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THE NERO CONSPIRACY THEORY





But did Emperor Nero really die? Did he really commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat? Were those really his ashes in the grand porphyry sarcophagus in the tomb of the Domitians on the Hill of Gardens, just outside the city walls?

Several months had passed since the events of early June 68, and almost everyone in the capital was asking himself such questions. And—incredibly—many answered them in the negative. For whatever reasons, many inhabitants of Rome did not want to believe in Nero’s death and burial and said: our lord lives, bides his time, and will return soon!

The rumor went about that Nero, with the help of a few of his most trusted freedmen, had staged his suicide, cremated a substitute corpse, and escaped, and that he did this only to mislead the assassins sent to kill him. Of course, he had had to act that way—he had no choice—because all had abandoned him: some out of fear, others from stupidity. But he escaped and is currently hiding someplace, perhaps in Italy, perhaps overseas. And he is awaiting the opportune moment to return. And then he will return and reassume the reigns of power. And soon! It is clear that neither Rome nor the provinces will endure the abomination of senile Galba’s rule. As someone rightly said about that fellow: “he might be fit to rule, except last time he looked, he ruled already.”

Others yet refused to believe the story of Nero’s suicide on other grounds, saying:

“Nero was a coward. There is no way he would have killed himself. And since no one boasts about having killed him and no one demands the bounty on his head, perhaps Nero is not dead after all?”

Finally, the suspicious asked who had witnessed the cremation of Nero’s body and the placement of his ashes in the tomb of the Domitians (the Domitians’ tomb was the emperor’s family tomb). And--(how very suspicious)—the witnesses had been three women: they were his nurses, Ecloge and Alexandra; and Acte, a concubine he had rejected many years ago but who still loved him dearly. The three spared no effort and expense to make the funeral as dignified as possible, and contributed to it over two hundred thousand sesterces of their own money. Acte probably gave the most, as she was an extremely wealthy woman thanks to Nero’s favor: she had extensive estates, magnificent villas, and swarms of servants.

The three women cremated a body and collected its ashes in a snow-white cloak shot with gold thread—the very cloak Nero had worn at the New Year’s celebrations six months before his tragic end. But whose body was it? Was it really Nero’s? Only they knew—and they knew because Nero had trusted them. Could it be that they spent all that money on the funeral in order to give the false impression that the body of the lord of the Empire was being buried while the lord himself was hiding somewhere else?

Sporus had also stood by the burning pyre. Once upon a time, Nero had decided to make a girl of him. He ordered him castrated and then married him, formally and ceremonially, as his wife (in Greece, of course, as Rome would not have stood for such kinky stuff). The boy-girl had also been present at the scene of the suicide. All this made excellent material for mockery:

“What trustworthy witnesses to the cremation and burial! Three freedmen—a concubine and two wet nurses—and a eunuch! How can anyone believe such witnesses? The whole thing is a farce, though, admittedly, very entertaining. As befits a great artist.”

Such and similar talk was heard among the people who had suddenly been deprived of the very sweetness, the very meaning of life: blood games, chariot races, song and dance performances. And also of the joy of gossiping about palace intrigues, crimes, and orgies—there were no such topics with Galba, the octogenarian killjoy.

Oh, those wonderful times of their beloved Nero—they were missed sorely. Wreaths and fresh flowers were often found on the white altar slab before the porphyry sarcophagus in the Domitian tomb. Often, the flowers were laid by people who claimed that the sarcophagus was empty or contained a stranger’s remains. They still wanted to give an expression to their feelings of attachment to the memory of their beloved emperor.

In the Forum itself, right next to the main Rostrum, images of Nero were secretly placed at night. His edicts also appeared there—edicts in which the still-alive Emperor announced in a threatening tone: “I will reappear soon to take revenge on all those who have betrayed me and my people!”

And it was as if Fate itself had wanted to encourage such hopes: Galba, the man who had overthrown Nero, reigned for barely half a year. On January 15, 69 AD, soldiers of the imperial guard—the Praetorians—murdered him in the Forum. They did this as part of a coup staged by one of Galba’s earliest supporters, Otho. Except, this Otho had once been one of Nero’s closest friends. In 58 AD, Nero took his beautiful wife, Sabina Poppea, and sent him to honorary exile in Lusitania as governor of a province covering more or less the territory of today’s Portugal and western Spain. From that distant land on the Atlantic, Otho returned to Rome with the new emperor, Galba. He had helped him come to power, but only in passing, only to start an intrigue against him at the earliest opportunity. He bribed the Praetorian guard to kill Galba and elevate him instead.

During the same month of January 69 AD, a month stained by treachery and the blood of Galba, frightening news reached the capital: the armies on the Rhine had rebelled. In the first days of 69 AD, they acclaimed one Aulus Vitellius—governor of Lower Germania—as emperor. And so the Empire, deprived of the bliss of Nero’s rule, was threatened with divine punishment: the worst of all wars, a civil war. Those who claimed that the moment of return was at hand were right: were Nero alive, all he needed to do was to show himself, and all would flock to him for safety.


On the Island of Kythnos


And now, as if responding to these calls, in February 69 (bundles of spring flowers—humble violets—were being placed on the altar in the Domitian tomb at that time), the news broke that Nero had revealed himself in the East, somewhere in Greece or Asia Minor. Yes, that Nero, our Nero, the true Nero: the same face and posture, the same hairstyle, quite long and loose at the back, and even his eyes were similar: grey and attentive, if somewhat nearsighted. Of course, he played the kithara and sang beautifully. That he revealed himself in the Greek East was fully understandable. After all, he had always declared that he loved the Greeks most of all.

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