He was adopted by Emperor Claudius on behalf of his new wife Agrippina The Younger, who was Nero's mother (and Caligula's sister). In 54 AC Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina, making Nero his successor. As emperor Nero immediately made sure nobody stood in his way. He poisoned his brother Britannicus in 55 AD, ordered the execution of his first wife Claudia Octavia and in 59 AD even the woman who placed him on his throne: mother Agrippina. In 65, he beat his second wife Poppaea to death while she was pregnant with their child.
Nero's early reign was decent, but after five years he started to become more preoccupied with leading a decadent life. He drank and ate a lot and immersed himself in perverted sexual behaviour, both with men and women. The emperor fancied himself a wonderful poet, singer and lyricist, so much even that he supposedly played the lyre during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and even lit the city on fire personally.note After the disaster Nero ordered the construction of a large palace, the Domus Aurea ("Golden House") on the destructed area of Rome, with a 40 meter high statue of himself. Nero also persecuted Christians and blamed them for the Great Fire. He had many of them tied up on poles next the road, then covered in tar and set on fire, so they could function as street lighting during parties.
Naturally, all this debauchery and cruelty didn't make him very popular with the citizens. As early as 62 AD a conspiracy was plotted against him, but he found out three years later and had all those involved executed. By 68 AD Rome was in chaos, nearly bankrupt and threatened by foreign invasions. All stuff Nero didn't care about. The Senate intervened, ousted him by coup and ordered his arrest. To avoid this Nero committed suicide, aided by his trusty servant. The 40 meter high statue of himself was renovated into one dedicated to the Sun God.
After Nero's death his name lived on in infamy, not least because everyone at the time not in his personal circle absolutely hated him. The aristocratic pagan writers of his day and the subsequent centuries loathed him for his affronts to Roman dignity—particularly his love of acting and the stage, seen as low pursuits—and the Christians who took charge 300 years later identified him with evil on account of his persecutions of the early Christians.note He is still seen as the prime example of a bad and mad emperor, while at the same being perhaps the most famous Roman emperor to the general public (save perhaps Augustus). More recent historians have started to doubt whether Nero's reputation wasn't just the result of some serious badmouthing. By all means the guy was cruel, unhinged, and dangerously power-hungry, but several of the stories about him are certainly false.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- The Antichrist: In the Book of Revelation, the author St. John of Patmos states that the Number of the Beast is 666 (or possibly 616, depending on the translation), and that learned men can use it to figure out the name of the guy he is talking about. Many biblical scholars are in agreement that this is code (in Hebrew gematria and / or Greek isopsephy) for Nero, though there is some puzzlement about this as Revelation was likely written after the death of Nero. Some believe it refers to the then-reigning Emperor Domitian, who was considered to be depraved and acting like Nero by his critics, others that it refers to the conspiracy belief that Nero was actually still alive somewhere and might return. Incidentally, Nero was the guy who exiled St. John to Patmos, which is another reason for thinking he was talking about him.
- Back from the Dead: After Nero's suicide in 68, there was a widespread belief, especially in the eastern provinces, that he was not dead and somehow would return. This belief came to be known as the Nero Redivivus Legend.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: Nero thought he was going to be arrested and executed by the Senate, so he committed suicide.
- Famous Last Words:
- Qualis artifex pereo ("What an artist dies in me").
- Alternately, Sero, haec est fides ("Too late. This is fidelity").
- Historical Villain Upgrade: One of the real classic cases. He may have been a bad guy in many regards, but he wasn't remotely as evil as movies like Quo Vadis and Sign Of The Cross depict him. Tacitus mentions that Nero actually was quite active in providing good fire relief measures to the poor. Mary Beard also noted that in the Year of the Four Emperors of 68 CE, there were many people who claimed to be "Nero", which does make one wonder why anyone would want to claim to be Nero returned to life, if the man was so unpopular.
- King Incognito: According to Tacitus, he liked to explore Rome as a common man.
Nero, [...] in a slave's disguise, so as to be unrecognized, would wander through the streets of Rome, to brothels and taverns, with comrades, who seized on goods exposed for sale and inflicted wounds on any whom they encountered, some of these last knowing him so little that he even received blows himself, and showed the marks of them in his face. (Tacitus, The Annals, 13, 25)
- Let the Bully Win: Nero won every contest when he participated in the Olympics in 67. Even if he was thrown from his chariot, he won the race. It seems he was the only one surprised.
- Lonely Funeral: He was buried by a former mistress and two of his old nursemaids.
- Mister Seahorse: In the medieval Golden Legend, he demanded to experience pregnancy and childbirth. His physicians, under threat of death, tricked him into swallowing and then throwing up a live frog which they passed off as a premature baby.
- My Beloved Smother: His mother Agrippina is generally portrayed as very controlling, if not just straight-up incestuous (due to accusations leveled at her by Tacitus after her death), explaining why he eventually kills her.
- The Performer King: He sang and acted on the stage, and also competed in gladiator races. Many old-school upper-crust Romans disapproved, believing that Nero was undermining the dignity of his office. Pliny even called him an "actor-emperor".
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Went into history for supposedly setting fire to Rome himself, while playing the fiddle afterwards. The fact that he set the town on fire is disputed nowadays, while "to fiddle" means "to waste to your time playing around", and doesn't mean that he actually played the fiddle (an instrument that wouldn't be invented for centuries).
- Replacement Goldfish: Said to have castrated and "married" a boy who resembled Poppaea Sabina, and sometimes called him by her name.
- Self-Made Orphan: He ordered the murder of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, in 59.
- While Rome Burns: The most famous urban legend about him. Supposedly, he (at best) played his fiddle during the Great Fire of Rome (or just "fiddled about", ie. was slow to act), or (at worst) burned the city on purpose. In reality, Nero never did any of this, and did everything he could to help the homeless victims of the fire. The most reliable source on the fire, Tacitus (who lived when it happened), states that Nero rushed back to the city to oversee the relief efforts, paying out of his own pockets quite generously. He did benefit from it, though, building a new set of buildings on the place where the fire had been, which probably contributed to the suspicion that he did this on purpose.
Appearances in popular culture:
- Salvador Dalí painted him on a canvas entitled "Dematerialization Near the Nose of Nero" (1949).
- Suske en Wiske: Cast as the villain in the album Het Geheim van de Gladiatoren ("The Secret of the Gladiators").
- Asterix: In Asterix and the Secret Weapon Cacofonix leaves the Gauls' village and says: "Qualis artifex pereo" ("A great artist leaves with me"). This is a Shout-Out to Nero's Last Words before he committed suicide.
- Green Lantern: Alex Nero, Mad Artist and one time wielder of the Qwardian yellow power ring.
- The demon lord Neron from The DCU. The numerological ties to "666" are pointed out.
- He appears in the 2000 AD comic Aquila as the main villain of the second major arc. He's pretty straightforwardly The Caligula, but he also dabbles in The Dark Arts with his witch consort Locusta.
- One of the two protagonist of Murena, the other being the fictional Lucius Murena. In this series, he's portrayed as a Tragic Villain who became worse as a result of all the manipulations his mother and his entourage did on him.
- DC Comics has Nero Fox, a Golden Age Funny Animal character who starred in his own series in Leading Comics (replacing the Seven Soldiers Of Victory). His feature was billed as "the jive-jumping emperor of ancient Rome," since he was obsessed with playing (badly) anachronistic jazz/swing music on his saxophone. Nero Fox reappeared in the 1980s Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! series during a time-travel storyline.
- The title character, Nero, is based on him. The series Nero was originally called The Adventures Of Detective Van Zwam. In the first album Het Geheim van Matsuoka (The Secret of Matsuoka) Detective Van Zwam meets a man who has drank a serum that makes people insane and now thinks he's Emperor Nero. Later the character gets his sanity back and is revealed to be Mr. Heiremans (an Inside Joke on behalf of the creator, referring to a personal colleague of him who was named Heiremans). Sleen had intended Heiremans to remain an one-off character, but the newspaper readers liked him so much that he became a regular in the series and even became the main protagonist instead of Van Zwam. Strange enough everybody kept calling him Nero from then on, despite the fact that he no longer thought he was the eponymous Roman emperor. Even his wife is referred to as Madame Nero. The only hint referring to the time he thought he was Nero are the laurel leaves behind his ears. Especially in Flanders, Belgium, more people will likely think of Nero as this comic book character than the Roman Emperor.
- Nero actually met Emperor Nero in De Rode Keizer ("The Red Emperor"), in which he, Petoetje, Petatje and Madam Pheip use Time Travel to go back to The Roman Empire. Of course, some Criminal Doppelgänger confusion evolves. Emperor Nero is shown as an Ax-Crazy jerk and is, of course, furious to see Nero claim that he is the real Nero. He tries to have Nero executed in the Colosseum, but he manages to escape. The emperor then decides to burn Rome so that the impostor will be burnt too. Naturally a Roman legionary confuses the emperor with the real Nero and cuts off his head. As he brings the chopped off head to the palace he realizes he made a big mistake. Nero is then brought in and has to act as Emperor Nero in his place. At first Nero likes playing the part of his historical namesake, but the Roman people don't like the fact that he abolishes the gladiator games and start to revolt, which causes them to flee back to the time machine and his own time.
- He plays an important part in Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1895 novel Quo Vadis.
- One of the Big Bads of The Trials of Apollo. In it the old belief that Roman Emperors became gods upon death is true, though he apparently nearly vanished during the dark ages. Is very annoyed when people suggest that he played a fiddle while Rome burned, as they did not exist back then.
- Portrayed in I, Claudius as a rather creepy, spoiled mama's boy with an unhealthy attraction to fire.
- A TV miniseries was made about him, simply called Nero.
- Doctor Who: The Doctor met Emperor Nero in the episode The Romans and inadvertently inspired him to burn down Rome.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In the Musical Episode Sweet sings that he gave Nero his very first fiddle, implying that he's responsible for the Great Fire of Rome and the Temporal Paradox caused by introducing a musical instrument centuries before it was invented.
- According to Grimm, Nero hired an Excandesco to start the Great Fire of Rome so as to kill Christians in the city.
- In the 2003 Riverworld adaptation, he is one of the many people resurrected by the river. He at first introduces himself as Lucius Domitus Ahenobarbus and pretends to help the protagonists, but then he kills a local warlord, takes control of his men, and becomes the Big Bad.
- His Narcissistic aspirations as a singer and actor are depicted in an episode of History Bites, wherein David Letterman has an interview with him. The show is sure to point out that Nero could not have caused the Great Fire of Rome, as he was in Anzio at the time.
- Bob Dylan mentions him in Desolation Row.
- The playable Saber in Fate/EXTRA is a genderflipped Nero. This version of Nero uses one of the more charitable common interpretations. While an Attention Whore and very arrogant, she apparently intended well and was very popular with the common people but not the nobles. The persecution of Christians is acknowledged but brushed aside as unfortunate but apparently not that big of a deal, likely because the target audience wouldn't be too concerned about the history of a foreign religion. This, plus her less sympathetic acts, are attributed to chronic hysteria caused by Agrippina poisoning her since she was a child; Nero, however, does not let this excuse her actions, resolving to act more heroic in her second life as a Servant.
- Wilhelm from Xenosaga is implied to have been Nero or Tiberius.
- Nero appears in the webcomic side of Axis Powers Hetalia as someone under his mother Agrippina's command and who is interested in Greek arts and culture, much to the chagrin of his mother.
- Cthoogha called Nero her 'best groupie ever' in The Unspeakable Vault (of Doom), in which his summoning of her caused the burning of Rome.
- In the Looney Tunes cartoon Roman Legion-Hare Yosemite Sam is ordered by Emperor Nero to find a victim to be tossed to the lions. Sam tries to catch Bugs Bunny, but in the end he and Nero are chased by a group of lions themselves and flee to the top of a pillar. As the lions start kicking each stone of the pillar away one by one Nero starts playing the fiddle, in a parody of the band on board of the RMS Titanic. An extra joke is that Nero's face is a caricature of Charles Laughton, who played Nero in The Sign of the Cross.
- He appeared on Peabody and Sherman's segment of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but this was a subversion, where he was portrayed as Not Evil, Just Misunderstood. In this reality, it was actually Nero's music teacher who started the fire.
- Nero appears in an episode of Garfield and Friends, where Garfield tells the story of the cat who invented lasagna. In the story, Nero is depicted as a Villainous Glutton who imprisons (or in some cases, executes) bad chefs. When the cat's owner (the cat and the owner being Expys of Garfield and Jon) is thrown in prison, the cat appeals to the Emperor's appetite, claiming Jon is an excellent chef (even though he isn't) which persuades the Emperor to give him a chance. The cat's idea is that cats and emperors are very much alike, lazy, greedy people who like to be waited on, so he figured the Emperor would like what he likes, and directs his owner to make what is eventually called lasagna. It works; the Emperor loves it, and pardons the man.
- One of Medusa's crocodiles in The Rescuers is named afer Nero.
- He appeared in The Storykeepers, which is set in 64AD.
- The popular disk authoring software Nero Burning ROM (made by Germans, who spell Rome that way), whose icon is even the Coliseumnote on fire.