Nero: the man behind the myth

Content warning: contains references to violence/murder

An arresting sight, in the middle of the British Museum’s Nero Exhibition. Gang chains. Discovered in Anglesey, Wales, an important centre for the Druids, the religious elite of Ancient Britannia. The chains are wrought into tender curves, almost like the torques which untarnished or torn are discovered regularly across Europe. 

They date from 100 BCE – 78 CE, which suggests they could have been used before the Roman conquest of the British Isles, perhaps used to control slaves or prisoners. Bathed in strong light in a darkened room and surrounded by the splendours of the empire or the memoirs of battle, they make a dramatic impact. A reminder of the banal evil of slavery at the heart of the empire.

The Roman Empire was built on oppression. The rich objects which stun museum visitors are the direct result of military and economic exploitation. 

Many people visiting Nero: the man behind the myth – perhaps their first museum show in many months – will be more aware than ever about the structural inequalities which drove the Roman imperial power and empowered the Roman elite. This is not a new theme for the Museum. Their 2013 show ‘Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ explored the multi-level reality of society in these sites, foregrounding the experience of slaves. However, it is still a theme little explored by museums. The Ashmolean’s Last Supper in Pompeii, while a stunning show, rather quaintly described the relationship of slaves and masters, as that of Downtown Abbey. 

The Roman Emperors, and especially Nero, are often invoked to prove the Victorian historian Lord Acton’s premise that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Yet many Roman men would have had an absolute power over members of their households, especially slaves who they could treat as they wished. Laws were in place to punish cruel masters, but little enforced. In 61 CE, Lucius Pedanius Secundus a senator noted for his cruelty, was murdered by his slaves. The law stated that if an owner was murdered by their slaves, all the slaves in that household would be murdered. The people of Rome protested this but to no avail. Nero and the Senate demanded their death and 400 were killed, amongst them young children. 

It is moving perhaps to look at the many impressive and beautiful objects on display in this exhibition and wonder who looked at them, who touched them or used them in their daily life. Perhaps Nero, perhaps one of these 400 slaves.

Statue of young bog wearing pointed hood of cape over head
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Nero is still notorious for his cruelty and self-indulgence. He is the man who literally fiddled while  Rome burned; the Emperor who destroyed his city to build himself a beautiful palace. The first persecutor of the Christians. A matricide. Perhaps a motherfucker.

Some of this record seems to come from historians writing decades later: Tacitus and Suetonius whose narratives are still the sources for Roman decadence in popular culture, and Dio Cassius, whose history goes up to the 220s CE. The most famous story about Nero, that he fiddled while Rome burned can be found in all three authors. Tacitus wrote that there was a rumour that Nero “appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy”. Suetonius reports that he sang while dressed in his theatrical costume and “exulting […] in “the beauty of the flames. Dio Cassius says that he played from the roof of his palace to get the best view. The actual truth is harder to discern, but if in fact he did play an instrument, it would have been a cithara.

The exhibition curators seek to recover ‘the real Nero’. It is questionable how possible this is. Historical analysis is based on an analysis of evidence. It is rigorous but so much remains tentative.  Scholars can identify where the ancient writers are using clear tropes. For example, Nero is said to have performed on the stage as Orestes and Oedipus, the first murdered his mother and the second slept with her. Other accounts can be shown to be biased. Nero’s military interventions in Parthia have been re-appraised as a diplomatic success, while Suetonius called it ‘a humiliation in the East’. We can also analyse accounts against other forms of evidence such as inscriptions or archaeology. Recent excavations of Nero’s Palace, the Domus Aurea, have revealed just how ostentatious and large it was.

It is hard to rehabilitate Nero completely. It is impossible to judge a Roman Emperor by the standards of today as anything other than a monster and seemingly on this we can agree with the ancient authors, although perhaps for different reasons.

The exhibition only touches briefly on his post-mortem reputation and influence: most notably a large print of Peter Ustinov playing the Emperor in Quo Vadis in the first room. Yet, Nero remains one of the most famous Emperors in the public consciousness for his excesses, which are often played for laughs. This exhibition reminds us he was in fact deathly serious.

Relief showing Praetorian Guard

This is a well thought out exhibition with stunning objects and a strong narrative thread. It is let down by a few poor design decisions. Large spaces have been created to give audiences room to socially distance themselves, but captions are located at waist level or printed on shiny surfaces which make them impossible to read without leaning in. The curators have chosen large objects but these are not always laid out to allow space and flow. For example, the relief of the Praetorian Guard – one of the more impressive objects – is located in a tight corner making it impossible to see without getting close. Even while crowds are limited for safety reasons, this creates crush points which will only get worse when Covid-19 restrictions are (hopefully) lifted. 

At other points, photos of the smaller objects are printed or projected allowing audiences to see from a distance. It is a shame that the curators weren’t able to do more of this. Even before the lockdown, many people criticised over-crowding in museums. Sadly, given the economic situation, the financial need to create blockbuster exhibitions is even stronger post-pandemic. Elements of this exhibition however, point out some of the ways that museums can create those intimate experiences which interaction with original items can create for audiences.

If you can only visit one exhibition this summer, make it this one. 

☆★★★★

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