The Remorse of Nero, J. W. Waterhouse. 1878. A depiction of Nero lamenting after the assassination of his mother Agrippina in AD59, notoriously by his own command.
I was first introduced to the intricacies of Nero’s reign of AD54-68 in Dr Nigel Pollard and Dr Joanne Berry’s Rome: From Village to Empire module. While I had heard of him before, the interpretation that I had of him was merely superficial, devoid of any historical methodology. What I learned about him in these lectures, however, challenged this view in the most fascinating way: it brought to light the facts of Nero’s reign, with no bias, creating a completely different character from what had been formed in my mind. This is the basis of my fascination with Nero, and, to an extent, my love of history. The fact that there are so many interpretations of Nero, so often exaggerated to draw in an audience, simply reflects that very little has changed since his reign. Some of Suetonius’ more extravagant accounts continue to be repeated today, and filtering through these accounts to find the truth never ceases to entertain me.
The idea that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” has long been rejected by historians. However, the notion that Nero was a debased, merciless emperor to the extent that he would not look out of place in a horror story still remains laced within history. The name Nero has become so synonymous with brutality that if you were to call someone “Neronian” you would most probably follow by offering them a therapist appointment. Most people, when Nero is mentioned, would call back to Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator, and think that he is a close enough representation. If Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, and a number of other works on Nero’s life are taken as fact, this perception would not be far from the truth.
Only recently have we been able to read Roman history with a level of modern academic scrutiny. Before the nineteenth century, sources such as the works of Suetonius and Livy could mostly be accepted as fact, with little notion of the possibility of a personal, ideological narrative within their works. Recently however, there has been an increase of historians looking at history in the context the society in which they were written, and not their own. And yet still there remains a struggle to separate fact from fiction when it comes to modern accounts of Roman Emperors, most prominently those of the imperial era. Else Roesdahl perfectly describes ancient works driven by a personal narrative as “historical novels”, yet documentaries and books continue to disperse them as fact. Nowhere else is this as apparent as in depictions of Nero, which continue to be as sensationalist today as they were almost 2000 years ago.
Nero came at a time when the Roman senate was still adapting itself to a state ruled by a single emperor. The senate and Roman elite began to realise their need to secure influence which was rapidly dissolving under Emperors who noticed the senate was now merely an advisory institution. The pragmatic members of the elite, however, realised that there was still a way to exercise power over the Emperors: through writing. Roman elites had already been writing diaries and cataloguing letters for centuries, but not as extensively as during this time of slow senatorial alienation from imperial power. With loss of power came the rise of writing Roman “history”. Authors began to write with more than the glorification of the Roman empire in mind.
Suetonius’ account of the lives of emperors is wonderfully useful when attempting to discover the ins and outs of Roman society and its elites, but becomes frustrating in its description of details, some of which Suetonius could not possibly have known. He cites “reliable authorities” as his sources, which dissolves any form of reliability his statements have. A particularly far-fetched moment in his description of Nero comes after the assassination of his mother Agrippina by his own order. It states that Nero rushed to his mother’s corpse to examine and assess her body critically, perversely. This certainly does evoke a reaction of disgust in the reader, but this is exactly the reaction Suetonius desires. If he wanted to give his readers a chance to critically evaluate Nero, he would have omitted this moment entirely. Nero’s chapter in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is rife with moments like this, but sensationalist stories attempting to dramatise Nero’s life for an audience reaction do not end with Suetonius’ work. You simply have to watch a modern documentary on his life to find that ridiculous examples of imagery still remain. Documentaries begin with wonderful montages of brutality and fire overlaid with the sounds of screaming crowds and a deafening orchestra in the process of a violent fit. While it certainly is attractive to an audience, you could start a documentary on any Roman emperor with a montage of brutalities and remain safe in the assurance that it remains loyal to its source material. Nero’s violence was not unique, simply more public and personal.
Those who did not write history, the common people of Rome, it is harder to predict the opinions of. However, we can probably assume that Nero’s reign, being of such spectacle, was in fact enjoyed by the lower classes of Rome. His love of all the arts and past times of Rome, from poetry to music to athletics, ingratiated him with the Roman people, something an Emperor completely enthralled with the Senate would find nearly impossible. He thrived in this section of Roman society, something which has been difficult to determine due to the colouring of history by the elite. Nero’s obsession with Hellenic, artistic culture benefitted both him and the eastern half of the empire when he brought into effect a “liberation of the Hellas”, exempting Achaea and the Peloponnese from taxes. Upon his return, Nero acquired all manner of divine acclamations, “Nero Zeus the Liberator”, to name one among many others. On one side of this decision is a certain distaste from the Senate due to its removal of a large portion of income to Rome. On the other, however, was a huge increase in support for Nero from the lower classes, marvelling at his generosity.
And yet it cannot be denied that Nero was a man of few boundaries when it came to indulging a more extreme lifestyle. And it is in these indulgences that he simply happened to be on the wrong side of the authors of history. His obsession with art leaked into his political life, spawning a number of Hellenistic values being put upon the Senate and people of Rome. The most prominent example of this is the quinquennial Neroneia he introduced to Rome in AD60: a series of artistic competitions, modelling on Homeric contests. This slow merging of Hellenistic and Roman values in the public domain was unsurprisingly disturbing for the traditionalist Senate. While leaking into some parts of his political attitude, his love of art simply replaced and removed other aspects of politics. His apparent lack of reaction initially to Vindex’s revolt in AD68-69 shows his mental separation from some aspects of policy, and a reliance upon others – in this case probably Verginius Rufus, a nearby commander of an army – to solve the issues which he held no concern for.
So why do people love to dramatise his life so often? Part of the problem when looking at Nero’s life comes from the imaginations it seems to have captured. Recently, in Trier, there was an art exhibition using the theme of Nero’s death named Lust and Crime, a rather theatrical name intended to pull in those with less interest. In the same way that Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra twisted the love between its two protagonists to romanticise their situation, this art installation reveals representations of Nero’s life that have twisted him into a figure of mythical debauchery.
The fact of the matter remains, however, that we will never truly know Nero. We can only get two extreme accounts of him-one supportive, and one, more substantial, damning him. Though recently it has been accepted that the truth about Nero’s reign remains hidden somewhere between those two accounts, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where. Modern romanticising of his reign has not helped this, and many documentaries and books on his reign merely act to obscure the balance between the two opinions. Nero has inspired so much artistic interest in his modern audience that his supposed final words, “what an artist dies in me”, take on a completely different meaning. Though an artist died with Nero, his death generated more works of art and imagination than he could possibly have wished for, transforming his rule into one of mythical proportions.
Written by Oscar Brierley