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Nero was emperor of Rome at just 16. Which of us would have done better?

At 16, Nero was given the world, but he didn’t want to rule, he just wanted to perform. Has history judged him harshly?

Nero

Illustration: Chris Bentham

When people think of Rome, images flash into the mind. Julius Caesar? No paintings remain, just statues – and the Asterix books. We have an image of a stern, wiry man aged about 50, wearing a wreath.

The truth is trickier. Caesar went bald fairly early on, though he made sure all his statues had hair. Otherwise, the image is about right. His name, pronounced ‘ka-azer’, came to mean ‘king’ in nations as far apart as the czars of Russia or kaisers in Germany.

After Julius came his great-nephew, Octavian, known as Augustus. He ruled for 50 years and made an adopted son emperor after him: Tiberius – the Jimmy Savile of ancient Rome. I always thought giving Star Trek’s Captain Kirk the middle name of ‘Tiberius’ was a bit odd. It’s like calling your hero ‘John Hitler Jones’. The details of Tiberius’ death are tricky to pin down, but he was probably smothered in his own rooms.

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Julius, Augustus, Tiberius… Caligula, real name Gaius Caesar. ‘Caligula’ meant little boot, for the miniature legionary uniform he wore as a kid. Caligula spent time on Capri with Tiberius – and returned so damaged that he terrified Rome. 

He ruled for just four years, with such savagery it left a stain on history. Do we have an image for him in our minds? I think so. A young and cruel face, with large eyes.

When Caligula’s guards finally stabbed him to death, they made his uncle Claudius emperor. He was a safe choice, a scholar with a stutter. Oh, Claudius killed a few who had mocked him, but nothing like Caligula’s excesses. Claudius invaded Britain, divorced his first wife and married… a woman who would destroy him.

Agrippina was Caligula’s sister. She already had a son, after a violent first marriage of her own. 

Agrippina persuaded Claudius to adopt her son as his heir – and when he changed his mind, the emperor suddenly died of poison. Bad luck, really.

It meant Agrippina’s son would be emperor – taking the name Nero. She thought she could rule through him, that he would obey her. Mothers of teen boys will all know how very, very wrong she was.

At 16, Nero was given the world. He loved chariot racing and gladiators. He also loved acting, poetry and music, winning prizes at the Olympics. He didn’t want to rule! He just wanted to perform. His tutors hated the idea. Yet like his ancestor Julius, the people loved Nero. It might have been because he was insanely generous. He drove the senate mad with his spending and wild ideas.

There were crises and struggles, certainly. Nero became convinced his mother was moving against him. She probably was, but his plan for a boat with a trick deck to drown her is like something a Bond villain would come up with. Nero had no talent for gathering allies, not like his ancestors. He just wanted to act the great parts, sing the great songs and live a life of luxury. He spent too long away from Rome and in his absence, plotters moved to replace him. Do we have an image for Nero? The fat face, thick neck and tightly curled hair, perhaps. He certainly never grew old. They came for him at 30 and he took his own life – a tragic ending, with all his friends abandoning him.

History is written by victors. The worst gossip about Nero’s reign is all about sexual excess. It reads like a National Enquirer ‘10 In A Bed Roman Romp!’ headline, or a footballers’ wives’ scandal. Some of it rings true, while some is obviously a hatchet job by the historian Suetonius. 

As Suetonius is often the only source, we can’t dismiss it. Yet he wrote to please later emperors, to make them look better in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong – I have a 16-year-old son. If someone gave him limitless power, he’d probably go wrong in the worst possible way. I certainly would have at that age. Yet there’s a spite in the record that doesn’t match the man who spent years on the road in Greece, going from festival to festival – to sing and act and play music. Not a band on the run, but an emperor on the run from responsibilities.

Other historians from the period like Tacitus show a more thoughtful man. But all we remember will be orgies, setting Christians on fire and starting fights on the streets of Rome. Nero was more complicated than that. He certainly hated Christians, blaming them for the great fire in Rome. Yet perhaps he deserves forgiveness even so. 

He was emperor at just 16. Which of us would have done better?

Nero by Conn Iggulden is out now  (Penguin Michael Joseph, £22). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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