Exhibition on Nero promises to shed new light on Roman emperor

‘Nero: the man behind the myth’ will challenge ‘traditional preconceptions’ about the figure, says the British Museum.

He is considered one of Ancient Rome’s most notorious emperors. Now, the British Museum is set to open a major new exhibition on the life of Nero.

Running at the institution’s Sainsbury Gallery until October this year, ‘Nero: the man behind the myth’ promises to challenge ‘traditional preconceptions’ about the figure.

Nero reigned as Roman emperor for 14 years between AD 54 and 68, succeeding his adopted father Claudius to the throne aged 16. Five years into his rule, he had his own mother, Agrippina, killed for trying to influence his decisions.

A bust of Nero on display in the Musei Capitolini in Italy. The emperor has a reputation for tyranny and for ‘fiddling while Rome burned’.

His reign is also remembered for the Great Fire of Rome, which many historical accounts claim he started, as well as his later suicide in June AD 68, in the face of rebellious politicians and military figures.

After Nero’s death, the Roman senate excised his name from official records. He was vilified by his successors while historians of the period, including Tacitus and Suetonius, and later Cassius Dio, portrayed him as a tyrant.

The British Museum claims it will present Nero, who was also widely admired for popular policies, extravagant games, and building projects, in a more balanced light, and allow visitors to judge the man for themselves.

As well as rare loans from Europe, the exhibition will feature more than 200 objects from the museum’s collection, much of them reflecting Nero’s influence on Britain. At the time of his rise to power, the island was just a decade into its Roman occupation.

Artefacts include a bronze head of Nero found in Suffolk in 1907, believed to have been part of a statue destroyed during a rebellion led by Boudica in Colchester. Also on display will be the Fenwick Hoard, uncovered in the same city in 2014, which comprises a collection of Roman coins, military armlets, and jewellery similar to that found in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Commenting on the announcement of the exhibition, British Museum curator Thorsten Opper said: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago. It is fascinating to unravel how and why this was done.

‘The exhibition – from court art to street graffiti – reveals a society that was prosperous and dynamic, yet full of inner tensions, which erupted in a violent civil war after Nero’s death. The objects tell these stories, starkly and immediately.’

The exhibition, sponsored by BP, opens on 27 May in accordance with the UK government’s Covid-19 restrictions.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming in-depth feature on this exhibition in Minerva magazine, which you’ll also be able to read here on The Past website.