Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren



On the death of Augustus in the year 14 A.D. his stepson Tiberius became emperor. He was a cruel tyrant. He put to death a great many people only because he thought they were his enemies. A Roman emperor could put to death any one he pleased. If he did not like a person, he would charge him with some crime and order his soldiers to kill him. Tiberius had many people killed in this way, but he was himself killed by the commander or general of the Prætorian Guard.

The next two emperors were Caligula and Claudius. They also were tyrants and put many people to death without just cause. It is said that Caligula once wished that all the Roman people together had but one head so that he might cut it off with one blow.

But the next emperor was a still greater tyrant. His name was Nero. He became emperor in the year 54 A.D. He was the son of a wicked woman named Agrippina. This woman married the Emperor Claudius and got him to appoint her son, Nero, his successor, instead of his own little son, Britannicus. Then she killed Claudius by poison, and Nero became emperor.



Nero was a tall, strong, good-looking, bright youth. He was fond of games, and could play well on several musical insruments. When he first became emperor he seemed to be affectionate and kind-hearted, and he did a number of good things. Once, when he was asked to sign a warrant for the execution of a man condemned to death, he exclaimed:

"I wish I had never learned to write, for then I shouldn't have to sign away men's lives!"

Then all the people around him cried:

"What a noble young man our emperor is! What a good heart he has!"

But in a very short time it was found that Nero was not at all kind or merciful, but that he was a cruel and wicked man.

His mother Agrippina expected that when her son was emperor she herself would be the real mistress and would rule the Roman Empire as she pleased. Nero was only a boy, she thought, and he would not want to take upon himself the cares and burdens of government.

And for a while Agrippina did rule Rome. She had a woman she hated put to death and she punished several other persons who had offended her. She made some of the richest Romans pay her large sums of money. But Nero soon put an end to his mother's power. One day he said to her:

"I, not you, am the ruler of the Empire. You have no right to take any power upon yourself and you must not do so again. Whenever you want anything done you must ask me to do it for you."

"Ask you?" cried Agrippina, in a rage. "How dare you talk this way to me who made you emperor? You the emperor! You are not the rightful emperor. The true heir to the Empire is your stepbrother, young Britannicus, the son of Claudius!"

Then there was a fierce quarrel between Nero and his mother, and at last he turned her out of his palace and ordered her never to appear there again.

But what she had said alarmed him very much. He feared that Britannicus might be made emperor, and therefore he determined to get him out of the way as soon as possible.

At this time there was in Rome a dreadful woman named Locusta, who made poisons and sold them secretly to any one who wanted them. Nero went one night to this woman and said:

"Make me a strong poison—so strong that it will kill a person like a flash of lightning!"

Locusta made the poison and gave it to him. He tried it on a pig, and it killed the animal in a few moments.

"Ha!" said he, "this will do the work."

Now, Britannicus lived in the palace with his stepbrother and next day, when dinner was served, Nero put some of the poison into a cup of wine which he knew the boy was to drink. The moment Britannicus drank it, he fell to the floor dead. Then Nero said to the guests who were at the table:

"Do not be alarmed. It is nothing. My poor stepbrother always was subject to fits."

The attendants carried the body of Britannicus out of the room, and the dinner went on gayly.


A little while after he had poisoned his stepbrother, Nero made up his mind to get rid of his mother, also. He was afraid that as long as she lived he would not be safe as emperor. She might stir up the people against him any day. So he went to see her and pretended that he was sorry he had ill-treated her. He kissed and caressed her so affectionately that she was entirely deceived.

Then the cruel son made a plan to drown his mother. He had a ship so built that by pulling out certain bolts and pins it would suddenly fall to pieces and sink. He then hired a wicked captain and crew to do his bidding, and got his mother to take a sail in the ship down the Tiber.

Agrippina took a maid with her and went aboard. She was in a happy humor, because her son, as she thought, was so kind to her. When the ship came to a certain place in the river where the water was very deep, the sailors pulled out the bolts and pins. Then the ship began to fall apart and to sink.

The sailors sprang into the river to swim to the shore, and Agrippina and her maid jumped overboard. The maid was killed by a sailor, but Agrippina was picked up by the crew of a fishing boat.

Nero was greatly troubled when he learned of his mother's escape. He believed that now she would certainly try to have him removed from the throne. So he sent some men to kill her in her house, and they did so in a most cruel manner.


None of the emperors before Nero lived so grandly as he did. He had a splendid marble palace at Rome, containing immense quantities of beautiful furniture, gold and silver ornaments, and works of art of the finest kind. On the pleasant shores of the Mediterranean Sea he had several houses where he lived in the summer and autumn months. Wherever he went he had, as his court or companions, three or four hundred richly dressed men and women, with many slaves to wait upon them. They traveled in chariots covered with ivory and gold and drawn by beautiful horses.

Nero was famous for the splendid dinners he gave in his palace. The rarest and most costly food and wines were spread upon the tables in great plenty, and when the feasting was over troops of actors and dancers would give performances which lasted until late at night.

Sometimes, at these dinners, Nero would play on a harp or flute, and sometimes he would act portions of plays or recite poems which he himself had composed. He was a very clever musician and actor, and he wrote very good poetry.

One evening a fire broke out in Rome and raged furiously for a week. Half the city was burned, and hundreds of people lost their lives. Some of the Romans said that Nero had started the fire and had prevented it from being put out. Most of the six days during which the fire lasted he spent in a high tower, enjoying the sight. He played on his harp, sang merry songs, and recited verses about the burning of the ancient city of Troy.

After the fire was put out Nero said that it had been caused by the believers in the religion of Christ. At this time there was a very large number of Christians in Rome. But most of the Romans still worshiped their old pagan gods, and they hated and ill-treated the Christians.

When Nero declared that the Christians had caused the great fire, the people began to persecute them in a dreadful manner. Many of the Christians were hanged, some were covered with pitch and burned, and others were hunted to death by savage dogs. During the time of this persecution the Apostle Paul was beheaded and the Apostle Peter was crucified, as Christ had been crucified thirty-one years before.

After a short time Rome was rebuilt in a greater magnificence than before. Nero built for himself an immense and splendid palace on the famous Palatine Hill. This palace contained so many ornaments of gold that it was called the Golden House.

In governing the Empire Nero was very harsh and cruel. He often put innocent men and women, and even his own friends, to death. He killed his wife in a fit of passion. He did so many wicked things that at last the Romans got tired of having such a tyrant to rule them, and they formed a plot to dethrone him and make some one else their emperor.



But the plot came to nothing, because a slave who had heard of it went to Nero and told him all about it. The Prætorian Guards seized the leading plotters and put them to death. Nero then became more wicked than he had been before. He even accused his old tutor Seneca, and the famous poet Lucan, of taking part in the plot against him, and he sent them an order to put themselves to death. Seneca was a very good man and a great writer. When he received the cruel order from Nero, he knew that if he did not obey it the tyrant would send some one to kill him, so he had the veins of his arms cut open and he died after much suffering. Lucan also obeyed the tyrant's order. While dying he repeated lines from one of his own poems.


This wicked emperor reigned fourteen years. But at last there was a rebellion against him, and the soldiers elected Galba, the Roman governor of Spain, to be the new emperor.

Then Nero acted like a miserable coward. He was afraid to stay any longer in Rome, for most of the people hated him and favored Galba. So he mounted a horse and rode out of the city to the home of a trusty slave. But while he was there he received word that the Senate had condemned him to death and that horsemen had been sent out to capture him.

"Now dig a grave for me," he said to the slave, "and I will kill myself!"

At this moment the galloping of horses was heard.

"Hark! They are coming to kill you," cried the slave. "Use the dagger while it is time and save yourself from disgrace!"

With trembling hand Nero placed his dagger at his throat, but did not have the courage to use it. The slave then seized it and plunged it into the emperor's throat, and the wicked Nero fell dead.