When Emperor Claudius died in the year 54, a teenage Nero ascended to the imperial throne. At first, there were very few signs that Nero would become one of the most infamous emperors of Rome. Like many youths, the young emperor enjoyed sports, music, partying and theater. In terms of eloquence, Nero did not particularly impress the senators, but the contents of his early speeches hinted at just rule and rewards for merit. Nevertheless, as time went on, the emperor’s behavior deteriorated into legendary vice and tyranny.
According to the Roman historians, Tacitus (c. 56-117) and Suetonius (c. 69-122), Nero’s path to infamy began around the year 56, when the emperor started disguising himself in order to prowl the streets of Rome at night. At first, the teenage emperor spent his incognito evenings sneaking into taverns and brothels. Unfortunately, Nero’s nightly activities eventually began to dramatically worsen. He allegedly started robbing stores and mugging civilians during his nightly rampages.
Yet, on one night, Nero picked on the wrong Roman. The emperor’s target was Julius Montanus, a senator who was out that night with his wife. The exact cause of the conflict is vague—Tacitus claimed Nero assaulted Montanus, but Suetonius claimed that the emperor harassed Montanus’ wife. Either way, Julius Montanus reacted badly to the provocation. Both historians claimed that the senator absolutely clobbered Nero, with Suetonius even arguing that Montanus nearly killed the emperor with his blows. Nevertheless, some time during the brutal beating, Julius Montanus horrifyingly realized that he was smashing the emperor of the Roman Empire into a bloody pulp.
Once the realization settled in, the senator was said to have immediately stopped fighting and quickly transitioned into begging for forgiveness. Yet, after being pummeled by the senator, Nero was not in a forgiving mood. The emperor was even said to have taken Julius Montanus’ apologies as a further insult to injury. According to Tacitus, Nero forced the senator to commit suicide and thereafter began to bring bodyguards along whenever he decided sneak out at night.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Nero by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.