Thursday, August 6, 2015

Why did the "optimus" princeps Trajan admire Nero?

A history resource article by  © 2015

Recently, I watched Dr. Steven Tuck's lecture on the Pompeii earthquake of 62 CE from his course "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City" recorded for The Great Courses.  Dr. Tuck mentioned that the Pompeii earthquake produced a tsunami that destroyed 200 of 300 grain ships in the harbor at Ostia (actually the newly constructed harbor subsequently named Portus).  I was intrigued by this as Tacitus mentions a storm that destroyed 200 ships but does not seem to make the connection between the earthquake in Pompeii and that storm.  Tacitus merely says they occurred in the same year.

Bust of the Roman Emperor Trajan
photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Anyway, I was intrigued enough to research the history of Ostia further on JSTOR and stumbled across a research paper, "Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection", by Oxford scholar M.K. Thornton that appeared in the journal Historia in 1989.  Although it made no mention of a tsunami-like phenomenon, Thornton mentions a quote by Trajan in which Trajan openly expresses profound admiration for Nero.  I found this even more intriguing than verification of the tsunami.  The quote was attributed to Trajan by Aurelius Victor and his Epitomator:

"...un merito Traianus saepius testaretur procul differre cunctos principes Neronis quinquennio."  (Trajan quite often declared that all other emperors fell behind Nero in his quinquennium).

Apparently, this quote has puzzled scholars for over a century since Nero's moral shortcomings and political brutality are usually the focus of most scholarship.  Thus we are regaled by stories of his initially bungled assassination of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, by collapsible boat and Nero's temper tantrum that ended in the death of his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, and unborn child.  We hear of his ridiculous performances in Greece and his brutal persecution of the Christians in retribution for the Great Fire of 64 CE.

The Torches of Nero by Henryk Siemiradzki (1876).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, Nero's shenanigans are so extensive, Dr. Garrett Fagan must use three lectures to detail them in his course "Emperors of Rome" produced by The Great Courses.  In contrast, Trajan who the Roman Senate voted "Optimus Princeps" and is widely recognized by scholars as one of the "good" emperors, warrants only one and a half.

So, what other aspects of Nero's reign could have prompted such an exclamation from a subsequent respectable emperor? Actually, there were a number of military conflicts, administrative challenges and major natural disasters that took place during Nero's rather short, less than 14-year, reign that was resolved successfully despite Nero's obvious moral shortcomings.  Nero did not spend all of his time conspiring to murder his relatives or practicing his lyre.

A rare gold and silver statuette of a youthful Nero
at the British Museum.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2008
Thornton discovered this question has confounded scholars since the early 20th century.   He also found that the first problem that arises when attempting to resolve this issue is identifying the time period Trajan was referencing.  Some scholars point to the first five years of Nero's reign when he was under the close supervision of his tutor Seneca the Younger and the aged Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, considered a creature of Nero's mother Agrippina.  Therefore, they dismiss any favorable outcomes attributable to Nero himself.  However, an early 20th-century scholar, Professor F. Haverfield, one of the references cited by Thornton, points to the first five years of Nero's reign after Burrus died (presumably of natural causes) and Seneca resigned his court position as the period Trajan may have been referencing.

Sculpture of Old Fisherman or Dying Seneca
Photographed at The Louvre by Mary Harrsch
© 2008
In his article "Trajan on the Quinquennium Neronis" that appeared in the 1911 Vol. 1 Issue of The Journal of Roman Studies, Professor Haverfield explains, "...Nero himself tried to divide his reign up into quinquennia by establishing in 60 a quinquennale ludicrum (Tac. Ann. xiv, 20,21) and repeating it in 65 (Ann. xvi, 2).  As the second lustrum was not concluded before his death, it might be held that the period 60-65 was his [first] quinquennium."

Haverfield and his co-author J.G.C. Anderson are both convinced Trajan's admiration is directed at Nero's building programs based on a strict translation of Trajan's entire quote, in particular, the qualification "augenda urbe maxime".  They dismiss a natural interpretation, "enlarging the city", pointing out "augere" may denote an increase not only in size but also greatness, splendor, and dignity of the city.

I personally agree with this point and would take this interpretation a step further since most Romans viewed their city as representative of the empire as a whole.  Therefore I would include not only his building projects but his management of imperial business as well.

Looking at the years 60 - 65, we see that Nero's handling of the Boudiccan Revolt (60-61 CE) resulted in the successful retention of Britannia as a province.  In 62 we know from Dr. Tuck's lecture that Nero must have successfully developed a strategy to relieve any loss of Rome's food supplies and fleet from the catastrophic tsunami that destroyed 200 ships in the newly constructed harbor at Ostia and caused another 100 ships in the Tiber to catch fire.  We also know Poppaea Sabina became Nero's consort in 62 and had close family connections to Pompeii, (her villa in Oplontis still exists and is a fascinating archaeological site with many frescoes still in situ!).  She would have undoubtedly insisted Nero send aid to Pompeii after its devastating earthquake and assist in its reconstruction.  Dr. Tuck tells us the Pompeii quake was of a magnitude roughly equal to that of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake. So aid sent to Pompeii would have had to have been comprehensive and very expensive.

From 58 - 63  Nero, through his talented general Corbulo, deflected an attempt by Parthia to wrest control of Armenia away from the Romans and ultimately resolved the conflict by placing a brother of the Parthian king Vologases I on the Armenian throne.  However, the agreement included the requirement that Tiridates I swear allegiance to and be crowned by Nero as a Roman client king. Although some scholars dismiss this agreement as relatively short-lived (50 years), it forestalled any major confrontations with the Parthians until the Roman appointed Armenian king was deposed in 113 CE and the Parthians placed the nephew of then disputed Parthian King Osroes I on the throne. This resulted in Trajan's invasion of Parthia in 114 CE.

Closeup of a Lynx on a Parthian wine horn.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2015
Rome and Parthia were the two great super powers in the region during this period.  The U.S. government has certainly never been able to accomplish a period of peace lasting that long.  So, I would not dismiss this accomplishment so readily.

Although Nero was not a military man, he still expanded the empire during his reign as well. In 63 CE Pontus Polemaniacus was formally annexed into the empire as a new Roman province.  Between 63 and 66 CE the Cottian Alps was annexed as well.

Then in 64 CE, The Great Fire devastated Rome.  Tacitus tells us of Rome's 14 districts, three districts were levelled to the ground, seven districts had only a few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses remaining, and only three escaped damage.  Nero managed the aftermath of the Great Fire and began rebuilding the city on a plan that not only enhanced the city's appearance but made it easier to defend from future conflagrations.

Of Rome meanwhile, so much as was left unoccupied by his mansion, was not built up, as it had been after its burning by the Gauls, without any regularity or in any fashion, but with rows of streets according to measurement, with broad thoroughfares, with a restriction on the height of houses, with open spaces, and the further addition of colonnades, as a protection to the frontage of the blocks of tenements. These colonnades Nero promised to erect at his own expense, and to hand over the open spaces, when cleared of the debris, to the ground landlords. He also offered rewards proportioned to each person's position and property, and prescribed a period within which they were to obtain them on the completion of so many houses or blocks of building. He fixed on the marshes of Ostia for the reception of the rubbish, and arranged that the ships which had brought up corn by the Tiber, should sail down the river with cargoes of this rubbish. The buildings themselves, to a certain height, were to be solidly constructed, without wooden beams, of stone from Gabii or Alba, that material being impervious to fire. And to provide that the water which individual license had illegally appropriated, might flow in greater abundance in several places for the public use, officers were appointed, and everyone was to have in the open court the means of stopping a fire. Every building, too, was to be enclosed by its own proper wall, not by one common to others. These changes which were liked for their utility also added beauty to the new city. - Tacitus, Annals, Book XV

A fresco from Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Nero had thrown open public buildings and even his own garden to refugees from the fire but I was surprised to read in "Nero: The Man Behind The Myth" by Richard Holland that Nero took over personal leadership of the vigiles (firefighters).

"Nero now took over personal leadership of these already exhausted men, whose prefect, until recently, had been Tigellinus. The young Emperor was to be seen rushing about the city, directing operations by day and night, unprotected by his usual armed guards, whom he had presumably already pressed into temporary service as firefighters, along with any other able-bodied men he could find." - Richard Holland, "Nero: The Man Behind The Myth".

Doesn't sound much like fiddling while Rome burned, does it?

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any ancient references to this account in the translations of Tacitus, Suetonius or Cassius Dio I have read so I'm not sure who Holland used for a source.

Nero also had to manage a plague that struck Rome and claimed 30,000 victims.  Suetonius is the only source for this incident and we're not sure when it occurred other than "one autumn".  But it would certainly have been a real possibility following the fire when so many people were forced to live in cramped temporary dwellings while awaiting reconstruction

In 64 CE Nero also issued a coin memorializing the completion of the great new harbor at Ostia.  The harbor was begun by his adopted father Claudius in 42 CE and some scholars scoff that it was almost complete when Claudius was assassinated and Nero simply took credit for it.  But, we know from Tacitus (Ann. 15.18.3) that in 62 CE a terrible storm destroyed 200 ships anchored in the new harbor and most certainly must have done tremendous damage to the harbor itself as well.  This would account for a rather delayed recognition of the completion of this project.

Portus: Claudius' first harbor and hexagonal basin extension under Trajan
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Thornton points out, "...Nero obviously credited himself with much of the construction: he placed the harbor of Ostia on his coins as a symbol of his reign.  He would be unlikely to do that if he could not convincingly claim it as his own contribution.  Trajan's remark must be construed as showing that in the minds of the Romans Nero should get credit for the harbor than we today might be inclined to give him." - - M. K. Thornton, Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection

Thornton is convinced it is the harbor at Ostia that evoked the admiring quote from Trajan.

"Who else built a harbor? Trajan did.  Not only the one at Ostia but a number of others; Nero also built a harbor at Antium and was interested in other waterways which would improve the obtaining of the food supply.  Trajan, having built the more easily constructed second and smaller harbor at Ostia would respect Nero's accomplishment in building the first and far more difficult outer harbor, without which the inner harbor would have been impossible.  Trajan knew first hand that the building of the harbor was a difficult task.  His admiration for Nero came honestly from a deep appreciation of a very large task well done." - M. K. Thornton, Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection

But then Thornton goes on to dismiss other achievements mentioned by Aurelius Victor in the complete Trajan quotation as mere citations of other accomplishments of Nero, not necessarily within his first five years.  I disagree.  I think Trajan, speaking out of genuine respect for Nero's multiple administrative achievements,  probably considered the first five years of Nero's reign after the death of Claudius as more of a regency period rather than Nero's own. So Trajan viewed Nero's first quinquennium as really 60 - 65 CE.

Reviewing the almost overwhelming events of those five years, I no longer find Trajan's quote puzzling at all!


Thornton, M. (1989). Nero's Quinquennium: The Ostian Connection. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 38(1), 117-119. Retrieved from

Victor, A. De Caesaribus.

Anderson, J., & Haverfield, F. (1911). Trajan on the Quinquennium Neronis. The Journal of Roman Studies, 1, 173-179. doi:10.2307/295862

Tacitus, C. Annals. multiple references.

Holland, R. (2000). Nero: the man behind the myth. Stroud: Sutton.

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