Was Nero really a goodie?

The British Museum is recovering from the covid lockdown in grand style, with two major exhibitions opening one after the other: the first on Thomas Beckett for the Medievalists and then for the Romanists — Nero (AD 54 – 68). In this opinion piece, Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk offers his perspective on the 'bad' emperor.

Nero is usually considered to be one of the bad Roman Emperors – ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burnt’. But Nero has been undergoing a gentle rehabilitation among classicists and underlying the exhibition is the question: was Nero not so bad after all? It is not the major thesis of the exhibition – bad emperors make better copy than good emperors – and there is plenty of wonderful art on display in the exhibition. But let us try and extract from the exhibition the case that Nero has been much maligned and was not that wicked after all.

Statue of Nero as a boy, aged 12 or 13. Note the boyish hair style without any elaboration. On his chest is a bulla, showing that he was still a child and had not yet received the toga virilis.

Perhaps the major case for a reassessment is that after his death Nero remained surprisingly popular in the East. He put on many popular displays for which the ordinary people in the Eastern Empire remembered him with affection. The trouble is that the historians on whom we rely – the magisterial Tacitus, the gossip writer Suetonius, and the summary written by Cassius Dio a century later, were all members of the upper class and the upper classes all thought that Nero was terribly vulgar. It just was not the right thing for emperors to sing in public, and they all implied that he had a terrible voice. But was this true? Did he perhaps have quite a good voice, so that the ‘people’ thought that he was really rather a hoot?

Nero’s favourite past time. Chariot racing is very dangerous with four horses pulling a very light chariot. Note the three pillars to the right which marked the turning point in the race.

But let us rethink Nero. One of his major passions was to be a great builder: he was an aesthete who wanted to make Rome more beautiful. According to the Exhibition Highlights handbook, ‘During Nero’s rule, the city of Rome underwent changes on a scale not seen since Augustus. He had a lifelong interest in engineering works and innovative architectural projects. In the Campus Martius he ordered the construction of a splendid amphitheatre and a great thermae which became the model for later imperial bathhouses.’ One of his major projects was the Macellum Magnum, the central food market which was praised long after his death and was illustrated on a coin.

Nero was a great builder. This coin shows the Macellum Magna, or the central food market, which was much admired.

The great harbour at Portus which was begun under Claudius, was completed by Nero and a canal was constructed to connect with the Tiber.

Coin to celebrate the completion of the harbour at Portus, begun by Claudius. At the top is the lighthouse, and at the bottom the reclining figure represents the open sea. Inside are ships, while on the left around the rim are the quays.

The thing for which he is best known is his major palace, the Domus Aurea (the golden house) on the Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill had long been the posh part of Rome, the other side of the Forum from the Capitoline Hill, and from Augustus onwards it began to be taken over and aggrandised by the emperors; but it was still not a ‘palace’. Surely it was only sensible for Nero to turn it into a proper palace fit for an emperor, something that was finally achieved by Domitian, fifty years later.

The building of the Domus Aurea was facilitated by the Great Fire that swept through Rome for eight days in AD 64 and destroyed the centre of Rome. Yes, it was a bad fire, perhaps the worst of the fires, but Rome was terribly built up and fires were frequent. It has often been blamed on Nero, but he was out of town when it began so he could not be blamed for starting it, and far from fiddling he did everything in his power to fight it, and help Rome recover from it.

Let us continue with our rehabilitation of Nero and make the case for Nero, the Great Aesthete. His coins are superb, probably the best of all Roman coins. Did he perhaps have a hand in the workings of the moneyers? He certainly had a hand in the production of the official statues of the emperor, which fall into three or possibly four types. The first type was as a teenager – the exhibition opens with a splendid example of this type from the Louvre. Then when Nero became emperor in AD 64, a new version of his portrayal was created – still with his simple hairstyle. Then in AD 69 he celebrated his five year anniversary as emperor, and the portrayal depicted Nero sporting no fringe, but a very elaborate new style.

Nero changed his hairstyle every five years. At the top is style two, with the fringe cut evenly at the font. Centre is style three with the fringe arranged with curling irons. Above is style four: his ultimate achievement.

And then five years later he had another quinquennium, and he wore his hair longer at the back. Elaborate hairstyles like this, styled with curling irons, were popular among Rome’s gilded youth, but were considered vulgar and unmanly by traditionalists (count me as a traditionalist). But this hairstyle remained fashionable for decades across the empire: poems were written, likening Nero to Apollo and Mars.

But it wasn’t just the men who had elaborate hairstyles – the women surpassed them. This is (probably) Statilia Messalina, Nero’s third wife.

Administration

One suspects that Nero rather neglected administration, but how did administration manage without him? One would not expect an aesthete like Nero to be any good at war, but three episodes can be mentioned. In the East the Parthians were giving trouble, again, but the Romans managed to patch up some kind of peace by allowing that Tiridates, the Parthian king of Armenia, could remain as king provided that the Romans crowned him. Thus, a smidgeon of Roman pride was retained even though Armenia remained under Parthian control. But the most interesting case was the newly conquered province of Britain. Here, a woman, Boudicca, rose in rebellion and at one time looked as if she was going to drive the Romans out. However, after razing three Roman towns to the ground, she was eventually defeated by the valour of the Roman army.

A major administrative disaster in Nero’s reign was the rebellion of Boudica. This neck guard from the Meyrick helmet is a fine example of Celtic art.

But the consequence is interesting and shows the good sense of whoever was running affairs in Rome. The victorious general Paulinus wanted to punish the Britons but the emperor’s local agent, the procurator, disagreed, so Paulinus was withdrawn and replaced by Petronius Turpilianus, who was an administrator rather than a soldier, and went on to build aqueducts. He realised that winning the peace was just as important as winning the war, and proceeded to rebuild Roman Britain.

This is a recent discovery of a lead pig – a heavy ingot of lead. It is inscribed with the name of Trebellius Maximus, the Governor of Britain from AD 63-68. He was not a military man but an administrator having carried out a census in Gaul. Tacitus marks him down, but he was clearly sent out by Nero, or his advisers, to do what Rome did best, that is to make peace.

His successor Trebellius Maximus has recently been in the news in that a lead pig inscribed with his name has been discovered near Chester. Trebellius is an interesting case: he too was not a military man –  his background was that he had carried out a census in Gaul and was clearly a top administrator. The soldiers did not approve of him – neither did Tacitus – but one wonders whether he deserves the encomium that Tacitus lavishes on his successor Agricola, that he gave ‘private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses’ and was thus one of the founders of Roman Britain.

Suetonius, the good administrator, who took over the administration in Nero’s early years.

Do we get a glimpse here of Nero the wise administrator? The usual story here is of the quinquennium Neronis – the first five years of Nero’s rule from the age of 16 – 21 when he was under the control of two wise tutors, the philosopher Seneca and the praetorian prefect Burrus. According to Trajan, these five years far excelled the government of all other emperors. But this concept of the quinquennium Neronis  was challenged by J G C Anderson in 1911 who pointed out that it is not mentioned by any of our three major sources: Tacitus, Plutarch or Cassius Dio.  Instead the concept only comes from the fourth-century epitomist, Aurelius Victor, a very late source and the details have been much discussed. But is this concept of Nero beginning good and then going bad – perhaps a little harsh? If we look at Nero from the British point of view, was not his policy in Britain rather a good one?

Eventually, however, the optimates – the traditionalists – won out. There was trouble in Gaul with the threatened rebellion of Vindex. The senate turned against Nero and when he realised he had lost its support, he committed suicide with the words ‘Qualis artifex pereo’ – What an artist I perish! Chaos followed, with four emperors following one after the other in a single year.

Agrippina with her son Nero. Agrippina murdered her husband, Claudius, in order to put her son on the throne. Here Nero is behaving dutifully, wearing a soldier’s uniform, even if he would much rather be at the circus.

Let us re-assess. Nero came to throne as a youngster aged 16, very much under the control of his mother, the ambitious Agrippina. At first all went well, as his Mother, and Seneca and Burrus (his advisers) ruled well. However, he was rather bored by administration and not very good at it. He preferred the arts and sports and chariot racing, so increasingly he left administration to his advisers who continued to do a good job, though the less said about the many executions, the better. However, the arts flourished and the great fire of Rome gave him the opportunity to make over-ambitious plans for building a grandiose palace.  He was also convinced that his main talent was in his singing, which was appreciated in Greece and the East, even if the senators disapproved. His talents may have been limited and he may have been fundamentally lazy: but was he bad? Could we not say that he made the best use of his limited talents – and the empire flourished?

And the British Museum has put on a good display of the achievements of that empire.

All images: Andrew Selkirk.