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.
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Published May 22 in About.com Ancient/Classical History.