urban fires were not uncommon.
Early historians were the first to recount the rumor that Nero "fiddled while Rome burned", reading poetry about the fall of Troy while playing the lyre, but this was almost certainly only a reflection of Nero’s unpopu larity.
Needing a scapegoat of some kind, Nero blamed the Christians, which was then a small minority sect only a generation removed from Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth. Many were crucified, others sent to fight lions in the gladiatorial arenas.
Christian tradition holds that he also ordered the deaths of the disciple Peter and Paul of Tarsus. With public opinion of Nero plummeting and ill will against the emperor still present in the Senate, Gaius Calpurnius Piso and several senators conspired to have Nero assassinated and for Piso to take the throne.
The conspiracy was wildly unsuccessful, and its members were ordered to commit suicide, including Seneca. A year later, even Poppaea was a victim of the emperor when he kicked her to death during a quarrel. Poppaea died pregnant, having previously given birth to a daughter who died in infancy.
Nero was left with neither wife nor heir. An increasingly irate Senate deposed him within two years. Nero committed suicide on June 9, 68 c.e. His last words were "Hoc est fides" ("This is faithfulness!"), spoken in praise of the Roman centurion arriving to arrest him.