On June 9, 68 CE in Rome, Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, committed suicide. Nero was a figure hated by Christians and the Roman aristocracy. However, the ruler was perceived differently among the lower social classes; its popularity was so great that three pretenders appeared throughout history.
The sources of the appearance of usurpers claiming to be Nero are the not entirely clear circumstances of the Emperor’s death, which sparked rumours among the people that this one was faked to allow Nero to escape his persecutors. Moreover, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus was much more popular in Rome than most of us think. He enjoyed great popularity, especially among the commoners, until his death, and as the examples of “Neroons-Pretenders” appeared after his death, even for much longer.
The fear of Christians, on the other hand, of the true resurrection of Nero, intensified by the appearance of the pretenders, was reflected in the text known today as the Apocalypse of Saint John.
The first and most famous “Nero” appeared in the Greek East in early 69. It is not known what his real name was. Apparently, he resembled the emperor physically, with his posture, hairstyle and gaze. The self-proclaimed plan was quite reasonable – in Greece, Nero was very popular, due to its recognition in 66 CE as free land. However, he was disappointed – most of the Greeks did not believe in the resurrection of the emperor, and those who might and even believed preferred not to risk their lives and did not react. So “Nero” managed to gather around him only a group of people who had nothing to lose anyway, and the prospect of gaining the fortune that he was promising them was very tempting for them. So the “emperor”, along with a band of rogues and escaped slaves, boarded the ship and set off into the unknown. Perhaps he wanted to sail further east and win over to his side the legions stationed there, dissatisfied with the chaos in Italy. The storm, however, thwarted the pretender’s plans and forced him to land on the coast of the island of Kythnos.
Kythnos, located in the Cicadas archipelago, was then an important communication junction, as it was situated on the sea route connecting Greece proper with the coasts of Asia Minor. Ships and ships were often called at the port there, but unfortunately for “Nero” it was winter, which made navigation more difficult and ships visited the island less frequently. On their decks often came soldiers from the eastern legions going on holidays. The changeling caught them and incorporated them into his bodyguard, eliminating the reluctant ones.
The news of the “resurrected” reached Italy through Centurion Sisenna, the envoy of the Syrian legions to the praetorians in Rome, whom “Nero” was trying to win over to his side. Sisenna managed to flee the island and bear the news of unusual events in the Hellenic East.
The events in Italy were too absorbing for Otho to organize an expedition against the usurper. As time showed, it was actually unnecessary. Two warships from a squadron stationed in the Gulf of Naples, quite accidentally, landed on the coast of Kythnos. They were taking to Asia Minor the new governor of Galatia and Pamphylia – Calpurnius Asprenas, unaware of what had happened on the island. When the self-proclaimed learned about the arrival of the ships, he made an attempt to drag their captains to his side and persuade them to take him to the Syrian legions. He also referred to the loyalty of the missionary fleet to Nero (it remains a mystery as to how he learned in this matter). The captains, however, immediately reported the incident to Asprenas, who, with the help of the ships’ crews, captured the usurper, killed him, and then sent his head back to Rome.
Another usurper claiming to be Nero was Terentius Maximus from Asia Minor. Terentius, like the usurper of Cytnos, was physically very similar to Nero, he could also sing and play the lyre. His activity took place during the reign of Titus.
The changeling in Asia Minor gained only a small group of followers, so he headed east. After crossing the Euphrates, he went to the court of the Parthian king, Artabanos III, from whom he demanded military support as a thank you for handing over the sideline of the king of kings to Armenia “for his reign”.
The Parthians who had great respect for Nero initially believed in the self-proclaimed man and intended to support him in the fight for the throne of Rome. However, once his true identity was revealed, he was executed.
The last Nero
The last known to us, the self-proclaimed Nero also appeared in the East, 20 years after the death of the real emperor. He is mentioned, among others, by Suetonius in “Lives of the Caesars”, because the usurper’s activity fell out in the years of his youth, i.e. during the reign of Domitian.
We know the least about this pretender – only that he was also at the court of the king of kings and was also supposed to benefit from the military support of the Parthians, just like Terentius Maximus. Moreover, according to Suetonius, the Parthians were close to winning the throne for this pretender.
There are voices that “Nero” mentioned by Suetonius is the same “Nero” to whom Cassius Dio dedicated a place in his work – this cannot be ruled out, if only because of the similar fate of these two self-proclaimed persons. However, based on the currently known historical material, we are not able to state it unequivocally.