Emperor Nero Was So Terrified of Killing Himself, he Begged a Servant to Commit Suicide First

Emperor Nero as Apollo playing the lyre, Roman intaglio. Engraved amethyst. Treasure of the abbey of St Denis. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Nero’s Decline- and Death

Before he left Rome, Nero tried to bribe the officers of the Praetorian guards to help him. There reply was not encouraging. “Is it so terrible a thing to die?” one reputedly asked the emperor. Following this rejection, the desperate Nero considered his options. One was to flee to Parthia while another was to wait and throw himself on the mercy of the advancing Galba. Nero even toyed with the idea of publicly petitioning the Roman people for the Prefecture of Egypt —but gave the idea up when he realised he was likely to be torn apart.

The night of June 8th must have passed uneasily for Nero. However, the next day was far worse. The ex-emperor awoke to discover his bodyguard had left him. So, gathering his remaining four servants — one of which was a gladiator named Sporus — and fled Rome barefoot and in disguise for the villa of his freedman Phaon, just four miles outside Rome. Nero then passed the next few hours vacillating over his death. When his servants begged him to avoid ignominious execution by committing suicide, appeared decided and ordered them to dig him a grave. However, while they did so, he wandering around bewailing his fate and muttering  “ Dead! And so great an artist!’”

Then a letter arrived, and Nero learned the Senate had declared him a public enemy. The letter also stated that the Senate had decreed  the ex-emperor should be captured and brought to Rome for execution “ancient style.” This meant that Nero was to be stripped naked and, with his head secured in a wooden fork, publicly flogged to death. The news sent Nero into a frenzied panic. He snatched up two daggers and tried the points as if to kill himself —only to throw down again, protesting the time of his death had not yet come.

Death of Nero by Vasiliy Smirnov, 1888. The State Russian Museum – Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Nero then changed his mind again and asked Sporus to mourn him. He then begged for one of his remaining servants to set him an example by killing themselves first. The next moment, increasingly erratic emperor was berating himself for his cowardice. Suetonius records how witnesses stated he bewailed “How ugly and vulgar my life has become,” before turning on himself, saying “Come pull yourself together.”

Hooves from a troop of cavalry approaching the villa to arrest Nero finally decided the matter. Rather than face execution, the cornered Nero chose to end his own life. He made his companions promise to bury him respectably. Then he took up the dagger. However, Nero couldn’t quite summon the courage to plunge the knife home himself — his secretary Epaphroditus had to help him stab himself in the throat. The arresting centurion arrived just in time to catch the emperor’s last breath, but despite his outlaw status, respected Nero’s last wishes. Galba’s freedman Icelus cremated the emperor in the gold-embroidered robes he had last worn in Greece. His ashes, however, were placed amongst those of his father’s family the Domitii on the Pincian Hill rather than amongst the other Julio-Claudians.