A new exhibition challenges the legend of the monstrous emperor, John Westbrooke reports
Poor Nero! There were some amazing thugs and idiots among the 70-odd men who ruled the Roman Empire between 27 BC and 395 AD – just Google names like Caligula, Honorius, Maximinus Thrax and Commodus (the one Russell Crowe killed in Gladiator). Yet it’s Nero’s name that comes to everyone’s mind.
The charge sheet is impressive. He had an incestuous relationship with his mother Agrippina, and killed her; he killed his sisters; he was a brute and a spendthrift; he fiddled as Rome burned to make way for a big new palace; and he performed on stage.
The new exhibition at the British Museum doesn’t set out to turn him into Mr Nice Guy, but it does place him in historical context and present counter-evidence that his accusers through the centuries may have overlooked.
Exhibit A greets you as you enter: a sculpture from the Capitoline Museum in Rome that’s perhaps the best-known likeness of Nero, the one currently on Wikipedia, purse-lipped and sneering. Except it isn’t Nero at all, apart from some fragments of his face. After his death it was carved into the likeness of a later emperor. It didn’t get its present appearance, complete with double chins, until the 1660s, when it was altered yet again to make him look like the monster everyone by now assumed he was.
How do we know? Because other, original portraits survive. The earliest statue dates from when he was 12 or so, probably after he was adopted by the Emperor Claudius (who’d married Agrippina) but well before he became emperor himself at the age of 16, on Claudius’s death in 54 AD. It has little in common with the 1660s version. A metal head found in an Essex river is closer to it but, having no eyes, is harder to read.
Nero seems to have been welcomed as a breath of fresh air, as young rulers often are (Henry VIII comes to mind), and he started well. The empire stretched from Wales to Syria, and in a few years he faced trouble from both directions. The Parthians in the east were stirring up trouble; and in Essex, Boudica was leading the Iceni tribe in revolt: Colchester, St Albans and London were all burnt.
An illustration of the grievances of Britons is a heavy set of shackles evidently binding together a chain gang in Anglesey, perhaps the ones who produced the lead ingots also on display. Also on display are items from the Fenwick hoard of jewellery, apparently buried by a family fleeing Colchester and found in 2014. The Iceni were defeated and abusive officials replaced, the Parthians accepted a compromise, and Nero put himself forward as a war leader: he hadn’t been to either front, but he’d chosen good generals.
He had domestic difficulties too. His mother acted as co-ruler for a while. Coins show the progress of their relationship: before Nero took over, Agrippina appears on the front of coins alone. Soon they’re facing each other, but only she is identified. Then he’s in front of her, partly hiding her. Then she’s gone, and he has her killed, according to three contemporary historians – Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Deo.
Their accounts conflict, though they all agree he put her in a collapsible boat but she swam ashore and had to be assassinated there. He claimed she was plotting against him. Maybe she was: she’d been accused over a plot against a previous emperor, Caligula – her brother. She’d been a powerful figure in Rome, and there’s a commanding statue of her here in dark green stone.
But accusations of bad family behaviour weren’t unusual in Roman politics. Tiberius was said to have starved an unfaithful wife. Claudius forced one of his to commit suicide for the same reason. Caligula, it was claimed, prostituted his sisters (including Agrippina). Uppity women have always attracted allegations of sexual immorality, as recently as the Duchess of Windsor in the 1930s.
It’s hard to know the truth about any of this propaganda. The exhibition suggests that Nero had upset the patrician senate, still mourning the end of the republic decades before; the historians were writing to please them and Nero’s successors, who needed him to be seen as a tyrant.
It’s the nine-day fire of 64 AD for which he’s most famous: there’s a window grille on display, still warped from the heat of the blaze nearly two millennia ago. Did he start it? Did he strum his lyre while watching it? Hardly. He wasn’t even in Rome at the time.
He did blame the nascent Christian sect (though only Tacitus says so, and though many later emperors persecuted them too), which may be the cause of his subsequent bad reputation: St Peter and St Paul, according to legend, were among his victims. He became seen as more or less the official anti-Christ and the “number of the beast”, 666, may be an ornate coded reference to his name.
At the same time, he provided food and shelter for those left homeless, and rebuilt the city, as he also did for London. This was expensive – the cost of his new Golden House drew criticism from political opponents – and he devalued the currency though, as a caption points out, this had the upside of making the denarius equal in value across the whole empire.
Nero also produced administrative and tax reforms, built an amphitheatre, a market and public baths for Rome, and improved facilities at the port of Ostia. He took part in chariot-racing, which pleased the public but not senators, who hated seeing charioteers rich and famous. He even tried to ban capital punishment, for a while. His hairdo set a trend. Though official mention of him was later banned, graffiti survive to demonstrate that not everyone hated him.
In 65 AD, however, a serious plot against him had to be crushed. Three years later, governors and troops were in revolt. Told the senate had declared him an enemy of the state and ordered him flogged to death, Nero killed himself. He was 30 and had been emperor for more than 13 years; his funeral was arranged by his wet-nurse, faithful all his life. Rome descended into the political chaos of “the year of four emperors”.
Has Nero’s reputation been tarnished by biased historians? Very likely. He does seem to have become erratic after his mother’s killing, alternately paranoid and complacent, but many rulers were worse. It’s near impossible to believe he set up the great fire, or that he kicked his pregnant wife to death when she protested that he was late home from the races, and the allegations of incest and random murder sound imaginary.
And yet behind the fake bust at the entrance is a picture of Peter Ustinov playing him in Quo Vadis as a demented man-child. That’s still how he’s seen, so credit to the museum for robustly challenging the myth.
Nero: the Man Behind the Myth runs at the British Museum until 24 October 2021; advance booking required. Tickets £20; seniors half price after noon on Mondays, bookable by phone.