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Emperor Nero, the Colossus and propaganda

Date of news: 16 March 2022

Emperor Nero ruled from 54 until 68 AD as the last Julio-Claudio emperor. At the start of Nero's reign his mother Agrippina controlled every aspect of the Roman empire. In name Nero was emperor, but it was his mother who controlled his decisions. Nero, even though he really loved his mother, grew tired of her judgemental character in Roman politics. According to historian Tacitus he had his mother murdered when she was sailing on a leisure day. However, Agrippina managed to escape the daring situation, but was eventually stabbed in her own house. Nero was now free from his oppressing mother.

Nero the bard

Nero did not seem to have knowledge of military and financial business. Because of this he had this work done by his servants and personal favourites. Instead of ruling his empire, Nero chose to put his efforts into music and expressed his love for Greek culture. According to Tacitus, during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD Nero had been playing lyre and had been singing about the fall of Troy. Because of the Great Fire of Rome there was an empty space in the centre of the city. Nero used this site to build his famous Domus Aurea or Golden House. Inhabitants of Rome were angry with this choice and blamed Nero for losing their houses. According to Tacitus Nero ignored the exclamations of the people and built his new palace. There he began his greatest propaganda project yet: the Colossus of Nero.

Building a new world wonder

As long as the Colossus stands, Rome will stand, when the Colossus falls, Rome will also fall, when Rome falls, so falls the world ~Bede (Canter, 1930).

In 64 AD the construction of the colossal bronze statue of Nero had started by the hand of the Greek architect Zenodorus. As mentioned above, Nero was a big fan of Greek culture. Hence, he used the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the seven wonders of the World) as an example. By building a replica of a wonder of the world, he depicted himself as someone who had acquired divinity. Beside this, building a giant statue of yourself in the capital of the Roman Empire reflects propaganda as the supreme leader, and also self-aggrandizement.

Nero's legacy

After the death of Nero, it was clear that his propaganda had failed. Nowadays, Nero is seen as one of the worst or silliest emperors Rome ever had. But the Colossus still survives today in a much peculiar way. The site was later the foundation for the internationally famous Colosseum of Rome. The statue was placed at the entrance and symbolized at this point Sol, the Roman god of the sun. It remained there until it was destroyed during an earthquake or a sack of Rome. While the substantial propaganda of Nero had failed, the name Colossus is still famous today.

A coin of Nero and his Colossus (CNG). The propaganda on the colossus is also visible through coins.
People from all over Rome saw the statue the emperor had built.

By: Ruben Sanders and Kevin Stegeman
(students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)


Primary sources

  • Tacitus, Annales
  • Tacitus, Historiae
  • Suetonius, Vitae Caesares

    Loeb Classical Library
    All texts and English translations of Tacitus and Suetonius are available as digitised editions in the Loeb Classical Library.

Secondary sources:

  • Canter, Howard Vernon (1930). "The Venerable Bede and the Colosseum". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 61: 150–164. https://doi.org/10.2307/282798
  • kennismakingoudewereldDe Blois, L., & Van der Spek, R.J., Een kennismaking met de oude wereld. (7th ed., Bussum, 2017).

    CB311 - .B58 2017
    De oude wereld van het Middellandse-Zeegebied is in veel opzichten de bakermat van zowel de Europese als de islamitische beschavingen. Veel zaken die tot op de dag van vandaag bepalend zijn voor de westerse cultuur, zijn in de periode van 3500 voor Christus tot 500 na Christus ontstaan. Hierbij kan gedacht worden aan moderne rechtstelsels en aan de wijsbegeerte, die zonder het Romeinse recht en de Griekse filosofie ondenkbaar zouden zijn geweest. Het jodendom en het christendom zijn in de Oudheid ontstaan en ook de islam is door de Oudheid beïnvloed.