Nero (born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, 15 December 37 9 June 68 AD) was a notorious Roman Emperor and among Augustus, Caligula, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Constantine the Great is one of the most famous. Note that much of his infamy - similarly to Tiberius and Domitian - is handed down to us by how much the elite of ancient times hated him. In particular, the fact Nero loved to strum his lyre, host grand parties, and pined to become a gladiator was altogether against the morals of the kind of people who recorded history at the time. Further to this, he became one of Christianity's earliest and most infamous villains. It's worth bearing in mind when reading about how apparently despicable he was.
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 AD Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina, making Nero his successor. As emperor, Nero immediately made sure nobody stood in his way. He poisoned his adoptive and step 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.
Nero's death would kick off the Year of the Four Emperors, the first civil war of the Roman Empire in which four Emperors ruled in succession: Galba, who ruled for just one year, Otho and Vitellius, who didn't make it past even one year, and Vespasian, who would rule the empire for a decade, establish the Flavian Dynasty of Roman emperors and is credited with bringing political stability to Rome following the chaotic reigns of his predecessors.
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 accounts the guy was cruel, unhinged, and dangerously power-hungry, but several of the stories about him are certainly false.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Adapted Out: His tigress Phoebe never appears in fiction. The fascination with the Great Fire of Rome, which happened during his reign, more than fascination with Nero himself might be a reason.
- 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 (or that the people he was actually sending the letter to would understand the code he was speaking in). 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.
- Beard of Evil: He had a neckbeardnote , and he was at least a ruthless emperor who is often subject to Historical Villain Upgrade in fiction.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: Nero thought he was going to be arrested and executed by the Senate, so he committed suicide. He was the first emperor to do.
- Cain and Abel: Took out his step-brother early, with his mother using him as potential blackmail. Later he would have his step-sister and former wife Claudia Octavia killed.
- The Caligula: One of the most famous examples of this trope of all time. Whilst his overall wickedness is often exaggerated, Nero really was off his rocker. Notably, he was also the nephew to the actual Caligula himself.
- A Child Shall Lead Them: The first teenage Roman Emperor, and it wouldn't be until Elagabalus almost 200 years later until there was another one. He was chosen over the emperor's biological heir since he was considered just old enough to be able to rule.
- Clean Food, Poisoned Fork: Had his step-brother and potential rival Britannicus poisoned despite his food being checked by a food taster. Instead of poisoning the wine he was drinking, the assassin added the poison to the water used to cool the wine after Britannicus felt it was too hot.
- Depraved Bisexual: How he's portrayed when under a Historical Villain Upgrade. He was historically bisexual, but most stories of sexual depravity were probably made up.
- Evil Matriarch: His mother Agrippina the Younger is typically depicted as this, likely having killed his predecessor and wanting to rule through him. There were even rumours of them having a sexual relationship.
- False Flag Operation: Both at the time and later he was blamed for starting the Fire of Rome to justify his rebuilding process, and these accusations led to him scapegoating the Christians to quell said accusations. In reality he was almost certainly innocent and the fire was almost certainly a genuine accident, but some of his behavior afterwards gave credence to the theory.
- Gender Bender: in the Fate series, Nero is a blonde, sword-wielding woman. She is immensely popular. How popular? Do a Google image search for Nero Claudius, you;'ll get more than a dozen pictures of the Fate Nero before you get to one of the actual emperor.
- 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 he was supposedly so unpopular.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Nero's first mistress, a former slave named Acte. Tacitus depicted her as someone "without harm to any one," in contrast to the well-born but amoral Poppaea. Even after their relationship ended, she was one of the few people who gave him Due to the Dead. It later became popular Fanon that she was secretly Christian.
- 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)
- Last of Their Kind: The last member of the original Julio-Claudian dynasty to hold power, with his death leading to civil war.
- 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.
- Matricide: He ordered the murder of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, in 59. He defended his actions by saying she would've plotted his death first (not too implausible given earlier she tried blackmailing him with potentially having his step-brother replace him as emperor), and his motives are generally thought to have been hating her for being controlling and disagreeing about his love life.
- 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.
- Mother Makes You King: His mother more or less engineered his rise to power by marrying Claudius, convincing him to be his heir as his biological son Britannicus was considered too young at the time to rule if he died. Most historians believe she killed him shortly afterwards so he wouldn't change his mind. Unfortunately for her she and Nero would have a falling out and eventually led to him committing matricide.
- 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.note
- Not Blood Siblings: His first wife was his step-sister(and cousin-once-removed) Claudia Octavia. While popular Nero hated being marrying to her and eventually managed to divorce her.
- Not Helping Your Case: While Nero is almost certainly innocent of the Fire of Rome, the fact he used it as a way to establish his own personal buildings and designs fueled accusations he started it to pull a Let No Crisis Go to Waste.
- Outliving One's Offspring: His only issue died as an infant, and his wife died while pregnant, leaving Nero no heir to continue the Julio-Claudian line.
- 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).
- Remarried to the Mistress: Never liked his marriage to Claudia and took his friend/future emperor Otho's wife Poppaea Sabina as a mistress, eventually divorcing Claudia under false charges of adultery and making Otho divorce Poppaea. She probably died of a fatal miscarriage or stillbirth (or because he kicked her in a fit of rage according to anti-Nero historians).
- Replacement Goldfish: Said to have castrated and "married" a boy who resembled Poppaea Sabina, and sometimes called him by her name.
- The Scapegoat: He made early Christians the scapegoat for the Fire of Rome, probably to prevent people blaming him for it. The first Christian persecutions were under him, which contributed to his Historical Villain Upgrade by Christian writers and is why a number of theologians believe he was the reference for the Number of the Beast and possibly meant to represent the Beast of Revelations.
- However, Australian novelist Stephen Dando-Collins boldly claims in his totally accurate book on the Great Fire of Rome that the people persecuted were not Christians, but worshippers of the goddess Isis.note Never mind that Isis was reasonably popular in Roman times, and therefore her cult did not die out until the rise of Christianity in the 4th century.
- Screw Destiny: According to the Talmud, he learned that he was fated to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem and then be destroyed in turn, whereupon he fled and became the ancestor of Rabbi Meir.
- 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. Tacitus (who lived when it happened but was eight at the time and thus might not be the most reliable source), 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:
- In Hetalia: Axis Powers, he is portrayed sympathetically early in his reign as a teenager whose controlling mother attempts to repress his artistic dreams.
- As mentioned below, Nero appears as a genderbent Saber servant in the Fate/EXTRA Last Encore original anime based on the Fate/EXTRA video game.
- He's a major character in the manga Plinivs by Thermae Romae author Mari Yamazaki where he's given a very nuanced portrayal being both sympathetic and detestable.
- 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.
- Alan Ford, in The Pyromaniac, a mysterious pyromaniac (actually a duo of disgruntled former circus artists called Asb and Estos) signs him(them)self as "Nero". Number One goes on to narrate the Group the story of Nero and the fire of Rome: Nero is portrayed as a Fat Bastard quite similar to the statue above in face and a Dreadful Musician whose government risks bankruptcy because of the costs of donkey milk for Poppea's baths. It's also revealed that it was Number One who persuaded him to burn Rome as a backstage for his concert (at least he tipped off the inhabitants first).
- In Sensation Comics #39, Wonder Woman encounters a lost Roman colony ruled a descendant of Nero who is just as decadent as his ancestor.
- 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.
- In The Rescuers, one of Madame Medusa's two alligators is named Nero
- He was played by Peter Ustinov in the 1951 adaptation of Quo Vadis.
- Portrayed by Gino Cervi in the 1953 Italian film Nero and the Burning of Rome.
- Though he doesn't appear onscreen, he's frequently mentioned as the Greater-Scope Villain in Paul, Apostle of Christ, set during the emperor's persecution of Christians after the fire.
- 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.
- Klaus Maria Brandauer portrayed him in the 1985 European TV Mini Series adaptation of Quo Vadis.
- 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.
- 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 is part of the Big Bad Ensemble of Ryse: Son of Rome.
- Hark! A Vagrant: In "Nero and Agrippina" Agrippina haunts Nero for killing her, and tells him to get rid of his neckbeard.
- Nero appears in the webcomic side of Hetalia: Axis Powers 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.
- He appeared in The Storykeepers, which is set in 64AD. He serves as the Big Bad behind the persecution of the Christians.
- Animaniacs (2020): In the segment Rome, Sweet Rome, Nero is portrayed as a Trumplica. He breaks into a Major General Song which is later joined by the Warners, describing things about Nero that also apply to Donald Trump, but then they mention golf sabbaticals and tweets, causing Yakko to question if theyre still talking about Nero. The episode has him playing a fiddle but does comment that the fiddle hadn't been invented then.
- The popular disk authoring software Nero Burning ROM (made by Germans, who spell Rome that way), whose icon is even the Coliseumnote on fire.