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History Makers: Nero

He became the most powerful man in the world, used the resources of the mighty Roman Empire for his own indulgences and no one could stop him. Jonny Wilkes meets Rome’s worst ruler

EMPEROR NERO: TYRANT OF ROME

NOTORIOUS Nero preferred hedonism and depravity to ruling the empire
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Nero: a name that has come to embody the human capacity for cruelty, debauchery, even evil. The inauspicious honour of being Rome’s most notorious ruler – a hotly contested title – is often bestowed to the fifth emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, for killing his step-brother, mother and two of his wives. And that only takes care of his family life.

In less than 14 years, he brought Rome to the brink of collapse. He ignored his rule in favour of hedonistic and depraved pursuits, almost bankrupted the empire to pay for his palace and persecuted Christians so barbarically that he has been regarded by another, more hateful name, the Antichrist.

This is the Nero that emerges from the surviving documents of Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. While these men wrote long after his death and hardly with an agenda to preserve his reputation – which explains the generally debunked claims of fiddling while Rome burned and having an incestuous relationship with his mother – they recounted tales of such salacious and immoral deeds that they have endured. A handful of historians may attempt to re-evaluate his legacy, but Nero will always be the megalomaniacal, murderous tyrant.

THE YOUNG EMPEROR Nero took the throne before he turned 17. Agrippina, his mother, believed she could rule through him
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HEAD TO HEAD

A coin minted in Rome shows busts of other, suggesting the two ruled as equals. This close association between mother and son later sparked rumours of incest.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

This might well be our most-packed issue ever, and we’ve got pretty much every time and place imaginable covered. Our section in the centre pages looks at those archaeological discoveries that make our understanding of the past possible – from buried kings to mysterious writings.