The Twisted History Of Emperor Nero

As with any state that determines its rulers based on lineage, the Roman Empire was always going to have some hits and some misses. The thing about the misses, though, is that they weren't even close. With European dynasties, the misses weren't so, oh, unhinged. But with the Roman Empire, the further they got from Augustus, the closer they got to sheer madness, with a few key stops along the way.

There was Caligula, for instance, who may well have been the worst of the bunch. His cruelty knew no bounds and when you look at his entire portfolio as a human being, never mind as a ruler of a powerful empire, he is one of the worst people to have ever lived. Caligula gave way to Claudius, who, while not awful, was also incredibly ineffective. Sure, he didn't continue where Caligula left off, but it's not like he was out there trying to right the ship either. 

And from Claudius came Nero. Nero, who is known for one thing — fiddling while Rome burned. While that probably isn't true, what is true is the fact that he, too, was unhinged. He had habits that were truly bizarre and which only got worse the more he fed into those habits, and he had some crazy ideas that crippled the empire. Like abolishing taxes. Yeah. Sounds great on the surface but in practice? Not so hot.  Here's a look at some of the most twisted parts of Nero and his erratic behavior. 

He may have been a founding furry or a cannibal

The list of, let's call them "indecencies" that Nero boasts is rather long, and for lack of a better word, they are also a bit creative. In the most disgusting way possible, of course. The thing with Nero is that he kind of spiraled. If things were ever normal, it didn't take long for them to get distinctly abnormal. At the time of this particular — almost cannibalistic — indecency, Nero had already committed his fair share of atrocities, including but not limited to murdering numerous family members and proving that he had the political acumen of a toad. 

But when his sexual proclivities had begun to expand, he had a new, and rather specific, habit. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, Nero would dress himself up in the hide of an animal, be it a boar or a bear or any manner of wild beast. Which isn't weird in and of itself, but it didn't stop there. He would then begin acting like a beast himself, and that's where things start getting pretty insufferable. 

There would be young boys and girls fastened to stakes, scattered about his hunting grounds, and the beast that Nero became would come to them and, as Dio puts it, "satisfy his brutal lust." That included "devouring" pieces of them. Which sounds a lot like cannibalism in the simplest term, but it's safe to say that it's probably a bit more than that. 

He ordered his secretary to murder him

Every twisted thing that Nero did has a certain "Are you serious?" quality to it that goes even deeper than the bizarre face value. Take for instance, this bit of trivia: He ordered his secretary to murder him. Right off the bat, that deserves a bit of a double take. But in typical Nero fashion, there are some further details that make it even more absurd than it already is. 

13 years into what was a truly awful reign as emperor, Nero was at the end of his rope, as the whole scenario suggests. He had been declared an enemy of the state, according to, and he was no stranger to attempting suicide. According to the University of Nottingham, this was at least his fourth attempt. And like the previous times, he would not succeed (at least, initially). But he knew that he needed to die, because, as he understood it, Roman authorities were on their way to kill him as he failed to kill himself.

Seeing no other option, and with the authorities literally riding up to his doorstep, Nero then ordered his secretary, Epaphroditus, to help him kill himself. And he did so by driving a dagger into his own neck, with the unwavering support of Epaphroditus. According to the University of Nottingham, a centurion ran into the room and tried to save Nero, but it was too late. The dying emperor's last words? "This is loyalty."

He may have kicked his second wife to death

Being the love of someone's life — their soulmate, if you will — is usually a good thing. A very good thing. But as with all things Nero, it was very much not a good thing. By most accounts, including one told by ThoughtCo., all signs pointed towards Poppaea Sabina being the one true love of Nero. She was just as unhinged as Nero was, and it was highly likely that Poppaea was the voice in Nero's head that told him to kill his mother Agrippa. Not only that, it might have been her who also coaxed him into divorcing his first wife and murdering her. The murders didn't even stop there; she also pushed him to murder Seneca, who had previously been a sound advisor to Nero.

Poppaea had one child by Nero — Claudia — but she did not live long, and while pregnant with her second, Nero's temper struck. Accounts say that he kicked her repeatedly until she died, doing both her and the baby in. Draw whatever connection that you wish from that. To seal the deal, he also had Poppaea's son from her first marriage killed, just because. 

Whatever the case, Nero and Poppaea supposedly had a happy marriage. Which, by Nero's standards, seems pretty par for the course. 

He hired an entourage whose sole job was to adore him

Perhaps this is unsurprising, but Nero created a very special festival just for himself. It was a celebration of him shaving his beard for the first time, according to Roman historian Cassius Dio. It was a joyous occasion, one of the few in Nero's reign, full of games and singing, where citizens of Rome could showcase various talents for the joy of the emperor as Nero offered the hair from his beard as an offering to the gods. Anyone without a talent was recruited into a chorus to sing during the festival. Of course, it wasn't all fun and games. Many people were uncomfortable and forced to do things they didn't want to do. It was, after all, a festival for the beard of someone who was always one step from complete insanity. 

Nero, being of high ego and rather limited faculties himself, had a shaky confidence about him. Between his paranoia and his flimsy self-regard, he came to his own beard's festival prepared to ensure his maximum comfort and success. When he was introduced on stage as Nero himself, the emperor, he was greeted by rapturous applause. But that's only because he had hired 5,000 soldiers to applaud for him and cheer his introduction, according to Dio. You see, he feared that he would not be welcomed so kindly. Perhaps the smartest assessment he ever made. 

But it didn't matter. His loyal soldiers were there to cheer him on. Just as they were hired to do. 

He built a statue to himself rather than rebuild Rome after the Great Fire

The true pinnacle of Nero's failures came about during the Great Roman Fire of 64 A.D. It began in the early morning of June 19, according to History, and took very little time to spread throughout the city. The old rumor is that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but that specific tale likely isn't true. That said, it's not like it's totally unbelievable, so it's no wonder the rumor has lived for so long. 

A whole 14 districts were destroyed, and the damage touched a handful of others. Then, in the aftermath, it didn't take long for people in Rome to start the rumors that Nero had started the fire himself to clear room for a palace complex. Again — can you blame them? This is Nero. The kind of guy who dressed up as an animal and ate body parts off of young men and women tied to stakes (via Cassius Dio). Starting a fire? Totally in his wheelhouse. 

Whoever started it, Nero nonetheless had a great idea of how to use the depleted stores of the Roman treasury. He built an entire new palace complex centered on a 100-foot bronze statue of — guess who? — himself. He then began constructing the city around this palace complex, which functioned as the centerpiece. Not a good look. But then again, neither is literally any of this. 

He used burning Christians as a light source

It's hard to determine which of Nero's antics are worse than any others because they're all so truly ridiculous and cruel — with a sprinkling of stupid. Following the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D., Nero was feeling the pressure of the Roman population blaming him for the tragedy. He did, after all, use the destroyed districts to build his new palace complex, just like they said. Nero needed to find the true culprit, but why do all that work when he could just blame an entire population? Nero took the easy way and blamed the Christians, according to PBS. Just ... all of them. They started the fire. At least according to him.

Which gave Nero an excuse to terrorize Christians, who'd had quite the difficult history in the Roman Empire already, with more yet to come. At the time, they were just a small sect, but if Nero had his way, they would have ended right there. 

Nero did all kinds of things, according to PBS, like feeding them to lions during gladiatorial matches (already bad enough). Or, the most gruesome of all, tying them to stakes and setting them on fire in his own garden, and then hosting garden parties around this mood-setting lighting. Because nothing kicks off a conversation better than a burning corpse.

He killed his mother, brother, wife, unborn child, and step-son

Nero certainly didn't have any qualms killing someone. But he didn't just kill someone – he pretty much killed anyone and everyone who could ever represent a threat to his power. And as a paranoid Roman emperor, the list of people who could conceivably pose a threat is pretty long. It started with his rise to power. Nero wanted to be emperor, but his step-brother Brittanicus was next in line, so Nero did the logical thing, according to PBS — he poisoned him. Problem solved, and Nero could rise.

Then, when his own mother began registering on his paranoia radar, courtesy of his second wife Poppaea, it was his mother who succumbed to the same fate, having opposed the marriage in the first place, according to Britannica. While she survived the initial murder attempt (he sunk her boat, but she swam to shore), he conclusively put her to death not long after. 

Perhaps, all things considered Poppaea had it coming, having encouraged Nero to kill his own mother. But she came next, and that was along with the unborn child that she bore. He did this by kicking her. Not long after that, Poppaea's son by her first marriage was similarly killed by Nero, according to the New Yorker. There really was no stopping this guy. 

He employed the first serial killer of all time

Being a serial killer has some pretty distinct characteristics, but Locusta of Rome shares a few of them. While she doesn't seem to have derived pleasure from killing, according to "She Kills Me: The True Stories of History's Deadliest Woman," by Jennifer Wright, she does have certain consistencies, and Nero gave her all the opportunity in the world to act on those consistencies and continue on her killing ways. 

Locusta was a professional poisoner, which was quite useful to Nero, given all the poisoning he did. To be fair, Locusta had established herself as a renowned poisoner during Claudius' reign as emperor, and she had her brushes with the law. But naturally, that didn't matter to Nero. He employed her to poison his step-brother Britannicus, who was in the way of Nero's line to the throne, and Nero was so pleased with her services that he created an entire school for her and sent students there to learn how to produce and administer poisons as well as Locusta did.

It was like Nero's little academy of future murderers. And it thrived under his rule, but as soon as his assisted suicide came to pass, Locusta's academy was shut down and she was forced into the long-overdue sentence she clearly deserved. 

He cheated to win the Olympics he wasn't supposed to be in (and still didn't really win)

For obvious reasons, the emperor of Rome is not allowed to compete in the Olympics. Any ruler who can literally murder anyone probably shouldn't be allowed near any "friendly" competition, let alone an emperor like Nero, who was even more likely to murder practically anyone. Remember, he built a school to train murderers (via "She Kills Me: The True Stories of History's Deadliest Woman"). Don't let this guy compete in a sporting event.

But unfortunately, that call was up to Nero, and he decided he would indeed compete in the Olympics in 67 A.D., during his tour of Greece, according to History 101. He even added brand new, completely non-athletic events like poetry and performing, because Nero believed himself to be quite the artist. How he arrived at that realization is anyone's guess, but you can probably guess who won most of those events. And just in case anyone wasn't sure that Nero was in the games, he renamed the Olympics that year to Neronia. 

His worst offense, however, was meddling his murky fingers in the most sacred of events — the chariot races. Racers were allowed four horses, but Nero showed up with 10. Being such a poor athlete, it didn't take long for him to lose control of his chariot, crash, and nearly kill himself. He didn't finish the race. But guess what? He still won the race. 

He castrated and married a boy that looked like his second wife

Nero's sexual activities are pretty gross. Consider that he dressed as a wild animal and literally ate pieces of young men and women in sexually maniacal hunts (per Cassius Dio), he consummated marriages on couches in front of the crowd, he was just a very sexually deviant human being. But perhaps the worst instance of them all was in his courting — if you can call it that — of a young man named Sporus. According to the New Yorker, Sporus had a striking resemblance to the true love of Nero's life — Poppaea, his second wife. The one that he kicked to death.

Being so enamored with Sporus, Nero had the poor man castrated, the put under a veil and dressed as a bride. They were then married. According to "Nero and Sporus" by David Woods, the argument could be made that Nero saw the resemblance as a sign of royalty, and wanted a new royal spouse. This argument counters the belief that he did this to Sporus because Nero was still in love with Poppaea, but whatever the case, does it really matter? Nero had a man castrated and dressed as a bride. Whatever his motivation, that's pretty awful. Although, yet again, it's pretty par for the course for Nero.