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A new exhibition at the British Museum argues that we’ve misjudged one of history’s biggest bogeymen.
Was Nero a villain? The history books tell us that the fifth emperor of Rome slept with and murdered his mother, Agrippina, poisoned his stepbrother, killed two of his wives (the second, Poppaea, by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant) and purged Rome’s upper crust. He apparently torched two-thirds of the city in the Great Fire of AD64 to make way for a stupendous palace – while strumming his trusty kithara and reciting his own poetry about the fall of Troy. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that he enjoyed going out on the streets after dinner in disguise, stabbing people, then throwing their corpses into the sewers.
How true is all this? “I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him,” says historian Mary Beard, but Nero’s worst vices were invented by toffs who couldn’t stand him. His rap sheet is “based on manipulations and lies that are 2,000 years old”, adds Thorsten Opper, curator of the new Nero exhibition at the British Museum. The three chief chroniclers of his 14-year reign, Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius, take a dim view of the young emperor, but that’s because Rome’s elite felt threatened by his sweeping social reforms and championing of the lower classes. “It’s a bit like we inherited the metropolitan elite’s views of Donald Trump,” says Beard.
Was he a populist like The Donald? Yes, and the people lapped it up. He was the most charismatic Caesar by a distance, says Tom Holland in the podcast The Rest Is History. The flaxen-haired Nero – just 16 when he came to power – trod the boards as an actor, appeared in public singing and playing the lyre, and even raced a 10-horse chariot at the Olympic Games. Contrary to his posthumous reputation, he was prodigiously gifted at all of these pursuits. “Imagine today a world leader starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, headlining at Glastonbury, winning a race in Formula One,” says Holland. But Nero was also a practical ruler. The first part of his reign (known as the quinquennium Neronis) provided five years of good government and enormous tax breaks because the emperor listened to brilliant Spads like the philosopher Seneca.
But he had a dark side? Absolutely. He was a Caesar. Nero almost certainly tried to have his all-powerful mother drowned in AD59 by means of a collapsible yacht. When she survived and swam to shore, a kill squad finished the job. (Agrippina’s handmaid – “rather unwisely”, as Tacitus puts it – kept screaming that she was Agrippina and needed help. The rowers rushed over and bashed her on the head with their oars.) No one knows if Nero slept with Agrippina, but he did fondle a concubine who looked uncannily like her. He also dressed a eunuch as his second wife after he’d bumped her off. He hoped to hold power long enough to rebrand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis”. But this was par for the course for Julio-Claudian emperors, says Holland – they were deified, after all. And because Nero evoked the excesses of beloved Greek heroes, people fawned on him all the more.
Did he really fiddle while Rome burned? No. He wasn’t in the wooden city when the fire started, says historian Anthony Barrett in his book Rome Is Burning, but he raced to join the efforts to extinguish “the fire that ended a dynasty” – directing the fightback from the front line. He also opened his palace grounds to the homeless, says Beard. “That’s the equivalent of the Queen opening up Buckingham Palace after a national disaster.” What’s indisputable is that before the fire Nero was Rome’s golden boy. Then, facing a wave of accusations that he was at fault for the 1st century’s equivalent of Chernobyl, he shifted the blame to a creepy group of apocalyptic cultists who lived near ground zero: Christians.
What happened? Nero dressed up as the god Apollo, soaked Christians in pitch and set them alight “like torches” as punishment, says Holland. His place in Christian folklore was assured. It is no coincidence that the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters that spell “Neron Caesar” adds up to 666 – he’s literally “the Beast” in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. He also built a whopping new estate from central Rome’s rubble: the Domus Aurea, or “Golden House”. It had thousands of servants and a 120ft statue of the emperor as Apollo. That went down terribly with the million Romans who had just lost property and been through hell.
Did Nero’s reputation go down in flames? Nero was undone, but Rome had barely batted an eyelid at slaughtered Christians. Instead, political infighting led the emperor to demand that Seneca take his own life. In AD67 Nero supposedly visited the Oracle of Delphi, who told him: “The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall.” Enraged, he had her burnt alive, but left reassured that he would live until 73. However, an armed rebellion led by the governor of Hispania Citerior, Galba – who was 73 at the time – forced Nero from power and made him a “public enemy”. The last Augustinian emperor took his own life in a villa on the outskirts of Rome in AD68, aged 30, asking a servant to stab him in the neck as the Praetorian Guard neared his door. His only child, Claudia Augusta, had died of illness in AD63, just four months after her birth.
So, what happened to his legacy? The people outside Rome remembered an emperor who fed and entertained them through thick and thin: a tsunami in Ostia, an earthquake in Pompeii and Boudicca’s rebellion in Britain. He also rebuffed the advances of rival superpower Parthia. Fan boys tried to cash in on his popularity by claiming to be the emperor, back from the dead. Life-size statues of Nero were put up in Tralles, an important city in Asia Minor, a century after his death. “Everybody wishes he were still alive,” wrote a Greek lawyer several decades after his demise. But his successors in the city dragged his name through the mud to suit their own ends, advancing their legitimacy at the expense of his. If the Julio-Claudian line was desecrated, anyone could be Caesar – there were four emperors in a single year after his death. We shouldn’t look to create a new story for Nero, says Beard. “But we should examine how that story came to be.”