This week: Nero

He was enthroned as Roman emperor at the age of just 16. But for all his early promise, history has not been kind to Nero’s reputation. According to the surviving sources, he was a matricide and a multiple wife-murderer – hatching an elaborate plot involving a collapsing boat to see off his scheming mother, Agrippina the Younger; ordering the killing by ritual suicide of his first wife, Claudia Octavia; and personally causing the death of her successor, Poppaea Sabina, by kicking her brutally in the belly while she was pregnant.

Head from a bronze statue of the emperor Nero, found in the River Alde in Suffolk, England, AD 54-61.

He also stands accused of various other horrific crimes and misdemeanours – from burning Christians alive as ‘human torches’ to having a young boy castrated and dressed in a bridal veil so that he could be married to the emperor. Most notoriously perhaps of all – and as every school child once knew – he is supposed to have ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, plucking away at his favoured lyre as the eternal city erupted into flames on the night of 18 July AD 64.

With a press like that, it’s no wonder that Nero’s name has become a byword for depravity. But was he as bad as he is painted? Or is there any mileage in more recent revisionist theories which suggest that this most reviled of emperors may himself have been a victim – of the rewriting of the past for political gain by the three later historians (Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius) on whose accounts we rely today?

This week on The Past, we look between the lines to see if Nero really was the devil in disguise, or just the subject of an ancient smear campaign. In the latest issue of Minerva, Lucia Marchini speaks to Thorsten Opper and Francesca Bologna, curators of the British Museum’s new exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth, to find out more about how and why this figure, popular with the people, came to be known as an enemy of the Senate and the state. Meanwhile, in the latest issue of Current Archaeology, Carly Hilts discovers what his reign meant for Roman Britain, and how the country exploded into open insurrection led by the rebel queen Boudica.

We’ve also been delving into the archives of our sister magazines to build a more complete picture of Nero’s life and legacy: in the July/August 2020 edition of Minerva, Dalu Jones examined how his fabulous palace, Rome’s opulent Domus Aurea, came to inspire some of the most celebrated artists of later centuries; while in the January/February 2019 edition of Minerva, Guy de la Bédoyère explained how the Julio-Claudian emperors (of which Nero was the last) owed their succession to a line of high-profile women, who were seen to embody Roman virtues which were then reflected in the state.

Elsewhere on The Past, we’ve also been following up on last week’s news about the threatened closure of the University of Sheffield’s renowned Archaeology department. On this week’s edition of The PastCast, our unmissable new podcast, Dr Hugh Willmott, Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology at Sheffield and the author of last week’s piece making the case for the discipline’s vital importance as a field of academic study, talks to Calum Henderson about the damage the loss of this recognised centre of excellence would represent.

And if all that’s not enough to quench your thirst for The Past, you can even test your Nero knowledge with our fiendish Friday quiz (from 11 June), which this week is also themed around the Roman emperor. In the meantime, why not have a go at our previous quiz on D-Day? Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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