By Roman cultural standards, Emperor Nero’s death was quite shameful, as he found it difficult to take his own life.
Emperor Nero died after he had lost his power base in Rome and believed that his enemies had sent assassins to beat him to death. According to one report, his last words were “what an artist dies in me!” However, it appears that his final words were said to the centurion trying to save his life and consisted of the admonition “too late! This is fidelity!”
Nero was one of the most hated Emperors. He certainly brought it on himself by killing his mother and two of his wives.
Nero’s Fall from Grace
In his early years, Nero was a popular and capable Emperor. His one major flaw was an exaggerated belief in his musical talents. Nero would reportedly bore his subjects with interminable and mediocre lyre concerts.
The Emperor’s problems started when his mother, Agrippina, plotted against him with his enemies. Nero turned brutal, killing his mother and many other opponents.
Worst of all, he killed his wife to be with his mistress. Then when she had become his second wife, he kicked her in the stomach while pregnant. This evil act killed both the unfortunate Poppaea and their unborn child.
Did Nero Play as Rome Burned?
However, the event that Nero is most remembered for is the Great Fire of Rome. The vast majority of the city burned down in 64 AD. According to legend, Nero played his lyre and watched the city burn. It is unclear if there is truth to this story, but it stuck and played an essential part in his undoing.
Sensing the weakness of the Emperor, some powerful generals put together a plot to overthrow Nero. The most powerful among them was Servius Galba, the governor of Hispania. Galba and his allies enacted a coup against Nero and turned the unit responsible for his safety, the fearsome Praetorian Guard, against Nero.
Nero Tries to Flee
The Emperor knew that he had lost the all-important support of the Praetorian Guard. However, he tried to bribe some of the members into helping him escape from the country. But Nero was met with the pointed rejoinder: “Is it so terrible a thing to die?” from one of the guards.
Nero wrote a speech pleading his case to the people of Rome, hoping to be spared. However, his lack of popularity was such that there was a good chance he would be killed before he had even said a word.
It was a long Roman tradition that when influential Romans had lost their political or military hopes, they should take their own lives and preserve their honor. In 68 AD, the Senate declared Nero, an enemy of the state.
The Senate may have spared Nero’s life in honor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty he represented. However, the Emperor did not know that. The information he received was that paid assassins were on their way to club him to death.
Nero fled to the villa of one of his former slaves, Phaon, and four of his servants. One of his servants was a former gladiator, and he served as a bodyguard to the Emperor.
Nero has Serious Trouble Offing Himself
His servants insisted he should kill himself rather than face an ignominious death. Nero agreed and paced back and forth as they dug his grave. It is then that he cried out, “what an artist dies in me!” a reference to his substandard musical talents.
The Emperor did all he could to avoid his fate. Preparing to take his own life, the Emperor could not quite get the nerve to plunge the dagger. Therefore, Nero begged one of his servants to kill themselves before his eyes, presumably to prepare himself.
Nero then berated himself for his cowardice. Suetonius (who may not be reliable because he detested the Emperor) wrote that at this point, he marveled at “how ugly and vulgar” his life had become before ordering himself to “pull yourself together.”
That is when horse hooves were heard in the distance, and Nero realized that time had run out. However, he could not yet bring himself to drive the blade home. Instead, his personal secretary gave him the final push.
One of the arriving centurions took in the scene and ran to stem the bleeding. It appears that Nero’s last words were addressed to him, as he cried out, “Too late! This is fidelity!” The Emperor was soon dead.