Friday, May 23, 2008

The Tabloid Tyrant

Death of Nero

What do Elvis Presley and the emperor Nero have in common?  Despite both being musicians, overweight, and a shared taste for flamboyant dress, they were also believed to be alive and well long after their officially reported deaths.

Contrary to the myth, Nero was very popular among the poor, who loved a ruler that could enjoy the vulgar pleasures of the arena and racetrack like a regular Joe.  Statues of him were sold in Rome long after his reign, and his tomb was often decorated with flowers.  Of course, only the wealthy and educated could write the histories, and they were not happy to have an emperor with the common touch.

After committing suicide in 69 A.D., there were rumors for many years after of a conspiracy.  It was believed Nero had been taken away to some remote part of the east to await the day when he would come again and deal justice to his enemies.  To the early Christians who had suffered greatly during his rule, he became a boogieman, the first Antichrist.  And the possibility of his return served a more pessimistic purpose of warning, as some believe he is the beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

These rumors were given such wide credibility that several pretenders came forward at various times to threaten the stability of the empire. 

One of the first of these imposters was a nameless slave whose origins were murky.  He sang and played the lyre, and his resemblance to the dead emperor was striking. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, he gathered about him followers composed mostly of the poor and deserters from the legions.  Taking to sea intending to sail for Rome, they encountered some inclement weather and were forced to make landfall on an island shortly after embarking.  Here, the counterfeit Nero created a short-lived pirate kingdom, praying on passing ships.  He was made short work of by the provincial governor, who raided his ship and sent his severed head on a tour of the provinces before ending in the capital.  Truly a rock star death.

Perhaps the most famous pseudo-Nero was Terentius Maximus, who arose many years later in Asia.  He also attracted a great following but took refuge in the kingdom of Parthia.  At last, his identity discovered, he was put to death.

Sightings and rumors of sightings were to continue for many decades thereafter.  It just goes to show, the gossip column and the conspiracy theory are nothing new.


Grant, Michael. Nero, Emperor In Revolt. New York, New York: American Heritage Press, 1970

Augustine, Saint. The City of God. 2008. New Advent. 23 March 2008

Suetonius, Tranquillus. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. 1914. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008*.html.

Tacitus, Publius C. The History. New York: Random House, 1942. The Perseus Digital Library. 23 March 2008;query=chapter%3D%2398;layout=;loc=2.7.

Dio, Cassius. The Roman History. Trans. Earnest Cary. Harvard University Press, 1927. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008*.html.

Chrysostom, Dio. The Twenty-first Discourse: On Beauty. Trans. J. W. Cohoon. Harvard University Press, 1939. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008*.html.

Published May 22 in Ancient/Classical History.


Dave Agnos said...

Fascinating! I was not aware that people thought Nero was alive after his suicide. I wonder how Vespasian, after coming out on top from the power struggle between him, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, personally dealt with the issue. After all that hard work becoming emperor, imagine the trouble of dispelling rumors of a dead emperor roaming around (a threat to your throne)!
In a modern context, Saddam Hussein did have numerous body doubles, but luckily it was confirmed that we killed the right man. What if we didn't double-check to make sure it was the real Saddam? What if a double tried to take power saying the one hanged was a fake? It sure would have been interesting for a conspiracy theory; as if the real Saddam, like Nero, were hiding around waiting to usurp power. Vespasian would have been unnerved at the least if the rumor held any plausible truth.

Lancelot Kirby said...

Nero is a much-maligned emperor. It is largely due to contemporary historians like Tacitus and others who were of the wealthy senatorial class. Nero acted too much like the common man, and the unforgivable sin is to turn your back upon your class. The later Christian historians didn’t like him much either, but for the persecutions under his reign, though there is some evidence to support that the burning of Rome was actually started by Christians.

Nero built the Golden House, but most don’t realize that most of the land around it was made a giant public park. He also was responsible for a major peace treaty with the Parthians that would settle peace along the frontier for a long time after his death.

Vespasian was not worried I don’t think. None of the imposters even came close to Rome, and were probably happy to stay away from Rome. It was only among the lower classes that suspicion was felt.

As for Saddam, he was never really loved by the people the way Nero was. For the Roman aristocracy such an imposter would have been a nightmare, but I doubt the poor people of Iraq would welcome such a prospect with open arms. I’m glad you found it of interest., I only wish I could have found a paying outlet for it.