Matricide, Music, and Murder in Imperial Rome




Audiobook Download

November 8, 2022 | ISBN 9780593632918

Apple BooksBarnes & NobleGoogle Play StoreKobo

About the Book

A striking, nuanced biography of Nero—the controversial populist ruler and last of the Caesars—and a vivid portrait of ancient Rome

“Exciting and provocative . . . Nero is a pleasure to read.”—Barry Strauss, author of The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium

The Roman emperor Nero’s name has long been a byword for cruelty, decadence, and despotism. As the stories go, he set fire to Rome and thrummed his lyre as it burned. He then cleared the charred ruins and built a vast palace. He committed incest with his mother, who had schemed and killed to place him on the throne, and later murdered her.

But these stories, left behind by contemporary historians who hated him, are hardly the full picture, and in this nuanced biography, celebrated historian Anthony Everitt and investigative journalist Roddy Ashworth reveal the contradictions inherent in Nero and offer a reappraisal of his life. Contrary to popular memory, the empire was well managed during his reign. He presided over diplomatic triumphs, and his legions overcame the fiery British queen Boudica who led one of the greatest revolts Rome had ever had to face. He loved art, culture, and music, and he won the loyalty of the lower classes with fantastic spectacles. He did not set fire to Rome.

In Nero, ancient Rome comes to life: the fire-prone streets, the deadly political intrigues, and the ongoing architectural projects. In this teeming, politically unstable world, Nero was vulnerable to fierce reproach from the nobility and relatives who would gladly usurp him, and he was often too ready to murder rivals. He had a vision for Rome, but, racked by insecurity, he perhaps lacked the stomach to govern it.

This is the bloodstained story of one of Rome’s most notorious emperors: but in Everitt and Ashworth’s hands, Nero’s life is also a complicated, cautionary tale about the mettle required to rule.
Read more

Praise for Nero

“This exciting and provocative book grabs the reader while supporting its arguments with careful classical scholarship. The authors write with authority and elegance. Nero is a pleasure to read.”—Barry Strauss, author of The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium

“A nuanced biography of Roman emperor Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 BCE . . . [Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth] evoke the period with wit and precision. Ancient history buffs will be pleased.”Publishers Weekly

Praise for Anthony Everitt

Alexander the Great

“Reads as easily as a novel . . . [Anthony] Everitt has a wealth of anecdotes and two millennia of histories to work with, and he delivers and interprets them flawlessly. Nearly unparalleled insight into the period and the man make this a story for everyone.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Rise of Rome

“Fascinating history and a great read.”Chicago Sun-Times

“Everitt writes for the informed and the uninformed general reader alike, in a brisk, conversational style, with a modern attitude of skepticism and realism.”The Dallas Morning News

“Elegant, swift and faultless.”The Spectator
Read more


Chapter 1

The New Order

The youth was seventeen years old. His face had the temporary good looks of the teenager, but an observant eye could detect the unappealing lineaments of the man-to-be. He was of average height, with light blond hair and blue eyes. He was somewhat shortsighted. His neck was too thick, his body spotty and, apparently, malodorous. His legs were spindly and his stomach protruded.

This was Nero—or, to give him his full name and titles, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. It was the autumn of a.d. 54 and he had just become emperor of Rome. Surrounded by senior politicians, all wearing the dark togas of mourning, he was leading the funeral rites of his predecessor and adoptive father, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, whom we know more succinctly as Claudius.

The ceremony unfolded on the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars, a five-hundred-acre grassland that stretched away north of Rome’s city walls. It was a lung for the world’s first megalopolis, which was home to an estimated one million inhabitants. The Campus was a park, dotted with temples and other public buildings, and people of every class escaped there from the city’s noise, crowds, and smells and engaged in leisure pursuits. The wealthy raced around in chariots or exercised their horses, while those of lesser means amused themselves with playing ball games, trundling hoops, or wrestling. When necessary, there was plenty of space for military maneuvers, as the field’s name in honor of Mars, the god of war, indicates.

Some of the ground was marshy and there were frequent inundations. A central swamp was organized into a small lake. In the west, the river Tiber rolled along on its way to the sea, and to the east and southeast, hills closed off the scene. A commentator of the day observed that these distant features “present to the eye the appearance of a painted backdrop.” Indeed, the overall impression was of a very large stage set, with a fine panorama from the vantage point of Rome’s citadel, the Capitol.

Today the mood was melancholy and given over to state solemnities. A long procession wound its way through the city to the music of a funeral march. The late emperor had lain in state for five days and now was conveyed on a flower-festooned bier, made from ivory and decorated with golden fittings and purple cloth. The body lay in a concealed coffin and a life-sized wax image of Claudius was visible above. Senators carried another gold statue of him, and a third represented him on a chariot.

Behind the bier walked his relatives, led by Nero, their heads veiled. Women of the family expressed, or pretended, their uncontrollable grief by wailing at full throttle, ripping their clothes and tearing at their cheeks. In shocking contrast, a group of specially hired comedians clowned around; in a long-standing tradition of extracting farce from tragedy, one of them mercilessly caricatured the late emperor.

Next in the cortege came, one might say, the resurrected dead. Down the generations leading aristocratic clans commissioned realistic death masks, or imagines, made from wax, of their most distinguished members. These were worn at funerals by men who resembled the originals in body shape and size. They rode in chariots and were preceded by functionaries carrying the insignia of the public offices they had held in life.

The long line of mourners paused in the Forum, the city’s main square, and Nero, as his heir and next of kin, delivered a eulogy. Claudius’s “ancestors” sat in a row on ivory chairs and listened to the youthful emperor deliver a polished speech in praise of his adoptive father’s achievements. An impressed Greek historian asked who would not be inspired by the sight of these personalities from the past “all together and as if alive and breathing?”

Eulogy over, the cavalcade left the city and entered the green plain. It came to a halt beside an open-air crematorium, or ustrinum, reserved for the imperial family. Between a circular iron fence and a white marble inner wall, black poplars shaded an enclosure where Claudius’s pyre, an assemblage of wooden logs arranged in the shape of an altar and papered with dark leaves, was waiting. The corpse and the couch were placed on the top of the pyre, and Nero put a torch to the whole elaborate ensemble. Perfumes were thrown on the flames, also cups of oil, trinkets, well-used clothes, dishes of food that the deceased had especially liked, and other items of sentimental value.

When the pyre had burned down, the embers were soaked in wine. The bones were gathered up, placed in an urn, and carried to the place of burial. This was the vast Mausoleum of Augustus, founder of the ruling dynasty.

Erected about seventy-five years previously near the river Tiber, it was a short walk from the ustrinum. One of the largest tombs in the ancient world, the monument stood about 150 feet high and 300 feet in diameter. Above a high drum, built solidly of concentric rings of concrete faced with marble, rose an earthen mound covered with low-spreading evergreen junipers. On its apex stood a statue of Augustus that overlooked the city of which he was once the absolute ruler.

A tunnel led from the entrance to an internal corridor that encircled a hall with wall niches that housed the burned detritus of the imperial dead in golden urns. In the center of the Mausoleum a final chamber had been set aside for Augustus himself. Years had passed and his descendants were numerous. There were few spaces left, but room was found for a new occupant. Nero watched as leading businessmen, barefoot and wearing unbelted tunics as tokens of grief, deposited what was left of Claudius in its niche.

Nero’s reign had well and truly begun.

The teenaged ruler would be forgiven if he felt nervous and ill-equipped for the task ahead. He had no experience of politics and governance. However, at the Mausoleum he had at his disposal an invaluable learning tool. Just outside the entrance he could see two pillars with bronze plaques on which Augustus had had his memoirs inscribed, proudly on public display. Copies had been widely distributed throughout the Roman empire, which stretched from Spain in the west to the river Euphrates in the east.

The memoirs (called Res Gestae, or Things Done) are concise and exemplify propaganda at its finest. They must have featured in Nero’s educational syllabus. Augustus’s rules still ran the empire, and his descendant needed to master them if he was to make a success of his reign.

Res Gestae was not simply a self-serving account of a life, for it set out an agenda for future emperors to consider and offered some attractive policy solutions. Nero would be wise to pay attention, and his career suggests that that was exactly what he did. He admired his great-great-grandfather and felt a special link to him.

Little in the document is obviously untrue, for knowledgeable contemporaries would have cried foul; but there are slippery omissions and elisions. The author conceals as much as he reveals, as when he writes:

At the age of nineteen [in 44 b.c.] on my own responsibility and at my own expense I raised an army, with which I successfully championed the liberty of the Republic when it was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction. . . . ​I drove into exile the murderers of my father, avenging their crime. . . . ​I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy. . . . ​The whole of Italy swore allegiance to me of its own free will and demanded me as the leader in the war in which I was victorious at Actium.

In these few deceptively simple sentences Augustus encapsulates the brutal civil war that followed the assassination of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March in 44 b.c. It is remarkable that he came to prominence while still in his teens; we may guess that this boosted his juvenile successor’s self-confidence, for it showed that so far as Romans were concerned, youth was no bar to supreme power.

When discussing his victories over other Romans, Augustus tactfully names no names and makes a point of stressing his clemency. This is because when peace came, he knew he would need the active support of the political class, or what was left of it after long years of bloodletting, if he was to govern successfully his vast and sprawling inheritance. Also, he had learned from Caesar’s violent death and meant to avoid the assassins’ knives. Safety lay in forgiving his enemies.

The gods rewarded this commitment to reconciliation with a long life—a lesson that Nero took to heart and that was to be the keynote of the early years of his reign. There was much he would be wise to learn from his forebear’s style of government—a mix of innovation with convention, openness with discreet despotism.

About the Author

Anthony Everitt
Anthony Everitt, a former visiting professor in the visual and performing arts at Nottingham Trent University, has written extensively on European and classical culture. He is the author of CiceroAugustusAlexander the GreatHadrian and the Triumph of RomeThe Rise of Rome, and The Rise of Athens. He has served as secretary general of the Arts Council of Great Britain and lives near Colchester, England’s first recorded town, founded by the Romans. More by Anthony Everitt
Decorative Carat

About the Author

Roddy Ashworth
Roddy Ashworth is an award-winning investigative journalist, former national news editor, and visiting lecturer in media ethics at City University, London. More by Roddy Ashworth
Decorative Carat