Tag Archive: Nero


Vespasian was fortunate enough to have 2 sons, and he took steps to cement a new dynasty among Roman Emperors before his sudden death from illness in 79 AD. His oldest son, Titus, was actively groomed as his successor and even ruled with his dad in an unofficial role as co-emperor behind the scenes. Vespasian also left Titus to finish the work of defeating the Jewish revolt, seeing that is son would gain military glory. When Titus was finally emperor, many were convinced he would be the next Nero. Give credit to Titus though- his number 1 priority was to please the people and get on their good side, which he did in his 2 (yes, only 2 years) as Emperor. Two major disasters hit Rome  in those years. First, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the south. Second, another major fire swept the city and destroyed much of it. In both cases, Titus was quick to send disaster relief and begin rebuilding efforts. The massive Flavian amphitheater  (or Colosseum) which Vespasian ordered built, was completed and inaugurated with 100 strait days of games. In short order, Titus drained lots of funds but won the favor of Rome. Then, when all was going great, he died suddenly of illness at age 42, probably of malaria. All of Rome mourned, and in death Titus became something of a hero.

It should be said that these 2 Emperors remain enigmas. We know about them from the writings of Roman historians, but those are often tricky to take at face value. As each of the Emperors were glorified or reviled in death, the stories carry bias and it’s hard to know what is true. For instance, the horrible stories of Nero contain elements of truth based in real historical events,  but were written much later by historians who were out to discredit and demonize him. We must take this in mind whenever we study these figures. Titus certainly did a lot in only 2 years and went down among Romans as one of the great rulers, but it’s hard to say if he was really a decent ruler or not. The story of his successor Domitian, is one of the toughest to get to the bottom of. Over time, he has gone down in history with the likes of Caligula and Nero, but the evidence of his reign paints a more complex portrait then that of a tyrant.

Domitian was the younger son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, and since Titus didn’t have an heir he moved quick to make sure he was next in line. He was declared Emperor in 81 and began his 15 year rule in a difficult position. Many assumed that Domitian had poisoned his brother to get the throne, though there’s no evidence that he did. By all accounts, Domitian was a cold, power-hungry dictator. He saw no reason whatsoever to pretend (as his predecessors had) that the senate held any power over him, so he moved quickly to take total control. At the same time, he launched more huge building campaigns and wars on the empires outer borders. Historians paint him as unhappy, insecure and paranoid, always on the lookout for those wishing him harm. He had many prominent senators put to death or exiled. It’s never been proven, but some ancient sources say Domitian persecuted Jews and early Christians as well. In the end, he was assassinated as part of an elaborate plot. It goes without saying that the senate and other higher-ups hated Domitian for his abuses of power, but then, they also wrote the histories. For most Romans though, life was peaceful under Domitian. It would seem that for all his shortcomings, Domitian was an effective ruler who, for a time, maintained order and helped Rome to prosper.

He left his mark in Ancient Rome in the form of buildings. He restored temples in the forum after the fire of 80, and dedicated the huge arch of Titus to his late brother. Today, just west of the Colosseum and south of the Forum are the remains of the palace on the Palatine hill, the mythical hill in Rome where Romulus and Remus were nursed by the she-wolf and the location of Rome’s first settlement. Domitian had the hill leveled off and completely rebuilt with a 440,000 square foot palace overlooking the Circus Maximus on one side and the Forum on the other. It’s in pretty bad shape today, but you can still tell from the size of the foundation and wall fragments how enormous it was. The complex had many separate buildings and private residences, all painted with elaborate paintings and furnished with the finest stone from across the empire. A huge extension of the aqueduct was made to bring water directly to the palace. Domitian is said to have been so afraid of conspirators, that he had columns installed made of reflective white marble so he could always see behind him.

Domitian also built a great stadium of his own across town (as if Rome didn’t already have enough venues for chariot racing and gladiatorial fights). Today, one of Rome’s most famous Piazzas occupies the spot. The Piazza Navona, when viewed from the air, still has the elongated horseshoe shape of Domitian’s stadium. Here’s a model of what Domitian’s stadium looked like and Piazza Navona from the air:

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The year 69 was a bad one for Rome. Nero, the greatest abuser of imperial power and enemy of all of Rome, had finally killed himself. Rome rejoiced, but their celebration was short-lived. The year 69 came to be known as “The year of 4 Emperors”, because that’s what it was. It was a chaotic time of civil war as rival factions fought to place their candidate on the throne. Nero was the last in the line of the Julio-Claudian Emperors going back to Julius Caesar, and he produced no heir. Lots of differing opinions arose about who should fill his shoes and what kinds of reforms should be made to ensure that there wasn’t another Nero. The first of the 4 was GALBA, who was already 70 years old. He made the huge mistake of taking hard and unapologetic stances right away to erase Nero, including canceling benefits to important Romans and members of the military. This didn’t go over well. OTHO was among those in power when Galba was assassinated after only 7 months.

The problem with Otho was the northern armies had chosen VITELLIUS, and they began to march towards Rome to make him the Emperor. Otho had a force too, there was a battle, and in defeat Otho killed himself (after only 3 months as Emperor). Vitellius faced a similar problem when the huge eastern armies declared their commander VESPASIAN emperor and also marched on Rome. Vitellius was killed too (after 8 months as Emperor), and finally, after a year of intense back and forth fighting and extreme uncertainty, Rome had a leader.

Vespasian was 60 years old in 69AD, and was a natural fit. He was a strong military commander and when he discovered he was Emperor, he was in Judea (modern-day Israel) suppressing the great Jewish Revolt. Vespasian’s story is one that also fits into Biblical History. In the time of Christ, there were those in Judea planning a revolution against the Romans. In the year 70, Jerusalem finally fell in what remains the greatest of defeats in Judaism. The city was burned to the ground, and the Holy Temple was completely destroyed. The Romans were fed up with Judea- for too long the Jews had been resistant to their control and they unleashed everything they had to stop the revolt. Few were spared. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus claimed that 1,100,000 died in the siege of the city. Vespasian had already left for Rome to begin his reign as Emperor, and he left his son Titus in charge. Today, directly across from the coliseum in Rome, there is a large arch called “The Arch of Titus”. It was built to commemorate and celebrate Roman victory in Judea.

Today, you can see this sculpture on the inside of the arch:

The panel shows the soldiers marching back into the city with the spoils of war, including all the riches from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (notice the giant menorah).

Vespasian ruled 10 years before dying quite suddenly of illness, and was succeeded by his sons Titus and Domitian in what is now known as the Flavian dynasty. Though Vespasian was older, he came from a middle class family and represented a new attitude towards the Emperor. He was determined to provide stability to Rome after years of corruption and civil war, and he did it through military campaigns, taxation and financial reform, and like any good Caesar, by building grand new buildings in Rome to cement his legacy. Nero’s Domus Aurea (golden house) was altered, and an enormous new structure began building on the site of his man-made lake. It wouldn’t be finished till after Vespasian’s death during the reigns of his sons, but it would become the greatest of all ancient Roman buildings. Positioned directly across from the colossal golden statue Nero had built, the Flavian amphitheater, or Coliseum, remains the greatest legacy of Vespasian. I’ll have lots more on that later…

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.

When Augustus became the first emperor and instituted a system that would pass power to his heirs, he could never have imagined how bad things would get. When he died in 14 AD without a male heir, his stepson Tiberius became Emperor. He tried to do what Augustus had done in balancing power with the senate, but wasn’t nearly as good as it. A dark and detached person, he spent much of his time away from Rome, lounging in his private villa while Rome faced many problems. Legendary tales were written of his debauchery and excesses. Over time much resentment grew over his abuses of power, to the point where he put many Romans on trial for treason, seized their property and had them executed. The most important event to happen during his reign was unknown to him. Jesus was crucified in the province of Judea, and eventually his followers would grow and forever change the Roman Empire and the world. When Tiberius died after 20+ years as Emperor, Romans rejoiced. They had no idea of the terror that was coming.

His grand-nephew Caligula became Emperor at 24 years old. He ruled for less than 4 years, but became one of the most infamous tyrants the world has ever seen. At first, things started out great. The son of a war hero, he was initially seen as a savior by Romans. He promised to forget the trials Tiberius had ordered and work with the senate. He commissioned some ambitious building projects and increased his own power before exhibiting some truly bizarre behavior after a year or 2. Nearly all the ancient historians tell of his cruelty, perversion and appetite for extravagance. He was probably also insane. Because he was so loathed by all of Rome, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Many stories of his life have been exaggerated or fabricated to defame and devalue Caligula’s name. The most famous story about him is that he named his horse a council (important senate official). While this is debatable, he did dine with the horse and fed it golden barley, and the horse did have a marble stall, ivory manger, and a collar of jewels. Many other things about Caligula are not up for debate- he was one bad dude for sure- and if even a fraction of the stories about him are true than he was evil enough.

Aside from being mad with power, killing off his mother and brothers and his political rivals, marrying his sisters, and turning the palace into a brothel he was also most likely insane. All great Emperors were also supposed to be great military leaders, so Caligula led a huge army north to conquer Britain. WHen they reached the English channel, he ordered his soldiers to attack the seashore and pick up as many sea shells as they could before returning home. He also proclaimed himself an actual God, and asked to be worshiped as one. He ordered a giant statue of himself placed in the temple in Jerusalem, an act which only made the violence in Judea even worse. Before the statue was done, Caligula was assassinated by his own guard. His statues were torn down, his name defamed, and Rome plunged into chaos. His assassins attempted to overthrow the government and turn Rome back into a Republic.

As the only blood heir, Caligula’s uncle Claudius quashed the rebellion and took power. He was un unlikely candidate and 50 when he became Emperor, but over the next years he returned at least a little stability to the empire. He led military campaigns and conquered Britain and North Africa, and built 2 mighty aqueducts that led water to Rome. Most of his family had been killed, so after a few failed marriages he married his niece Agrippina. This was a fateful mistake. Agrippina had one goal in marrying her uncle: to place her own son, Nero, on the throne. She convinced him to adopt Nero as his step-son. When Claudius became ill, she took the opportunity to poison him, and when that failed she poisoned him again. Nero became the emperor, and brought about a legendary reign of terror on Rome.

So why does any of this matter? Well, for one, the Emperors of the 1st century are an extreme character study on the dangers of absolute power. They used that power to make huge advances in architecture while building ancient Rome. Far more importantly, their rule co-exists with the rise of Christianity. When you understand how twisted Ancient Rome and it’s rulers were, the radical counter-message of love and servanthood found in Christianity becomes that much more apparent. Could anything be more opposite from the lives of these emperors than Jesus when he says, “the greatest among you must be a servant”? No wonder the good news of Jesus spread like a wildfire. I think today, 2,000 years later, it’s easy for us to lose sight of that radical message of love. Understanding the worst of ancient Rome gives us a context for the New Testament and a faith that eventually conquered Rome itself.