Nero is (wrongly) "known" as the Emperor who "fiddled while Rome burned." But he did kill a number of prominent people, including his own mother. He is treated by much of history as a psychopath, and most contemporaries of note disliked him.

Apparently there was another side of him. He lowered fines, bails, lawyers fees' and taxes, presumably to help the poor people. After the Rome fire he personally organized relief efforts for the homeless, even putting up some of them in his own palace. He made a brilliant peace with Rome's traditional enemy, Parthia, by setting up a compromise where the Parthians could nominate the king of Armenia (a state of the border of the two empires), but Rome had to ratify the nomination, a move that won him plaudits from both Romans and Parthians.


So has "history" made Nero out to be worse than he was, at least in relation to his time? (The fiddle didn't exist in his time so that he couldn't have "fiddled" while Rome burned, meaning that "conventional wisdom" is wrong on at least one count; I did not know this until seeing the comments below.) And is there any known medical condition that might have caused otherwise unharacteristic strange behavior that hurt his reputation but really wasn't harmful?

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    Almost every Roman emperor would qualify as a psychopath today, and Nero doesn't even come close to being the stranger of the lot (Elagabalus, Caligula and Commodus were far weirder). He isn't even the more violent, the sadistic Caracalla is probably the worst in that category. And since Nero is considered by some Christian writers as the Antichrist, it's worth noting that he wasn't even the worst persecutor of Christians, Diocletian and Septimius Severus were far worse. Lastly, the fiddle wasn't invented until the 16th century, so obviously Nero didn't fiddle while Rome burned...
    – yannis
    May 9, 2013 at 6:57
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    Nero is perhaps extreme, (although as @Yannis Rizos points outnot the most extreme) but can't similar statements be made about most leaders? King John of England caused hell to stink, but founded much of the much valued English legal system. Don't get me started on Jefferson. Leaders are like salads - lots of good and bad bits mixed together.
    – MCW
    May 9, 2013 at 11:28
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    @MarkC.Wallace: One must point out that there is a smidgeon of a difference between King John and Jefferson - one's good deeds were unintended and forced upon him, whereas the other, with all his faults, was consciously working for a good cause. May 9, 2013 at 12:53
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    I don't think it's really possible to answer this, since you are in effect asking for a psychological profile of someone who had been dead for 2000 years (and got a really bad press into the bargain). I'm not saying it's impossible on principle but we must have something to go on - memoirs of his own or of someone else, logs of therapy sessions, fiction he wrote, something! Needless to say, we have none of these sources in Nero's case so any speculation about his mental makeup will have to remain just that - speculation. May 9, 2013 at 12:56
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    @FelixGoldberg Well, Nero lost as well (committed suicide to avoid execution), and a lot of his history was written by people he violently persecuted (i.e. Christian writers). That said, all facts about Agrippina and Nero come from the same sources, and none of the sources is a primary one or particularly trustworthy, so caution is reasonable.
    – yannis
    May 9, 2013 at 19:28

2 Answers 2


I think the biggest thing that separates Nero from other emperors at this time is the fact that he was actually deposed in his lifetime and thus didn't have successors telling people not to write bad stuff about him. For instance, I would love to see the source on the previous poster's point that he supposedly set people on poles and lit them on fire to provide light. That seems evil enough but if you take 5 minutes to just think about it you realize that it sounds apocryphal as hell. People do not make good lanterns. If they did, you'd see a lot more use of person-like animals such as pigs used in this fashion.

To the point about considering the sources, one of the best places we have for Nero is what's left of Tacitus' work called the Histories. These were written as a means of saying "this guy we have right now, whatever you think of him, he wasn't really THAT bad, people. You want badness? Check out Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors". Tacitus has every reason in the world to believe and put into writing some of the more scurrilous rumors about Nero and every reason to diminish or flat-out ignore his virtues. Even supposed good qualities such as Nero's popularity among the common people would have been viewed as a good reason to get rid of him by the people of his time; a hundred plus years removed from the final fall of the corrupt Republic, people did not have good memories of democratic rule.

And, of course, a lot of what we have left, we have because medieval Christian monks decided to copy it down and save it. Nero was greatly despited by early Christians, to the extent that the "number of the beast" from Revelations is argued by some scholars to be a coded reference to "Neron Caesar". It's not surprising at all that a villain of Christians would later be passed down by Christians and portrayed to be villainous.

As to the question of whether or not Nero was really that bad, I'd have to say "almost certainly not" because it's hard to conceive of anyone being as bad as Nero was made out to be. For instance, the Wiki article notes that there is simply no evidence that he actually kicked his wife Poppea to death because he grew bored of her. He built a bunch of public works, including gymnasiums and hippodromes, and when Rome burned he took the opportunity to engage in a massive public works project in the city (and, likewise, there is just not a lot of direct evidence that he engaged in arson or stood by and let the city burn itself out, "fiddled while Rome burned" so to speak). He was eventually deposed, of course, and was supposedly rather cowardly when he attempted to run off instead of, I guess, take the sword to the gut like a real man. The end of his reign is only a little bit extraordinary when you look at it in the context of the people during that century, though (and hardly unique - see Caligula); many, many emperors would meet an untimely death in the centuries to follow.


This seems like a loaded question. I think it is more that our perception on morality and the misconceived construct of an ideal leader. He followed (not directly) the great leader Augustus who upheld the ideologies of a republic and lay the foundations for the Roman Empire, which most of the other leaders , I am sure , had a hard time living up too.

Although there have been some seriously demented leaders from that period in history. Nero was fairly brutal in his conduct, going so far as to burn people on poles so that he could have a source of light at night. Which to view from our civilizations morality, we would consider to be rather unjust and inhumane.

But I think anyone who studies Roman history and the works of Nero as they are represented in history books, and the context of the time period, would not view him to be the worst leader. It was written that when he returned to Rome after hearing of the fire , he used his own money to help in the relief effort and helped the homeless while reconstruction took place.

I think the misconception comes more from Christian propaganda of the time that lingers even today for those who could not be bothered to learn anything about it.

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    Sorry, downvote - I don't quite udnerstand what you were trying to say. Jul 17, 2013 at 9:02
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    What do you not understand? Simply put, it outlines that the question itself is loaded. History has not mistreated Nero, but has simply recorded the events of his leadership. Of which some people might have ( Not in scholarly works ) created a negative misconception.
    – user2597
    Jul 17, 2013 at 13:54
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    Ok, some detailed criticism of the answer: (1) You say that Augustus "upheld the ideologies of a republic and lay the foundations for the Roman Empire" - that's a contradiction in terms, it just does not make sense. (2) 2nd paragraph summary: <Some leaders were demented but Nero was brutal.He burnt people on poles to get some light and we consider that inhumane.> Lots of eyebrows raised here: do you posit that in his own time such actions were humane? Do you imply he was brutal but not demented? How do we know the lightpoles story is true at all, and not contemporary propaganda? Jul 17, 2013 at 22:21
  • (3) It's a legitimate assertion to say he was not the worst leader. But your only evidence for that is the story that he gave out some largesse to some power-stricken people, just that's Basic P.R. for Dictators 101. The OP's question, for all its faults, listed other more tangible instances of good government by Nero. (4) Nero certainly was not the darling of the Christians. But his bad press goes back to Tacitus and Suetonius, hardly Christian authors. I'm sorry, but once deductions are made for these criticisms there is not much left in the answer. Jul 17, 2013 at 22:24
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    I'm really sorry to have to downvote (I upvoted your other answer, btw) but I do feel this answer sorely needs improvement to fit the site. Please do not take this as a personal criticism - I've had some of my early answers downvoted too and it made me write better answers later. Jul 17, 2013 at 22:27

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