Not only was Emperor Nero a member of the Julian family (Augustus was his great-great-grandfather), he was also part of the Ahenobarbi clan. This latter group, which Nero was connected to through his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was said to have earned their name through a peculiar event that supposedly occurred in 5th century BCE.
According to Roman tradition, it was not long after Rome had ousted its Etruscan overlords in 509 BCE, when an army of Latins attacked, intending to re-impose Etruscan rule over the Romans. As legend has it, the army of the fledgling Roman Republic defeated the would-be oppressors at Lake Regillus with the help of the horse-riding gods, Castor and Pollux, who supposedly led the Romans in a decisive cavalry charge.
Castor and Pollux were apparently excited about Rome’s victory at Lake Regillus and were impatient about spreading the news back to the victorious city. Instead of waiting for the soldiers to naturally make their way back home, Castor and Pollux miraculously appeared to a random wanderer. Exactly where this encounter took place differed from source to source—Suetonius claimed the setting was on a country road to Rome, while Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed it occurred at a fountain in the Forum. Whatever the case, the first person who supposedly made contact with the two gods was a certain Lucius Domitius, an ancestor of Nero.
As the story goes, the gods told Lucius Domitius that a great battle had been won at Lake Regillus. They then commanded the man to spread the word to the Roman people. To make sure that Lucius Domitius was believed, the gods then touched the man’s black beard, turning it a vibrant bronze color.
After that encounter, Lucius’ descendants began to have good luck in their endeavors. According to Suetonius, Lucius Domitius and his immediate descendants earned for their family the rank of patrician and achieved seven consulships, two censorships, and a military triumph. Lucius Domitius also discovered that his divinely colored locks were hereditary, as all of his descendants had shades of bronze for their hair.
The bronze-colored (aheneus) beard (barba) sported by Lucius Domitius and his male descendants allegedly served as the origin of their family surname, Ahenobarbus. By the time of Nero (r. 54-68), however, the miraculous bronze hair of the Ahenobarbi may have diluted in color, as Suetonius claimed Nero’s hair was mostly blonde.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (heavily modified painting of Nero by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars (Divus Claudius, 15) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.