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How Succession pulled off Nero and Sporus nod, their bravest yet

Bruno Cooke December 13, 2021
nero and sporus succession

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In last night’s Succession episode (season 3 episode 9), Tom invokes the story of Nero and Sporus for the second time, asking Greg, “Do you want to make a deal with the devil?” What’s the story of Nero and Sporus, and how does it relate to the events of Succession’s season 3 finale?

The story of Nero and Sporus, in brief

Emperor Nero (full name: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) ruled Rome for 14 years, from 54 to 68 AD. He died age 30.

He was apparently “one of the craziest rulers of the Roman Empire”: from unusual sexual fetishes to complicated familial relationships, Nero’s life was tumultuous. 

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Rare and beautifully executed Engraved illustration of Nero, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, 37-68 A.D. Engraving from Great Men and Famous Women: A Series of Pen and Pencil Sketches, by Charles F. Horne and Published in 1894. Copyright has expired on this artwork. Digitally restored.

Or, put another way, his name was “synonymous with unrestrained power and unbridled perversion”. His death was the result of suicide. 

While disagreement remains among the various sources, there are those that claim that Nero murdered his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, by kicking her to death. She was pregnant at the time. 

He “regretted killing his wife”, writes self-proclaimed history junkie Peter Preskar in Medium’s Lessons From History.

Where does Sporus come in?

When Nero saw the boy he would later name Sporus (the name means “seed” or “sowing”, “likely a cruel epithet […] meant to mock Sporus’s inability to produce heirs”), he saw a face very similar to his dead wife’s. 

But Sporus was male. 

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Succession S3 | Extended Trailer | Sky Atlantic

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Succession S3 | Extended Trailer | Sky Atlantic
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So Nero, according to Suetonius, “castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him”.

“He married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his home attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife.”

How does the story of Nero and Sporus relate to the dynamics in Succession?

“Greg, what do you know about, um, Nero and Sporus?” Tom Wambsgans asks in episode 4. He goes on to say he would “castrate […] and marry” him “in a heartbeat”.

And then, in the season 3 finale, he poses another question: “Do you want to make a deal with the devil?”

Greg (Hirsch) responds in kind: “What am I going to do with a soul anyway?”

As some have noted, Tom introducing Greg to the story of Nero and Sporus in an earlier Succession episode may have foreshadowed his betrayal of Shiv. 

“Do you wanna come with me? Sporus?” he asks. Fans of the show have hailed the reference – its execution, relative obscurity, and relevance – as “absolutely incredible”.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.