Claudius and Nero and The Decline of Morality in Imperial Rome (Jordan Lombardo, 2019)

Claudius and Nero and The Decline of Morality in Imperial Rome

Jordan Lombardo, 2019

Abstract: This paper analyzes the societal decline of virtue and morality in imperial Rome under the rule of emperors Claudius and Nero in the first century AD as described by the ancient historian, Tacitus, in Books 11-16 of his renowned Annals. These men displayed weak, corrupt, and disrespectful practices within their emperorships that reflected detrimentally on Roman society and led to a disgraceful disruption in morality. Tacitus portrayed Claudius as weak and ineffectual, as he was effectively manipulated by his wives and freedmen. Nero, on the other hand, was unstable and cruel throughout his rule and served as a prime example for how not to behave as the leader of a great nation. In Tacitus’ opinion, both rulers and ruling styles aided in the deterioration of the position’s respectability and led to the fall of virtue across the empire.


The historian Tacitus was critical of imperial Roman emperors for exercising weak, corrupt, and disrespectful practices throughout Books 11-16 of his written history The Annals. He claimed to record his history “without rancour and bias,” yet his prejudices are subtly disguised within his expectations and assessments of the ruling men of Rome (Tacitus, Annals, Introduction). Attempting to write without partiality, Tacitus fairly gave emperors credit where credit was due, but did not suppress his criticisms when men made mistakes detrimental to the honorable reputation of Rome. This paper focuses specifically on the rule of emperors Claudius and Nero in the first century AD. Books 11-12 depict Claudius as a weak, easily-manipulated leader while Books 13-16 illustrate the unstable and cruel rule of Nero; and in Tacitus’ opinion, both styles of rule aided in deteriorating the once highly respected position of Emperor and led to a general disintegration of morality in imperial Rome.

Tacitus’ leading criticism of Claudius was his inability to make decisions without being exploited by those around him, specifically his trusted freedmen and deceitful wives. Claudius’ lack of dominance within his own home is the first example in which Tacitus portrayed him as a weak, easily-manipulated man, and in turn, a poor leader for the great Roman Empire. When it became public knowledge that Messalina, Claudius’ first wife, married another man, Tacitus said, “there is no doubt that alarm swept over them [the emperor’s court] as they thought about Claudius’ naivety and his subservience to his wife” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.28). Narcissus, his trusted freedman, issued orders in place of Claudius as he “maintained a strange silence… and everything passed under the freedmen’s control” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.35). Ultimately Narcissus, not Claudius, was the man who gave the final order to carry out Messalina’s execution (Tacitus, Annals, 11.37). Tacitus, a firm believer in traditional Roman values, agreed the execution was necessary and honorable but denounced Claudius for allowing a freedman to decide Messalina’s fate.

Freedmen’s influence over Claudius did not end with Messalina’s death, but was immediately increased when the search for a new empress began. “Conflict had arisen amongst the freedmen over which of them would choose a wife for Claudius, who could not bear the single life and always bowed to his wives’ commands” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.1). Tacitus portrayed the emperor’s lack of independence and resolve as the exact opposite of how a dignified ruler should lead, saying, “there seemed no difficulty in manipulating the mind of an emperor whose favour and animosity were always implanted and programmed by others” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.3). Yet another freedman, a man unworthy of such monumental decisions in Tacitus’ opinion, persuaded Claudius to choose Agrippina (Tacitus, Annals, 12.3). Claudius not only sought advice from citizens inferior to his elite position, he continually represented himself as a weak, dimwit ruler, incapable of making decisions for himself and furthermore, for the betterment of the Roman Empire.

Beyond exploitation from his trusted freedmen, Claudius succumbed to intense manipulation from his second wife Agrippina, to the point that he adopted her son and put the boy ahead of his own (Tacitus, Annals, 12.25). This is significant because before this, there was no case of adoption amongst the Claudian family patricians and Claudius’ rightful heir was circumvented by his stepmother’s son. Agrippina displayed her control over Claudius at the Circus games when she saw an opportunity to sow discord between the emperor and his son. When Britannicus called her son by his birth name, ‘Domitius,’ rather than his adopted nomen ‘Nero,’ Agrippina complained to Claudius claiming it was the start of internal dissension: “Unless the evil influence of those inculcating such hostility were checked, she added, it would erupt with disastrous consequences for the state” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.41). Thus Claudius obeyed his calculating wife and exiled or put to death his son’s finest tutors, then replaced them with Agrippina’s chosen appointees (Tacitus, Annals, 12.41). Years later, Agrippina solidified Nero’s familial superiority and political prestige through his marriage to Octavia, Claudius’ daughter (Tacitus, Annals, 12.58). “But now, the whole royal house was being rent asunder by [Britannicus’] stepmothers’ intrigues,” when she murdered Claudius and helped ascend Nero to the throne (Tacitus, Annals, 12.65-68). Tacitus’ satirized characterization of Claudius portrayed him as a weak, easily-manipulated emperor who deteriorated the reputation of the distinguished office and lacked traditional Roman morality and values.

After the disgraceful reign of Claudius, his disrespectful adopted son, Nero, stepped into the emperorship with the support of the Praetorian Guard and his mother. The beginning of Nero’s regime elicited somewhat hopeful attitudes, despite the “general slide towards carnage” precipitated by Agrippina, because of two honorable men: Burrus and Seneca (Tacitus, Annals, 13.2). Burrus, with his successful military background and strict morality, and Seneca, a respectable man known for his oratory skills and cordiality, “worked together so they could the more easily confine the unsteady age of the emperor (if he rejected virtue) to acceptable diversions” (Tacitus, Annals, 13.2). Tacitus believed the influence of these officials to be beneficial to Nero and the empire as a whole, unlike the manipulative advisors to Claudius. Burrus advised the emperor to act prudently and justly, in line with long-established Roman virtues Tacitus admired, specifically when Nero was eager to kill his mother (Tacitus, Annals, 13.20). Burrus and Seneca curbed Nero’s evil ambitions to some extent, until Nero ordered the execution of Agrippina and both advisors soon fell out of influence (Tacitus, Annals, 14.10-11). The removal of the respected advisors left a vacancy in Nero’s counsel, which he filled with his “depraved” and “disreputable” long-time friend Tigellinus (Tacitus, Annals, 14.51). Tacitus recorded that Nero did “have all the worst characters – and no palace ever had a richer crop” surrounding and encouraging degenerate, scandalous behaviors (Tacitus, Annals, 14.13). Tacitus’ optimism for Nero’s rule from Burrus’ and Seneca’s mentorships quickly digressed back to criticism as the emperor heeded advice of corrupt individuals and began making regressive decisions on his own.

Tacitus criticized Nero for the utter disrespect he showed the office of the emperorship while conducting his perverse social antics, as his actions set an atrocious example and negatively impacted public morality in Rome. Conservative Tacitus denounced Nero’s “hankering to drive a four-horse chariot, and no less a disgraceful desire to sing accompanied by the lyre like a stage performer” as humiliating activities unsuitable for an emperor (Tacitus, Annals, 14.14). Furthermore, Nero created and participated in the ‘Juvenalian Games’ to which Tacitus said “nothing contributed more depravity to a long-corrupt moral climate than did that cesspool” (Tacitus, Annals, 14.15). To Tacitus’ dismay, noble men and women alike observed and participated in the Game’s “unmanly body movements” and “lewd performances” which only added to the degradation of the once virtuous society (Tacitus, Annals, 14.15).  Nero’s actions directly oppose Tacitus’ beliefs of how an exemplary emperor and government should behave, and in his opinion, contributed to the decline of Rome’s traditionally prestigious cultural model.

In addition to Nero’s degenerative social habits, he faced harsh accusations which led to widespread public hatred following one of the worst fires in Ancient Rome’s history (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). Tacitus claimed the emperor “completely devastated” Italy’s provinces and temples in order to raise his own funds for reparations (Tacitus, Annals, 15.45). Subtle denunciatory, satirical language by Tacitus implied his disapproval with Nero’s insulting behavior and overall dissatisfaction with the current imperial system in Rome. One of Tacitus’ major issues with any emperorship is the fact that the government exists to appease one man. This argument is demonstrated by Nero’s mass execution of Christians to punish the “convicted” arsonists and “as a result, guilty though these people were and deserving of exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). Although Tacitus resented Claudius’ weak mind and inept leadership, the historian was clearly disgusted by Nero’s selfishness and cruelty upon the empire, encouraging further moral disintegration throughout Roman society as a whole.

Book 16 concludes unfinished with the death of two senators who were forced to pay for their vocal opposition and public embarrassment of Nero with their lives. Tacitus wrote: “after butchering so many distinguished men, Nero finally conceived to exterminate virtue itself by killing Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus” (Tacitus, Annals, 16.21). This telling statement is one of Tacitus’ final remaining critiques of emperor Nero before the rest of The Annals was lost to history. According to Tacitus, Nero decided to avenge his own honor by putting Thrasea to death; however, he was likely influenced by the criminal Capito Cossutianus, who also possessed ulterior motives for wishing Thrasea dead (Tacitus, Annals, 16.21-22). Nero’s disposition towards cruelty upon members of his own government illustrates growing discord within the imperial branches, a decline of classical deference within the empire, and the use of unnecessary violence for personal gain. All of which, Tacitus suggested, produced an unstable regime led by a ruthless emperor that caused regression in the pursuit of virtuous life in ancient Rome.

Throughout Books 11-16 of Tacitus’ The Annals, the historian criticized the weak ruler Claudius for being too easily manipulated, then rebuked emperor Nero’s reign of cruelty which evoked violence and fear in the Roman state. Claudius’ imperial actions were based on the counsel of inferior freedmen and disreputable wives, while Nero solidified his power through depraved public performances and widespread fear. Tacitus disliked Claudius and he despised Nero; but, he portrayed both emperors to adequately embody the quote: “nothing in the world is as flimsy and fleeting as a reputation gained for power that has no strength of its own” (Tacitus, Annals, 13.19).