The ancient historian Suetonius does not pull any punches in his pen portrait of the emperor Nero. A sustained character assassination opens with the observation that although ‘many of Nero’s vices were inherited… he made a ghastly caricature of his ancestors’ virtues’. Suetonius goes on to summarise Nero’s ‘less atrocious acts’, before devoting generous coverage to the emperor’s ‘follies and crimes’. Some of those follies read like a satirist’s flight of fancy. The emperor, we are told, possessed a passion for performance, but was hampered by a ‘feeble’ voice. Rather than letting this deter him, Nero tutored portions of the audience in how best to applaud him, while theatre doors were locked during his recitals, preventing anyone from leaving. Some of his more inventive critics feigned death in order to escape.
Of course, it is far from unique for a leader to harbour delusions about the true scope of his or her talents, but Suetonius does not stop there. Instead, he details a long and disturbing series of crimes, including rape and serial attempted or actual murder – involving poison, stabbings, strangulation, drowning, a self-scuttling ship, and kicking Poppaea, his pregnant wife, to death after she complained that he had returned home late. Nero had another wife executed for adultery, and ordered the killing of his own mother, Agrippina, which he then passed off as suicide. The cumulative effect of these charges is to evoke a figure steeped in unimaginable horror. And that is before we turn to perhaps the most notorious episode of his reign: the great fire of Rome in AD 64.
This inferno raged for nine days and gutted much of the urban area. Suetonius not only lays the blame for this squarely at Nero’s feet, stating that ‘he brazenly set fire to the city’, but also adds that the theatrical emperor could not resist performing The Fall of Ilium against the apocalyptic backdrop. Doing so drew attention to Nero’s own mythical lineage. As the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he claimed descent from Aeneas, who had escaped from Ilium, better known to us as Troy, when the city was destroyed. Indulging in such shameless antics as Rome succumbed to catastrophe seems to belong in that modern news category of ‘you couldn’t make it up’. But someone did. We know that Nero was not even in Rome at the time, making it impossible for him to have started the fire, or fiddled while the city burned. What is more, even Suetonius conceded that Nero set up a relief fund to aid survivors.
If Nero’s infamous association with the fire is pure fabrication, it raises the question of whether any of the other accusations in the ancient sources are equally unfounded. Given the hostility of the ancient authors – not just Suetonius, but also Tacitus and Cassius Dio, among others – it is all-but impossible to work out where the facts end and the fiction starts in the elite written sources. This is largely because these texts were drafted after both the emperor’s suicide in AD 68 and the official damnation of his memory, guaranteeing an unflattering take on his reign. But another, contemporary, source is available to us: the archaeology. A new British Museum exhibition (see end box for details) has assembled a stunning range of objects that belong to the era. This sheds fresh light on a youthful leader – Nero was only 16 when he became emperor in AD 54 – who was forced to confront dangerous, unresolved tensions that had simmered ever since Rome established an empire.
A poisoned chalice
‘The ancient sources really present us with a caricature of Nero,’ says Thorsten Opper, exhibition curator and Ancient Rome curator at the British Museum. ‘And we want to acknowledge this tradition, because it has shaped the Nero narrative for 2,000 years. But it is largely based on manipulated narratives and outright lies. There is no attempt to give an objective story. Instead, what we are seeing is purposely anti-Neronian. Recent research is helping us to understand how this was done, and why, but what we can see is how it contrasts with another tradition, which is partially visible in the ancient sources: Nero’s memory was contested along class lines after his death. While the elite were very hostile, we know that the common people in Rome honoured his memory for decades after his death. There were also rumours he hadn’t really died at all, and various false Neros – people who looked like him – managed to attract mass followings in the East. So we have this really intriguing story, with accounts that don’t quite match up. In the exhibition, we use objects to tell the story in real time, and go through his reign in roughly chronological order.’
It is certainly disconcerting for anyone versed in the story of ‘Nero the monster’ to be greeted by a statue of an angelic-looking little boy at the beginning of the exhibition. ‘This is Nero as a child,’ says Thorsten. ‘We can date it fairly precisely – he’s probably about 12 or 13 years old. He was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in AD 37, and belonged to an aristocratic clan closely related to the imperial family. In AD 49, his widowed mother married the reigning Roman emperor, Claudius – who was also her uncle, meaning Claudius was Nero’s great-uncle. A year later, Claudius adopted Nero, and a year after that he essentially introduced Nero as his adoptive heir, over his own natural son, Britannicus. Just a few years after the sculpture of the little boy was made, Nero became emperor of the Roman Empire in AD 54.’
‘As the fifth and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero was the great-great-grandson of Augustus, whom we lazily call the first emperor. Augustus emerged from a long and bloody civil war and introduced what is known as the “principate”, the rule of the first among equals. He calls all of this a restored republic, but really it is a monarchy in disguise, which causes enormous problems. All of the institutions of the traditional government, such as the Senate, remain in place, but a court run by slaves and freedmen from the emperor’s household also grows up. So you have these parallel and competing institutions, which leads to tensions throughout imperial history.’
As well as creating new power structures, the rise of the emperors and the growth of the empire heralded major social changes. ‘There had been centuries of colonial expansion, and then decades of civil war, before the Augustan peace,’ says Thorsten. ‘This brings a long period of enormous prosperity. At the same time, all of these new conquests had to be integrated, starting with places like Gaul and Spain. Of course, these provincial elites wanted to have their say in the Senate, and under Claudius many Gauls entered it. Lots of former slaves also grew wealthy. Meanwhile, the established Roman elite could still become senators and consuls, but they were restricted in what they could do politically. Because of that, money becomes the measure of all things, but here too the traditional elite are vulnerable, because there are so many who are newly wealthy. We can see a lot of status anxiety among the traditional elite and this leads to competition – an arms race, really – to secure ever more excessive luxury.’
‘The empire helps create this globalised world of antiquity where everything is connected and trade flourishes. In some ways, it is a great leveller, but it also makes keeping one step ahead in society more and more difficult. The ancient sources describe all manner of problems with senators who no longer have enough money. Nero is not the only one giving performances in this era, as the sons of knightly families find they can make a bit of money by going on stage, even though they shouldn’t really do it. There is a lot of change, because whenever someone moves up in society, someone else moves down. So these tensions existed, and sooner or later they were going to burst into the open. When you look at it this way, Nero was dealt a really bad hand. He just happens to be in power at a critical moment. For a long time, he’s good at balancing it all out, but once it goes wrong, it goes disastrously wrong.’
A promising start
Another accusation levelled at Nero is that he only became emperor after poisoning Claudius. ‘Not true,’ says Thorsten. ‘There was an orderly transition and this seamless succession suggests no one suspected foul play. Instead, Nero promised to be a new Augustus and honour the Senate. The first years of his reign were very successful and he enjoyed broad support among both the elite and the masses. His mother Agrippina was crucial for this legitimacy, as she had been very prominent under Claudius and was almost a co-regent at the beginning of Nero’s reign. An extraordinary series of coins allows us to follow their relationship; it’s almost like a little film clip. The first shows Agrippina on the front, which is most unusual because it put Nero – the crown prince – on the back. In the next iteration, they face each other on the same side of the coin. Then, on the next set of coins, Nero overlaps Agrippina. After that, she was dropped from official coins altogether, and that reflects how she became sidelined at court.’
Agrippina’s disappearance from the coins could be taken as an early step towards the matricide alleged by the ancient sources, but it also fits with contemporary views about the role of women in Roman society. ‘Even though the imperial bloodline ran through the women during this era, the sources are unbelievably misogynistic and hostile,’ says Thorsten. ‘All of the prominent imperial women are portrayed as outrageously ambitious, adulterous, incestuous, and sexually transgressive in indescribable ways. It’s clearly all politically motivated: powerful women were not wanted.’ While this prejudice could explain Agrippina’s rapid disappearance from the coins, what about the accusation that Nero later kicked his pregnant wife Poppaea to death? Here, certainty either way seems impossible, but once the word of the ancient authors becomes questionable, another possibility is presented by the very real dangers associated with pregnancy and birth. The exhibition suggests her demise was ‘probably due to a miscarriage’.
Another theme in the ancient sources is that Nero deviated from the way an emperor should behave. Suetonius notes he was ‘entirely shameless in the style of his appearance and dress’, but what survives of his statuary suggests an attempt to cultivate an entirely conventional image. ‘Because all of his statues were removed and reused or destroyed, we have to reconstruct the official image that Nero projected,’ Thorsten points out. ‘What we have evidence for is all of the typical things: Nero in a toga acting as a high priest and Nero in military armour as the commander in chief. While Nero’s reign is generally seen as short on military glory, with the Boudican revolt breaking out in Britain, and problems with Parthia in the East, other outcomes were possible. Roman forces captured Jerusalem just a year and a half or so after Nero’s death; if he’d held on a little longer, all of the booty and glory would have come to him and he would have been remembered differently.’
One area where the ancient sources cannot be accused of hyperbole, though, is the severity of the fire that engulfed Rome in AD 64. Ten of the city’s 14 districts were ruined, while finds made during excavations – such as a warped iron window grating unearthed near the Circus Maximus – continue to testify to the ferocity of the blaze. Although Nero led the relief efforts and devised regulations to ease fighting future fires, he handed his critics an easy target by building a sprawling palace, known as the Golden House, over a sizable chunk of the devastated city. But while this is presented as a manifestation of Nero’s insatiable appetite for luxury, it also reflected the reality that the imperial court and administration needed to be housed somewhere. As for the fire, Nero blamed the Christians for the blaze, unleashing a bloody persecution. ‘This is remembered in the Christian tradition’, says Thorsten, ‘which cemented Nero’s reputation and ensured his name remained infamous through the medieval period. Even here, though, the Church fathers seem to have changed the martyrdom dates of St Peter and St Paul, so that they fall in the year 64 and can be linked to that first persecution.’
Another incident involving the slaughter of innocents concerns the murder of a leading senator in AD 61. ‘The senator was killed in his house’, Thorsten says, ‘and an ancient law stipulated that all of the household slaves should be executed to set a deterrent. There were 400 slaves in the house, so in an extreme case that would mean 399 of them were innocent. Debates were held in the Senate, and the younger senators felt this punishment was too harsh, but the old Senate leaders insisted on upholding the law. The plebs come out in support of the slaves, but Nero ended up backing the senators who wanted to follow the law. They were from key senatorial families who wanted power for themselves. Among them was one of the leading men of the Senate, and his son-in-law was Corbulo: the main Roman commander in the East. So Nero seems to be conciliating this Senatorial faction, who had the man in charge of half the Roman army in the family. It must have been an incredibly difficult balancing act.’
From Nero to hero?
It was those same senatorial families that ultimately brought Nero down. When the end came, it happened quickly. In AD 67, Nero was in Greece, on a tour that was probably connected with a planned military campaign in the Caucasus. After rumours of a conspiracy forced him to return to Rome, everything went wrong for Nero. A famine cost him popular support, and then leading senators seized their chance and rose in revolt. Because his loyal troops were still in the East, they were too far away to provide assistance, while bribery ensured the Praetorian Guard in Rome did not intervene. Instead, in AD 68 a cornered Nero committed suicide at the age of 30. We are told his demise was met with general rejoicing, but it also triggered a vicious bout of civil war as the tensions Nero had sought to contain burst into the open.
What, then, are we to make of this leader with a popular touch, and a knack for attracting elite ire? Is there a danger that, while the sources composed after Nero’s death are overly hostile, material from his reign is also compromised because it would be dangerous to show the emperor in too negative a light? ‘That’s undoubtedly true’, says Thorsten, ‘but Nero does seem to have been a fairly affable character when it comes to criticism. Or perhaps he was being politically astute. Claudius only just managed to cling on to power: there was a military revolt a year into his reign and countless assassination attempts. Claudius also had dozens of senators and hundreds of knights executed, so he became extremely unpopular, meaning Nero had to be cautious. Even Suetonius says Nero showed remarkable tolerance for nicknames and mocking graffiti. It was only a decade into his reign that trials started because people were taking liberties. We have material from Pompeii, too, that mentions Nero and talks positively about him. As the town was destroyed 11 years after Nero’s death, the very fact that his name had still not been erased must tell us something about how he was regarded at street level. For me personally, it is the period that I find fascinating. I don’t care if Nero was “good” or “bad” – he was certainly different.’
FURTHER INFORMATION The British Museum exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth will run until 24 October 2021. For further details (including updates during the COVID-19 pandemic) and to book tickets, see www.britishmuseum.org/nero. A book providing sumptuous images of highlights from the exhibition is also available: T Opper and F Bologna (2021) Nero: the man behind the myth (British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0714122922). An enjoyable version of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars has been translated by Robert Graves. CWA is grateful to Thorsten Opper and Olivia Rickman.