Some Stately Pleasure Dome Decrees: Nero’s Library Legacy


The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother, John William Waterhouse, 1878


An important distinction between Roman Emperor Nero and Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan (and his modern descendent, the William Randolph Hearst character entombed in Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1939) ), is that many of Nero’s ostentatious and ambitious construction projects – beyond and including the Golden Palace – contained spaces for the creation and display of art as well as libraries. In fact Nero’s baths offered one of the largest “public” libraries of the ancient world (Boese 2005, 102) (Staikos, K. 2000).

The purpose of this paper is to present a biography of Nero in relation to the development and subsequent destruction of First Century libraries in Rome, and to present an argument about how access to libraries and knowledge ebbs and flows, and how this access does not always correlate in predictable ways around what we normally think of as civilized and progressive behavior. Nero’s strategy – to earn the love and support of the Roman people by providing culture, food, entertainment, and the constant diversion of a capricious sociopath running the Empire – was successful; it was the senatorial class who actually despised Nero. As Christendom ascended, it adopted some of Nero’s tactics – the spectacular persecution of a minority, for one thing – while other beneficial societal institutions – the aqueducts and the libraries, for example – fell away (Kiefer, Highet, and MacInnes 2000).

One of the main sources for organizing this paper is the Robert Graves translation of Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars. This is not a perfectly reliable source, of course, but as a primary source document written less than 75 years after Nero’s death by someone with direct access to Hadrian, it is a priceless catalogue of observations. More recent research reveals more facts about Nero’s libraries, who used them, and what of their contents survive.



         Nero was born at Antium in December 37, and at first was named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father was Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, belonging to an extremely noble and ancient family, and his mother was the younger Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the elder. When he had reached the age of two his mother was banished by Gaius (Caligula) who seized his inheritance the following year after the death of the child’s father (Staikos 2000).

            Under the emperor Claudius, however, the younger Agrippina, his niece, was recalled from exile, and arranged for her son to receive a good education. After she married Claudius in 49, Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the younger) became Nero’s tutor. Nero was betrothed to Claudius’s daughter Octavia, whom he married in 53. In 50, Agrippina persuaded her husband to adopt Nero as his son, so that going forward Nero was advanced in hierarchy over Britannicus, Claudius’s own younger son (Nero assumed the name Nero Claudius Drusis Germanicus). When Claudius died in October 54, Britaniccus’s claim to the emperorship were set aside, and with the support of the praetorian prefect Sextus Afraniaus Burrus, Agrippina secured the throne for Nero (Staikos 2000).

            Since he was not yet seventeen – younger than any of his predecessors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty when they came to the throne – the empire was at first governed by Agrippina, the sister and wife of earlier emperors and now the mother of a third. This unprecedented phase of female rule was underscored by the issue of the unique coinage during this reign, which displayed the heads of Nero and Agrippina facing one another. When the male-only imperial council (consilium princips) was in session Agrippina would listen from behind a curtain. As had become a Julio-Claudian custom, Agrippina used her power, position, and knowledge to eliminate possible rivals, notably, Marcus Junius Silas, who, like Nero himself, was a great-great grandson of Augustus (Mason Hammond 1956, 61-133).

            But Agrippina’s influence lasted only a few years; in 55 Nero asserted his ascendancy by appearing alone on the face of Roman coins, as Agrippina’s portrait and name disappeared. When early in the same year Britannicus died at a dinner-party in the palace – allegedly murdered by Nero – Agrippina was dismayed, since she wanted to keep Britannicus in reserve in case her son became difficult to control. Agrippina’s power waned further when the Nero transferred her to a separate residence, thus bringing her lavish Palatine parties to an end (Mason Hammond 1956, 61-133).

            The empire seemed poised for a period of stability with Nero ruling under the guidance under Seneca and Burrus. The late Claudius was deified (he was the first emperor since Augustus to receive this honor) as Nero promised to Augustus as his model for leadership. Nero also expressed the idealistic if somewhat unrealistic desire that the Roman Senate should exercise its governmental functions based upon representation, as in ancient times. Steps were taken to improve public order and reform treasury procedures. Territorial and provincial governors and their staffs were forbidden to extract large sums of money from the local populations for gladiatorial shows and other excesses; and Nero himself maintained a regular work schedule, paying particular attention to his judicial duties (Mason Hammond 1956, 61-133).

            Nero also entertained progressive leanings, leading him for example to abolish indirect taxes through out the empire, to abolish the stationing of soldiers in bars and theaters, to forbid the killing of criminals in public spectacles. All these ideas proved impossible to implement. Yet such proposals, even if they came to nothing, suggest that Nero, in the context of the quotidian brutality of Roman life, began his rule in a basically humane manner. For example, like his mentor Seneca, he expressed objections to taking life, and this aversion extended to capital punishment. There seems to have been a turning point in 61 when the city prefect, Lucius Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his slaves, with the result that Nero, according to the law, had to have all four hundreds slaves of the Padeanius household put to death, despite strong pressure in their favor from the public (Mason Hammond 1956, 61-133).

            Setbacks of this kind seemed to diminish Nero’s interest in his administrative duties. Eventually Nero devoted himself more and more to the real interests of his life: horse racing, singing, reading, dancing, acting, writing poetry, and sexual activities. Seneca and Burrus attempted to guide Nero toward circumspection in order to prevent his behavior from becoming a scandal, yet Nero persisted in increasingly boisterous and lawless behavior, breaking into Roman shops and getting into brawls. Despite the fact that marriage with her was socially out of the question, Nero had a long relationship with an ex-slave Acte, who also provided advice on governance matters to Nero. Agrippina was unhappy that another woman was now in the palace. She deplored Nero’s non-Romanesque taste for the books, poetry, and the arts, and of the “effeminate” Greek dress Nero in which he dressed. Aware of her disapproval and more concerned with his personal safety than filial obligation, in 59, Nero had Agrippina murdered while she vacationed by the Bay of Naples. Nero reported to the senate that Agrippina had plotted against his life obliging him to have her killed. This matricide remains one of Nero’s greatest canonical sins, inspiring numerous plays and paintings. Yet at the time, the senators, who had hated her unconstitutional role and arrogant behavior, did not entirely regret her removal and Nero was relieved to find that general population and Praetorian Guard did not seem to mind too much either (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).

            In 62, however, a new phase of Nero’s reign began, when both Seneca and Burrus disappeared from the scene. First Burrus died, of seemingly natural causes. He was succeeded as praetorian prefect by a pair of colleagues, Faineius Rufus and the sinister Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, a Sicilian who encouraged Nero’s excesses and became a Rasputin-like figure of intrigue in the palace. Seneca found Tigellinus  and the newly willful Nero too difficult to work with, so Seneca resigned to enjoy the enormous wealth which he had succeeded in amassing. Soon afterwards, Nero showed his newfound independence by changing wives in typical overkill fashion. He divorced Octavia, who, although harmless, was exiled and put to death in 62. Her place was taken by Poppaeia Sabina. Nero perhaps underestimated the senators’ unfavorable reaction to his activities in a different field, that of the arts. At first the emperor had limited his stage appearances to private stages, but in 64 he broke out from this restriction and launched his public debut at Neapolis. There, to the pleasure of the passionately Hellenic-culture-loving Nero, his audience were Greeks. In 65, in Rome, at the encore performance of the Neronian Games which Nero had instituted on the Greek model the emperor began singing and reciting verse for Roman spectators. The emperor subsequently invented “youth” games, at which Nero performed escorted by a gang of soldiers known as the Augustiani. Nero performed a sort of ad-hoc rapping poetry based upon phrases tossed out by his drinking companions. Nero did in fact write original verses and also executed more than a few paintings and sculptures (Chapman and Juvenal Satura 5. English 1629).

            These aberrations, as the senatorial class regarded them, did not usurp the empire as a whole, but the Romans began to experience incursions from its periphery. In Britain there were uprisings and revolts over taxations, including the legendary insurrection led by Queen Boudicca. Meanwhile, at the other end of the territories, Roman troops were routed and defeated in what is now Turkey and Armenia. (In 63, however, the Romans were able to place Tiridates, one of Nero’s protégés, on the Armenian throne.) Nevertheless the situation at Rome deteriorated. A crucial event was the Great Fire of Rome in 64. Nero tried to pin the blame for the conflagration on the city’s small Christian community (regarded contemporaneously as a dissident group of Jews); the martyrdoms of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were ascribed to these persecutions. Still the rumor persisted that not only had Nero sung his own poem “The Sack of Troy” while enjoying the spectacle of the flames but also that he had actually started the fire himself, in order to be able to annex some land he wanted for the erection of the Golden House (Mason Hammond 1956, 61-133).

            Nero had already constructed a mansion, the Domis Tranisotira, which would become the mere entrance hall to the new and vastly greater Golden House. Designed by Nero’s architect-engineers Severus and Celer, the Golden House was a series of separate pavilions and kiosks set amid a designed landscape including a large artificial lake stocked with many varieties of fish. When the Golden House was complete, Nero exclaimed: “Now I can at last begin to live like a human being!” (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).

            Meanwhile, however, Nero’s relationship with the senatorial class was deteriorating sharply. One of Tigellinus’s first actions had been to revive the treason law and to liquidate a number of possible suspects. In 65 what was regarded as a serious plot against Nero emerged. Known as the Pisonian conspiracy, its leader were Faenius Rufus – the other praetorian prefect – and the retired Seneca. Nineteen executions or suicides followed, and thirteen banishments. Faenius and Seneca were among those who died, as did Seneca’s nephew, the poet Lucan, who had been one of Nero’s closest friends. During the years that followed the government continued to punish suspects. Nero himself had gone to Greece to display his artistic and physical prowess, collecting works of art and manuscripts, and ostensibly liberating the Greeks whom he loved. In Rome, amid continuing executions, a shortage of food became so acute that the ex-slave Heleius whom Nero had left in charge of the capital went to Greece and summon Nero urgently back (Seneca and ProQuest Information and Learning Company 1653).

            In January 68 Nero made a return to the capital. By March, most of the territorial generals were in revolt against Nero. When Nero heard that the Senate, too, had turned against him and condemned him to be flogged to death, he decided, with the assistance of a secretary, to commit suicide on 9 June by stabbing himself with a dagger. His last words were: “Qualis artifex peseo;” – “What an artist the world is losing in me.”(Suetonius ca et al. 2000).




            For the first five hundred years of its history, Rome had no public library. Within the oral culture of the first Roman civilization, public readings and recitations were the normal fare of the intellectual classes. But the “long prosperity of Caesar’s regime…tended to direct men’s minds toward cultural diverions,” and by 37 Asinius Pollio had founded the first public library, followed by construction of two large public libraries, the Palatina and the Octaviana, effectively gaining the approval of the intellectuals during his reign (Suter 2008, 193).

            The new empire brought about the “creation of new civic ideals,” including “a growing appreciation of literary and aesthetic interests.” Literary groups sprang up, and with the emperor being “regarded as the chief patron … in the more celebrated circles” influence spread widely. The book commerce followed Roman trade routes, taking Latin literature to all comers of the empire. The works of Martial, Pliny, Seneca, and Ovid were for sale as far away as Gaul, Spain, and Britain, and during Nero’s many travels to Greece even he managed to collect or order the purchase of volumes by favorite authors in translated form (Suter 2008, 195). 

            The Roman baths served as social clubs, providing among other things, recreational reading for their patrons and public meeting rooms for the presentation and discussion of new literary works. The libraries in the bath houses, particularly during Nero’s brief era, rivaled the public libraries in collections and level of activity. While the Roman libraries shared several features with those of Nineveh, Alexandria, and Pergamum – for example, a connection to a temple or palace, artistic ornaments, and management methods – these features were taken to an extreme in Rome. Public libraries were attached to the greatest temples dedicated to Apollo, Juno, and Jove. Following the example of Asinius Pollio when he founded the first public library, Nero’s libraries became virtual art museums, containing statues, busts, medallions, and inscriptions as well as walls covered in painted frescoes. Nero’s public libraries seemed to follow the same basic physical form. There was a spacious reading room surrounded by stack rooms. The stacks were always divided into Greek and Latin sections, often arranged and catalogued separately (Kiefer, Highet, and MacInnes 2000; Houston 1988, 258-264).

            Ammianus Marcellinus, a Fourth Century Roman historian who chronicled library history from the First Century through his own time, describes a decadent manner of life among his contemporaries, who flaunt huge chariots and foppish clothing, who ignore intellectual pursuits and devote themselves to gluttony and drink. Ammianus says serious studies in noble houses have been “replaced by partying, philosophers by singers, rhetoricians by actors, libraries by water organs.” Ammianus’s reports suggest that reading even in the class of Romans who had access to libraries was on the wane, though proof that public libraries ceased to exist after the time of Constantine is insubstantial (Hoare 1952) (Thompson, J. W. 1940). 

            Honorary and funerary inscriptions of the first two centuries mention several dozen men involved in the administration or staffing of Roman public libraries. Inscriptions of the third century, however, mention only a few, and later inscriptions none at all. Does this mean that there were no such administrators, and thus no such libraries? Similarly, a late catalog of the administrative posts held by  officials throughout the Roman empire, the Notitia dignitatum contains no clear reference to any library officials. Since the Notitia was compiled circa 400, it is possible to infer that there were no such functionaries at that time (Halpern 2007) (Thompson, J. W. 1940).

            The reason the libraries shut down may have had more to do with the threat of barbarian attacks upon Rome which began with territorial skirmishes in the 300s and culminated in Rome’s sack (a continuing catastrophe rather than a sudden cataclysmic event ongoing from around 410 to 450). There is no convincing evidence that the Christian emperors thought it advisable to close the old public libraries. The apparent continued use of the library in the Forum of Trajan, the most likely  candidate for such closure, indicates rather the opposite (Hoare 1952) (Houston, G. W. 1988).

Though Ammianus refers only to libraries in private houses, there is evidence that the functions of the public libraries of Rome were breaking down by about 380. However, a significant number of libraries were still in existence in the early part of the fourth century, and at least one, in the Forum of Trajan, seems to have been open as late as 455. We do not yet know exactly which libraries were still open in the fourth century, or how they were eventually destroyed (Houston, G. W. 1988).




            Nero’s delusions about being an artiste along with his desire to please and secure the support of the Roman public resulted in the somewhat unintentional creation of some very popular and accessible public libraries in First Century Rome. Immediately following his death, Nero was, naturally and deservedly, the subject of much sorrow and resentment for the early Christian emperors. Over the past millennia, Nero, despite the intentions of moralizing writers and artists to depict him otherwise, has become a sort of model for the brooding, crazy antihero, a motif not more perfectly refined (and notably lacking the homicidal violence) until Oscar Wilde created a blueprint for a differently performed troubled soul.

            Unlike the heroic and devoted Cassiodorus or the forward-thinking Augustus, Nero’s benefit to library culture was almost completely accidental. However, there is no doubt that, during his brief time as emperor, there was at least the possibility that, as library historian and scholar Immanuel Wallerstein observed, “contrary to what most modern scholars have thought, that around one could still go to one of a number of public libraries in Rome and read a good book, or a bad one.”





Nero was born in Antium in 37.

His father was from a patrician Roman family, and his mother was Agrippina, daughter of a famous general, Germanicus. Agrippina later married the emperor Claudius, who adopted Nero. Stoic philospher Seneca was Nero’s tutor. Nero later had Seneca executed (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).


Agrippina poisoned Claudius, and in 54, at age 17, Nero became Rome’s teenaged emperor (Halpern 2007).


Historical rumors persist about Nero’s relationship with Agrippina, but what is certain is that Nero married Octavia at age 18, divorcing her (and having her executed) in 62. He remarried Poppaeia Sabina in 63, and also had (amid many other dalliances with people of both genders) a long relationship with a former slave, Acte (Halpern 2007).


In 55, Nero has a new Roman coinage struck featuring his and Agrippina’s faces, and also images referencing his interests in music and chariot racing.

During the early years of his reign, Nero opposed capital punishment, reduced taxes, and built numerous public bath houses equipped with public libraries that were truly open to the public, not just the senatorial class( Dix 1994, 282).


At first he was guided by his mother but as he grew older, Nero wanted to break free of her influence. In 59, he had his mother stabbed to death (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).


By 60, Nero had fallen into violence and disrepute, gambling, drinking, engaging in excessive sexual and violent behavior, and developing the “Roman candle” form of burning at the stake for which he remains famous (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).


Wild animal shows demonstrated the emperor’s ability to collect exotic animals from all over the world and bring them to Rome. Killing them displayed the emperor’s power over nature itself. This had a devastating effect on wildlife around the Empire. Lions were wiped out in Mesopotamia and the North African Elephant became extinct (Halpern 2007).


In 61, Nero set off on a musical tour of Greece, where he sang in competitions, always winning first prize. He even won the chariot race at the Olympic Games although he fell out of the chariot before the end of the race (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).


Nero believed he was a magnificent poet, writer, musician and singer. When he went to Greece he observed: “The Greeks alone are worthy of my genius. They really listen to music!” (Chadwick and De Courtivron 1996).


His Greek audiences loved their singing emperor, but Rome’s upper classes were shocked by Nero’s behavior (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).


In 64 fire destroyed the center of Rome. Nero blames the fire on groups of early Christians, but the impression persists that Nero set the fire himself in order to secure valuable real estate in the center of the city upon which to build his Golden Palace (Dix 1994, 282).


In 65 Nero learned of a plot to overthrow him. Suspecting everyone, he had dozens of leading Romans arrested and executed. This lead to a widespread rebellion in 68, when senators and military commanders rose against him. Nero threatens to kill himself several times, and then does so (Suetonius ca et al. 2000).


Nero’s death was followed by a period of civil war. After ten years of unrest, Vespasian founded the Flavian dynasty (Mason Hammond 1956, 61-133).




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