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Nero was an infamous Emperor of Rome who committed a string of high crimes and misdemeanors. From urban pyromaniac to slanderer, his story is one filled with tragedy and loss.
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Agrippina the Younger was an influential figure who wanted Nero to succeed his uncle Claudius as Emperor. To ensure this happened, she is believed to have poisoned Claudius in 54 AD so Nero would become Emperor. Because she had an infant son Britannicus that wouldn’t make an effective heir, Agrippina the Younger also killed him off as well.
Nero wasn’t exactly a saint, but his actual sin may not have been intending to become Emperor in the first place and shouldn’t have had that unwanted destiny thrust upon him. Instead, his real fault lay with needing to please and showing off musical and artistic talents while at the same time relishing chariot racing competitions.
Once Nero became Emperor, he focused on his passions rather than fulfilling his duties. Seneca and Burrus, his advisers, tried unsuccessfully to rein him in but they could not prevent his reckless behaviour – racing chariots in public races while singing songs aloud was considered inappropriate by conservative senators who opposed him politically.
Nero had begun losing the support of many senators and army commanders by 62 AD, most notably Gaius Suetonius Paulinus of the Praetorian Guard. Additionally, Nero had become estranged from both his wife Octavia and daughter (who lived only three months before passing away) until Poppaea Sabina came along. Nero mourned this daughter deeply; thus having her deified.
He indulged in extravagant architectural projects, such as the Domus Aurea palace complex with lush gardens and artificial lakes. His fascination with Greek culture led to him creating Neronian Games which were modelled on Greek-style games; additionally he spent approximately one million sesterces to bribe judges and organizers of Olympic Games.
Once Nero had been murdered, his murder triggered widespread chaos throughout the Empire as short-lived emperors jockeyed for power. Yet Nero remained immensely popular: after Otho (Nero’s successor) even changed to his name – perhaps an indication that many wanted to forget the scandals associated with his reign.
Emperor of the First Century
Nero remains an intriguing figure among historians despite being a murderer, debauchee and braggart. Not a dictator by nature, Nero frequently showed compassion toward people from all backgrounds. He enjoyed performing music and art performances which rejuvenated culture throughout Rome and other parts of his empire. Additionally, ancient writers frequently reference his generous acts of charity.
Nero was known to commit numerous atrocities during his turbulent reign, yet not alone. For instance, Agrippina the Younger is suspected of plotting against her husband Emperor Claudius and murdering him shortly after in A.D. 59; shortly thereafter Nero assumed control. Rumor has it that Nero poisoned Agrippina but there’s reason to suspect otherwise; she fell in love with both his wives Octavia and then Poppaea Sabina, prompting Nero to kill her himself or simply overcame her by killing her!
Nero was often accused of extravagant and self-indulgent behaviour, yet this reputation may not always be justified. According to historian Tacitus, Nero started the great fire of Rome to clear land for his Domus Aurea palace project. Nero wasn’t always an efficient ruler either – his war with Gauls cost Rome dearly while he also claimed divine powers which was forbidden according to Roman religion.
Nero was not the complete villain depicted by ancient sources. He enjoyed dramatic public spectacles, was an accomplished actor and singer and sought to merge Roman and Greek traditions through cultural exchange programs such as chariot racing.
Nero’s death ignited a brief civil war, known as the Year of Four Emperors. Vespasian, his successor, attempted to legitimize their family rule by disparaging Nero but his popularity among his own Praetorian Guard was much stronger than once believed by historians; many freedmen even abandoned him before his final suicide at 33 years of age in 69 AD.
Emperor of the Second Century
Nero’s reign became legendary for all the wrong reasons; he fiddled while Rome burned, started the Great Fire of 64 to create space for his palace, murdered his mother, first wife, servants and servants; as well as being said to have murdered Poppaea during her pregnancy and thus fulfilling an ancient trope used against powerful figures by cutting her throat in front of an audience.
No one knows exactly why Nero decided to cut Poppaea with his sword, but it may have had something to do with her power struggle with him. Poppaea was an influential presence in Nero’s life – coins depicting Nero with both of his mothers were issued during his early reign years – as well as ruling over his imperial household and ancient writers often mention her contributions on behalf of Nero.
Nero was left without any significant heirs after Poppaea died, which presented an enormous challenge for his empire’s future. Nero wasn’t keen on daily governance work, instead preferring leisure pursuits such as Greek culture and arts; music; performance. A public performance he gave in 65 AD was described as something similar to Bob Dylan-like; with singing and cithara playing — an elaborate stringed instrument similar to a lyre but more difficult and complicated to play than its modern day equivalent lyre counterpart lyre.
Nero took his love of theater to Naples where he put on performances for locals. He founded the Neronian Games, modeled on Greek-style events that featured chariot racing and musical competitions, while also sponsoring arts in Rome and sending many slaves over to Greece to compete there.
Provinces were dissatisfied with how Nero spent their taxes on his pleasure pursuits, new buildings, and his favorites – especially as Nero loved luxury; his lifestyle took its toll on the economy; furthermore, Nero’s hostility toward Christianity made it appear that he cared little for them or their needs and concerns.
Emperor of the Third Century
Nero was an extremely ruthless and bizarre leader of Roman history. He is best-known for killing his mother Agrippina the Younger; first wife Octavia; and, reportedly second wife Poppaea Sabina (reportedly she died during his reign ). Additionally he caused Rome’s great fire in 64 AD which was blamed on Christians. Nero enjoyed music, art and sports such as chariot racing during his rule.
After Claudius died in 58 AD, Nero quickly established himself as a tyrant despite initial successes during his first few years. He began by ending secret trials, abolishing capital punishment, giving Senate more independence, reducing taxes, allowing slaves to sue unjust owners and supporting cities hit by natural disasters as well as supporting Jews.
Nero had many interests and began devoting more of his time to personal pleasures. While Burrus and Seneca managed to keep some of his worst impulses under control, Nero soon fell deeply into a pattern of self-indulgence and excess.
His passion for Greek culture led to him spending vast sums on festivals and public celebrations during his rule, an expenditure which would continue throughout. Furthermore, he began performing and playing the cithara, an instrument similar to a lyre but more difficult to master than its counterpart.
Drinkwater describes this relationship between Nero and Acte, who was half his age, as “an epic failure for his mother while providing Nero an ideal platform to demonstrate that he was becoming his own man”.
Agrippina caused Seneca considerable embarrassment when she refused to join him at a meeting with foreign dignitaries, seeking to demonstrate her worthiness as a woman leader. Seneca politely stopped her sitting next to him without humiliating or undermining his position further.
Nero’s death is often linked to a senatorial conspiracy; however, evidence supporting this attribution is limited. More likely is that Nero simply lost control over his reigns, leading a group of rivals for power to seize upon this momentous opportunity; ultimately Galba would become Emperor in 68 AD.