Today, we move back to the Villains bracket with two towering figures from history. The first, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creator of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. Second up is the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman Empire, Emperor Nero.
When I covered Lenin during my days as the host of the Russian Rulers History podcast, we reviewed his life over the span of three episodes in November through December of 2011. Today, we’ll share a more annotated look at his life.
There may be some who will argue with the placement of Vladimir Lenin in the Villains bracket, but I will hopefully make a strong case for my reasoning in including him here.
Born in April 1870 to a well to do middle-class family, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was baptized into the Russian Orthodox religion in the town of Simbirsk to Ilya and Maria Ulyanov. Lenin’s father was a devote follower of the Russian state religion, but his mother was said to be indifferent, as she was born a Lutheran. His mother’s influence is said to be very important in all of the Ulyanov children’s lives. Vladimir was one of eight children born to his parents with two dying in childhood. His older brother Alexander was to have an enormous impact on his life, especially his death at the hands of Tsarist authorities in 1887.
Alexander Ulyanov’s hanging for plotting against then Tsar Alexander III, created a deep loathing for the Romanov’s and the institution they led. It was this deep-seated hatred for them that fueled his revolutionary spirit and is likely one of the reasons he signed off on the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918.
The times he was born into were quite extraordinary. Russia was going through cultural, economic and social upheavals. As Robert Service writes in his biography of Lenin, “Growing up in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century, he and others of his generation were caught in a vortex of historical change. The potential of the world’s largest country was beginning to be exploited. The old cultural and social constraints were being undermined. International contacts were being improved, and the cultural and scientific achievements made the Russian Empire a marvel to the world.”
This Russia that was transforming itself was not a healthy country. Tsar Alexander II had just freed the serfs from their slave-like existence, but it was not a satisfactory liberation. They were still bound to the soil to pay off their freedom. After Alexander’s assassination, his son, Alexander III retracted many of his father’s reforms and instituted strict and authoritarian rules like state-guided censorship, and an increased its spy network known as the Okhrana.
Now some might think that the peasants were the instigators of the numerous assassination attempts at the Tsars and many government officials, but they would be wrong. It was the middle-class and intellectuals that were at the helm of the newly found revolutionary spirit. After the defeat of Napoleon, Russian soldiers were exposed to the rest of Europe. When they came home and saw the wretched conditions in their homeland, and how high on the hog the Romanov’s and their fellow wealthy people lived, they began to talk of revolution.
One the notable writers that influenced the future Lenin was Nikolai Chernyshevsky who wrote a novel in 1863 called What Is To Be Done. It was said that Vladimir was so taken by the book that he read it five times one summer.
The year 1886 was a traumatic one for the now 16-year-old and was to steer his political beliefs to the far-left. First, in January, his father died of a brain hemorrhage, something that would take Lenin’s life in 1924. Next, even more disturbing was the execution of his brother Alexander in May. He was involved with a revolutionary group hoping to assassinate the reactionary Tsar Alexander III. Before the attempt could be made the cell was discovered and dealt with brutally.
The following year, Vladimir entered Kazan University to study law. It was here that he began to join radical organizations which landed him in jail and expelled from the school. While out of the university, he started to read Marx and Engels’s book, The Communist Manifesto.
Allowed to take the law exam, Lenin passed it and mover to Saint Petersburg to practice. From there he traveled through Europe, meeting many influential radicals. When he returned, he was quickly arrested for sedition and imprisoned for a year. After that, he was exiled for five years where he began to write which included his work interestingly named, What is to be Done?.
On January 22, 1905, the Bloody Sunday massacre of petitioners to the Tsar showed Lenin that the government really needed to be overthrown. It is here that we see his violent tendencies. The slogans he used included “armed insurrection,” and “mass terror.” Vladimir firmly believed that terror was the way to change society.
I could go on for quite some time about the life of Lenin, but we need to get to the part where he fits into the Villains bracket. It is now 1918, and Lenin was the head of the Bolshevik Party that had overthrown the Provisional Government after the resignation of Tsar Nicholas II.
Food shortages were rampant, in part due to the policies of the Bolsheviks. Instead of taking any responsibility, he laid the blame on the evil kulaks, the wealthier peasants. Lenin described them as “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine.” He ordered his police to ferret out these people and force them to give up their property to the state. Many were sent to gulags, many were summarily executed. While Lenin was not responsible for the majority of the estimated 700,000 deaths, Stalin carried that out, he did set the stage for his successor.
Lenin also began something known as the Red Terror. From 1917 until 1922, it is estimated that over 100,00 people were killed by the Russian secret police known as the Cheka. The period was also part of the bloody Russian Civil War which would cost the lives of 2 million people. Some may argue that the opposing army, the White’s, committed atrocities during the war, which is true, we are just focusing on Lenin at the moment.
Under his leadership, concentration camps or gulags were opened. By the time of Lenin’s death, there were over 300 gulags open with over 70,000 in them. He also signed off on the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family in 1918.
By 1921, Vladimir’s health was declining, in part due to the assassination attempt by Fanny Kaplan in 1918. He was severely injured in the attack but not fatally so. As I mentioned earlier, his father had died from a brain aneurysm something that would gradually take Lenin’s life. He suffered three strokes which caused him to lose the ability to speak clearly. It also prevented him from stopping his eventual successor, Joseph Stalin from taking control of the Soviet Union. We will see his protégé in episode 30.
On January 21, 1924, Vladimir Lenin died. His legacy of brutality against anyone who dared opposes him set up Stalin to take that policy to a whole other level.
Now on to the second contestant in today’s podcast, the Emperor of Rome, Nero.
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born on December 15, 37 AD and would become the adopted heir to Emperor Claudius likely due to the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger. She was the daughter of the popular Roman general Germanicus, great-granddaughter of Augustus, younger sister of Caligula and fourth wife of Claudius. There are suggestions in the historical records that she had her husband poisoned to elevate her son to the Roman Throne. Nero’s natural father was Gnaeus Domitus Ahenobarbu, who died in 41 when the boy was only 3 years of age.
Nero was 17 years old when he ascended to the throne, so his mother Agrippina became his regent. He was also counseled by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the famed stoic philosopher, statesman and writer, and Sextus Afranius Burrus, the Pretorian prefect. At first, things went along fine between mother and son, but that was to change over the years.
When he was 16, Nero married Claudia Octavia, his own step-sister. Her brother, Britannicus, son of Claudius’s third wife Valeria Messalina, was likely poisoned at the behest of Agrippina as he was a threat to Nero’s claim to the throne. Claudia was said to have attended the meal that took her brother. She was appalled by the incident but hid it from her husband for the time being.
Agrippina and Nero were starting to get on each other’s nerves by now, with the Emperor chafing under her strong personality. Part of the problem was the affair that Nero was having with the wife of Otho, a man who was to also be a Roman Emperor in the future, for a brief three months. Agrippina was entirely against the affair and made it known to everyone. This was the tipping point in their relationship.
Nero set up his mother to drown in a shipwreck in the Bay of Naples, but he didn’t count on her being an excellent swimmer. She made it to shore, but she knew that she was a target of her son. Agrippina was by now exiled away from the royal palace. After the failed attempt to kill her by accident, Nero was said to have called on an assassin to kill his mother. We don’t know exactly how she was murdered, but Cassius Dio writes that her last words before her murder were “smite my womb.” We can add matricide to Nero’s resume of evil.
Without his mother to control his temper and behavior, Nero had his wife Claudia exiled, then murdered in a way to look like a suicide. Now, we have him killing his wife. Nero would marry his second wife Poppeaea in 62 AD. She gave birth to their first child, a girl, but she died four months later. While she was pregnant with their second child, it has been said that Nero kicked her in the stomach causing her death. That has been disputed by other historians, but we have evidence that the Emperor was indeed involved with her murder and his unborn child.
By now, Nero was becoming totally unhinged. He saw threats to his power in all corners of the Empire. Nero began to hold treason trials against all those who he thought might be plotting against him. He ordered Seneca to be exiled, eventually having him take his own life as he was implicated in an assassination plot against Nero, which is likely to have been untrue.
In 64 AD, the Emperor married a freedman, Pythagoras in a public wedding where Nero played the bride. The Roman people and in particular, the Senate were aghast.
It was the same year that we have the famous Great Fire of Rome occurred. Many early Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, put the fires start firmly on Nero while Tacitus is not so sure. Whatever the true nature of the fire’s beginning, it burned through Rome for almost a week.
The Emperor was being blamed by the people, so he needed a scapegoat, and he found it by pointing at a minor religious set and their followers, the Christians. Nero had them arrested and executed by “being thrown to the beasts, crucified, and being burned alive.”
After the fire, Nero did help to pay for the rebuilding of Rome from his own treasury and was said to have helped with the relief efforts personally, without his bodyguards being present.
Much has been written about Nero’s love of music and acting. He was said to have forced the Senate and military to watch his plays and listen to his poems under threat of death. If you fell asleep, you could be executed, something that almost happened to Vespasian, who would become Emperor of Rome on July 1, 69. He was spared but sent off to the Middle East to deal with the Jewish rebellions there.
After the fire, even more executions were held including a hero of the Parthian Wars, Corbulo. This popular general had many friends in Rome and the rest of the empire which caused many to realize that Nero had gone too far.
Rebellions of Roman generals began in 68 began to crop up. Servius Sulpicius Galba was the first to come out and stand up against Nero. Within a few weeks, support for the Emperor started to crumble. Finally, the Senate abandoned Nero who was forced to flee Rome. Seeing that his life was forfeit, he decided to commit suicide, but could not bring himself to do it. Instead, he asked his secretary Epaphroditos to kill him.
It is purported that Nero’s last words were, “how great an artist dies in me,” but others have claimed that it was “Too late! This is fidelity.” Nero died on June 9, 68 AD, at the age of 30.
Nero was to be the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and with his death, Rome was plunged into a civil war that would harken in the Year of the Four Emperors.
Now to our Put It Into Perspective segment.
During the years of his reign, the Gospel of Matthew was written, Pompeii was hit with a massive earthquake, Peter the Apostle is executed, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were placed in the caves at Qumran by the Essenes.
Time to score the two men to determine who will move on to the next round.
First up is how many years they were evil for 15 points. Vladimir Lenin began his reign of terror in 1917 and ended with his debilitating strokes in 1923 for a total of six years. Nero ascended to the throne of Rome in October of 54 and ended with his suicide in June of 68 for a total of 13 years, but only 10 were times when he was depraved. Fifteen points to Nero, ten to Lenin.
Here is where we give out 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Nero surprisingly had a lot of effect on the known world as he had one of his generals, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus brutally put down the revolt led by Boudica in Britannia. We will learn more about her in episode 33. His devaluation of the Roman currency for the first time in their history had a significant effect on the entire empire. Lenin, of course, changed the course of his country dramatically with the formation of the USSR and the Red Terror. For this, I give Lenin 20 points and Nero 18.
Next up is the 25 points for their lasting effect on world history. Of course, Nero has had a much longer time to influence history. His reign caused a shakeup in the Roman world, first leading to a civil war, then to the era where Rome reached its greatest heights, which would last from 69 to 180 AD. With Lenin, he gave us the Soviet Union which lasted from 1917 until 1991, when it crumbled with a whimper. Because of this, I give a slight edge to Nero handing him the 25 points, giving 23 to Lenin.
Lastly, we have the big prize of 40 points for how bad or evil they were to their country. Boy is this ever a tough call. Nero plunged his country into a civil war, he had countless people executed and began the centuries-long persecution of the Christians. Lenin started the Red Terror, had hundreds of thousands of people murdered yet launched the program known as the NEP which began to make life bearable in the Soviet Union. This New Economic Policy may have transformed the country into a more benevolent one except that with his death, his successor, Joseph Stalin would end and begin his reign of terror. For these reasons, I’m giving Nero 40 points and Lenin 35.
The final total is 98 to 88, Roman Emperor Nero over Vladimir Lenin. Nero will face off in the second round against, the Mafia’s Lord High Executioner, Albert Anastasia. Join me next week when we return to the Leaders bracket where Otto the Great, the Holy Roman Emperor will face off against the Roman Emperor who sat at the pinnacle of Rome, Trajan.