Nero: Poet, Hedonist and Sadist


On the 15th of December 37 AD, Nero, the famous Roman Emperor (54-68 AD), was born in Antium, Italy. He was a controversial figure known for his explosive violence, homoeroticism, love of poetry and bad acting. This puzzling mélange of character traits has spawned numerous anecdotes and stories about Nero’s life. They present him as a mad and egotistic poet capable of the least poetic ventures, such as the instigation of the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD) or persecution of Christians. Some even believed and still believe that Nero was an impersonation of the Antichrist, e.g. according to modern biblical scholars the number 666 in the Book of Revelation is a code for Nero. There is also a common belief that Nero was responsible for the death of the two apostles Peter and Paul. But the man in question saw himself as a descendant of the gods, and most of all as the son of Polyhymnia – the muse of sacred poetry.   

Nero’s poetry was lousy, yet he believed in his great talent and notoriously sought public applause. Even though initially he only performed for private audiences, after a major encouragement by the Senate he started performing in public. “Toward the end of his reign, Nero ostentatiously identified himself with Apollo the citharode…, and to Sol in the Circus Maximus… By then, Nero felt that his position as the equal of Apollo as a singer and Sol as a charioteer was assured, and Apollo the divine lyre-player adorned his coins.” (Edward Champlin, Phoenix, Vol. 57, No. 3/4, Autumn-Winter, 2003). In 64 AD, Nero began singing in public, mostly in Neapolis (Naples). His aim was to gain public acclaim, but ancient historians saw it as shameful and criticized Nero for ridiculing his image as well as the image of Rome. His last but not least domain was chariot racing. During the Olympic Games of 67 AD he nearly died being thrown from a ten-horse chariot. He took part in the race as a competitor in order to improve relations with Greece but most of all to display Roman dominance. Therefore, one could say that Nero was a master of public relations; although, the way in which he was really perceived by Romans and other nations at the time is a different matter.


It is believed that Nero was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. Many ancient authors, except for Tacitus, blame the fire on him. “Suetonius and Dio Cassius emphasize Nero’s desire to see Rome fired with two different anecdotes. According to Suetonius, someone remarked, in Greek, “When I am dead, may the earth be consumed by fire,” and Nero retorted, also in Greek, “Nay, rather while I live.” According to Dio, Nero was accustomed to call Priam marvellously fortunate for having lived to see the destruction of Troy. In this last anecdote Nero shows a desire to suffer the woes of Priam; he identifies himself with Priam, and desires to see the destruction of Rome (that is, his Troy). Thus we have the picture of him setting fire to Rome in order that he might fiddle while it burned, in order that he might compare, as Tacitus says, “present misfortunes with those of the past.”” (R.M. Frazer, Jr., The Classical Journal, Vol. 62, No. 1, Oct., 1966).

The fire started on the night of the 18th of July 64 AD, and, according to Tacitus, lasted for over five days. Certain sources reveal that Nero took an active part in the rescue of the victims. They say that he even contributed to it financially, paying for a relief effort from his own funds. But on the other hand, Suetonius and Cassius Dion depict Nero as a mad creator, standing there in his stage costume, overlooking Rome in flames, playing on a lyre and singing. According to the two historians, Nero sang the Sack of IliumThe latter image is depicted in the historical novel Quo Vadis by the Polish Nobel Prize laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz. “Quo vadis Domine?”, meaning “Where are you going, Lord?”, are the words ascribed to St Peter. Allegedly, on his way out of Rome St Peter met Jesus and asked him the famous question. After hearing from his master that he was going to Rome, St Peter decided to return to the city, in which he believed he was going to be crucified. Apart from St Peter, there are many other historical figures involved in the story; one of them is Nero.  The leading plot is that one of love between a young Christian woman, Ligia, and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician (both fictional characters).


In the book, Nero is depicted as an ignorant and mean emperor, who concentrates on his personal hedonisms and spreads hatred against Christians. In order to give himself an alibi for the persecution of Christians, he orders to set Rome on fire and spread rumours in which Christians are the ones to blame for the tragedy. Then Nero gives the Romans what they want the most – vengeance. He orders a public execution of Christians, who are either torn apart by hungry lions or burnt alive on wooden crosses. One of the victims of Nero’s public spectacle is the beautiful Ligia. But thanks to Marcus Vinicius, Nero agrees to set her free only if Ligia’s super-strong servant, Ursus, will fight against an angered bull… 

The book was based on thorough research, Sienkiewicz having studied the Roman Empire extensively prior to writing it. Thus, even though it involves many fictional plots, the book presents a great account of ancient Rome and its figureheads such as Nero. The language is so rich and the story so captivating that near the end one can almost hear the cries of the tortured Christians and smell their burning flesh. Nero himself, far from being portrayed as a bland historic figure, comes across as lifelike, powerful tyrant comparable to any of those of the twentieth century.