There’s no doubt about it- Emperor Nero, the last in the bloodline of “the divine” Augustus, was certainly among the most diabolically evil tyrants of all time. He grew up idolizing Caligula, who most Romans figured was as bad as an Emperor could be. Caligula was certainly bad, but also crazy. Nero was just plain evil, and he used his unlimited power in horrific ways. By the time he was forced to commit suicide (which he did while lamenting, “what an artist dies in me”) he had bankrupted Rome, killed off all his family members and pretty much everyone else in prominent government standing, and ruthlessly persecuted Christians.
Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was a woman willing to anything to have power. As a woman she couldn’t become Emperor, but her son could, so she married Emperor Claudius (even though he was her uncle), convinced him to adopt her son Nero as his heir, and then poisoned him. She was very much the puppeteer behind her son and his early reign as Emperor. Eventually, Nero grew tired of her influence and had her killed.
There are many crazy stories about Nero and his abuse of power, but none more important than his actions surrounding the great fire of 64. Rome burst into flames, and over 6 days most of the city burnt to the ground. Word spread quickly that Nero had fiddled (or played his lyre) as he watched Rome burn. Historians say that he sang a song about the fall of Troy, and through he probably wasn’t rejoicing at the fire, his image took a huge hit. To deflect the criticism after the fire, he blamed the Christians in Rome. They were an easy scapegoat. To Romans, they followed a common criminal who was killed by Rome, and they “drank the blood and ate the body” of Jesus. It was understandable that they were sometimes seen as cannibals. The first great persecution was a result. Christians were dressed in animal skins and fed to lions for sport, and crucified and burned as human torches. Sometime during this persecution, the apostles Peter and Paul also met their ends. According to tradition, Peter was killed in the circus of Nero and crucified upside down, while Paul, as a roman citizen, was beheaded. St. Peters basilica was built over Nero’s circus on the spot of Peter’s crypt, which became a place for early Christians to gather. Here’s a map that shows the foundations of Nero’s chariot track, the original St. Peters, and the basilica as it is today:
Nero’s excesses are legendary. In the aftermath of the fire, he took a large area of burnt Rome and transformed it into an enormous golden palace for himself, called the Domus Aurea. When Nero built it, there was a huge backlash. Romans came to believe that Nero himself had started the great fire in order to clear the city for his own palace. The Domus Aurea included hundreds of decorated rooms, large courtyards, a man-made lake with a floating palace in the middle, and a 120 foot high colossal golden statue of Nero as the sun-god (The colossal statue led to the much later naming of the building to be built in it’s place, the Coliseum). After Nero was dead, those in power attempted to eradicate all traces of him by altering his statues and buildings. They filled in his lake at the Domus Aurea, and eventually built the greatest of all Roman buildings on the site: the Flavian amphitheater, or Coliseum. Much of the Domus Area is still there, with many underground rooms exquisitely painted. It was only recently opened to tours in the last few years, but in 2010 torrential rains caused the cave in of a huge vaulted ceiling, causing destruction and the closing of the Domus Aurea for the foreseeable future.