Northero comes with a creepy reputation. “The main thing we know about him is his infamy,” says Thorsten Opper, curator of the first British exhibition dedicated to the Roman emperor. “The glutton, the libertine, the matricide, the megalomaniac”. Furthermore, the arsonist: as is known, Nero “played the violin while Rome burned”, or at least strummed his kithara with one of his own compositions, The Fall of Troy, while a fire, supposedly started by him, destroyed three of the 14 districts of Rome and severely damaged seven.
His life after death on the page and the screen is certainly dazzling. Nero inspired some of the best Renaissance and Baroque operas, notably Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina, which trace the emperor’s adulterous love for Poppaea, who became his second wife. In the 1951 epic film Quo Vadis, Peter Ustinov played Nero like a madman: a little boy wrapped in purple in the body of a man. Christopher Biggins cast him in I, Claudio, the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel, and made him power hungry, boyish-faced, and quite, quite insane.
The main ancient sources about Nero are inflexible. The historian Tacitus offers a vivid image of a ruler consumed by cruelty and paranoia during his 14-year reign, which ended after an armed rebellion precipitated his suicide, at just 31 years old. This portrait includes the story of his extraordinarily elaborate plot to assassinate his powerful mother, Agrippina, using a trick boat designed to collapse in the sea and drown her (the brave Empress Dowager swam to shore, but was later sent by the sword). It also includes, even less pleasant, the information that the emperor killed his wife Poppaea by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant. Meanwhile, Nero’s biographer Suetonius tells us that apart from his shameful habit of singing and playing on public stage, the emperor liked to amuse himself by going out in disguise after dinner, attacking and stabbing people, and then throwing the corpses into the sewers.
But the thrust of the British Museum exhibit, which opens this week, is that this tale of debauchery and degeneracy is essentially propaganda. “Fonts should be seen as texts that have a clear agenda,” says Opper, the museum’s curator of Greek and Roman sculpture. The “elite senatorial writers” who formed this negative image, he argues, could not reconcile themselves with the demise of the republic and the establishment of a one-man populist government.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth attempts to hint at another suppressed version of the emperor, one that survives only on fragments of pro-Nero graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii, in sections of major ancient texts, and on objects and sculptures. who managed to escape the Roman habit of destroying images of a discredited ruler (known as memory damnation, the condemnation of memory).
The reputation for “sex, violence, and gluttony” that swirls around Nero, Opper argues, was carefully built through the profuse invocation of unfounded conspiracy theories and the deliberate use of the rhetorical tropes of to blame. These techniques of undermining opponents, free from modern legal restrictions on libel or slander, often focus on the alleged sexual incontinence and financial waste of the target. The British Museum exhibit, he says, “is not about rehabilitating Nero, it is about critically reading the sources and removing the accumulations.”
Once the anecdotes and gossip are removed, he says, there is a rich and intriguing political image to discern: that of a traditional ruling class threatened by the wealth of an insurgent group of provincials; political pressure builds as “money anxiety blurs class divisions”; and an emperor who is attempting to shore up an unstable power base by gaining popularity among the commoners, or ordinary people of Rome, while dealing with pressures on the eastern and western fringes of the empire, in what are now Armenia and Britain.
The exhibition begins with a powerful metaphor for the transformation of the “real” Nero into the Nero of myth. A bust normally housed in the Capitoline Museums, Rome, which shows Nero with a haunting and malevolent physiognomy: a cruel curve in the mouth and a huge chin that give him a rather bully air. This is the Nero Ustinov who skillfully and pleasantly inhabits Quo Vadis. However, Opper says, the sculpture was fragmentary: only the area above the right eye and left cheek is original. It was heavily restored in the 17th century by a baroque artist who gave Nero that crazy chin and depraved mouth, someone who had read his Suetonius, or at least had a firm idea of the “evil” character passed down by Roman historians.
Few complete original sculptures by Nero survive. But one or two remain: an impressive statue of an angelic-looking 12 or 13-year-old boy, on loan from the Louvre, presents a very different image. It is a portrait of a young man “debuting as part of the imperial family,” according to Opper. The sculpture was perhaps once part of a dynastic group: officially adopted by his predecessor and stepfather, Claudius, this boy was groomed for early power to ensure a smooth transition. In fact, this was accomplished, says Opper, scoffing at the idea that Nero’s mother Agrippina killed Claudius, poisoning him, as ancient sources insist, with mushrooms.
For Opper, the true brutality of Nero’s reign is not contained in the emperor’s personal acts of violence, real or imagined, but within the cruelty and exploitation of the Roman imperial system. A section of the show is dedicated to Britain, at the time a young and unstable addition to Rome’s empire, as the southern and eastern part of the island was invaded and conquered by Claudius in 43 AD Nero’s reign, however , saw one of the most famous incidents in Britain’s Roman history: the uprising of the former Roman ally Boudicca, queen of the Iceni people in what is now East Anglia.
Ancient sources hint at corruption, greed, and tax collection (auctioning the right to collect taxes) by recent imperial rulers. Thus provoked, the Boudicca revolt was bloody, as described by the historian Tacitus, and as observed in the archaeological record. The exhibit includes a recent find: a hoard of coins and jewelry excavated under a Fenwick branch in Colchester, then the provincial capital of Britannia. It appears that they were buried, perhaps by the terrified fleeing Roman inhabitants, most of whom were massacred by Boudicca’s forces. The treasure was found under the layer of burnt material that is the physical trace of Boudicca’s rampage through the city. Also shown is the recent find of a kneecap cut by a sword and a jaw cut by a blade.
Perhaps most chilling of all, however, is the evidence of Roman chain gangs, discovered on Anglesey: metal shackles that would have held five slaves, or prisoners, or prisoners of war, a reminder of the fact that the empire Roman went on. the muscular power of the enslaved. Anglesey was the scene of fighting between Romans and, according to Tacitus, a force of British that included “women dressed in black with disheveled hair like Furies” and Druids “screaming terrible curses”.
It was General Gaius Suetonius Paulino’s advance towards Anglesey that gave Boudicca the opportunity to attack while most of the Roman forces were occupied in the west. He was about to get rid of the Romans completely. There is a bronze roman head in the collection of the British Museum, included in the exhibition, which was found on the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. Opper believes it could represent Nero. Theories have been put forward that it was Iceni spoils of war, ritually deposited in the river after being snatched from Colchester or another Roman center.
What about the story that Nero was responsible for the fire that devastated Rome in AD 64? C.? Surely that, the most famous of Nero, must be true? Opper shakes his head. Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time, he says, and the city, with its poorly built and overcrowded houses, “was due to a fire.” He argues that the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a kind of slippage, solidifying a rumor based on the fact that he actually wrote a poem about the fall of Troy, which included scenes of a burning city. Instead, he points out, even ancient sources acknowledge that Nero made sure the homeless were housed and that the rebuilding was much safer and more regulated, albeit with a giant palace of his own, the Domus Aurea, spilling magnificently over it. opium. Colinas, Celias and Esquilinas as a kind of Versailles in the center of the city.
The pleasantly monstrous Nero, then, seems to fade under Opper’s critical gaze. So who was he? The “real Nero,” he argues, is no longer recoverable, so effective was the propaganda of his opponents. The exhibition ends as it begins, with another powerful image of the erasure of the emperor. After Nero’s death, a brutal civil war broke out. One after another, four powerful generals tried to seize power. The one who finally triumphed was Vespasian, who had led the Second Legion into south-west England and Wales. He founded the second dynasty of Roman emperors, the Flavians. That last object is a stone head of Vespasian, recycled and carved from a sculpture of Nero.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism