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Confronted with rebellions by Vindex in Gaul and Galba in Spain and rumours of the allegiance of Verginius Rufus’ army in Germania, the emperor Nero panicked. Rather than face up to what was perhaps far less dangerous an opposition than it first looks, Nero looked to flee the capital, reach Ostia and make for the eastern provinces, which had been the most supportive of him during his reign. This plan was reputedly interrupted when some of the Guards he ordered to flee with him refused.
Returning to the imperial palace, Nero mulled over his options, which he narrowed to throwing himself on the mercy of Galba, appealing to the people in the hope that they would allow him to take up residence in Egypt or fleeing to Parthia. With no firm decision made, the emperor drifted off into what must had been a fitful sleep. News of his proposed flight and various prevarications seems to have stripped away the loyalty of those in the palace, Guards and servants alike for upon waking Nero found virtually no one to help him; not even someone to kill him (Suetonius, Nero 47).
Having considered throwing himself into the Tiber, Nero instead escaped in disguise to the villa of his freedman, Phaon, about 4 miles outside Rome, with just four followers. Upon hearing the news that the Senate had declared him a public enemy, Nero finally decided on committing suicide, although even as agents of the Senate could be heard approaching, he still needed his private secretary, Epaphroditus, to carry out this ‘suicide’ on 9 June 68 (Suetonius, Nero 49).
Despite his body being seen by Galba’s freedman Icelus, cremated and then buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi (pointedly not the Mausoleum of Augustus), what is now the Villa Borghese, on the Pincian Hill in Rome (Suetonius, Nero 50), there were several contributing factors which led to questions around whether or not Nero had actually died in 68. Both his death and burial had not been colossal public spectacles, which could have raised dissatisfaction and suspicion (Tacitus, Hist. II.8). There was also shock and fear of losing not just a young emperor at only 31 years old, but also the last in the line of the long-lived Julio-Claudian dynasty that had brought about a century of stability to the Roman Empire. His various plans to go east and to ensure his survival suggested that he had the potential to escape and had not lost his will to live. Nero was also still popular with certain sections of the population, such as the lowest classes, who loved the circus and theatre and grasped at every rumour (Tacitus, Hist. I.4.3; his tomb was covered in flowers and his statues draped in togas), which in itself not only saw people wanting him to have survived but also questioning the official suicide story because he still had support in large parts of the empire. His being an artist may also have spawned a dramatic ‘afterlife’, particularly in Greece and the Hellenised East due to his ‘liberation’ of Greece.
Some of these factors combined to make it that “there were people who… even continued to circulate his edicts, pretending he was still alive and would soon return to confound his enemies” (Suetonius, Nero 57). Could the idea that people were continuing to ‘circulate Neronian edicts’ not only mean that they were following the edicts of Nero himself but that people were issuing false edicts in his name?
This unwillingness to accept the demise of the last Julio-Claudian emperor and lingering loyalty and suspicion to both the dynasty and Nero himself enabled the appearance of three separate men claiming to be the deceased emperor.
The Original False Nero (AD69)
Using similar language to when his report of the presence of a False Drusus in the Cyclades in AD31 (Tacitus, Ann. V.10), Tacitus records that “Achaea and Asia were alarmed by a false report of Nero’s return” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8). Indeed, there are several repeated aspects in the Tacitean stories of the False Drusus and the first False Nero – both recall the panic of ‘Achaea and Asia’; both are set in the Cyclades, involvement of “an ignorant following” of slaves, freedmen and adventurers and both impostors looking to get to Egypt/Syria (The False Drusus was not even the first impostor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The slave Clemens claimed to Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Augustus in AD16, only to be captured and executed by Tiberius (Dio 57.16)).
Could this reflect something in Tacitus’ claim of a “Greek taste for novelties and marvels,” (Tacitus, Ann. V.10; a more charming way of saying ‘gullible and stupid’?) with their repeated willingness to accept the word of the impostors? Or is Tacitus recycling information he had from one impostor and superimposing it onto another because he had no other information as well as following the literary tropes surrounding rebels/revolts/usurpers in being only able to attract the dregs of society to their cause?
The timing of this first impostor’s appearance may reflect not just the continuing connection some had with Nero and the Julio-Claudian dynasty but also the continuing hot-potatoing of the imperial position. Nero’s immediate successor, Galba, was already dead; as was the man who ousted him, Nero’s former courtier, Otho. And now, in late 68/early 69, the empire was in the run-up to the Second Battle of Bedriacum between the forces of Vitellius and Vespasian on 27 October 69.
This first (unnamed) Neronian pretender was either a slave from Pontus or a freedman from Italy. The basis for his impersonation was that he not only looked like Nero, but he could play the cithara and was a trained singer. That the impostor (and Tacitus?) felt that this was important evidence of his being Nero demonstrates what the deceased emperor was most famous for in Greece – Nero had visited Greece in 66-67 to participate at the Panhellenic Games and declared the ‘liberation’ of the Greeks.
He was able to attract runaway slaves, adventurers and “some army deserters who had been roaming about in destitution until he bribed them to follow him by lavish promises” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8) They took ship in the Aegean, looking to reach either Egypt or Syria, not because ‘Nero’ had made any contact with those regions, but because they had been supportive of the emperor and had resources and soldiers.
En route, bad weather forced them to land on Cythnus, where ‘Nero’ met some soldiers returning from the east on leave. He was able to recruit some of them to his cause, but those who refused were executed as the impostor could not yet afford to have his fledgling plot come to the attention of the authorities. However, ‘Nero’ still needed followers and resources, even if getting them risked drawing attention, so he engaged in some low-level piracy, robbed several local businessmen and armed a number of their slaves, likely gaining their support on the promise of their freedom.
Into the midst of this island-borne conspiracy arrived a centurion from one of the Syrian legions called Sisenna. He was passing through the Aegean seemingly on his way to Rome to present the praetorians with a silver or bronze ornament of clasping hands, “a traditional token of mutual hospitality” (Tacitus, Hist. I.54). Putting in at Cythnus, Sisenna found himself a target of various entreaties from ‘Nero’ and his followers, who will have viewed the centurion as a useful tool in extending their support into the Syrian legions. However, rightly fearing for his life, Sisenna managed to slip away and spread word of this impostor.
This seems like a complete disaster for ‘Nero’, who had already murdered many to prevent word of his plot spreading; however, while “this caused a wave of panic… many restless or discontented creatures rallied with eagerness to a famous name.” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8) It is likely that it was this initial burst of support that caused the alarm in ‘Achaea and Asia.’
As it turned out, the plot of this first False Nero failed at its first real interaction with forces of the central government. Again showing that Cythnus was on a much-travelled route for military and political personnel, the newly appointed governor of Galatia and Pamphylia, Calpurnius Asprenas, arrived on the island, escorted by two triremes from the Ravennate fleet.
“Agents of the self-styled Nero” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) approached the captains of the two triremes. They agreed to meet the ‘emperor’ who, “assuming a pathetic air,” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) tried to appeal to the loyalty of these men to ‘him’, hoping to get them to take the impostor and his supporters to Syria or Egypt.
Either half-convinced or tricking ‘Nero’, the captains said that they would have to talk to their crews. Rather than try to bring their crews over to the impostor, the captains went straight to Asprenas. The governor immediately organised the storming of ‘Nero’s’ ship with the Ravennate sailors. The impostor was quickly overpowered and captured, with Asprenas seeing to his rapid execution. “His body, which arrested attention by the eyes, hair and savage expression, was taken to Asia and then to Rome.” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) Asprenas would go on to have a successful career. After his governorship of Galatia and Pamphylia, he served as suffect consul in 78 and governor of Africa, perhaps in 82/83.
The Second False Nero (79-81)
The second False Nero appeared during the reign of the emperor Titus (79-81). This impostor was an Asian called Terentius Maximus, who based his claim on similar grounds of physical appearance and musical ability. This ‘Nero’ claimed that he “had escaped from the soldiers who had been sent against him and that he had been living in concealment somewhere up to this time” (John of Antioch fr.104). He found support from the more ‘disreputable’ classes, much as the first impostor had done, and “it would not be rash to assume that he too found a following in the Roman provinces of the east” (Griffin (1984), 215).
However, Terentius Maximus ‘Nero’ seemed to have gained the much more important support of a Parthian king. Since the death of Vologaesus I in 77, three of his sons – Vologaesus II, Pacorus II and Artabanus III – had contended with each other for the Parthian throne, so the identity of the king is uncertain, but it appears to have been Artabanus.
This Parthian support appeared to come in useful for despite having gained some followers in the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire, Terentius Maximus soon felt it necessary to flee across the Euphrates to the court of Artabanus III (Dio 66.19.3b; was he forced to flee by Roman forces loyal to Titus?). The Parthian king gave this Pseudo-Nero refuge and promised military aid in ‘restoring’ Terentius to the imperial throne, something which the impostor expected due to ‘his’ having ceded Armenia to the Parthians during ‘his’ time in power.
However, seemingly once his true identity was uncovered and perhaps when Artabanus recognised that this impostor was of little use to him and provided an obstacle to Roman support/neutrality in his quest to be sole Parthian king, he had Terentius Maximus executed (Dio 66.19.3c; John of Antioch fr.104; Zonaras XI.18).
Terentius Maximus does seem to have gotten one thing right in his plotting – the expectation that the Parthians were receptive to a False Nero due to their past good relations with him. Nero’s willingness to compromise over Armenia may have been the reason behind Vologaesus I (51-78) requesting that the Senate honour the deceased emperor’s memory (Suetonius, Nero 57).
At the very least, if he was not initially duped into believing that Terentius was Nero, Artabanus was happy to accept the fiction for his own political ends, both as a challenge to Titus and as ‘imperial’ backing in his challenge to his brother Pacorus II for the Parthian throne.
Parthian willingness to support Neronian pretenders may have sprouted not just from the good relations Nero had fostered with them over Armenia but also the apparent frostiness with the Flavian dynasty. Despite Vologaesus I giving Vespasian a large corps of archers for his war with Vitellius, Vespasian had refused the Parthian king’s request for a joint expedition throughout the Caucasus passes against the Alans in 75. The Parthians were so put out by this rebuff that they threatened to invade Syria in 76.
The presence of ‘Nero’ at their court will have been a boon to Parthian attempts to firmly establish their control over Armenia and perhaps disrupt the Roman defence should the Parthians make inroads into the eastern provinces by tapping into any latent loyalty to Nero and/or the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
However, while Armenia and Flavian frostiness might explain Parthia goodwill towards Neronian impostors, could this Parthian ‘love’ of Nero instead reflect a lasting regard for him in the Roman literary circles that Suetonius was connected to? Is Suetonius positing Parthian respect for Nero when it is instead lasting literary regard for the musical emperor?
The Third False Nero (c.88)
This Parthian goodwill towards the memory of Nero, their less favourable relations with the Flavians and the potential political benefits saw them back “the mysterious individual [who] came forward claiming to be Nero” (Suetonius, Nero 57) some twenty years after his death – c.88 during the reign of Domitian, who the Parthians may have known was unpopular with the Roman senatorial classes (by this point, Pacorus II had overcome his brothers and was sole Parthian king).
Suetonius perhaps plays into any accusations that he was allowing pro-Nero literary influences to seep into his work by claiming that “so magical was the sound of his name in the Parthians’ ears that they supported him to the best of their ability, and only handed him over with great reluctance” (Suetonius, Nero 57).
While Suetonius is dialling up the drama, Tacitus reports that there is a hint of truth in the Suetonian depiction of the Parthian reaction to this third impostor, as “thanks to the activities of a charlatan masquerading as Nero, even Parthia was on the brink of declaring war” (Tacitus, Hist. I.2). However, despite Vologaesus’ annoyance at Vespasian and Parthian support for two Neronian impostors, Romano-Parthian relations remained peaceful throughout the remainder of the first century and on into the early second century, before the massive Parthian campaign of the emperor Trajan (Gallivan (1973), 364-365 on the chronology of the False Neros).
As already seen with Clemens and the False Drusus, imperial impostors were not created through the mystery surrounding Nero’s death. The attempted use of Pseudo-Neros by the Parthians would not be the last such attempt by Rome’s enemies. There was a Pseudo-Theodosius, supposedly son of the emperor Mauricius, who the Persians used in their war against the Romans in 602-628, while in the late eleventh century, the Norman conqueror, Robert Guiscard, invaded Roman possessions in the Balkans with a monk called Raiktor who claimed to be the deposed and executed emperor Michael VII Doukas (Anna Komnena, Alexiad I.12).
The False Neros has endured as a story, becoming the focus of some historical fiction with Lion Feuchtwanger’s Der Falsche Nero (1936) using the story of the second Neronian impostor, Terentius Maximus, while Lindsey Davis looked at the last of these Pseudo-Neros in the 2017 book The Third Nero: Never Say Nero Again.
We may laugh at the ancients who were taken in by these False Neros, but what of the number of people who believe that Hitler did not commit suicide in his bunker in 1945? And how many people claim to have seen Elvis in the decades since his death?
Bradley, K. ‘The Chronology of Nero’s Visit to Greece A.D. 66/67,’ Latomus 37 (1978), 61-72
Brunt, P.A. ‘The Revolt of Vindex and the False Nero,’ Latomus 18 (1959), 531-539
Griffin, M.T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. London (1984)
Gallivan, P. ‘The False Neros: A Re-Examination,’ Historia 22 (1973), 364-365
Syme, R. Some Arval Brethren. Oxford (1980)
Tuplin, C.J. ‘The False Drusus of A.D. 31 and the Fall of Sejanus,’ Latomus 46 (1987), 781-805
We saw last time that the career of Pierius must have been significant enough before his appearance in the historical record for Odoacer to promote him to his chief bodyguard, comes domesticorum. The wars of Odoacer’s reign – against the Vandals, Dalmatians, Rugians and Goths will also have provided Pierius with further opportunity to give sufficient service for the rex Italiae to feel that he warranted reward in the shape of significant lands in his kingdom.
The specific ‘Donation of Odoacer’ was written on papyrus shortly after the grant was made on 18 March 489 and despite its survival, it has not come through the intervening 15 centuries unscathed. The opening section is missing and the document has been divided into two parts. There is virtually no light to be shone on the first millennium of the document’s existence, but one could imagine it gathering dust in the archives of Ravenna or Syracuse, before the rejuvenation of interest in antiquity during the Renaissance.
Francesco Scipione, the 17th/18th century marchese of Maffei and antiquarian, suggested that the document was previously owned by Giovanni Pontano, a leading 15th century Italian humanist and poet. By this point, the introductory section of the document had been lost, and it may also have already been divided into two pieces. During the 1660s, the latter part of the document was in the possession of Cardinal Pasquale de Aragon during the 1660s, only for the two halves to be reunited in the library of the Monastery of St. Paul in Naples in 1702. In 1718, the second part was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, through whom the fragment found its way to the Imperial Court Library in Vienna, which is now the Austrian National Library. The first part resides in the collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples. Despite these repeated movements, the division into two parts and the missing introduction, the bulk of text has survived.
The background to the document is a promise made by Odoacer to Pierius of land with an income to the value of 690 solidi. At some point before 18 March 489, the rex Italiae had made good on a substantial portion of this promise. The comes domesticorum had already received estates with an annual income of 650 solidi – the collection of fundi farms/estates called the massa Pyramitana near Syracuse in Sicily, which was worth 430 solidi per annum, and the Dalmatian island of Melita, modern Mlijet in Croatia, worth 200 solidi per annum.
It has been suggested that the massa Pyramitana took its name from and was therefore quite close to the offshore island-turned-promontory of Thapsus to the north of Syracuse. There was seemingly a pyramid at Thapsus right up until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1542 (Marini (1805), nos.82-83), which could have given its name to this massa. That said, the name could reflect that of a previous owner (Jones (1964), 786, who also gives a brief look at the meaning of massa and fundus, highlights that while several fundi could be grouped together to form a massa, “massae were not necessarily continuous blocks of land, but rather a group of fundi under one management”).
The papyrus document comprising the ‘Donation of Odoacer’ is actually the rex Italiae completing his promise by giving his ‘vir inlustris ac magnificus‘ slightly more than the outstanding 40 solidi per annum in lands adjoining the massa Pyramitana – the fundus Aemilianus (18 solidi p.a.), a portion of the fundus Dubli (15¾ solidi p.a.) and part of the fundus Putaxiae (7 solidi p.a.), for a total of 40¾ solidi and an overall total of 690¾ solidi per annum.
The text itself, in the hands of the notarius Marcian and the magister officiorum Andromachus (or members of their staff), combines the dry legalese of the Late Roman bureaucracy with the pomp and ceremony of the Christianised Roman world, even at a time when the Western Roman Empire was no more.
This combination provides a document where “the writing is cursive, of a bold and flowing character, without any spaces between the words, and quite undecipherable except by an expert” (Hodgkin (1885), III.165).
While spawned at the ‘royal/imperial’ court of Odoacer at Ravenna and being a direct donation to an underling, Odoacer himself did not sign the document, leaving Marcian and Andromachus to witness the donation. Could this be because the barbarian rex Italiae could not write?
With the document generated at Odoacer’s court, the matter was then placed in the hands of the actores or agents of Pierius (these may have been freedmen of Pierius as they refer to him as their patronus). These actores presented the deed of donation to officials at Ravenna, who obtained from Marcian confirmation that he and Andromachus, who had departed for Rome, had witnessed the grant by Odoacer to Pierius.
With this authentication, the matter then moved to the courts of Syracuse, the city in whose jurisdiction Pierius’ new lands came under. Gregory the chartarius and Amantius the decemprimus were dispatched from Syracuse with Pierius’ actores to the estates, where they interacted with the tenants and slaves attached to the lands (although a flaw in the document means that we are not sure what is said or done to them – were they merely being informed of the identity of their new master?). The actores are then given a tour of the estates, before returning to Syracuse where they take formal control of these new lands on behalf of their patron. They express his willingness to take on the fiscal responsibilities that came with the land and arrange for Pierius’ name to replace that of the former owner on the public register. Once this is done, Amantius added his signature to the document and the ‘Donation of Odoacer’ to Pierius was complete. The comes domesiticorum now had full rights to dispense with the lands as he saw fit and leave them to his descendents.
No one could have known that this legal right of inheritance would be activated within 17 months of the ‘Donation of Odoacer,’ as Pierius was killed at Adda River (Anon Val XI.53; Auct. Prosp. Haun. s.a. 491)
“The length of the documents relating to so small a property, the particularity of the recitals, the exactness with which the performance of every formality is described, the care with which the various gradations in the official hierarchy are marked, the reverence which is professed for the mandate of Odovacar, all show us that we are still in presence of the unbroken and yet working machinery of the Roman law: though the hand, not of a Roman citizen, born on the Mediterranean shores, but of a full-blooded barbarian from the Danube, is that which must, at the last resort, control its movements” (Hodgkin (1896), III.154)
Odoacer’s choice of lands to reward Pierius may not be entirely random. We may be seeing the rex Italiae playing political games of loyalty and defence with various individuals and groups within his realm. Perhaps Odoacer was attempting to give Pierius a direct personal stake in the defence of certain regions of the Italian kingdom. Sicily and Dalmatia had only recently been taken over by Odoacer and were still threatened by neighbouring powers – the war of 491 shows that the Vandals had not given up on Sicily, while Dalmatia was claimed by Constantinople, likely raided by barbarians and by 488 in the firing line of Theoderic the Amal. Could it even be that Pierius had some pre-existing connection to either Sicily or Dalmatia, making him even more likely to fight to protect these lands?
As the Goths wintered on his eastern frontier, Odoacer was forewarned about Theoderic’s arrival and he may have done more with that forewarning than just prepare his main army to intercept the Goths at Isontius. He may have attempted to make sure that Theoderic could only enter Italy by the land route. It was suggested that Theoderic initially aimed to cross the Adriatic, only to be unable to find sufficient boats to ferry his forces to Italy (Procopius BG I.1.13). Could it be that Odoacer succeeded in maintaining control of whatever Adriatic fleet resided in Dalmatia through grants of land such as the island of Melita to Pierius?
That the grants to Pierius did not contain any land in Italy itself might hint at another of Odoacer’s political concerns – the backing of the Italian upper classes. Their unwillingness to pay their share in cash, materiel and manpower had been a significant problem in the final decades of western imperial rule. And once the imperial balancing act between the Italian aristocracy and barbarian troops became impossible, the western empire fell apart.
However, while Odoacer initially was able to force aristocratic quiescence to his taking of land for his followers through the strength of his Italian field army (Procopius, BG V.1.8), in the face of Theoderic’s impending invasion, Odoacer could not risk upsetting the Italian aristocracy by taking more of their land. Perhaps this is part of the reason why when he felt the need to reward Pierius, he gave him land in Sicily and Dalmatia.
Is there any potential evidence for any such policies of ensuring loyalty from his underlings actually working? Pierius himself did give his life in service to Odoacer, while even in the face of certain defeat following the Battle of Adda River, many of his men stayed loyal to the rex Italiae during the blockade of Ravenna. Sicily did stay loyal throughout Theoderic’s invasion, including after the Vandal attack in 491, while Dalmatia failed to provide Theoderic with sufficient ships to cross the Adriatic in 488. The Adriatic shipping lanes became increasingly important as the war with Theoderic dragged on. It was not until Theoderic gained control of the fleet at Arminium, modern Rimini, on 29 August 492, that he was able to put adequate pressure on Odoacer’s position in Ravenna to bring the war and ultimately Odoacer’s reign to an end.
The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ is not only an important document as the earliest original text of a ruler of Italy, it also provides an intriguing window into the still heavily Romanised kingdom of a potentially illiterate barbarian. Over a decade since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the imperial hierarchies and bureaucracy continued to exist – positions and titles like ‘vir inlustris ac magnificus‘, notarius, magister officiorum are all mentioned while Odoacer is shown using the legal framework of the empire he overthrew, with the land grant to Pierius carried out through proper legal channels in Ravenna and Syracuse.
However, this ‘Donation’ provides just enough information to raise many largely unanswerable questions about its background on the eve of a major conflict between two barbarian powers for control of Italy. The gaps in the historical record leave us with mostly mere speculation about Pierius’ career, his origins, and potential connections to Odoacer, the last western emperors and the regions in which he was given land.
[The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ may provide the first original document from a ruler of Italy, but there is a document preserved in Egypt which contains the handwriting of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (408-450) – https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2017/10/17/the-only-surviving-handwriting-of-an-emperor-theodosius-ii-and-a-petition-from-aswan/%5D
P. Ital. 10-11 = FIR III², n.99
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