The Road to Nero
By Joshua Kaplan
“Hear the crowd ... how they chant for him! Nero Nero Nero! How they adore him? The monster that has destroyed our Rome, the Rome of Virgil! Of Augustus!” – Scribonius, You, Nero.
A comprehensive understanding of Amy Freed’s You, Nero would be incomplete without a consideration of the historical context of Nero’s rule. When the play’s titular character ascended to the emperor’s throne in A.D. 54, only four decades had passed since the dismantling of the Roman Republic. After 500 years of unprecedented domestic expansion, the ostensibly democratic republic, faced with internal strife and civil war, transitioned into a largely military-controlled empire, headed by a powerful emperor with almost complete control over the government. Beginning with the rule of Caesar Augustus in A.D. 14, Rome continued to expand as an empire for an additional four centuries, until the decline and eventual fall of the Western Empire in A.D. 476. (The Eastern Empire, with a capitol in Constantinople, continued to thrive for another thousand years.)
Nero was fifth in the long line of Roman emperors, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun when Augustus took the throne. The cousin of Claudius, his predecessor, Nero was not expected to become emperor. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, was sister of Emperor Caligula and had been exiled after her husband’s death in A.D. 39. However, after Caligula and his family were murdered, Claudius brought Nero and his mother back to Rome, adopted Nero, and appointed him proconsul (a governor of a senatorial province). He married his stepsister Claudia Octavia in A.D. 53 and ascended to the throne one year later at the age of only 17, when Claudius died under mysterious circumstances. Many historians believe that Agrippina murdered Claudius so that her son could take the throne.
Family conflict plagued Nero’s rule from the very beginning. Agrippina resented the perpetual presence of Seneca and Burrus, Nero’s main advisers, and felt betrayed by Nero’s dissatisfaction with his marriage to Octavia and his affair with Acte, an ex-slave. When she began to persuade Britannicus, Nero’s stepbrother, to take the throne, Nero had Britannicus murdered and banished Agrippina from the imperial residence. As he became increasingly powerful, he became distrustful of his advisers as well. During this turbulent time, Nero “showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased.” He had both Octavia and Agrippina murdered and framed their deaths as suicides.
With Agrippina gone and his advisors banished, executed, or removed from power, Nero continued to consolidate his power, particularly by slowly usurping the Senate’s remaining authority. However, his obsession with public approval did lead to some popular economic and legal measures directed at the lower class, as well as the creation of a number of gymnasia and theaters, featuring enormous gladiatorial shows and lavish festivals. Indeed, Nero’s rule was marked by both personal and public extravagance. For example, although the claim that Nero played the lyre during the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 is only a rumor, many of Nero’s contemporaries and historians believe that Nero may have ignited the fire himself to make room for a palatial estate. Nero deflected the blame for the fire by targeting Christians, ordering mass executions of the already persecuted minority.
Despite his violent record, Nero pictured himself as an artist, athlete, and entertainer – he thought of himself as a lover, not a fighter. His recognized, and sometimes useful, aversion to battle ushered in an era of peace with Parthia and quelled uprisings in Britain and Jerusalem. As an athlete and performer, Nero enjoyed driving a one-horse chariot, singing to the lyre, and poetry. In A.D. 64, Nero began singing in public forums in nearby Naples, and in A.D. 67, he participated in the Olympic Games as a chariot racer, actor, and singer. Although he won multiple crowns at the games, he likely only received the awards as a result of bribes and his status as emperor. As a result, Nero gained even greater popularity among the lower classes, slaves, athletes, and theatergoers.
Unfortunately, Nero’s popularity among some Romans was not enough to secure his immortality. In A.D. 68, the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s personal militia) began to turn against him, aligning itself with a movement against his tax policies. Abandoned by both his friends and protectors, on 9 June 68, Nero committed suicide with a dagger to his throat. Even as his life drew to a close, Nero saw himself not as a ruthless dictator but as an aesthete and virtuoso, exclaiming moments before death, “What an artist dies in me!”
Nero’s memory endured long after his suicide. Several imposters emerged after his death in an attempt to gain the throne, and for centuries after his death, rumors abounded about Nero’s eventual return to Rome. Augustine wrote of the legend as a popular belief as late as 422. But though he was truly gone, his legacy as a royal contradiction in terms – a violent, matricidal dictator with an aversion to battle, a murderer and arsonist with a self-proclaimed poet’s soul – remains to this day.
Josh Kaplan was bitten by the theater bug at a young age, when he starred in his nursery school’s production of Three Little Pigs. Since then, life has led him to many places. He graduated from Boston University in 2000, Yale Law School in 2004, and became a certified yoga instructor in 2010. But he has remained true to his first love, attending as much theater as possible, volunteering at Arena Stage, and even writing plays, the most recent of which won the Key West Emerging Artist award.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.