Nero is one of the most notorious names in history. His bad reputation comes from a mixture of posthumous gossip and political and Christian propaganda, which after his death painted a gruesome picture of a demonic ruler. Modern historians, such as Princeton’s own Professor Edward Champlin, however, have reinvestigated the story of the emperor and attempted to reevaluate his reign in a more objective light.


Primary Sources on Nero and his reign:

  • Suetonius, Nero in The Twelve Caesars.
  • Tacitus, Annals books 13-16 Nero.
  • Cassius Dio, Roman History books 61-64.
  • Josephus, Jewish Antiquities.

Modern Sources consulted:

Timeline for the life of Emperor Nero; bolded events are represented in the opera (all dates are CE):

  • 37 Birth of Nero (Dec 15).
  • 49 Claudius marries Agrippina the Younger.
  • 50 Claudius adopts Nero.
  • 52 Nero prefect of the city during Latin Festival.
  • 53 Nero marries Octavia.
  • 54 Death of Claudius (Oct 13). Nero becomes emperor.
  • 55 Nero’s first consulship. Death of Brittanicus.
  • 59 The Great Games. Death of Agrippina.
  • 60 Nero’s 4th consulship. Celebration of the Neronia.
  • 60-61 Revolt in Britain.
  • 62 Roman defeat in Armenia. Death of Octavia and Sex. Afranius Burrus (praetorian prefect); Tigellinus replaces him and chooses Rufus as a colleague. Nero marries Poppaea.
  • 64 Nero’s first stage appearance, in Neapolis. Second celebration of the Neronia. Great fire in Rome. Persecutions of Christians. Construction of the Golden House.
  • 65 Discovery of the Pisonian conspiracy. Death of Poppaea, Claudius’ daughter Antonia and Seneca (forced suicide after accusations of taking part in the conspiracy). Nero becomes paranoid that everyone is conspiring against him. Nero marries Sporus.
  • 66 Nero marries Statilia Messalina. Coronation of Tiridates (Armenian king) in Rome followed by the closing of the doors of the Temple of Janus (i.e. all war is at an end). Beginning of the revolt in Judaea.
  • 66-7 Nero tours Greece. Vespasian sent to command the Roman forces in Judaea.
  • 68 C. Julius Vindex raises a revolt against Nero (March); Rufus sets against Vindex but joins him after a conference; Galba joins the revolt and is acclaimed emperor by his troops (April); Vindex defeated by L. Verginius Rufus (May); Galba is recognized as emperor by the Senate (8 June?); Nero commits suicide (9 or 11 June).

Problematic facts:

The following historical problems required a subjective decision to be made. Where possible, we have chosen to side with the emperor.

  • Did Nero commit incest with his mother Agrippina?

Suetonius says he wanted to but wasn’t allowed by her enemies or that maybe he did after all. Cassius Dio suggests that this may have been unfounded gossip. The libretto tactfully avoids the issue overall.

  • Did he murder his mother?

The evidence is too strong to suppose he didn’t it. The decision, however, was justified: she was constantly overstepping the boundaries of her position and may have even been plotting the murder of her son. Nero, however, “was never thereafter able to free his conscience from the guilt of this crime. He often admitted that the Furies were pursuing him with whips and burning torches” (Suet. Ner. 34).

  • Did he set fire to Rome so that he could play the lyre while it burnt?

According to Suetonius, undoubtedly. According to others — not at all. According to some evidence, he was unaware of the Rome burning and did his best to contain the fire reasonably.

  • Did he murder his pregnant wife Poppaea by kicking her in the stomach after she complained that he had come home late from the races (Suet. Ner. 35)?

According to Dio he stepped on her “either accidentally or intentionally.” Tacitus, however, suggests that she died due to complications in childbirth and this is the story we chose to believe.

  • Why did he castrate and marry the boy Sporus?

In our take of the story, madness of losing his beloved wife Poppaea led him to recognize her likeness in the slave boy’s face and believe he can be with her again.