Imposture adds to History a series of episodes as astonishing as they are fascinating, and sometimes, even amusing. Countless are the individuals who, brandishing audacity as their banner, have elbowed their way into books through their shamelessness in assuming others’ identities and living off of it. But there’s a difference between inventing characters, like Princess Caraboo or the catalog managed by Stanley Clifford Weyman, and impersonating real identities. Real in both senses of the word, as was the case with the so-called pseudo-Neros in Ancient Rome.

In reality, this wasn’t a unique case either. If we look back, we find the controversy sparked in the second quarter of the last century by a mentally unstable woman named Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, the last survivor of the family of Tsar Nicholas II. Mysterious Russia had already birthed another example in 1773 when a Cossack impersonated Tsar Peter III to incite a rebellion against Catherine the Great.

Spain had its own cases, both in the 16th century, with the Madrigal Baker and the Concealed of Valencia, who presented themselves as King Sebastian I of Portugal and the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs respectively. And going back a couple of centuries further, we find Paulus Paleologus Tagaris, who claimed to be Patriarch of Jerusalem and later asserted a nonexistent belonging to the Savoy dynasty to secure his appointment as Patriarch of Constantinople.

However, impostors have always existed, and the trail leads us back to Antiquity, where the aforementioned episode of the pseudo-Neros constituted a primordial and record-setting milestone; first, because the impersonation was of an entire Roman emperor; and second, because there were not one but three deceivers, no less. As can be deduced from the generic name, the victim was Nero, although the harm was to his memory as he was already dead. In fact, it was the confusing circumstances of his death that originated everything.

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the son of consul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, but he was orphaned at the age of three, and his mother, Agrippina (sister of Caligula), then married Emperor Claudius, her uncle, persuading him to adopt Nero and make him successor to the imperial throne at the expense of the legitimate heir, Britannicus.

He ascended to the position at the age of sixteen, and although he initially ruled under his mother’s influence, he later shook it off, especially after marrying Poppaea Sabina, who then began to control him.

Nero ended up executing Agrippina, fulfilling two omens: the first had been made by his biological father, saying that nothing good could come from his marriage; the second was from Agrippina herself, to whom the soothsayers had prophesied that Nero would be king but would kill his mother, to which she replied Let him kill me, so long as he reigns! Two examples of Nero’s capricious rule, of which, as with Caligula’s, it is difficult to determine how much is truth and how much is black legend.

Indeed, Nero is reputed to be the author of the fire of Rome— he could have been, but inadvertently, not to compose odes to the tune of his lyre— as well as being accused of ordering the murders of his mother and Britannicus, kicking Popea to death while pregnant, persecuting Christians… In reality, most historical sources are from authors who were not exactly sympathetic to him or his policies, such as Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius, and it does not seem that the issue will be conclusively resolved today.

In any case, between the years 67 and 68 AD, there was an insurrection in Gallia Lugdunensis led by its governor, Gaius Julius Vindex. The movement was suppressed, and Vindex committed suicide, but before that, he had sought help from Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, whom the Senate supported to overthrow Nero, bribing the Praetorian Guard for this purpose. Nero had to flee Rome and, on the verge of being captured, chose to take his own life. His death was celebrated by the upper classes — not so much by the people, whom he had pleased with a multitude of initiatives in what has been called the Neronian Revolution — which proceeded to apply the corresponding damnatio memoriae.

This, along with the confusing information regarding the corpse, not being granted a funeral befitting his status, not being buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus with the other emperors of his dynasty but in a private tomb that the Ahenobarbi had on the Pincian Hill, the complicated political landscape that ensued (with four emperors in one year: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian), and the game of repression-counter-repression that such situations entailed; all of this, we say, led to a resurgence of a legend known as Nero redivivus.

It consisted of the popular belief that Nero would return to reclaim his throne, as he had not died but had fled to Parthia, where he organized an army. The rumor began to spread at the end of the 1st century and was based on two pillars. On the one hand, the natal horoscope cast for the emperor, according to which he was prophesied to lose his inheritance but regain it after a stay in the East; one version even detailed the place of his resurgence, Jerusalem.

On the other hand, there were the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of books narrated by the Sibyl (a famous ancient prophetess) that chronologically extended from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD and, as believed, were compiled by Jews and Christians with the aim of attacking Roman paganism.

In fact, over time, the legend of Nero redivivus was assimilated to the arrival of the Antichrist in Christian circles, identifying the deceased emperor with the Beast described in the Apocalypse by aligning the famous number 666 with the letters of Nero’s name.

But before that, the myth had already spread and solidified due to the appearance of the pseudo-Neros, who seemed to confirm it. Suetonius and St. Augustine are the main sources to learn about these impostors, who were three. The first emerged in Achaea (Greece) shortly after the emperor’s death, in the same year 68 AD, and the news spread like wildfire because, after all, Nero had visited the region two years earlier for the Panhellenic Games (he was honored with permission to participate, despite not being Greek).

According to Tacitus, the proverbial gullibility of the locals made them easily swayed by what he described as a slave or at least a freedman, perhaps from Pontus or maybe from Italy itself, who managed to gather a group of followers among deserters from the army.

With them, he set sail for Rome, but a storm threw them against Cythnus (an island in the Cyclades), and there they joined the pirates who usually anchored in the area. Apparently, they tried to recruit more men among the returning legionnaires to Italy.

Upon hearing of this, Galba appointed Lucius Nonius Calpurnius Asprenas as governor of Galatia and Pamphylia (two regions of Asia Minor) with the explicit mission of putting an end to that troublesome problem. And so he did; after defeating the impostor in combat, he ordered him beheaded and displayed his head along the Aegean coast before sending it to Rome as material proof that he had fulfilled his task. Only, as would be found out later, the revived Nero would grow heads again; ironically, this matched the verses of the Apocalypse:

I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, but his deadly wound was healed.

And during the reign of Titus (which began a couple of decades later), another Nero appeared. This one took his impersonation to the extreme, as apparently he presented himself in public playing a lyre and singing verses. Moreover, it is said that he physically resembled the original Nero, and that’s why he managed to convince a significant number of followers who didn’t care that his real name was Terentius Maximus, a Roman resident in the Middle East.

Cleverly, Terentius offered an alliance to the Parthians, aware that their king, Artabanus II, was resentful toward Rome despite having been raised there (as a hostage) because Tiberius not only did not support his aspirations to the throne of Armenia but also aided the local nobility in overthrowing him in favor of Tigranes III. Although the latter died shortly after and Artabanus regained power, he had to sign a treaty with Rome recognizing its authority. Having Nero as a friend, even if he was a fugitive Nero, could be a card to play for the future, except…

…Except he wasn’t the real Nero, of course. And when the monarch learned of his true identity, outraged by the mockery, he ordered him arrested and executed. This is recounted by Dio Cassius in his “Roman History”, although the narration is somewhat confusing because the chronology does not match that which is handled today (Artabanus II reigned from the year 10 to 38, when he died).

Nevertheless, the Parthians would have the opportunity to support a third impostor a few decades later, during the reign of Domitian. So serious was their agreement that it nearly led to war against the Roman Empire. It didn’t come to that, and Suetonius explains that he was executed, although capturing him before cost enough that the one tasked with the mission, Gaius Vetulenus Civica Cerealis, governor of Moesia (a Danubian province where the pseudo-Nero operated), also lost his life by order of the emperor, accused of ineptitude.

In reality, it’s not known whether Civica was trying to tread carefully to prevent the manhunts against the impostor from stirring up the Dacians (in fact, between 86 and 89 AD, Domitian would have to wage a war against their leader, Decebalus, which was very tough for the Roman legions) or if he was involved in any of the frequent conspiracies that were beginning to abound in the empire. The fact remains that he was the last revived Nero of whom we have documentary evidence.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 29, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los impostores que intentaron hacerse pasar por Nerón tras el fallecimiento del emperador romano


Suetonio, Vidas de los doce césares | Tácito, Anales | Dión Casio, Epítomes de la Historia Romana | Javier López, La figura de la bestia entre historia y profecía. Investigación teológico-bíblica del Apocalipsis 13, 1-18 | Lindsey Davies, The Third Nero | Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | José Manuel Roldán Hervás, Historia de Roma | Wikipedia

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