At the time of his death in AD 68, the Roman emperor Nero, the last ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had dealt with riots, a notorious fire that ravaged Rome, conflict in the eastern and western reaches of the empire, and the killing of his mother. These events – written about by Roman historians like Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio – secured his long-lasting legacy as a reviled figure. But is there more to this image of Nero than meets the eye? While the histories were written by Rome’s elite, more humble texts, graffiti scratched into walls in Pompeii, reveal some voices spoke out in favour of the emperor.
Nero ascended the throne in AD 54 at the age of just 16, inheriting conflict with the powerful Parthian empire (centred in Iran) and in the recently conquered province of Britain. Though these were challenges that needed to be dealt with, his dramatic downfall did not appear to be inevitable at the start of the reign. He was the great-great-grandson of the revered first emperor Augustus, and had been carefully primed for the role of princeps or emperor. As Francesca Bologna, project curator of the British Museum’s new exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth, says, ‘All evidence seems to point to the fact that the passage of power was very smooth, and Claudius had every intention of preferring Nero to his own natural son as heir. Not only did Claudius marry Agrippina, Nero’s mother, but he also adopted Nero himself and he made him very prominent. In a way, he’s also prepared by his mother, who picks one of the best possible tutors she could – the philosopher Seneca – to train him in oratory and writing speeches and so on. From the point of view of his education, we see that Nero was being carefully prepared for the role.’
One marble statue of Nero as a boy, in the collection of the Louvre, shows how his image was part of the public display of power from an early age. ‘Nero still wears the bulla, which is this amulet casing that boys wear’, explains Thorsten Opper, curator of ancient Rome at the British Museum. ‘When they take on the toga of manhood, they ritually deposit the bulla in a temple. So we know that this is Nero probably after Claudius married Agrippina, or, more likely, after Nero’s adoption.
‘There is a similar statue in Parma. They are the only complete statues of Nero that have survived, probably because he’s that innocent youngster. Usually these statues form part of portrait galleries. In a big public building by a Roman forum or in the theatres, you have these family galleries, with the emperor in the centre and his wife and then the different children. As people fall in and out of favour, statues get changed and replaced.’
After Claudius’ death (according to Roman authors, poisoned at the hands of Agrippina), the young Nero assumed power, and his mother remained in the picture. Agrippina the Younger – sister of the emperor Caligula, wife of the emperor Claudius, and now mother of another emperor – was a direct descendant of Augustus, a qualification that may have attracted Claudius to her. A proud and distinguished Julio-Claudian, she also wrote a history of the family, an unusual task for a Roman woman. This text does not survive, but parts of it are quoted by the likes of Pliny and Tacitus, the same historians who shape our view of this period and this reputedly manipulative and murderous mother.
Beyond the texts, there are some material hints of Agrippina’s influence, as Bologna observes, ‘She appears on coins minted at the end of Claudius’ reign and she’s on the main face of the coin. It is her with her title and her name. She’s the first living empress to be represented like this – clearly identified with title and name – on coinage minted in Rome. That alone shows us how powerful she must have been. At the beginning of Nero’s reign, she still appears on coins together with Nero, but then slowly she disappears.’
According to the source tradition, Nero, fed up with his mother’s influence or suspecting her of plotting against him, had tried to poison Agrippina several times, but she had prevailed with the aid of antidotes. Instead, he turned to a complicated plot, involving a ship that split in two. The tenacious Agrippina survived the collapse and swam to shore, to be stabbed in her villa. The written accounts of the killing are dramatic. As Cassius Dio tells it, she said, ‘Strike here, strike here, for this bore Nero’, bearing a striking resemblance to the suicide of Jocasta (the mother and wife of Oedipus) in Seneca’s play. Such dramas seemingly influenced the rhetoric used in the histories.
While matricide seems like the sort of thing that would quite understandably cause instant consternation, at the time the deed was well received. Opper notes, ‘Agrippina gets honours that are usually reserved for only the highest priestesses, so she has a very exceptional position, and clearly that is not liked by many of the Senate, who rejoice when she’s put to death. Nobody blamed Nero at all, even if there are these tales of murder. There were days of thanksgiving, and the Senate didn’t have to decree these things. They went over the top. They were delighted when Agrippina was removed.’
From coins, we are able to identify Agrippina’s portraits, including a beautiful small green figure in chalcedony, but for other women associated with Nero – his wives Claudia Octavia (daughter of Claudius, a match that helped cement his place as his adoptive father’s successor), Poppaea Sabina, and Statilia Messalina – the identifications are not so clear.
Many portraits were destroyed or removed after Octavia was divorced and then put to death, and after the death of the pregnant Poppaea (possibly by a miscarriage, or, according to texts, by a single kick from her husband), and after Nero’s fall, but some fine portraits of women have been tentatively identified as possible contenders for these royal wives. A woman that is possibly Statilia Messalina, who outlived Nero, sports an elaborate curled hairstyle, exhibiting the wealth and the refinement of the day on her skilfully carved head. Another marble statue, found during underwater excavations in a sunken villa at Baiae, shows a young girl with a butterfly, a representation of the soul. The girl’s hairstyle, particularly the fringe, closely mirrors Nero’s hair in portraits. She is perhaps an idealised image of Claudia Augusta, Nero and Poppaea’s daughter, who died at just three months old.
For Poppaea, Bologna says, ‘We know that her family had properties near Vesuvius, so we find her name, together with Nero’s, in graffiti in Pompeii, for example. Of course, the texts depict her basically as a sort of new Agrippina – lots of plotting and a sexually devious woman.’
The repetition in the textual sources – that Poppaea is described in similar terms as Agrippina – is part of the difficulty with getting to grips with individuals in the imperial circle, even those there is a wealth of literature about. Many influential figures (particularly women) are subjected to the same sort of rhetoric, the same tropes. Historical texts give us a similarly skewed view of Nero, and highlighting that there are other – perhaps less deliberately constructed – perspectives lies at the heart of the exhibition. ‘It’s through research in the last decade or two by really brilliant literary scholars that we know a lot more about the agendas of these source authors and about their techniques, just how they presented a certain picture of Nero,’ says Opper. ‘We really have to deconstruct that. One way of getting visitors in the right frame of mind is parking that tradition, going through in real time and telling the stories through objects. And many of these objects belong to people who wouldn’t have left a literary record. I think saying it’s a history from below is probably slightly too much, but it fills in the gaps.
‘The source tradition in Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio is very strong, very uniform. There was a different tradition, but that tradition was held by people who perhaps weren’t literate or didn’t hold positions of power where they could communicate their views. It probably lasted for more than a generation, but it is the senators who dominate history and how it’s written.’
These senators – Rome’s ruling class – may have been feeling insecure as to their own status under Nero. As well as the apparent influence of women like Agrippina and Poppaea, there may have been some concern on the side of the Roman old (male) guard about newcomers to the senate from the provinces and the fortunes that could be acquired by freedmen, formerly enslaved people.
‘Wealth becomes the measure for everything,’ Opper says. ‘And while this is still notionally a republic and you have senators and consuls, their actual power is much diminished compared to the generation of their grandfathers. The playing field is level in a way it wasn’t before.
‘One of the things we have in the exhibition is a silver treasure from Pompeii, which looks spectacular to our eyes. From the find context, we think it is probably linked to a freedman family. And we have Petronius’ Satyricon, which shows the deep unease felt by the elite. They mock these social climbers in the most brutal way. But you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feel threatened. I think all the sources, all these stories about Nero and making themselves personal about Nero, are partly to hide the fact that you have these enormous tensions in society.’
Although there was some social mobility and hope of wealth and luxury for commoners and freedmen, the picture was not so bright for everyone. Slavery was a harsh reality for many. For all that senators had to worry about their power and affluent upstarts, Nero was sometimes on their side. In one telling but harrowing case, when a senator was killed by an enslaved worker in his household in AD 61, the emperor supported the Senate’s decision to uphold a law that decreed that the entire household staff – some 400 people, likely children among them – were to be put to death. Nero sided with the Senate, even though the people were protesting the Senate’s decision.
There were other moments of public discord during Nero’s reign. Early on, he withdrew the armed guards from the theatres and allowed more freedom of expression, leading to riots. Performances, putting on entertainments for the public, and being seen by the people had an important part in politics. Opper explains, ‘We know that theatres, circuses and so on were highly politicised spaces. It’s not so much about the games, it’s about the fact that everyone is there by rank. It’s an ideal representation of structured Roman society.
‘Everyone becomes a performer. Even a senator who enters the theatre to take his seat and gets hissed. That’s something, that’s an expression of freedom.’
Nero apparently took the role of performer quite literally. Instructed in music as a child, the emperor was, so we are told, a lover of the limelight. There are accounts of his performances on stage, including, according to Suetonius, when he sang in Naples and earthquake struck but – a dedicated entertainer – he still finished the song he had started. He performed in tragedies, reputedly even as the mythical Orestes who killed his own mother.
A taste for the theatre was by no means unusual. Architectural decorations in the shape of theatrical masks, intricate frescoes from Pompeian houses, and an exquisite ivory statuette of a tragic actor in the exhibition all highlight the popularity of the theatre during the period.
Nero also had an interest in chariot races at the Circus. Of the various factions, each named after the colours sported by their teams of racers, he supported the Greens, even mixing green malachite with the sand when he raced. The emperor carried out alterations to the Circus Maximus, but his building projects, some of which are depicted on coins, were not just designed to indulge his own interests.
‘Building and beautifying the capital was something that basically every emperor had to do,’ Bologna says, ‘but Nero in a way outdid everyone, apart from Augustus. What is interesting about these building projects is that Nero did not just build beautiful but pointless buildings. All of them were actually functional, and they were useful for the populace.
‘For example, he built this huge covered market where every sort of food could be sold. Claudius before him built a new artificial harbour not far away from Rome, which was connected to the sea through the River Tiber. Nero improved the connection between this new harbour and the city, to ensure the food supply to Rome would continue. We also know he built a wooden amphitheatre that unfortunately is lost. He built huge and magnificent baths; unfortunately, they are lost as well, but we do know they basically set the standards for baths for emperors after him.’
Despite these prudent and, like the amphitheatre, popular projects, the building Nero is best known for is the Domus Aurea, the golden palace with its vast octagonal hall and lavishly decorated interiors, and ample space to host senators and keep them close by. The palace has long been considered a symbol of Nero’s decadence. Built after the great fire of AD 64, it prompted claims that Nero started the blaze to acquire land for it, even though he was not in Rome when the fire began.
Fires were not uncommon in the crowded streets of ancient Rome, but the conflagration that broke out in July AD 64 lasted for nine days, burning the city on an unprecedented scale. Opper says, ‘The senators were upset because some big senatorial mansions and all the historic memory attached to them burned down, lots of temples and sanctuaries burned down – but mostly it’s the slum districts that burned down, where cowboy landlords added an extension here, an extra storey there. It all went up like torches.’ Excavations in Rome have uncovered artefacts like a warped iron grate that show the ferocity of the flames. There was much to be rebuilt.
Nero led the rebuilding efforts and brought in new codes that were still in use under later emperors. ‘Even sources that actually discredited Nero and said that he caused the fire in Rome, even those very same authors had to recognise how, afterwards, Nero introduces a new building regulation, which of course improved the housing of the common people in Rome,’ notes Bologna.
The Domus Aurea was unfinished at the time of Nero’s death. Though he was popular with the people, the senators were discontent with the emperor’s policies and some began plotting against him. In AD 65, the Pisonian Conspiracy came to light, and those involved were ordered to commit suicide or be exiled. The conspiracies continued, some governors in the provinces rebelled, a food shortage weakened Nero’s popular support, and eventually the Senate declared the princeps an enemy of the state.
Nero took his own life in AD 68. This was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Turmoil and the Year of the Four Emperors – Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian – followed. Ultimately Vespasian prevailed, ruling from 69-79 and starting the Flavian dynasty.
After his death, Nero was subjected to damnatio memoriae, condemning his memory. His statues were taken down and his name erased from official inscriptions. In Britain, one striking statue was deliberately damaged before Nero’s downfall in Rome. A bronze head found in the River Alde in Suffolk, long-thought to be Claudius, probably comes from a statue of Nero in Colchester, hacked down when Boudica and the Iceni attacked the Roman city during their revolt.
In Pompeii’s painted inscriptions, the name is sometimes painted over or erased, but often it remains. Although we have few portraits of Nero today as they were largely removed, like the inscriptions, this was not an entirely consistent practice. As Opper explains, ‘Some statues were probably toppled immediately. It might be just the factions, the households of certain senators who do that. We have these reports that, for the first year, Nero’s memory was really heavily contested. We have stories that people donned liberty caps and tore down Nero’s statues; others put them back up again.
‘Under Galba, they’re mostly removed. Under Otho and Vitellius, there’s almost a rehabilitation of Nero. If you look at portraits of Otho, he just looks like a different Nero, even the hairstyle is similar. Later on, it changes. Most of the statues were probably removed and warehoused, and later recarved for the Flavian emperors, even some later emperors. There are portraits of Hadrian that were probably recarved from Nero’s portraits. Lots of them must have been taken off display.’
This recarving was not always a complete eradication of Nero’s image. In one portrait of Nero that has been transformed into the founder of the new dynasty, Vespasian, you can see how the proportions of the head has changed, long hair has been removed, but the eyes stay the same.
The destruction of many official images and inscriptions of Nero, essentially propaganda that shows him in a more positive light as an idealised military figure or as a devout religious man, ultimately helped create the void for the texts written by the discontented senators to shape the dominant image of Nero we have today.
Further information Nero: the man behind the myth runs at the British Museum until 24 October 2021. Visit www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/ nero-man-behind-myth for more information.