Of all the early emperors of Rome, it is perhaps Nero – Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus in full – who is the most notorious. His predecessor Claudius adopted him as his successor, and when Claudius died, the seventeen year-old Nero and his mother Agrippina took control of the Empire. But as Nero grew older, he tried to escape his mother’s domineering influence, and had her killed in 59 CE, five years into his reign.
There are several paintings showing the death of Agrippina and its aftermath. John William Waterhouse chose to paint The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of His Mother in 1878, although it’s far from clear how she died, or whether Nero showed such an emotional response.
At about the same time, Nero’s conduct started to deteriorate. He called for the first treason trial, and had rivals summarily executed. Then, on the night of 18/19 July 64 CE, much of Rome was destroyed in a fire which burned for over a week. It’s still uncertain whether this was an accident, or was part of a plot by Nero.
Hubert Robert’s Fire of Rome from 1785 is an atmospheric account which shows nearby buildings in a serious state of decay.
Some accounts claim that, whether or not Nero was responsible for the fire, he watched and revelled in it. Carl Theodor von Piloty’s Nero Views the Burning of Rome (1861) shows the emperor and his entourage viewing the damage as the fires continue to burn in the distance. The popular story that Nero ‘played on his fiddle’ while watching the city burn is, of course, an absurd anachronism, and some accounts even claim that Nero organised and paid for relief efforts.
What does seem closer to the truth is that Nero accused Christians of starting the fire, and used it as an excuse for systematic arrest and execution of large numbers of Christians, who were then thrown to lions and other wild animals, crucified or burned alive.
Henryk Siemiradzki’s large Nero’s Torches or Christian Candlesticks from 1876 shows the emperor reclining under an elaborate canopy as a line of Christians are about to be burned alive for his entertainment.
Eugène Thirion’s Triumph of Faith – Christian Martyrs in the Time of Nero is another example. Thirion trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1860, where he studied under Gérôme’s teachers Alexandre Cabanel and Charles Gleyre.
Tradition also attributes two major martyrdoms to Nero’s command.
The Beheading of Saint Paul (1887), a huge canvas in Málaga Cathedral, tells its macabre tale only too clearly. Paul’s death is not recorded in the Bible, but in the apocryphal Acts of Paul written in about 160 CE. According to that, Nero condemned Paul to death by beheading. Later legend claims that his severed head rebounded three times, each place that it landed becoming the source of water – hence the location now known as San Paolo alle Tre Fontane (Saint Paul at the Three Fountains).
One of Filippino Lippi’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence depicts the last two episodes from the story of the life of Saint Peter: to the right we see him, with another saint, perhaps Paul, in his dispute with Simon Magus in front of Nero; to the left is his later crucifixion.
Simon the Sorcerer, the Magician, or Magus, was a Samaritan who converted to Christianity, was baptised by Philip the Evangelist, and later came into conflict with Saint Peter, as recorded in Acts 8:9–24. Following the baptism of other newly-converted Christians, Saints Peter and John went to ensure that they also received the Holy Ghost. To accomplish this, Peter and John laid hands on the Christians.
Simon Magus saw this, and offered Peter and John money in return for being given the power to do the same. Peter rebuked him, for thinking that a gift of God could be bought, and called on him to repent. The influence of apocryphal literature, particularly the Golden Legend, extended this to bring Simon Magus and Saint Peter in front of Nero with their dispute.
Saint Peter’s martyrdom is not described in the New Testament, but was familiar to most at the time from apocryphal accounts, particularly in the Golden Legend and the Acts of Peter. Tradition held that this happened in the year of the Great Fire of Rome, 64 CE, and that Peter refused to be crucified in the same way that Christ had been, as he felt unworthy. He was therefore allegedly crucified in an inverted position, as depicted in the painting. This was supposed to have taken place close to where he was buried, which was the location chosen for the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome.
Lippi shows these two events side-by-side within the same painting, with Saint Peter appearing before the Emperor at the right, and his legs being winched up on the inverted cross at the left. In the absence of any Biblical account, he has relatively free rein in what he shows, although the left background contains the very Florentine spire and towers of churches, and what may be the top of Brunelleschi’s great dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence.
Towards the end of Nero’s reign, his life seems to have gone from one depravity to the next. His wife Poppeia – believed by some to have been his mother’s lover and a reason for Agrippina’s murder – died in childbirth, possibly by being kicked to death by Nero. Then in 67 CE he married a young boy, had him castrated and tried to make a woman out of him. Faced with increasing revolt, even from his own Praetorian Guard, the emperor was made a public enemy by the Senate. Nero couldn’t muster the nerve to commit suicide, so ordered his private secretary to end his life on 9 June 68 CE.
Vasily Sergeyevich Smirnov’s painting of Nero’s Death from 1888 shows his body being collected for burial in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, not far from what is now the Villa Borghese in Rome.
Nero’s death was celebrated by the upper classes, but he was mourned by the lower class and slaves. It marked the end of the blood line, and the start of a rapid succession of rulers in what became known as the year of the Four Emperors, a period of even greater instability in Rome.