Suetonius on the reign of Nero


These are the Suetonius set-texts on the reign of Nero. 
Text in black is the Board's set text.  Text in light blue I have added.
Mouse-over the emboldened words to read the glosses. 
Where words are blue and underlined, there is also a hyperlink to another site.


Suetonius, Nero

Suetonius, you will remember, treats his subjects thematically, not annalistically. 
-  Chapters 1-8 deal with his family, birth and early life up to his accession.
-  Chapters 9-19.2 deal with the good start to, and various positive aspects of, his principate.
-  Chapters 19.3-39 describe the horrors of his reign, including his petulantia, libido, luxuria, avaritia and saevitia.  This is a conscious inversion of the normal characteristics ascribed to emperors (such as Claudius): clementia, pietas, moderatio, civilitas and liberalitas.
-  Chapters 40-50 deal with his death and funeral.
-  Chapters 51-57 rehearses his attributes and character.

In Suetonius's account, Nero comes across as a monster - a homicidal, deluded pervert whom, 'after the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off':

Chapter 7
Nero's first public appearances
While he was still a young boy, in the game of Troy at in the circus games he gave a very good performance which was well-received. When he was 10, he was adopted by Claudius, and Annaeus Seneca, already a member of the senate, was appointed to educate him. There is a story that that during the next night Seneca dreamed that he was teaching Gaius Caesar [Caligula], and Nero soon gave proof that the dream was right, when he showed a natural cruelty early on in his life. For because his brother Britannicus had, after his adoption, greeted him as usual as Ahenobarbus, he tried to prove to Claudius that Britannicus was not his son at all. In addition, when his aunt Lepida was on trial, he was a witness against her, to please his mother, who was making every effort to have her found guilty.

In his first public appearance in the Forum, he announced a gift of money to the people and to the soldiers; he then led a parade of the praetorians carrying a shield. Afterwards he thanked his father in the senate-house. During Claudius’ consulship, he delivered a speech on behalf of the people of Bononia in Latin, and on behalf of the people of Rhodes and Ilium in Greek. He first conducted a trial as judge during his time as prefect of the city at the Latin Festival. The most famous speakers brought before him not the common, short sort of cases, as was usual, but many, important matters, although Claudius had forbidden this. Shortly afterwards he married Octavia, Claudius’ daughter and gave games and a beast-hunt in the Circus, for the health and safety of Claudius.

Chapter 9
The start of the reign
He began his reign with an appearance of family loyalty and duty: at a splendid and expensive funeral, he spoke in praise of Claudius, and then deified him. He gave the greatest honours to the memory of his father Domitius.

He let his mother manage everything, public and private. On the first day of his reign, he even gave to the tribune on guard-duty the password "The Best of Mothers," and afterwards he often rode with her through the streets in her litter. He established a colony at Antium, using the veterans of the praetorian guard along with the wealthiest of the chief centurions; he actually forced them to move house; and he also spent a great amount of money in building a harbour there.

As in his biography of Claudius, Suetonius starts his account of Nero with a section describing Nero's reign in quite objective, even positive terms.

He now, however, moves onto a devastating attack on Nero's character. Shocking as though the following paragraphs are, your translator has omitted the worst passages.

Chapter 28
Sexual perversions
He corrupted free-born boys and seduced married women; he even forced himself on the Vestal Virgin Rubria. He almost married the freedwoman Acte, after bribing some ex-consuls to swear on oath that she was of royal birth. He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to turn him into a woman; then Nero held a marriage ceremony in the usual way, with a dowry and a bridal veil, took him home, accompanied by a crowd of followers, and treated him as his wife. You can still hear the joke at the time, that the world would have been better of if Nero's father Domitius had married a wife like Sporus. He took this Sporus, all dressed up like an empress and carried along in a litter, to the assemblies and markets of Greece; soon after this he took him round the image-market in Rome, repeatedly kissing him.

No one doubted that he wanted sexual relations with his own mother, and was prevented by her enemies, afraid that this ruthless and powerful woman would become too strong with this sort of special favour. What added to this opinion was that he included among his mistresses a certain prostitute who they said looked very like Agrippina.
They also say that, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, the stains on his clothes afterwards proved that he had indulged in incest with her.

Chapter 33
Nero's saevitia
Claudius was the first member of his family to be murdered; he may not have been the one to arrange it, but he certainly knew about it. He did not hide the fact because later he used to praise mushrooms (the poison was administered to Claudius in a dish of mushroom), as "the food of the gods," in the words of the Greek proverb. In fact, after Claudius's death he made fun of him with every insult he could accusing him of stupidity and cruelty; he used to joke that Claudius had stopped "being the idiot" among men, by lengthening the first syllable of the word, and he treated as worthless many of his decrees and acts as if they had been done by a crazy fool; as a final humilation for Claudius, he neglected his tomb providing it with nothing except a low-walled enclosure.

Nero tried to kill Britannicus with poison; he saw him as a rival in singing, since his voice was pleasanter than his own, but an equal motive for the murder was the fear that he might at some point gain more influence and support because men remembered his father. He got the poison from a certain well-known poisoner, Locusta. When the poison worked more slowly than expected, since it only gave Britannicus a serious stomach-ache, he had the woman summoned and he beat her himself. He accused her of giving him a remedy instead of the poison. Her excuse was that she had given Britannicus less in order to keep the crime secret and save Nero from being suspected. He replied: "Obviously to you I am afraid of the Julian law."
Then in his own room he forced her to cook up the fastest possible potion to take effect instantly. He tested it on a kid-goat, which took 5 hours to die; so he had her cook it again so that it was stronger still, and he gave it to a pig. The pig dropped dead at once. He ordered the poison to be taken to the dining-room and given to Britannicus who dined with him that day. The boy fell dead the moment he tasted it, but Nero lied to his guests saying that he had been attacked by an illness, which he had suffered from for some time. The very next day Nero had Britannicus quickly buried in a simple funeral in the middle of a thunder storm. He gave Locusta a pardon and large estates as a reward for her good work . He also provided her with some pupils.

Chapter 34
Agrippina is murdered, Domitia is poisoned

[Although Suetonius at this point in his biography describes the murder of Agrippina, I have put it opposite Tacitus's description, so that you can compare the two accounts.]

... To the murder of his mother he added the killing of his aunt, Domitia.  He visited her when she was ill with severe constipation. She was stroking his beard - he was already grown-up – and by chance said kindly: "As soon as I receive this, I want to die."  He turned to those next to him and said, apparently as a joke, that he would shave it off immediately.  He ordered the doctors to give the ill woman too large a dose of medicine to empty her stomach.  He took over her property before she was actually dead and cancelled her will, so that he lost nothing.

Chapter 35
After Octavia he married two other women: first Poppaea Sabina was the daughter of an ex-quaestor and previously married to a Roman eques; second Statilia Messalina, daughter of the great-granddaughter of Taurus, who had been consul twice and had held a triumph. He killed Statilia’s husband, Atticus Vestinus, while he was still consul, in order to marry her. He quickly began to despise Octavia and grew tired of living with her; when his friends complained about his attiude, he replied that she should be happy being his wife. He tried and failed to strangle her a number of times. He divorced her claiming she was infertile. However, the people were not pleased with this and rioted against it, so he banished her instead; and finally he executed her for the crime of adultery. This was so obviously shameful and false, that all denied it even when tortured. Therefore he bribed his former tutor Anicetus to be a witness and confess that he had seduced her by some trick. He married Poppaea twelve days after his divorce from Octavia and he truly loved her; but he also killed her by kicking her when she loudly complained that he had returned home late from the chariot races while she was unwell with her pregnancy. Poppaea and Nero had a daughter, Claudia Augusta, but he lost her when she was still a baby.

There was no sort of family relations which he did not damage by some crime or other. He killed Antonia, daughter of Claudius, when she refused his offer of marriage after Poppaea's death, on the charge that she was organising a plot against him. Likewise he dealt with all others in any way related to him by family or by marriage. There was the young man Aulus Plautius, whom he physically abused by force before he killed him, with the comment "Now my mother can come now and kiss my successor." This effectively accused him of being Agrippina’s lover and of having some hopes of becoming emperor. He insisted that Rufrius Crispinus, still only a boy, his stepson and the child of Poppaea, was drowned in the sea by his own slaves while he was fishing because they said he pretended to be a general and played at being emperor. He banished his nurse's son Tuscus, because, during his governorship of Egypt, he had bathed in the bathhouse built for Nero’s visit to the province. He forced his tutor Seneca to commit suicide. Seneca had often asked to be allowed to retire and offered to give up his property but Nero had sworn on oath that he had no reason to suspect him and that he would rather die than harm him. He sent poison to Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect, having promised to send a medicine for his throat. He used poison, either in their food or their drink, to get rid of the old, rich freedmen who supported his adoption and his accession, and given their guidance when he was emperor.  

Chapter 52
As a boy he was interested in almost all the literary and artistic subjects; but his mother kept him from philosophy, warning him that it was unsuitable for a future emperor. Seneca, his teacher, stopped him reading the earliest orators, in order to make his admiration for Seneca himself last longer. He happily turned his attention to poetry and wrote poems easily enough, and he did not, as some think, publish others’ works as his own. There have come into my hands note-books and papers with some well-known poems of his, written in his own handwriting so that it is easily clear that they were not copied or noted down when someone was speaking, but developed just as if thinking and composing; There are many examples of words and phrases rubbed out or written over and added to or written above. He also had a considerable interest in painting and sculpture.