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Contrary to popular belief, the Emperor Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. In fact, way back in AD 64 the instrument in question had yet to be invented. But one question has always divided the historians. Did the consummate artist and supreme head of state really have a hand in the blaze that destroyed two-thirds of the City?

History paints a pretty grim portrait of the world’s most famous arsonist. Last in the Julio-Claudian line, Nero started out with great promise. Aided by his mother, the resourceful Agrippina, he came to power at the tender age of 16, and proceeded to mould the role of Princeps to his artistic sensibilities.

As tyrants go, Nero was surprisingly popular, at least among the people, whose affections he won with lavish games and generous donations. Before the Great Fire he managed to balance the affairs of state with his all-consuming passions – chariot racing and the theatre.

From 64 onward his public image began to deteriorate. He neglected his duties in favour of a year-long tour of Greece, where he managed to compete in the Olympics, winning over 1800 first-prizes for his poetry and acting. His return to Rome was given the pomp and ceremony usually reserved for triumphant generals. But members of the senate were not impressed, and moves were made to get rid of him permanently.

Colossal vanity aside, what crimes did Nero commit that have made him such a loathed historical figure? By today’s standards he would have been labelled a sociopath, or a narcissist, perhaps even a homicidal maniac. As a prelude to later excesses he had his mother, Agrippina, murdered shortly after he came to power. Other transgressions included the poisoning of his stepbrother Britannicus, and the assassination of countless senators accused of plotting against him.

Perhaps his most heinous crime was against his pregnant wife, Poppaea, who he was said to have kicked to death during a domestic argument. Such was his grief that he had her deified and continued to revere her memory thereafter. He even castrated and married his ex-slave, Sporus, who was said to bear a remarkable likeness.

Among Nero’s architectural innovations was his Golden House, a vast palatial undertaking that rose in splendour from the charred ruins of the city. With its extensive gardens and endless colonnades it dominated an area from the Palatine to the Esquiline. Upon its completion, Nero was said to have remarked, ‘Now I can live as a human being.’

Unfortunately, the Golden House featured as a backdrop to another of his many crimes. Historical sources tell us how Nero seized upon an obscure but obstinate religious sect called the Christians and used them as scapegoats for the Great Fire. Even by Roman standards, his vengeance was excessive. Those that weren’t dressed in animal skins and torn to death by wild beasts in the arena, were crucified and used as human torches to illuminate his gardens at night.

With such a damning track record on human rights, it’s difficult to defend Nero’s actions. But we can perhaps reexamine them within the context of the times. Roman punishments were deliberately cruel and often staged on en mass to reinforce a clear message. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and criminals, and even featured in the arena as a form of public execution. It is also worth noting the Romans’ appetite for diversity. According to Suetonius, at the opening of the Colosseum, 5,000 animals were killed in a single day.

Whatever Nero’s vices, he was certainly a victim of his own press. Feted like a pop star, and groomed to rule from a young age, he did his best to deliver. But the guidance he’d received during the earlier years of his reign didn’t last. Having forced his tutor and mentor Seneca to commit suicide, Nero had finally rid himself of all constraints. The only thing left was his suitably dramatic exit from the world stage.

Famous last words are often revealing. Nero’s have been much debated by historians down through the ages, who can’t quite agree on what was actually said. What we’re left with adds a Hollywood flourish. With time running out and his assassins fast approaching, the soon to be deceased emperor urged one of his freedmen to finish him off, bowing out with the immortal line

‘Alas, what an artist perishes in me.’

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