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Statue of Emperor Nero in Anzio, Italy

Emperor Nero: The most disgraceful competitor in Olympic history

Centuries before doping scandals rocked the Olympic Games, Emperor Nero used his political power to cheat in Ancient Greece's most prestigious event.

Image: Statue of Emperor Nero in Anzio, Italy(CC BY-2.0)

Win or lose, the passion and dedication of Olympic athletes is awe-inspiring, not to mention the bravery required to perform for such huge audiences. To label any of them as ‘the worst’ would be unthinkably mean-spirited...but that's exactly what we're going to do here.

In 67 CE, the 211th Olympic Games were host to a very unlikely, powerful, and fairly unpopular competitor. At 29, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, spurred on by a love of Greek culture and his own hubris, decided he was a worthy opponent to the best athletes in the whole of Greece. And if the name didn’t give it away, yes, he was the ruler of the entire Roman empire at the time. What could possibly go wrong?

The traditional Olympics

The original Olympic tournaments were deeply religious occasions dedicated to Zeus and held quadrennially in Olympia, Greece from 776 BCE. Athletes trained year-round, much as they do today, partaking for the honour and winning only adoration and a simple olive branch crown. Only free Greek men could take part, with women forbidden from even watching. Although there were no records of it being carried out, sneaking in was a crime punishable by death.

By 67 AD, the games ran across four days. The first of which was a solemn affair with sacrifices and prayers offered to Zeus. Many of the following events, such as discus and javelin, were not too dissimilar to the athletics of today, although many of the participants were naked. Unlike the Romans, Greeks saw no shame in nudity, and this was an opportunity to display and honour the work of the Gods at peak physical prowess.

There was also boxing, wrestling, equestrian and running events that were sometimes performed in full armour.

Why everything about this was a bad idea

As Emperor Nero was the Roman Empire's military leader, the years he spent in Greece left the Empire open to invasion. Speaking of invasion, Greece lost its independence to Rome in the mid-2nd century BCE, making Nero’s self-insertion into such an important national event distasteful at best.

Partaking in such events was far beneath someone of the Emperor’s stature, even in Greece where the event was revered. To strip naked and compete in public was considered by Roman nobility as contemptuous and degrading. Records do not say whether Nero competed naked, but they do describe how he entered the humble proceedings with a huge entourage taking the focus away from religion and placing it firmly on power and politics.

The astute may be thinking that holding the Olympics in 67 AD doesn't add up to the four-yearly cycle, and you’d be right. Nero, unwilling to postpone his Greek odyssey, demanded this sacred event be moved to coincide with his visit, and his meddling didn’t end there.

Traditional Olympic events of 67 CE

Back in Rome, Nero’s key activities included drinking, lounging and cavorting about town causing trouble. Therefore, events involving running or any kind of physical prowess didn’t really appeal to him.

He did however adore the arts. So, thanks to some pretty astronomical bribes, poetry, playing the lyre, singing and acting miraculously became Olympic sports in 67 AD. In a clear demonstration of dominance over Greece, Nero demanded events in which he considered himself an expert be added to the programme...and then had himself declared the winner of every single one.

Chariots of fire

Unlike many other events Nero ‘won’, chariot races were an actual Olympic category. Two and four-horse chariot races had taken place at the Hippodrome since 680 BCE. These were the only events that could have a female winner, as the owners of the chariots or horses were deemed the winners, not the participants.

Nero had opted to enter the quadriga race. As the name implies, these were chariots that were typically drawn by four horses. However, in a further display of disregard for tradition, Nero entered a 10-horse chariot. He was thrown from his chariot as he lost control and was unable to finish the race due to his injuries. None of this stopped him from declaring himself the winner though.

His triumphant return

While everyone involved was embarrassed for him, Nero’s perceived success at the Olympics only served to further inflame his ego. So much so that he took off around Greece entering as many sporting events as he could and he reported back on each one to the Senate as if it were a great conquering victory in battle.

Incidentally, the actual battles Rome was embroiled in were not going well. When the Emperor finally gave in to the Senate’s pleas and returned home, he demanded a public procession wherein a haul of 1,808 first-place prizes was paraded.

Nero may have been posthumously stripped of every single Olympic title, but the damage he’d done to relations between Rome and Greece remained.