When Nero became Roman emperor in AD 54, two months shy of his 17th birthday, he inherited an empire rife with difficulties. The imperial project itself was only 85 years old, and the seismic social and political changes that it heralded had given rise to simmering tensions at home, as the established aristocracy jealously guarded their status, newly rich freedmen chafed against the restrictions that barred them from political life, and ambitious generals jostled for position. Abroad, Nero faced long-running conflicts with neighbouring powers, particularly the Parthians in what today is Armenia, as well as unrest in newly conquered territories – not least in Britain, where discontent erupted into outright insurrection during his reign.
While Nero’s rule was undoubtedly eventful, it was relatively brief, ending in bloodshed after just 13.5 years. The disgraced emperor’s memory was posthumously condemned (a process called damnatio memoriae), and much of our knowledge of his reign comes from a series of unashamedly partisan and strikingly hostile chronicles that were written after his death. From these lurid accounts, a monstrous figure rises, dripping with salacious tales of incest and murder, of persecuted Christians and fiddling while Rome burned. This infamous image has shaped perceptions of Nero for almost 2,000 years. Now, though, the British Museum has set out to present a more nuanced picture of the notorious emperor, drawing together over 200 1st-century objects, some of which have never been displayed in the UK before, in a new exhibition that gives a more objective view of Nero’s life and times.
Among the themes explored in Nero: the man behind the myth (see ‘Further information’ box on p.55) is the impact of his reign on Britain. Nero came to power just 11 years after Claudius’ invasion of AD 43, and the conquest was far from complete. Although southern lands centred on Camulodunum (Colchester) had been recently turned over to civilian administration, large tribal territories remained unsubdued (and would remain so for years after Nero’s death), particularly to the north and west. First-century Britannia was frontier territory, a resource-rich land that offered tempting opportunities to glory-hungry commanders. As exhibition curator Thorsten Opper said: ‘There weren’t many places in the empire where you could still make old-fashioned conquests for booty – Britain provided that kind of opportunity, and many officials seem to have been there purely for profit. It was very unregulated.’
The Roman historian Tacitus writes that Britain’s mineral wealth was one of the main draws for the imperial army – it is possible that their push into Wales was motivated as much by the desire to control more mining assets, as it was to crush the influential druid stronghold on Anglesey. These industries did not begin under Nero; resources were extracted for export under Claudius too, but the flow of metal out of Britain certainly accelerated during his reign. Silver- and lead-mining relied on back-breaking, dangerous labour, mainly carried out by slaves, captives, and convicts sentenced to damnatio ad metella (‘condemnation to the mines’), and it is likely that many Britons were compelled to swell the ranks of those enriching the empire’s coffers – one of the less savoury examples of ‘what the Romans did for us’. A lead ingot dating to AD 60 and bearing Nero’s name is displayed in the exhibition to reflect this aspect of the occupation; ingots like these were produced to a standard size and weight, and this example was found in Stockbridge, evidently lost in transit to a southern port.
The Latin sources provide further evidence of heavy-handed treatment of indigenous communities. The Iceni, we are told, had allied themselves voluntarily to Rome but revolted in AD 47, long before Boudica’s more famous uprising, when demands were made that they should give up their weapons. Resentment was also brewing among the Trinovantes, who had been forced to give up land to the veterans colonising Camulodunum, and who were reportedly treated with disrespect by their new neighbours. This was not unique to Britain, however: Thorsten Opper points to a spike in impeachment trials, which begins in the late AD 50s and reaches a peak during Nero’s reign, as empire-wide evidence of the occupying powers’ greed. These trials saw governors of provinces being prosecuted for corrupt practices, but not all wronged parties were able to gain justice. ‘Most successful cases were those brought from the Greek East, which was very urbanised and had a long legal tradition – it was easier for those provincials to seek recourse from courts in Rome,’ he said. ‘In Britain, things were very different.’
Rewards and retribution
While Rome’s social elite viewed Nero with (ultimately lethal) suspicion, graffiti preserved in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum suggest that he was popular with ordinary Roman citizens. As the princeps civitatis (‘first citizen’), emperors were supposed to look after the interests of the people, and Nero was no different from his predecessors in offering spectacle and splendour to impress the plebs urbana, building a grand amphitheatre and public baths in Rome, and staging elaborate games called the Neronia. Pleasing the inhabitants of the provinces was less of a priority, however. That is not to say that there was no Roman investment in Britannia in the first decades of Roman rule, but it was mainly focused on loyal local leaders. Excavations at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester, Hampshire), for example, have yielded tiles bearing Nero’s name, suggesting that he may have sponsored building projects like the settlement’s grand public baths (see CA 358), extravagant constructions that would have clearly shown the rewards that compliance could bring.
Those who curried imperial favour were still in a precarious position, however: Latin sources speak of massive loans being suddenly called in without warning, and report that, when the Iceni ruler Prasutagus tried to make his daughters and Nero co-heirs to his lands (perhaps hoping to maintain their nominal independence after his death), Rome responded by seizing the entire territory and outrageously assaulting the girls and their mother, Boudica. Her revenge was devastating. Three major Roman settlements – Londinium (London), Camulodunum, and Verulamium (St Albans) – fell to the Iceni onslaught, amid destruction so total that today excavations within the modern cities still frequently uncover layers of burnt red and black earth up to a metre thick. Recent investigations in Colchester also revealed a more personal relic of this violent episode: a collection of jewellery that had been buried beneath the floor of a Roman house, probably hidden for safekeeping as its owners fled (CA 308). Known as the Fenwick Treasure, the objects are displayed as part of the British Museum’s exhibition; they include gold earrings, armlets, a bangle, and several gold rings belonging to a woman, as well as two armlets of a type awarded to retired soldiers, decorated with military motifs. The house in which they were found had been destroyed by fire and its owners had evidently never returned for their precious possessions.
Another icon of Iceni fury in the exhibition comes in the form of a bronze head thought to depict Nero. Statues of Nero would have been erected across the empire during his tenure, and this example is thought to date to the early years of his reign, as it depicts the emperor with a distinctively simple hairstyle. Its now-empty eyes would originally have been colourfully inlaid – but its ragged neck speaks of a dramatic end to its former splendour. This head had been forcefully torn from its body, and ended its days in the River Alde, which once marked the border between the lands of the Iceni and the Trinovantes. Found near Rendham, around 40 miles from Colchester, perhaps Boudica’s warriors had wrenched it from a statue that once stood in the provincial capital before carrying the trophy back to their homelands and placing it in liminal waters as some kind of offering.
Ironically, this destructive act had ensured the head’s survival for future study, Thorsten said. ‘Bronze portraits are rare, as bronze was very valuable and tended to be melted down and recycled,’ he said. ‘You might compare this example to another bronze head in the British Museum’s collections: the Meroë head of Augustus, which was taken and buried by Kushite warriors in Sudan.’
Aftermath of insurrection
The Boudican rebellion was decisively put down, but the destruction left in its wake shocked Rome. Civilian casualties in Camulodunum – which, unlike Londinium and Verulamium had not been evacuated ahead of the arrival of the Iceni – had been severe, and although the military losses described in the written sources are less dramatic, they may have been deliberately downplayed. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, reinforcements flooded into Britain, sent by Nero from the German frontier. ‘Thousands of soldiers were sent from the Rhine army – if they were to replace Roman losses during the uprising, that represents a significant proportion of the original garrison: it suggests a bloodbath,’ Thorsten said.
Nor was that the end of bloodshed, as the governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, carried out ferocious reprisals against any remaining pockets of resistance. This savage approach seems to have been viewed as counter-productive, however, as – contrary to his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant – Nero sent his freedman, Polyclitus, to lead an enquiry into the aftermath of the rebellion, and subsequently installed a new, more conciliatory governor and procurator (responsible for financial administration of the province) in Britain. This latter official, Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, came from the Treveri tribe in East Gaul, and it may have been hoped that his perspective would be more compatible with that of the Britons.
We can tell that this pair’s approach was significantly more lenient, because they were roundly condemned by Tacitus. The historian’s father-in-law was the celebrated general Agricola, who between AD 77 and 85 completed the conquest of northern Britain and Wales and invaded Scotland, and Tacitus tends to complain about any official not pursuing a similarly expansionist aim. But their more sympathetic style does seem to have helped to calm the situation, as reconstruction of the destroyed towns was impressively swift. The Bloomberg tablets (a series of wooden writing tablets excavated in central London; see CA 317), some of which are included in the exhibition, bear witness to this progress. One preserves a contract committing Marcus Rennius Venustus to transport provisions from Verulamium to Londinium by the Ides of November (13 November). Crucially, it also bears the date 21 October, AD 62, suggesting that both towns were already up and running again as commercial centres just a year or two after they had been razed by the Iceni.
A further endorsement of the restored stability is the fact that, in AD 66, Nero felt confident enough to withdraw the 14th Legion Gemina from Britain, redeploying them to shore up his campaigns in the east against Parthia. Even as the situation in Britain became secure, though, all was not well at home. We start to see the first hints of conspiracies among the ruling classes in AD 62, and Nero’s problems only got worse. AD 64 saw large swathes of Rome destroyed in a catastrophic fire, and although Nero spearheaded extensive relief and reconstruction efforts, sedition continued to smoulder among the upper classes. By AD 68, it was all over: provincial governors began to rebel, Nero’s military allies melted away, and the emperor was compelled to commit suicide. The Senate had declared him an enemy of the state, and, after Nero’s death, statues and images of him were destroyed, just as they had been by Boudica’s army. The Julio-Claudian dynasty was brought to an abrupt end, the empire was plunged into a chaotic period known as the Year of the Four Emperors, and history was left to be written by the victors. As the British Museum’s new exhibition about the emperor reveals, however, a more balanced picture of Nero is just as compelling.
Further information Nero: the man behind the myth runs at the British Museum until 24 October; for more information, and to book tickets, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/nero-man-behind-myth.