The verdict is in ... from ANSA:

Much-maligned Roman emperor Nero has been cleared of a string of dark deeds including killing his wife and mother, ordering the death of his mentor Seneca, persecuting Christians and standing by as Rome burned.

In the mock open-air trial staged for fun at the famed Basilica of Maxentius, actors played an all-star historical cast as well as the lawyers who pleaded for and against the notorious emperor.

Then 12 people picked at random from the audience weighed up the evidence.

Apart from the family murders, the main indictment against Nero (37-68 AD) was that he caused the great fire that devastated the city in 64 AD.

But, citing historians, the defence managed to demonstrate that the popular image of him 'fiddling as Rome burned' was sheer bunk.

The jury also let Nero off for murdering his wife Octavia and mother Agrippina the Younger, concluding essentially that he had been driven mad by his brothel-hopping mistress Poppaea.

Among the actors who played the characters, Adriana Asti stood out as Agrippina, portraying a violent and domineering figure who was even more adept at court intrigue than Poppaea.

Nero had a bit more trouble escaping blame for the suicide of his mentor and advisor Seneca but the court opted for lenience after learning from historical sources that the famous Stoic philosopher had also been involved in plots to kill the emperor.

The emperor's case was boosted by evidence that he gave Rome 14 years of peace and prosperity and Hellenised the city by building an array of beautiful monuments and sponsoring the arts.

Nero was also portrayed as a victim of his sensuous nature and other character traits such as extreme indecisiveness.

The 12 spectators may also have been inclined to show indulgence because of Nero's sorry end, skewering himself on a slave's dagger as the Pretorian Guard closed in to kill him.

The jury is still out, however, on Nero's lurid life and historical legacy, because there'll be another three performances of the trial on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Then it'll be the turn of his immediate predecessor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), the adopted son of Augustus.

Tiberius's rap sheet says he undermined what was left of the Roman Constitution and later stomped off to seclusion on Capri leaving his lieutenant Sejanus to run wild back in Rome.

There is also the undeniable fact that Christ was crucified on his watch.

Tiberius's historical reputation will be weighed by similar juries on the nights of July 25 through 29.

The trials have been scripted by playwright Vladimir Polchi and popular writer and journalist Corrado Augias.

"We documented all the possible texts, classic and modern, from Tacitus and Plutarch to modern Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote extensively about the early emperors," Augias said.

This summer is the second time Nero has been put on trial.

He was convicted more often than not during last year's Emperors In The Dock series, which proved highly popular with the summer crowds here.

Juries were more lenient with his illustrious co-defendant Julius Caesar, the war hero and dictator who detractors say dealt the death blow to the old Roman Republic.

... I note that they're still skipping Caligula and Claudius (as many folks wrote in to mention previously) ... probably has to do with there not being any Classicists involved, by the looks of things.