Roman gold coin find: Poisonings, arson, death and singing in the life of Emperor Nero

By Ben Miller | 20 June 2014

Professor Andrew Birley, the Director of Excavations, on Emperor Nero – the figurehead of an extremely rare Roman gold coin discovery at Vindolanda

A photo of a man standing next to an archaeological wall
© Vindolanda Trust
“Nero was to become not only the best known but the most notorious and most hated of all the Roman Emperors.

Adopted by his stepfather, the Emperor Claudius, in AD 50, Nero became Emperor himself in 54, aged only 16, on Claudius' death.

Claudius is thought to have been poisoned by his wife Agrippina, Nero's mother, to ensure her son's succession before Claudius' own son Britannicus, then only 13, was old enough to be considered.

A photo of the large sculpted head of a roman emperor
Portrait of Nero (1st century). Marble, Roman artwork. From the Augustan area on the Palatine Hill. Antiquarium of the Palatine© Jastrow
At first, Nero was dominated by his mother. But by the next year he started to push her into the background and took the initiative in having his stepbrother Britannicus, still a rival,  poisoned.

For the next few years he remained popular and was content to follow the advice of his main counsellors, who included the philosopher Seneca, his former tutor.

A turning point came in AD 59, when he had his mother murdered, as she was  now regarded as a threat.

Nero had been married since AD 53 to his stepsister Octavia, Claudius' daughter, whom he hated. In AD 62 he divorced her to marry the beautiful Poppaea.

Nero's actions as murderer of his mother, brother and wife were already enough to dent his popularity with his subjects and to ruin his reputation with posterity.

But in AD 64, following the Great Fire of Rome, which many thought he had started deliberately, he found scapegoats in the Christians, including St Peter and St Paul.

A photo of two grey roman coins
A coin issued under Claudius celebrating young Nero as the future emperor (circa 50 AD)© Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. cngcoins.com
They were hunted down, convicted of arson and burned to death in a spectacularly hideous ceremony.

Not surprisingly the Christians regarded Nero, the first of a series of Emperors to persecute them, as the personification of evil, the "Beast" of the Book of Revelation or even the Antichrist. But for pagans the Christians were a deeply suspect and unpleasant sect.

In any case, Nero now needed to reconstruct the ruined city, and this gave him the chance to build a vast new palace which he called the Golden House.

Of course he was badly short of funds. In one desperate but vain move he sent treasure-hunters to the province of Africa, where a charlatan claimed to have located the lost gold of Queen Dido. An easier source was to grab temple treasures and to confiscate the property of his enemies.

There was a major conspiracy against him in AD 65, resulting in the execution of those who were involved or were thought to have been – one being the enormously rich Seneca.

A photo of a couple of gold coins
The coin at Vindolanda was found by a volunteer following decades of searches© Vindolanda Trust
Whatever the source of the bullion, his treasury began issuing gold coins in greater profusion than ever before – but with the weight markedly reduced.

This fitted the image he was now projecting, a new Golden Age, with his Golden House. In AD 66 a Golden Day was proclaimed when the Parthian prince Tiridates, after travelling hundreds of miles from Iran, was formally crowned by Nero as King of Armenia.

Ignoring further conspiracies as well as unrest in the provinces - of which Britain had been the first to rebel in AD 60 under the legendary Boudica, followed late in 66 by the Jews - Nero took off for a tour of Greece, where he competed in and won first prizes in all the traditional games and indulged his passion for acting and singing in public.

But after his return in 67 the pressure mounted, open rebellion in Spain and Gaul was too powerful to resist and the actor-Emperor committed suicide in June AD 68, thus ending the dynasty founded a century earlier by his ancestor Augustus.

Hated by Christians and Jews and by the aristocracy he may have been, but Nero remained popular in Greece, which he was exempted from all taxes, and throughout the Greek-speaking east.

He was also popular with the common people of Rome, in spite of their suffering in the Great Fire. He was fondly remembered as the great showman.

This positive recollection of Nero persisted and even increased in the late Roman Empire, and not only the plebeians but the aristocracy, many of whom were still fervent pagans, happily commemorated the man regarded by Christians as the Great Persecutor.”

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