Secrets of the Dead

The Nero Files | Full Episode

Transcript

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: THE NERO FILES

History has portrayed Roman Emperor Nero as one of the great villains — a cruel, insane despot, responsible for the Great Fire of Rome.

Nero's name is synonymous with evil.

Killer of his own mother and wife, poisoner of his stepbrother, and persecutor of Christians.

He lived a debauched and decadent life.

This is the judgment passed by history.

Martin Zimmermann
There was no form of historical record similar to our modern understanding of history. The writings were politically motivated, captivating literature.

And yet, new discoveries suggest history may have gotten it wrong.

Now, a forensic profiler considers new evidence to discover the truth about the controversial emperor.

Thomas Müller
As the writers would appear to be unreliable, they would not be considered objective witnesses by modern standards.

THE NERO FILES

Rome, 64 A.D., the night of July 18th.

The city is in flames.

The fire will burn for nine days.

Large areas of Rome, completely destroyed.

The rumor that the narcissistic tyrant Nero started the blaze has persisted for 2,000 years.

His alleged motivation: artistic inspiration.

The emperor is said to have watched the disaster from the roof of his palace while making music — or, as legend has it, he "fiddled while Rome burned" and his subjects died.

But are these tales of the mad tyrant true? There are significant doubts...

Forensic psychologist Thomas Müller has studied numerous criminals over the course of his career.

Now, he turns his attention to Nero’s legacy, using a "cold case" approach: establishing the facts and examining the veracity of the sources.

Can the accusations levelled at Nero withstand modern investigative methods?

Thomas Müller
Is it possible that Nero was also a victim? Or maybe even THE victim?

Rome, 54 A.D.

16-year-old Nero and his mother Agrippina rush to the emperor's bedside.

Emperor Claudius, Agrippina's husband, is dying.

He is attended to by his biological children from a previous marriage:

His daughter Octavia and his son Britannicus. Britannicus is the legitimate heir to the throne.

But, he is only 13 years old.

Nero is merely the emperor's stepson, but he is three years older. If the emperor dies now, Nero will become his successor.

Accounts suggest Claudius was murdered, possibly with poisoned food. Doctors rush to save him.

But it is too late.

Agrippina has achieved her goal:

Nero's ambitious mother only married Claudius to ensure Nero, her son from her first marriage, would become emperor.

Does she kill Claudius before Britannicus can come of age so Nero can take the throne?

Martin Zimmermann
Murder and the violent removal of political opponents were an everyday occurrence in imperial Rome. Assuming power was not done by democratic means — power was achieved by violence, aggression and assassinations.

Historians suspect Agrippina is responsible for the emperor’s murder.

With Claudius’s death, Nero now becomes emperor at just 16 even though he is not the legitimate heir.

Martin Zimmermann
One could say that Agrippina was a woman fully aware of her power, and that she knew how to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself. We cannot say with any certainty whether she did kill Claudius, but people at the time immediately accused her of doing so.

This suspicion casts a shadow over Nero's reign from its outset.

Thomas Müller
The question is: How is it possible that an emperor of Rome became a bastard of history? Who told us that he was such a monster, where does our information actually come from, and can the witnesses stand up to examination?

Three Roman writers are primarily responsible for having recorded the details of Nero’s life even though they never met him:

Tacitus was just ten years old when Nero died.

Suetonius was born two years later...

and Cassius Dio wasn't born until a century after Nero's reign.

They created the image of the mad tyrant.

And yet, each writer's story is different.

One questions whether Nero had anything to do with the Great Fire of Rome, while another is convinced that he started the blaze.

And the third writer suggests Nero fiddled while his city burned.

Who can one trust?

Thomas Müller
As a criminal psychologist, I have experienced this over and over again: people see what they want to see, and sometimes they will write or say whatever it is THEY want to convey. The fact is, all three writers lived AFTER Nero's time. They did not know him personally, and their knowledge was based on stories. Did they perhaps add elements that were important to THEM?

Just 13 when his father dies, Britannicus, the emperor's biological son, is frail and possibly epileptic...

And yet, he might pose a threat to young Emperor Nero, should he lay claim to the throne when he reaches maturity.

It is 55 A.D., and Nero has been emperor for several months.

A feast in the palace.

The imperial family has invited guests.

As is customary, Britannicus selects his favorite dishes.

It is business as usual in the palace.

And yet, according to accounts, before the meal is over, Britannicus will be assassinated.

The killer: Nero.

The weapon: a powerful poison.

Using poison to commit murder is difficult in ancient Rome, as the meals of the rich and powerful are tasted in advance.

In Tacitus’s account, Nero manages to avoid the taster by slyly placing the poison in Britannicus' drink, rather than his food.

Drinks are also sampled by the taster, but Nero is clever: he has a harmless but very hot drink served.

Britannicus is unable to drink it.

Cold, clear water is added to cool the drink.

The water is poisoned — and is poured without being sampled by the taster.

According to Tacitus, the poison races through Britannicus' body, making it impossible for him to breathe or speak.

And all three writers agree: He dies almost immediately.

A potential adversary has been removed.

But there are doubts about the poison plot as the writers present it.

Müller explains:

Thomas Müller
In terms of criminal psychology, using poison means committing murder without leaving scars. However, murder by poison is easier to describe than to commit — even in ancient Rome. The descriptions of Britannicus' death suggest a rapidly-acting poison that was both colorless and odorless. Did such a poison even exist in the age of Nero?

In antiquity, the most effective poisons were plant toxins from yew trees, lily of the valley, hemlock and wolf's bane.

Today, scientists in a modern forensic lab are testing whether any of these poisons could have killed Brittanicus in the manner described.

The poison had to have been both colorless and odorless, otherwise it would have been immediately in the water.

And it had to take effect within seconds.

In order to put the poison in the water, the toxin would have had to be extracted from the plant first.

One way to do this was by boiling the plants.

The more the water is reduced during the boil, the more concentrated the poison will be, but the color and aroma also become more intense.

Even when strained to remove impurities, the color remains.

Tacitus writes that the poison is placed in a jug of water that was used to cool Britannicus' hot drink.

If that was the case, the poison had to have been very concentrated in order to remain effective after being watered down…twice.

Wolfgang Bicker
If one considers all the steps that are required to create an odorless and colorless but which is sufficiently toxic to be effective, then one must accept that it was practically impossible at the time considering the methods that were available.

Nor does the timeline as described withstand close scrutiny.

Wolfgang Bicker
If a plant toxin is ingested orally, then it takes time for the poison to cross from the digestive system into the bloodstream. Then it must still be transported to the part of the body where it takes effect. It is therefore fundamentally inconceivable that death could occur within seconds.

The writers' claims of a sudden death caused by poison already appear somewhat…unreliable...

Thomas Müller
According to the toxicologist's conclusions, there was no poison that would have had the effects described by the writers. So, given the circumstances, is it not possible that an epileptic fit was seen as attempted murder? After all, people believed Nero was capable of anything.

Agrippina has not made Nero emperor out of a mother's love for her son. She sees herself as the true ruler of the empire, and Nero as a mere puppet.

She is the power behind the throne and she makes no effort to conceal it, as coins from the era reveal.

Marcus Reuter
When Nero ascends to the throne in 54 A.D., something very unusual happens to the Roman currency. The first coins that are minted show both the reigning emperor and, at eye level and the same size, his mother. This hadn't happened before, and it would not happen again. Agrippina publically lays claim to power, and the first conflicts between mother and son soon follow. The coins show this very clearly. Just a few months after the first coins find their way into circulation, a second coin is released. The new coin still includes Agrippina, but she has now moved into the background. She no longer holds the same significance she did at the beginning of Nero's reign. A few months later she has vanished from the currency altogether. Her declining influence, and the looming conflict with her son, are clearly visible on the faces of Rome's coins.

Nero grows up, maturing into an adult.

He is now 21 years old.

He has reigned successfully for five years — something even the writers are prepared to admit.

Nero is an ambitious emperor with progressive ideas, building public baths and markets for his subjects.

They, in turn, revere their ruler.

He is interested in the arts, sports and science. He has grand architectural plans for Rome.

But his relationship with his mother has suffered...

Nero is at the Baiae resort on the Gulf of Pozzuoli, north of Naples, where ancient Rome's rich and famous go to escape the city.

He has supposedly invited his mother to Baiae so they can share a meal and resolve their differences.

But according to the writers, the invitation is merely a ruse to lure her to her death.

Tacitus writes that Nero accompanies Agrippina as she leaves his palace in Baiae. His last glimpse of his condemned mother touches his cold heart.

He has ordered her death for that very night.

Nero returns to his villa while the murder plot unfolds on the high seas.

Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio provide detailed accounts of the fateful night.

According to their descriptions, Nero has a trusted assistant prepare Agrippina's yacht with a trap door that will open and sweep her out to sea.

Cassius Dio writes the mechanism would then close and the boat would continue sailing, as though nothing had happened...

Nero could easily have disguised a crime on the ship. As Tacitus wrote, "Nothing allowed of accidents so much as the sea."

Thomas Müller
When investigating disasters at sea or at higher elevations, specialists and experts for the relevant structures, wind and weather conditions and water currents play an important role. Let us follow the evidence to determine whether the story told by the writers would stand up in court.

An experiment in a ship model basin will hopefully reveal the truth.

According to Tacitus, Agrippina's yacht was a "trireme,” a galley with three banks of oars on either side.

The mother of the emperor would have had a luxurious cabin at the stern of the ship.

Agrippina's yacht is reconstructed at a scale of 1 to 9 in the ship model basin.

The aim of the experiment is to determine what kind of modifications would have been necessary to create an opening in the ship that someone could fall through.

The experts are certain that trapdoors would have been the only possibility, and they install two flaps at the stern of the model. One opens inward, while the other opens out into the water.

On dry land, both trapdoors work perfectly.

In the water though, things are very different.

Now it’s time to test the trapdoor theory.

The depth of the hull is reconstructed exactly.

The flaps are now underwater.

The door opening into the ship would have let water flow in immediately, stopping anyone from falling out and also quickly sinking the ship.

Given these results, the trapdoor must have opened outwards.

And yet, it can’t.

The water pressure keeps the flap closed, and the ship sails on as normal.

Perhaps more force is required. Weights are placed on the trapdoor.

So much weight is needed to force the flap open, the ship begins to sink.

Approximately 2 tons would have been required to force the door open, but that would have sunk the ship before it ever left the harbor.

Additionally, once the door opened out, there wouldn’t have been a way to close it. Water would have flooded in and sunk the ship.

The writers' descriptions just aren’t reliable as evidence.

Martin Zimmermann
"Telling the truth" didn't mean providing descriptions or reconstructions of events that were one hundred percent accurate. Rather, the story had to be told well, and had to be built around a sweet center that increased the appetite and the attention of the readers.

Efforts to tell a good story have made it difficult for modern-day experts to determine the truth.

Martin Zimmermann
There was no form of historical record similar to our modern understanding of history. The writings were politically motivated, captivating literature. And that is an important point: it is literature, rather than a scientific approach to history. Its primary purpose was to be exciting. To the people of the time, this was the pinnacle of writing: stylistically sophisticated, excitingly told and attractively presented.

According to the writers, the attempted murder fails and Agrippina manages to reach land.

Nero panics, and, fearing his mother’s revenge, sends armed men to her villa to kill her.

Cassius Dio claims that Nero has his mother's dead body uncovered so he can examine it himself, while Tacitus questions whether this is really true...

Martin Zimmermann
There were no witnesses. We know that Agrippina was killed, but it is impossible to recreate the details of her death, which is why, in antiquity, this story was invented and passed on to create a particularly dramatic tale of how a son killed his mother.

But the fact remains:

Whether Nero gave the order to kill his mother or she died by other means, her death, and the rumors surrounding it, were a burden Nero carried for the rest of his life and beyond.

The writers' horrifying stories about Agrippina's death continue to shape perceptions of Nero to this day.

What really happened that night, however, will remain a mystery.

Thomas Müller
As the writers would appear to be unreliable, they would not be considered objective witnesses by modern standards. In summary, there are reports that Nero had his mother murdered, but there is no material evidence, and there are no convincing leads.

Rome, the summer of 64 A.D. The city is in flames…again. Fire was a constant danger… But this time, it’s different. The blaze spreads faster and farther than any before it.

Suetonius and Cassius Dio accuse Nero of starting the fire and suggest two possible motives.

Either he wanted to create space for the "Domus Aurea,” his new "Golden Palace."

Or alternatively, he wanted Rome to burn to serve as inspiration for his artistic endeavors, so he could “serenade the flames.”

Tacitus, the third writer, doesn’t offer a theory.

Thomas Müller
So did Nero have a motive to set fire to Rome?
We have been forced to accept that the writers were prepared to write down their own versions of the truth — for whatever reasons.
But what really happened in the days and nights while Rome burned?

At this moment in history, Rome is a bustling metropolis, its streets are filled with people.

In fact, the capital is bursting at the seams.

People elbow their way through the hot, narrow alleys that make up most of the city.

Land is extremely valuable, and urban planning and fire safety are of little concern.

Buildings are of substandard quality, and many are made of wood and built close together.

On this fateful day, this construction method seals the fate of much of the Eternal City.

The fire starts late in the evening near the Circus Maximus, a popular night-time haunt in ancient Rome.

The inferno rages for 9 days. Excavations have confirmed the blaze affected two-thirds of the city.

The rapid spread of the fire and the scale of destruction immediately give rise to rumors of arson.

Thomas Müller
How did the fire spread so rapidly? Was it the work of arsonists who set fires in various locations, or was a spark enough to cause the blaze?

On this July day, the city is in the grip of a heat wave. There has been no rain for days, even weeks.

The summer sun has left Rome’s wooden buildings as dry as kindling.

As evening falls, Romans light thousands of torches and oil lamps.

An experiment demonstrates how the fire might have started and then spread so rapidly.

A small mishap like an overturned oil lamp would have been enough to start a fire that moved quickly, the flames igniting the wooden walls and furnishings.

A hot, dry wind is blowing on this particular evening, helping the fire spread.

Once the fire burns the length of the Circus, it moves into an area of densely built apartment blocks. In this lower part of the city, there aren’t any large structures like temples or open spaces that could have slowed the fire’s pace.

Once it starts in earnest, the fire is essentially unstoppable.

Thomas Müller
If one objectively evaluates all the individual elements, then a single spark in challenging conditions would have been enough to reduce the metropolis to ash and cinders — whether the spark was caused intentionally or by accident...

The center of the city is soon in ashes, as are the imperial palaces located close to where the fire starts.

Nero's palace is among those destroyed, making it impossible for him to have stood on the roof, serenading the blaze.

Marcus Reuter
I think that the story of Nero rushing back to Rome to serenade the burning city from the roof of his palace can safely be classified as nothing more than a myth.

His palace had been consumed by the flames, so Nero couldn't have performed music on its roof.

The claim that Nero had the fire started to make room for his new palace doesn't stand up to examination either.

Marcus Reuter
If Nero really had wanted to find space to build his new palace, he would have had any number of other possibilities. He could have simply confiscated properties and had buildings torn down.

And, Nero's beloved art collection is destroyed by the flames.

Thomas Müller
If one takes all the circumstances into account — the historical records, the architecture and the resulting scenarios — there would have been no clear motive for Nero to set fire to Rome. It is more likely that the fire started by accident.

This is a very different portrait of Nero than we are familiar with.

Marcus Reuter
He oversees the firefighting efforts, he proves himself a ruler concerned for his people, he has the parks opened for the homeless, he ensures there is sufficient grain. Essentially, he fulfils all the expectations the Roman populace has in this situation, which absolutely does not conform to the image of an insane, power-hungry tyrant. Indeed, he sounds more like a reasonable, responsible ruler.

Even Tacitus, the only one of the three writers alive during the disaster, credits Nero with effective crisis management.

The emperor remains in Rome while the city burns and helps coordinate the rescue efforts, visiting those affected.

In order to save sections of the Roman capitol, Nero has firebreaks cut through the streets. Unfortunately, this only leads to accusations he’s responsible for further destruction of the city.

And still, the fire continues to tear through the wooden labyrinth of narrow alleys.

Of Rome's 14 districts, only 4 are unaffected.

As the rebuilding begins, Nero insists on new procedures to prevent future fires.

Marcus Reuter
After the fire, Nero proves himself to be a forward-thinking statesman. He orders the implementation of construction regulations designed to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe Rome has just experienced. For example, he mandates that fire-resistant materials be used during reconstruction, and that there must be sufficient space between the buildings.

The Rome that rises from the ruins has far wider streets, and Nero's fire-safety regulations remain in place into late antiquity.

But, immediately after the blaze, rumors surface that the fire was caused by arson, and that the emperor may be responsible.

Martin Zimmermann
In order to quell the accusations levelled at him, Nero had to find someone to hold responsible for the Great Fire of Rome. Some in his inner circle suggested that the Christians would make ideal scapegoats.

Nero is often portrayed as the Antichrist.

He is said to have had hundreds of innocent Christians brutally put to death, the first persecution of Christians in history….

This is the beginning of a legend: Nero the insane, the sadist, the personification of evil.

The roots of this myth lie in the ashes of the Great Fire of Rome.

Given the extent of the destruction, Romans refuse to believe the fire started accidentally.

Nero is under increasing public pressure to find someone to blame.

Eventually, the emperor settles on a new religious sect that is widely disliked and seems to have a motive.

Thomas Müller
There has never been a disaster which didn't immediately cause a psychological quest to find a guilty party. The same applies to the Great Fire of Rome. But why were the Christians targeted? What was their significance in ancient Rome? What were their goals?

The Romans view this new Christian religion with suspicion.

They have strange rituals: burying their dead in catacombs, belief in a single god, refusing to believe in the divine nature of the emperor, all of which are counter to Roman custom.

Christian religious history has often censored, exaggerated or falsified facts. The same applies to Nero's alleged "persecution of Christians.”

In addition to their unfamiliar practices, early Christians might have hoped for a disaster like the Great Fire.

Manfred Clauss
In this early period, the Christians yearned for the end of the world — and yet it refused to arrive. The first Christians died, and there was still no indication of an approaching Armageddon. It is therefore easy to imagine that the early Christians celebrated an event such as the Great Fire of Rome as a signal that the end of the world was finally near.

This new religion holds that the world will end in flames.

Is the fire the long-awaited moment?

Tacitus even states the Christians admit to starting the fire.

Manfred Clauss
Jesus told his apostles to follow him, and it was widely understood that he also meant in death, and in the manner of death. Jesus Christ was executed by the Romans. Accordingly, the early Christians would have considered their execution at the hands of the Romans an honorable death. In this context, it made sense to claim responsibility for the fire, accept blame and be executed in order to get into heaven.

Whether or not Christians set the fire, their claims of responsibility bring them sudden notoriety. The previously unknown sect is now infamous throughout the city.

The people want a scapegoat and Nero offers one up.

He punishes the Christians in accordance with the law at the time: arsonists are publically burned at the stake.

It is a cruel method of execution, a spectacle, theatre for the people of Rome. And it serves to strengthen Nero’s authority.

For Nero, the matter is finished. And there’s no evidence he ever targeted Christians again.

Thomas Müller
People get the culture and the laws they deserve, and this also applied during the time of Nero. As emperor he had to deal with a major catastrophe, the Great Fire of Rome. According to the historians, he found the guilty parties and had them publically punished in accordance with the laws of the time, so that his people's sense of pain and loss could be drowned in the thrill of revenge. One could almost say that he acted in the only way he could to preserve his reign.

Remnants of the Roman Forum today…

Nero's greatest treasure, the "Domus Aurea" or "Golden House" lies buried below these ruins surrounding the Colosseum.

His great palace would ultimately earn the emperor a reputation as a megalomaniac.

Nero's grand estate was eventually submerged below other structures. No trace remains — at least at ground level.

The buildings were only discovered by accident in 1480, when someone fell through a hole in the remains of the Baths of Trajan.

Below the baths were the high rooms of the Domus Aurea. Many frescoes and wall decorations were still intact. Nothing like it had been seen before.

Only now, after many years of extensive research, is it possible to reconstruct the palace compound at its full scale and artistic beauty.

With the Domus Aurea, Nero fulfils his dream of creating a life shaped by the arts.

The emperor has artists brought in from all over the Roman Empire to decorate his "Golden House".

Nero wants to make a statement with the palace: Here is what art and technology can achieve.

The frescoes on the walls and domes cover an area of 300,000 square feet.

But Nero's dream is enormously expensive and he demands tribute from Rome’s nobility in order to pay for it.

The "Domus Aurea" marks the start of his conflict with the aristocracy…

…and the beginning of Nero's end.

Martin Zimmermann
One of the main reasons Nero became so unpopular with the governing political class was that he started this massive construction project in Rome to build his "Golden House", the likes of which had never been seen in the city before.

The palace complex, located in the heart of Rome, consists of several buildings surrounded by extensive gardens, lakes and pools to cool the air.

Nero even has some of the roofs covered in gold, which gives rise to the name: the "Golden House".

Many rulers engage in ostentatious behavior, but Nero seemingly eclipses them all.

This massive palace, built over the remains of parts of the city decimated by fire, soon causes controversy.

It is enormously expensive to maintain: Behind the scenes, an army of servants is at the emperor's beck and call, day and night.

Rose petals fall from the ceilings of some rooms when Nero is present...

In fact, the great halls of the palace may represent the zenith of Nero's power. He successfully waged war against Armenia and Britain, finally ending conflicts that simmered for years.

But Domus Aurea earns him political enemies.

Nero is accused of being a megalomaniac and wasteful.

According to Suetonius, Nero claims he’s finally inhabiting a home fit for a human being.

Thomas Müller
After considering all the psychological details of Nero's behavior, one question is unavoidable: what was Nero's mental state? Was he insane, a megalomaniac, was he in fact not responsible for his actions due to insanity?

Nero has a statue of himself built at the heart of the Domus Aurea. The statue is nearly 100 feet high and visible across Rome.

Many, including Rome's elites, as well as later historians, feel that he has lost touch with reality.

Martin Zimmermann
Nero was not an insane ruler. The writers subsequently painted this picture of the emperor, but he was certainly not psychologically ill. He simply behaved in a manner that did not suit the politics of the day.

Increasingly, Nero concentrates on his own interests and longs for a family to inhabit his majestic home.

Intent settling down, he falls in love with a woman named Poppaea Sabina — stunningly beautiful, educated, intelligent and flirtatious.

They marry, and in 65 A.D., she becomes pregnant.

According to Tacitus, Poppaea is the victim of Nero's most brutal crime, one he carries out himself.

Thomas Müller
Once again, in the case of Poppaea's death, there are alleged witness statements but there is no material evidence.

Recent research might shed some light on this dark episode in Nero's history...

In the late 19th century, British archaeologists discovered hundreds of papyri during excavations in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus.

During the Roman Empire, Oxyrhynchus had a population of approximately 10,000 people.

The archaeologists put the pieces of papyrus back together as though completing a puzzle and revealed a piece of writing.

Unfortunately, they were unable to read it, and the content of the papyrus remained a mystery for more than a century.

A few years ago, a team of experts devoted itself to figuring out what the text said.

Paul Schubert
I didn't have the slightest idea what this papyrus was going to be. I started working on the text, deciphering the text from a very badly preserved piece of papyrus.

The document was written in classical Greek nearly 200 years after Nero’s death. Translating the ancient language wasn’t the problem.

Rather, only a few fragments survived the millennia.

Paul Schubert
All of a sudden I stumbled upon the name of Nero, and I couldn't believe my eyes. What was he doing there? I kept reading, and there came another occurrence of Nero somewhere else in the text, and then another time, and a fourth time. There was Nero in four places in what was actually a poem.

The experts found references to a woman who was dying — Nero's wife, Poppaea.

But there is no mention of her murder, let alone at the hand of Nero.

Paul Schubert
This is quite a surprise in our papyrus. This woman doesn't die from a violent death. On the contrary, the story as you find it on this papyrus tells you about the love between Poppaea and her husband Nero. This is really not the story that we find in other sources, where allegedly Nero kicked his wife in her belly while she was pregnant and killed her. The story of the kick in the belly is simply not credible.

Profiler Müller cautions against taking any reports about Nero at face value.

Thomas Müller
We should not give in to the temptation to condemn the writers' works as untrustworthy, and then be willing to unconditionally believe reports that provide a more positive impression of Nero. The same applies to both: they are stories that mainly reflect the intentions of the writers.

But the Oxyrhynchus text does confirm that there are sources besides the three main writers.

Nobody knows what really happened. Historians suspect Poppaea died as a result of complications during pregnancy.

Was the story of the kick to the stomach ever believable?

It seems the writers recycled an often-used literary device…

Martin Zimmermann
What is particularly interesting about this story is that it reappears again and again with different protagonists in different eras. This shows that the writers knew they would never discover the truth about Poppaea's death, but that they intended to represent Nero as evil. The easiest way to do this was to repeat the story that had been around for centuries: that tyrants kill pregnant women.

Martin Zimmermann
The most interesting aspect is that an important writer like Tacitus was willing to adopt this story and then present it as fact. This shows just what the writers considered "historical truth" - not the facts as they occurred, but their own personal version of the truth. And their version of the truth was to find a story that plausibly painted Nero as a tyrant.

The Roman city of Pompeii was buried beneath lava and ash after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. — buried, but not destroyed.

Today, its excavation is an important source of information about ancient Roman life.

In Pompeii, there are, in fact, indications that Nero was beloved by his subjects…

…inscriptions on the walls, graffiti that reveals the attitudes of the populace.

Rebecca Benefiel
What really surprised me when I started doing my fieldwork was how small these inscriptions are. So we modern, 21st-century people think of graffiti and we think of spray paint, we think of big, big statements. But, in the ancient world, you get very small writing.

Most of the graffiti was found in the ruins of the houses in the Via dell'Abbondanza, which suffered further damage during World War II although photos still remain.

Rebecca Benefiel
So we have 80 graffiti written by the man on the street, the general population in Pompeii, and we find them throughout the town. We find them in people's houses, we find them in people's kitchens. These are inscriptions that are writing the emperor's name. They weren't removing them. Not a single one has a negative aspect or characteristic to it. So these graffiti are really showing us how popular Nero was.

This bit of graffiti was found in the house of Paquius Proculus.

It was written by the slave Cocuta, who proudly left his name next to that of Nero’s.

Another example: Gladiators who went through the imperial training school called themselves Neroiani, after their emperor.

And their graffiti suggests why he was so popular.

Rebecca Benefiel
In Pompeii, we think that Nero probably cancelled a ban on gladiatorial games that had been put into play. The city of Pompeii wasn't allowed to hold gladiatorial spectacles for a period of ten years. The people were pretty unhappy. Nero comes in and says: alright, you can go ahead and go back to holding games, and the people loved him.

Bread and circuses: A strategy used by many Roman emperors to ensure their own popularity.

But in ancient Rome, popularity is not the same thing as political power.

The aristocracy, and therefore the senate, feel Nero is no longer serving its interests.

As Müller explains, Nero's popularity with the citizens of Rome angers the empire's political class.

Thomas Müller
Nero was popular because he obviously knew how to satisfy the demands of his subjects in order to distract from his own, occasionally excessive, needs. However, Rome's elites wanted to establish their own popularity with the people with a set of values that were very different from Nero's. This had to lead to an escalation.

The political elite also disapprove of what they see as Nero’s extravagant lifestyle.

Suetonius describes a wanton, lazy existence.

The emperor is considered decadent and depraved.

But perhaps the real problem is that Nero never wanted to be emperor: At heart, he is an artist.

His ambitious mother Agrippina may have trained him in the ways of a statesman, but he has no passion for it.

Nero is particularly attracted to acting, frequently engaging in challenging voice exercises.

He is, quite simply, a free spirit.

But emperors, statesmen and politicians are expected to follow a moral code and meet their political responsibilities.

Any artistic pursuit goes against the Roman values of aggression, bravery and a defiance of death.

But Nero is unable to let go of his artistic dreams. He continues to study acting, using lead weights to strengthen his respiratory muscles and learning how to control his breath.

His goal is to one day perform on stage.

In 66 A.D., the emperor takes a large entourage on an extended journey around Greece that lasts more than a year. Above all, Nero hopes to visit the games in Olympia and attend the large theatre performances.

His intention is to participate as an athlete and an actor.

Nero neglects his duties as a political leader and ignores his role as a representative of Roman values.

Primarily interested in other pursuits, Nero pays less and less attention to affairs of state — or to what is going on behind the scenes.

Nero becomes a huge admirer of Greece. During his journey, he gives the inhabitants of the Achaea province in the Peloponnese region their freedom, which means they no longer have to pay taxes to Rome…

… a generous and expensive gesture that angers the Roman Senate.

But it’s his passion for the arts that ultimately does Nero in.

Marcus Reuter
Actors, singers, musicians — these were jobs with terrible status in Roman antiquity. Performers were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, and had an extremely questionable reputation. It was simply unthinkable that an emperor could move in these circles — let alone perform himself!

Martin Zimmermann
From today's point of view, the idea of a ruler simultaneously being an artist doesn't sound so terrible. However, Nero crossed a line. Over the years, he allowed his artistic endeavors to assume so much significance that he was essentially no longer able to fulfil his responsibilities as an emperor. He became more an artist than a ruler in the public consciousness, and this unquestionably went too far for many of Rome's elites.

The Senate has had enough of Nero, as have parts of the military.

Revolts break out in the provinces, and the empire is in danger of collapse.

The Senate declares the emperor an enemy of the state, stripping him of his imperial role and sentencing him to death.

Martin Zimmermann
When we look back now, Rome's emperors always appear omnipotent. However, they were only all-powerful when they had the support of the Praetorian Guard, the army and most of the senate. In fact, much of the time they were exceedingly vulnerable: if they lost the support of just one of these groups, they quickly became powerless.

Abandoned by his followers, Nero flees to a small estate near Rome. He knows what fate awaits him.

Roman law dictates he be stripped naked and his neck painfully pinned to a forked stick before being led out of jail. After severe corporal punishment, he will be thrown off a cliff.

The only way Nero can escape punishment is to commit suicide.

Suetonius is the only writer to describe Nero's final hours. He paints a particularly humiliating picture of the emperor's death.

According to Suetonius, Nero finally decides to take his own life as Roman guards come to arrest him.

He hesitates and a "loyal" servant steps in to offer encouragement.

But how could Suetonius know these intimate details? He wasn’t in the room.

Another reason to question his dark biography of Nero.

Almost before Nero is even buried, the defamation and character assassination begin.

And while his infamy grows as a result of the three writers’ accounts, there’s little historical evidence to support the crimes he’s accused of.

Thomas Müller
If each of these events is investigated using modern criminalistic methods and if experts in different fields are called in to assist, it soon becomes clear that objectivity rapidly took a back seat to speculation, conjecture and subjective representations. It is questionable whether Nero could even be put on trial in a modern legal system. Without a doubt, he would never be convicted of all the crimes he is accused of.

The images we have of Nero are the ones placed in our consciousness by those who emerged from history victorious.

Forced to take his own life, Nero was a victim of history… perhaps in more ways than one.


URL: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/the-nero-files-full-episode/4040/
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