Nero was made emperor when only sixteen years old, through the dark plots of his wicked mother Aprippina, who by poisoning her husband, the emperor Claudius, and his son, cleared the way to the throne for Nero, who was her own son by a former marriage. During the first five years of his reign the young emperor was influenced by the advice of able counselors, and ruled wisely; but as he grew older his violent nature began to show itself. He fell under the sway of a beautiful and notorious woman, Popaea Sabina, who was a proverb for vanity and evil living, and who was said to keep five hundred she-asses so that she might bathe in their mild, to preserve her complexion. nero wanted to marry her, although he already had a wife, Octaia. Agrippina taking the part of the neglected wife, Nero planned his mother's death by the ingenious device of sending her to her country seat in a boat, which was cunningly contrived to fall to pieces as soon as it left the shore. Agrippina saved herself by swimming to the land, but was directly afterward slain by the swords of executioners, who were dispatched by her son Nero as soon as news had been brought of her escape from drowning. Octavia was divorced, sent to an island, and put to death there; Nero then married Poppaea and gave himself up to the wildest and most reckless course of life.
Throwing aside the state and dignity usually maintained by a Roman emperor, Nero would descend into the arena and mingle with the gladiators, or professional fighting-men, sometimes then taking part in the bloody scenes enacted there. This delighted the rabble, who crowded the tiers of seats in the great circus and shouted their approval, but the nobility turned with disgust from the spectacle of and emperor so degrading himself. Caring only for the applause of the mob, Nero used every means to extort money from the rich and spent it in wasteful extravagance. A hugh palace, called the Golden House because of its splendid decorations, was built. This magnificent structure was of great size and surrounded by gardens, lakes, baths, and pleasure-grounds. "Now, at last," said Nero, "I am lodged as an emperor should be."
In order to get money to complete this palace, accusations were brought against many rich men of Rome, who were put to death, and their property taken by the emperor. His hatred and cruelty seemed especially directed toward the higher classes. Seneca, the philosopher, Nero's former teacher and adviser, was accused, and chose to die by his won hand, by bleeding to death in a warm bath, his wife dying in the same way. So common did it become for men to receive a message sentencing them to death that they searched for easy ways of dying, so as to escape the public executioners.
About this time at terrible fire broke out at Rome, which destroyed six of the fourteen quarters, or districts, of the city. For six days the fire burned furiously, and scarcely had it died down when another fire began in the opposite direction. Many ancient temples, monuments, and works of art were ruined by the flames. The people were panic-stricken, and believed that the fire had been started by the emperor for the mere pleasure of seeing it burn. It was said that when the flames were at their height, he went up into a tower and sat there, looking down upon the burning city while he played upon his harp, and sang of the burning of Troy--saying, "I would that I might see the ruin of all things."
Nero Accuses the Christians
But becoming alarmed at the hatred he had aroused in his people, and finding his throne endangered, Nero hastened into the streets, and with a free hand scattered money among the crowds until his treasury was empty. Then, with characteristic cruelty and cunning he undertook to divert the attention of the angry mob from himself by leading them to wreak their vengeance upon helpless and innocent victims. He therefore accused the Christians of having set fire to Rome, and ordered them to be hunted down, slain, and tortured in such a variety of horrible ways as awakened the pity of even the heartless Romans themselves.
In particular he had some sewed up in the skins of wild beasts, and then worried by savage dogs until they expired. Others he had wrapped in tow and smeared with pitch; they were then fastened to tall poles planted in the garden of his palace, and set on fire, while Nero, attended by his slaves and courtiers, reclined upon a balcony and watched the blazing of what he called his "torches."
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