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