The Irony of Nero’s Humiliating End

It would be tomorrow, June 9th, in the year 68 AD, when the people of Rome finally had enough. They had seen Nero kill his political rivals, his stepbrother, and his wife. They had even seen him kill his own mother. They endured decades of incompetence and deranged violence and literally watched Rome burn. Seneca had tried to contain it (though he was also complicit in its continuance) until he, too, was killed by Nero.

But on that day, 1,950 years ago, Nero’s time ran out. After a rebellion in one of Rome’s territories, there was so much dissatisfaction within the Senate, the state, and the Praetorian Guard, that Nero was forced to flee. He found himself without friend, without quarter. A new emperor was named. Nero was tried (in absentia) and sentenced to death.

There was a dark karmic justice in this. The Emperor who had forced so many to commit suicide while he was in power (Seneca, Thrasea, Piso, Lucan, and more), now faced the same choice. Except when Nero called upon his friends to deliver a compassionate death with a sword, no one came. Because he had already ruined, killed, or driven them away. “Have I neither friend nor foe?” he cried out. The answer was that he had none of the former, and too many of the latter, to go out with any sort of dignity.

Even in his final moments, Nero was deluded by ego. He paced back and forth saying to himself, Qualis artifex pereo (“What an artist dies in me”), until he eventually demanded his secretary, Epaphroditos, to kill him. Like Seneca and Cato, Nero’s suicide would not come easily. Bystanders attempted to save him, only prolonging the pain and delaying the inevitable. Finally, Nero passed.

What is the lesson of Nero’s death? Well, first, that an undignified and cowardly life almost always presages an undignified and cowardly end. It also reminds us that power built on lies, on evil, on narcissism and delusion will always come crashing down. How long it will take is unknown, but we can take it as a historical law that the Hitlers and the Neros always end up dying painfully, alone, and in a way that exposes their moral bankruptcy one last undeniable time.

Needless to say this is a life and a death that a Stoic attempts to learn from—to learn what not to do. Because it was not only toxic and unbearable to the man who lived it, but it sucked in and stained the lives of nearly everyone around him, including Seneca.

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