You’ve heard of Nero, of course. He’s a highlight of world history in high school, the crazy Roman emperor who supposedly fiddled a tune while the city burned to the ground.
You’ve heard he was out of his mind, sure, but you have no idea exactly how nuts the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors was. Born into the twisted web of the Roman royal family, Nero was adopted by Emperor Claudius as heir to the Roman Empire. Nero distinguished himself as even crazier than any of his predecessors (which was saying something considering Caligula came before this guy).
His entire short, violent life, Nero was little more than a self-indulgent “artist” who was dedicated to promoting his own legend above all else. Of course, the path he took to get there was bat-sh*t insane. The Roman emperor who rounded out the dynasty begun by Augustus punctuated his career with a series of terrible, crazy, bizarre episodes that have fascinated historians ever since.
The most famous myth about Emperor Nero says that the crazed emperor actually played a fiddle while Rome burned during the Great Fire of 64 AD. That’s patently false. Nero did a bunch of crazy things, but this wasn’t one of them. When the fire broke out, Nero was actually 35 miles away at his villa at Antium. When he got the news, he rushed back to the city to begin administering aid immediately.
The reason that the “fiddling” myth arose was thanks to the Roman people’s belief that Nero was a pampered aristocrat who cared little for the plight of his people, therefore he was considered someone so callous and carefree he could play music while his people suffered.
After the Great Fire, the public came to the (incorrect) conclusion that Nero had actually begun the nine-day blaze that engulfed two-thirds of Rome. In order to throw the scent off his trail, Nero put the blame squarely on Christians. Nero took to persecuting believers with glee. He had them thrown to dogs, nailed to crosses, and on occasion, he dipped Christians in oil, set them on fire, and used the light to illuminate his gardens at night.
The case could be made that Poppaea Sabina was Nero’s great love. He exiled his first wife to marry her, then quickly impregnated her once they were married. Then Poppaea mysteriously died before having their second child. Historians of the time claim that Nero actually kicked Poppaea to death. Modern historians are a bit more forgiving, and claim its equally as likely that Poppaea died of a miscarriage.
At any rate, what is known is that some time later, Nero fell in love with a young man named Sporus whose most striking feature was his resemblance to Nero’s late wife. Nero had the boy castrated and brought back to the palace where he took to calling him “lady” and “queen.”
As Nero’s reign progressed, so did his sexual peculiarities. Though he was content to simply hit up some whorehouses in his youth, as he got older, his tastes got a little more violent. According to Roman historian Cassius Dion:
“Nero would fasten naked boys and girls to stakes, and then putting on the hide of a wild beast would attack them and satisfy his brutal lust under the appearance of devouring parts of their bodies.”
Initially, Nero wasn’t expected to be emperor. However, after the emperor Claudius married his niece, Nero's mother Agrippina, Agrippina persuaded her husband to adopt Nero as his son. It was then - with Nero next in line for the throne - that Nero’s mother Agrippina supposedly poisoned Claudius and pinned the crime on another woman.
This plan ultimately backfired, though, as once Nero took the throne at the young age of 17, he was warned by both his advisors and his friends to watch out for Agrippina. In an attempt to secure his hold on the throne, Nero poisoned his stepbrother Britannicus and then, fearing his own mother’s wrath, Nero had Agrippina killed five years after taking the throne.