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Colossal head of Emperor Nero

Colossal head of Emperor Nero


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Colossus of Nero

An enormous bronze statue of Nero. It was the work of Zenodorus, a Greek, and erected by Nero himself in the vestibule of the Domus Aurea (the &ldquoGolden House,&rdquo Nero's large private palace in the center of the city). After Nero's death, it was changed to a statue of the Sun. Commodus (A.D. 161-192) placed his own face on the statue. When Hadrian built the Temple of Venus and Rome in the area of the vestibule of Nero's now-demolished palace, he moved the statue next to the Colosseum. It is illustrated on ancient coins, but otherwise, except for the base, no trace survives of what must have been one of the city's most impressive and costly monuments.


Was Nero A Hero? Seeking To Rehabilitate The Reviled Roman Emperor, The British Museum Exposes The Politics Of Duplicity

In the years after the Emperor Nero was declared an enemy of the Roman state and committed suicide to avoid arrest by his own soldiers, several imposters exploited rumors that he was still living in exile. That anybody should want to be mistaken for a man whose name was synonymous with villainy – and that some of these pretenders should attract a following of commoners wishfully thinking the emperor’s suicide was a fabrication of his enemies – suggests that Nero was not as widely reviled as generations of schoolchildren have been led to believe.

Might there actually have been some merit to the ruler with the worst rap in history? Nearly two millennia after Nero’s death, the British Museum has staked that contrarian position in an epic display of reputation management. Although The Man Behind the Myth comes far too late to reverse Nero’s fortunes in any way material to him, the effort to reexamine his record is impressive, and could not be more timely in this age of hyper-partisan political hyperbole.

Head of Nero, AD 50–100 (with later restorations) Marble. Musei Capitolini, Sala Imperatori, Rome

Nero was the last in the hereditary line descended from the Emperor Augustus, a nephew of the Emperor Claudius who was reputed to have murderously outmaneuvered his uncle’s own progeny to ascend to the throne at the age of sixteen. During his thirteen-and-a-half-year reign, he allegedly incinerated Rome – fiddling while he watched it burn – just to make space for a palace as big as the city itself. He was also said to have committed other heinous acts, ranging from sexual transgressions to singing in public competitions. The last of these accusations, which was most likely true, was especially damning because it revealed his unseemly craving for popularity.

In the narrative told by the British Museum, Nero’s populism was not only a root cause of his undoing but also a major reason why his reputation was repeatedly sacked for decades after his death, ultimately making his name shorthand for all things ignoble.

As the exhibition and accompanying book reveal, Nero was away from the capitol city when he was alleged to have committed arson in the service of urban planning. He also appears to have been rather competent and humane after he managed to return, overseeing construction of new housing with nonflammable materials while hosting some of the homeless on the grounds of the imperial palace. There was just one miscalculation that turned out not to be so minor: Looking for a group to blame for the conflagration – and to punish as appeasement to the gods and his fellow Romans – he slaughtered members of an obscure monotheistic sect known as the Christians. Understandably enough, the sect never forgave him – and never forgot.

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But it was not the Christians who drove Nero to death or set the terms by which we know him today. All of that was on account of the Roman elite. Senators in particular had a vexed relationship with the Emperor. His singing and theatrics and chariot racing offended their sense of decorum, while also garnering adoration of the plebs, threatening the precarious balance of power. In this atmosphere, even his admirable management of the fire may have counted against him. Nero may ironically have been too beloved for his own good.

The British Museum does not attempt to whitewash Nero. In addition to his genocide of the early Christians and numerous assassinations of political opponents, he really was megalomaniacal and vainglorious. While his new palace didn’t quite extend to the city limits, the Domus Aurea was encrusted with enough gold and jewels to make Trump Tower resemble a tenement. (The archaeological remains of the Domus Aurea will soon be accessible again via a sleek new entrance designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti. Although the gold and gems are long gone, it is still a formidable space.)

All of that said, Nero’s immorality and extravagance were almost pedestrian by Roman imperial standards. The most interesting aspect of the British Museum exhibit is to show how the facts were spun, why they were exaggerated, how the exaggerations gained traction, and why the image has persisted with sufficient intensity for Nero to be one of the few ancient rulers that still have name recognition.

Marble portrait of Nero (Type IV), Italy, AD 64–68. Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State . [+] Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich.

State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek

One key point is that most of the leading writers of the Roman Empire were of the senatorial class. In other words, there was a conflict of interest on the part of historians such as Tacitus (even though Tacitus wrote his Annals and Histories decades after Nero’s death). Another key point is that the literature of the time was influenced by the vituperatio, a rhetorical technique that encouraged exaggeration and condoned confabulation as long as it was consistent with the alleged moral status of the person under attack. (For instance, sexual transgressions might be falsely attributed to someone accused of political corruption. Metaphor was asserted as fact and accepted literally through an unstated belief in what might best be described as poetic transubstantiation.) A third key point is that authority accrued with repetition regardless of actual truth value. (The commonly-accepted narrative of Nero’s life, traced back through writers such as Tacitus, originated with an anonymous posthumous play about Nero that was about as reliable as a QAnon post.)

All of this appears quite modern. Although the British Museum shows little interest in historical comparison (beyond a cameo appearance by Louis XIV), the exhibition is at least as significant for what it can uncover about the present as for what it exhumes from the past.

Some aspects of the story confirm what media commentators assert on a regular basis, adding historical heft to their claims. For instance, the incessant repetition of rumors in social media reinforces their plausibility in the minds of readers, causing different constituencies to have irreconcilably different perceptions of reality. This schism is one important cause of hyper-partisanship. Seeing what happened in ancient Rome may help people to perceive what’s going on within their own peer groups.

Other aspects of Nero’s plight may bring fresher insights into current culture. Although the vituperatio is no longer taught in schools of rhetoric, politicians regularly make spurious claims about opponents under cover of metaphor that gets transmuted into fact in the memory of listeners. Refuting blatant lies is crucial to democratic governance, but the greater danger may lie in unchecked false impressions.

Even with the impressive reputation management of the British Museum, Nero is no hero. However his story can no longer be reduced to caricature – and his legacy might just help check our present-day incineration of democracy.


Colossal head of Emperor Nero - History

Nero was the 5th emperor of Rome and the last of Rome’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians, founded by Augustus (the adopted son of Julius Caesar). Nero is known as one of Rome’s most infamous rulers, notorious for his cruelty and debauchery. He ascended to power in AD 54 aged just 16 and died at 30. He ruled at a time of great social and political change, overseeing momentous events such as the Great Fire of Rome and Boudica’s rebellion in Britain. He allegedly killed his mother and two of his wives, only cared about his art and had very little interest in ruling the empire.

But what do we really know about Nero? Can we separate the scandalous stories told by later authors from the reality of his rule?

Most of what we know about Nero comes from the surviving works of three historians – Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. All written decades after Nero’s death, their accounts have long shaped our understanding of this emperor’s rule. However, far from being impartial narrators presenting objective accounts of past events, these authors and their sources wrote with a very clear agenda in mind. Nero’s demise brought forward a period of chaos and civil war – one that ended only when a new dynasty seized power, the Flavians. Authors writing under the Flavians all had an interest in legitimising the new ruling family by portraying the last of the Julio-Claudians in the worst possible light, turning history into propaganda. These accounts became the ‘historical’ sources used by later historians, therefore perpetuating a fabricated image of Nero, which has survived all the way to the present.

Birth and early years

Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December AD 37.

He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger. Both Gnaeus and Agrippina were the grandchildren of Augustus, making Nero Augustus’ great, great grandson with a strong claim to power.

Nero was only two years old when his mother was exiled and three when his father died. His inheritance was taken from him and he was sent to live with his aunt. However, Nero’s fate changed again when Claudius became emperor, restoring the boy’s property and recalling his mother Agrippina from exile.

Aged 13 – adoption

In AD 49 the emperor Claudius married Agrippina, and adopted Nero the following year. It is at this point that Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. In Roman times it was normal to change your name when adopted, abandoning your family name in favour of your adoptive father’s. Nero was a common name among members of the Claudian family, especially in Claudius’ branch.

Nero and Agrippina offered Claudius a politically useful link back to Augustus, strengthening his position.

Claudius appeared to favour Nero over his natural son, Britannicus, marking Nero as the designated heir.

Aged 16 – emperor

When Claudius died in AD 54, Nero became emperor just two months before turning 17.

As he was supported by both the army and the senate, his rise to power was smooth. His mother Agrippina exerted a significant influence, especially at the beginning of his rule.

Aged 21 – Agrippina’s murder

The Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio all claim that Nero, fed up with Agrippina’s interference, decided to kill her.

Given the lack of eyewitnesses, there is no way of knowing if or how this happened. However, this did not stop historians from fabricating dramatic stories of Agrippina’s murder, asserting that Nero tried (and failed) to kill her with a boat engineered to sink, before sending his men to do the job.
Agrippina allegedly told them to stab her in the womb that bore Nero, her last words clearly borrowed from stage plays.

It is entirely possible, as claimed by Nero himself, that Agrippina chose (or was more likely forced) to take her own life after her plot against her son was discovered.

Aged 23 – Boudica’s revolt

Early in his rule, Nero had to contend with a rebellion in the newly conquered province of Britain.

In AD 60–61, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe led a revolt against the Romans, attacking and laying waste to important Roman settlements. The possible causes of the rebellion were numerous – the greed of the Romans exploiting the newly conquered territories, the recalling of loans made to local leaders, ongoing conflict in Wales and, above all, violence against the family of Prasutagus, Boudica’s husband and king of the Iceni.

Boudica and the rebels destroyed Colchester, London and St Albans before being heavily defeated by Roman troops. After the uprising, the governor of Britain Suetonius Paulinus introduced harsher laws against the Britons, until Nero replaced him with the more conciliatory governor Publius Petronius Turpilianus.

Aged 24 – execution of Octavia

The marriage between Nero and Octavia, aged 15 and 13/14 at the time, was arranged by their parents in order to further legitimise Nero’s claim to the throne. Octavia was the daughter of the emperor Claudius from a previous marriage, so when Claudius married Agrippina and adopted her son Nero, Nero and Octavia became brother and sister. In order to arrange their marriage, Octavia had to be adopted into another family.

Their marriage was not a happy one. According to ancient writers, Nero had various affairs until his lover Poppaea Sabina convinced him to divorce his wife. Octavia was first exiled then executed in AD 62 on adultery charges. According to ancient writers, her banishment and death caused great unrest among the public, who sympathised with the dutiful Octavia.

No further motives were offered for Octavia’s death other than Nero’s passion for Poppaea, and we will probably never know what transpired at court. The fact that Octavia couldn’t produce an heir while Poppaea was pregnant with Nero’s daughter likely played an important role in deciding Octavia’s fate.

Aged 26 – Great Fire of Rome

On 19 July AD 64, a fire started close to the Circus Maximus. The flames soon encompassed the entire city of Rome and the fire raged for nine days. Only four of the 14 districts of the capital were spared, while three were completely destroyed.

Rome had already been razed by flames – and would be again in its long history – but this event was so severe it came to be known as the Great Fire of Rome.

Later historians blamed Nero for the event, claiming that he set the capital ablaze in order to clear land for the construction of a vast new palace. According to Suetonius and Cassius Dio, Nero took in the view of the burning city from the imperial residence while playing the lyre and singing about the fall of Troy. This story, however, is fictional.

Tacitus, the only historian who was actually alive at the time of the Great Fire of Rome (although only 8 years old), wrote that Nero was not even in Rome when the fire started, but returned to the capital and led the relief efforts.

Aged 27 – death of Poppaea

Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio all describe Nero as being blinded by passion for his wife Poppaea, yet they accuse him of killing her, allegedly by kicking her in an outburst of rage while she was pregnant.

Interestingly, pregnant women being kicked to death by enraged husbands is a recurring theme in ancient literature, used to explore the (self) destructive tendencies of autocrats. The Greek writer Herodotus tells the story of how the Persian king Cambyses kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach, causing her death. A similar episode is told of Periander, tyrant of Corinth. Nero is just one of many allegedly ‘mad’ tyrants for which this literary convention was used.

Poppaea probably died from complications connected with her pregnancy and not at Nero’s hands. She was given a lavish funeral and was deified.

Aged 28 – the Golden Day

Centred on greater Iran, the Parthian empire was a major political and cultural power and a long-standing enemy of Rome. The two powers had long been contending for control over the buffer state of Armenia and open conflict sparked again during Nero’s rule. The Parthian War started in AD 58 and, after initial victories and following set-backs, ended in AD 63 when a diplomatic solution was reached between Nero and the Parthian king Vologases I.

According to this settlement Tiridates, brother of the Parthian king, would rule over Armenia, but only after having travelled all the way to Rome to be crowned by Nero.

The journey lasted 9 months, Tiridates’ retinue included 3,000 Parthian horsemen and many Roman soldiers. The coronation ceremony took place in the summer of AD 66 and the day was celebrated with much pomp: all the people of Rome saw the new king of Armenia kneeling in front of Nero. This was the Golden Day of Nero’s rule

Aged 30 – death

In AD 68, Vindex, the governor of Gaul (France), rebelled against Nero and declared his support for Galba, the governor of Spain. Vindex was defeated in battle by troops loyal to Nero, yet Galba started gaining more military support.

It was at this point that Nero lost the support of Rome’s people due to a grain shortage, caused by a rebellious commander who cut the crucial food supply from Egypt to the capital. Abandoned by the people and declared an enemy of the state by the senate, Nero tried to flee Rome and eventually committed suicide.

Following his death, Nero’s memory was condemned (a practice called damnatio memoriae) and the images of the emperor were destroyed, removed or reworked. However, Nero was still given an expensive funeral and for a long time people decorated his tomb with flowers, some even believing he was still alive.

After Nero’s death, civil war ensued. At the end of the so-called ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ (AD 69), Vespasian became emperor and started a new dynasty: the Flavians.

Was Nero a tyrant?

Nero was a young ruler trying to negotiate his position within a relatively new and unstable political system, one where monarchical (the emperor) and republican (the senate) elements sat side by side. While the emperor surpassed all in terms of power and authority, the outward appearance of monarchy had to be avoided. Emperors therefore needed to recognise, at least formally, the role of the senate. This traditional council, to which belonged only the members of the aristocracy, had long played an important role in the government of Rome. With the Civil War and the end of the Republic, however, senatorial power was severely weakened.

Nero, like other emperors before and after him, often clashed with the senate, his superior authority at odds with the views of this traditional aristocratic assembly that was slowly but irrefutably losing power. Nero was depicted as a mad tyrant by ancient historians belonging to the senatorial elite, but we should keep in mind that they were far from impartial. It is not surprising that members of this group, when writing about Nero, were keen on representing him in the worst possible light.

However, when we consider the lower classes, quite a different picture emerges. A number of graffiti found in Rome hail Nero and his name is the most commonly found on the walls of the city, more than any other Julio-Claudian emperor or of the Flavians that came after him.

If we turn to Rome, we see how his actions benefited the people of the capital. Nero built magnificent public baths and, through the construction of a grand covered market and the improvement of the connections between Rome and its harbour, he made sure that his people would have had access to food. Not only did Nero ensure that the people’s essential needs were met, he also provided them with entertainment venues such as a now lost wooden amphitheatre. The new building regulations he introduced after the Great Fire also drastically improved the living conditions of the people of Rome.

You can read more about Rome in the first century AD in our historical city travel guide blog.

It is difficult to fully appreciate what common people thought of Nero, as they left very few traces. The partisan views of the Roman elite ended up shaping our understanding of the past.

‘Bad’ emperors in Roman history

Based on ancient historians’ accounts, we would have a hard time deciding who was the worst Roman emperor. Was it Caligula, who allegedly wanted to make his horse a consul and thought of himself as a god? Or the autocratic Domitian, who feared conspiracies against him and executed or exiled many leading citizens of the time? Maybe the cruel Commodus, who fancied himself a new Hercules and fought as a gladiator in the arena? Caracalla is also a good candidate: he had his own brother murdered so he could rule alone and he wiped out all of his opponents.

Nero was only one of many ‘bad’ emperors to be described as tyrannical, ruthless, and aspiring to be considered as gods. The similarity of these allegations should not come as a surprise, considering they were all made by dissatisfied senators to slander their political enemies. Even Augustus, epitome of the good emperor as he might be, did not have a spotless reputation. His rise to power was a bloody one, as testified by the proscription list he signed with Mark Antony and Lepidus, with whom he governed Rome at the time.

How do we judge then? Is senseless cruelty worse than calculated ruthlessness? And how can we tell fact from fiction, since what we know of these emperors comes from sources that are anything but impartial?

Decide for yourself whether Nero was a tyrant or the victim of vicious propaganda in Nero: the man behind the myth (27 May–24 October 2021).

Become a Member and enjoy access to all our exhibitions over the 12 months.


The Notorious Nero

Nearly everyone has heard of Nero "fiddling while Rome burned". The true story of The Great Fire of 64 is debated but many believe Nero had the fire started to build his monumental "Golden House". There were reports that Nero climbed a tower in a stage costume and played the lyre while exulting in "the beauty of the flames". Afterwards, to assuage the throngs of homeless Romans, Nero tried to use the Christian population as scapegoats and blame the fire on them. Despite the atrocities he carried out on that population, people became convinced that Nero's soldiers had started the fire.

Nero Claudius Caesar became emperor of Rome when his adopted father and father-in-law, Claudius Caesar died in 54 AD. Although it was through family ties Nero eased into the reign of world power, Nero showed little compassion for his family members. He was only 16 years old when he came to power but it took him a mere four months to eliminate his half-brother and potential rival to the throne. Britannicus, the full son of Claudius, was poisoned while dining with Nero. When Britannicus collapsed, Nero told those at the dinner that his brother was having a seizure and had the body taken out and quietly buried.

A large part of Nero's claim to the throne was based upon his marriage to Octavia - the daughter of Claudius and his half-sister. When Nero became attracted to another woman (the wife of his best friend) he had his own wife imprisoned on a island and his friend sent to govern a remote region. After divorcing his wife he married his new girl friend, Poppaea. When he finally got around to having Octavia killed, he had her head brought back for Poppaea to gloat over. But she wasn't able to gloat for long. While Poppaea was pregnant Nero kicked her to death in a fit of anger.

While The Great Fire and the persecution of the Christians stand out in history books, the notorious event that disgusted his contemporaries was when Nero killed his mother, Agrippina. Agrippina had maneuvered her son to power through marriage and intrigue. Once he became emperor she attempted to rule through him. In the early years of his reign, Nero had shown great esteem for his mother. But when he was ready to be rid of her he had a special device rigged on a ship to make her death look like an accident. After dining with Agrippina, he had his mother placed on the ship and at the appointed time a lead-weighted canopy collapsed on top of her. However, she was seated on a Roman couch at the time and the arms of the couch saved her. So Nero had the ship capsized. Again his tough mother escaped death by swimming to shore. Finally, Nero gave up the pretense of an accident and sent his soldiers to kill her.

Nero met his own end in 68 AD when a rebellion broke out and his own soldiers refused to defend him. He tried to escape but when he was cornered he committed suicide. Aurelius Victor wrote in the Book of the Caesars 5, "For Nero in fact, spent the rest of his life so disgracefully, that it is disgusting and shameful to record the existence of anyone of this kind, let alone that he was ruler of the world."


Share All sharing options for: British Museum exhibit takes new look at Rome’s emperor Nero

A bronze head of Roman emperor Nero dating from around AD 54-61 and found in the River Alde at Rendham in Suffolk, eastern England, is displayed in “Nero: The Man Behind the Myth” exhibition at the British Museum in London. AP

LONDON — The British Museum’s new exhibition on the Roman Emperor Nero opens with a piece of fake news from the ancient world.

Visitors are greeted with an image of Peter Ustinov as Nero in the movie “Quo Vadis” strumming a lyre — a famous image of the cruel tyrant who notoriously fiddled while Rome burned.

But, the exhibition says, that tale is a myth. As such, it’s a fitting introduction to an emperor whose story was largely written by enemies after his death, creating what curator Francesca Bologna calls “the Nero we love to hate.”

“Our goal here is to show that this, however popular, image is actually based on very, very biased accounts and therefore we should challenge it,” she said during a preview of the exhibition Monday.

“The Nero story is about how we should approach information, how we should always approach our sources critically. This is relevant for Nero, it’s relevant for historians, archaeologists, it is relevant for everyday people living their everyday lives.”

A museum employee attends to statues of members of the Julio-Claudian family, which was from the first Roman emperor Augustus descending to Nero, the last in the line, featured in “Nero: The Man Behind the Myth” exhibition, at the British Museum in London. AP

“Nero: The Man Behind the Myth” opens to the public on Thursday, six months later than originally planned as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The show, which runs until Oct. 24, arrives the week after U.K. lockdown restrictions were lifted and London’s museums were allowed to reopen at limited capacity.

The exhibition draws on the British Museum’s vast trove of Roman artifacts, as well as items from collections in Italy, France, Germany and other countries, loaned despite pandemic-related restrictions.

“Everyone throughout Europe and the U.K. came to our rescue,” Bologna said. “They were really understanding. They helped us throughout the process. Even colleagues that were in lockdown themselves and working from home, they were incredible.”

Through more than 200 artifacts including statues, helmets, weapons, jewelry and ancient graffiti, it depicts a young ruler with rock-solid imperial lineage Nero was the great-great-grandson of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. In A.D. 54, at the age of 16, he became emperor of a Rome that was unrivalled in power but beset by problems, including war with the Iran-based Parthian empire in the east and an uprising led by Celtic queen Boudica in newly conquered Britain to the west.

One vivid section deals with the harsh reality of life in Roman Britain: there are lead ingots mined in Wales, along with thick chains that bound slaves who did the hard work. There’s also a bronze head of Nero, found in an English river after his statue was toppled during the uprising, and a family’s hoard of coins and jewelry, hidden for safekeeping during the violence and discovered in 2014 under the floor of a store in the east England town of Colchester.

Evidence suggests Nero was popular during his reign. He oversaw grand public projects, strengthening links between the city and its harbor to secure the food supply, building a public market and a spectacular set of public baths. He sponsored lavish public entertainments with gladiators, lion-wrestling and chariot races. He even competed in the races at Rome’s Circus Maximus, and was the first emperor to perform onstage.

The youthful emperor was also a style leader, popularizing a boyband-style haircut that the exhibition calls “dashing yet refined.”

He didn’t start the fire that leveled parts of Rome in A.D. 64, and neither did he fiddle as it burned. He wasn’t even there at the time.

Afterwards, Nero rebuilt the city, brought in tougher building codes — and also built himself a lavish palace, the Domus Aurea, or Golden House. Little of it remains, but the exhibition gives a taste of its opulence.

Beset by conspirators, Nero killed himself at the age of 30. His death sparked a period of civil war and then a new ruling dynasty. Like politicians down the ages, the new rulers blamed Rome’s problems on their predecessor.

Almost 2,000 years later, Nero remains a metaphor for bad government. As classicist Mary Beard wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph, “there is hardly a political cartoonist who doesn’t occasionally dress up a modern leader with a toga, laurel wreath and lyre, against the background of smoking ruins, to make the point that he is not taking some contemporary crisis seriously.”

Nero’s rule was undeniably brutal: He had his mother killed, along with one and possibly two of his wives. But was he more violent than other Roman rulers?

“Not really,” Bologna said. “Each and every emperor had people condemned and put to death. Even Augustus, who is the epitome of the good emperor, came to power in a really bloody way.”

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6. Nero was once the bride as well

If you think Nero’s behavior was a bit odd when he ordered a young boy to be castrated to become his wife, then you will surely be astounded by this peculiar story.

On another occasion, Nero appears to have married one of his richest freedman named “Pythagoras.” The exact same thing happened as with Sporus regarding the wedding ceremony, except that this time Nero appeared to have been the bride!

One of Nero’s biographers wrote about this incident:

He stooped to marry himself to one of that filthy herd, by name Pythagoras, with all the forms of regular wedlock. The bridal veil was put over the emperor people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch, and the nuptial torches everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides.

Referring to Nero’s marriage to Pythagoras.

By the second half of the 60s, Nero became increasingly unpopular with the people, the Senate, and the Army because of his peculiar behavior and acts. According to himself, he was just a misunderstood artist.


Colossal head of Emperor Nero - History

An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers

DIR Atlas

Nero (54-68 A.D.)

[Additional entries on this emperor's life by David Coffta and Donatien Grau are available in DIR Archives]

Herbert W. Benario
Emory University

Introduction and Sources

The five Julio-Claudian emperors are very different one from the other. Augustus dominates in prestige and achievement from the enormous impact he had upon the Roman state and his long service to Rome, during which he attained unrivaled auctoritas. Tiberius was clearly the only possible successor when Augustus died in AD 14, but, upon his death twenty-three years later, the next three were a peculiar mix of viciousness, arrogance, and inexperience. Gaius, better known as Caligula, is generally styled a monster, whose brief tenure did Rome no service. His successor Claudius, his uncle, was a capable man who served Rome well, but was condemned for being subject to his wives and freedmen. The last of the dynasty, Nero, reigned more than three times as long as Gaius, and the damage for which he was responsible to the state was correspondingly greater. An emperor who is well described by statements such as these, "But above all he was carried away by a craze for popularity and he was jealous of all who in any way stirred the feeling of the mob." and "What an artist the world is losing!" [[1]] and who is above all remembered for crimes against his mother and the Christians was indeed a sad falling-off from the levels of Augustus and Tiberius. Few will argue that Nero does not rank as one of the worst emperors of all.

The prime sources for Nero's life and reign are Tacitus' Annales 12-16, Suetonius' Life of Nero, and Dio Cassius' Roman History 61-63, written in the early third century. Additional valuable material comes from inscriptions, coinage, papyri, and archaeology.

Early Life

He was born on December 15, 37, at Antium, the son of Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus [[PIR 2 D127]]and Agrippina [[PIR 2 I641]]. Domitius was a member of an ancient noble family, consul in 32 Agrippina was the daughter of the popular Germanicus [[PIR 2 I221]], who had died in 19, and Agrippina, daughter of Agrippa, Augustus' closest associate, and Julia, the emperor's daughter, and thus in direct descent from the first princeps. When the child was born, his uncle Gaius had only recently become emperor. The relationship between mother and uncle was difficult, and Agrippina suffered occasional humiliation. But the family survived the short reign of the "crazy" emperor, and when he was assassinated, it chanced that Agrippina's uncle, Claudius, was the chosen of the praetorian guard, although there may have been a conspiracy to accomplish this.

Ahenobarbus had died in 40, so the son was now the responsibility of Agrippina alone. She lived as a private citizen for much of the decade, until the death of Messalina, the emperor's wife, in 48 made competition among several likely candidates to become the new empress inevitable. Although Roman law forbade marriage between uncle and niece, an eloquent speech in the senate by Lucius Vitellius [[PIR V500]], Claudius' closest advisor in the senatorial order, persuaded his audience that the public good required their union. [[2]] The marriage took place in 49, and soon thereafter the philosopher Seneca [[PIR 2 A617]] was recalled from exile to become the young Domitius' tutor, a relationship which endured for some dozen years.

His advance was thereafter rapid. He was adopted by Claudius the following year and took the name Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar or Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, was preferred to Claudius' natural son, Britannicus [[PIR 2 C820]], who was about three years younger, was betrothed to the emperor's daughter Octavia, and was, in the eyes of the people, the clear successor to the emperor. In 54, Claudius died, having eaten some poisoned mushrooms, responsibility for which was believed to be Agrippina's, [[3]] and the young Nero, not yet seventeen years old, was hailed on October 13 as emperor by the praetorian guard.

The first years of rule

The first five years of Nero's rule are customarily called the quinquennium, a period of good government under the influence, not always coinciding, of three people, his mother, Seneca, and Sextus Afranius Burrus [[PIR 2 A441]], the praetorian prefect. The latter two were allies in their "education" of the emperor. Seneca continued his philosophical and rhetorical training, Burrus was more involved in advising on the actualities of government. They often combined their influence against Agrippina, who, having made her son emperor, never let him forget the debt he owed his mother, until finally, and fatally, he moved against her.

Nero's betrothal to Octavia [[PIR 2 C1110]] was a significant step in his ultimate accession to the throne, as it were, but she was too quiet, too shy, too modest for his taste. He was early attracted to Poppaea Sabina [[PIR 2 P850), the wife of Otho, and she continually goaded him to break from Octavia and to show himself an adult by opposing his mother. In his private life, Nero honed the musical and artistic tastes which were his chief interest, but, at this stage, they were kept private, at the instigation of Seneca and Burrus.

As the year 59 began, Nero had just celebrated his twenty-first birthday and now felt the need to employ the powers which he possessed as emperor as he wished, without the limits imposed by others. Poppaea's urgings had their effect, first of all, at the very onset of the year, with Nero's murder of his mother in the Bay of Naples.

Agrippina had tried desperately to retain her influence with her son, going so far as to have intercourse with him. But the break between them proved irrevocable, and Nero undertook various devices to eliminate his mother without the appearance of guilt on his part. The choice was a splendid vessel which would collapse while she was on board. As this happened, she swam ashore and, when her attendant, having cried out that she was Agrippina, was clubbed to death, Agrippina knew what was going on. She sent Nero a message that she was well his response was to send a detachment of sailors to finish the job. When she was struck across the head, she bared her womb and said, "Strike here, Anicetus, strike here, for this bore Nero," and she was brutally murdered. [[4]]

Nero was petrified with fear when he learned that the deed had been done, yet his popularity with the plebs of Rome was not impaired. This matricide, however, proved a turning point in his life and principate. It appeared that all shackles were now removed. The influence of Seneca and Burrus began to wane, and when Burrus died in 62, Seneca realized that his powers of persuasion were at an end and soon went into retirement. Britannicus had died as early as 55 now Octavia was to follow, and Nero became free to marry Poppaea. It may be that it had been Burrus rather than Agrippina who had continually urged that Nero's position depended in large part upon his marriage to Octavia. Burrus' successor as commander of the praetorian guard, although now with a colleague, was Ofonius Tigellinus [[PIR 2 O91]], quite the opposite of Burrus in character and outlook. Tigellinus became Nero's "evil twin," urging and assisting in the performance of crimes and the satisfaction of lusts.

Administrative and foreign policy

With Seneca and Burrus in charge of administration at home, the first half-dozen years of Nero's principate ran smoothly. He himself devoted his attention to his artistic, literary, and physical bents, with music, poetry, and chariot racing to the fore. But his advisors were able to keep these performances and displays private, with small, select audiences on hand. Yet there was a gradual trend toward public performance, with the establishment of games. Further, he spent many nights roaming the city in disguise, with numerous companions, who terrorized the streets and attacked individuals. Those who dared to defend themselves often faced death afterward, because they had shown disrespect for the emperor. The die was being cast for the last phases of Nero's reign.

Abroad there were continuous military and diplomatic difficulties, first in Britain, then in the East involving Parthia and Armenia, and lastly in Judaea. The invasion of Britain had begun in 43 and that campaign continued for four years. But the successive governors had the task of consolidating what had been conquered and adding to the extent of the province. This involved some very vicious fighting, particularly in the west against the Silures and the Ordovices. In the year 60 the great explosion occurred. When the governor, Suetonius Paullinus [[PIR S694]], was attacking the island of Mona, modern Anglesey, to extirpate the Druids, Boudica, the queen of the Iceni, located chiefly in modern Norfolk, rose in revolt, to avenge personal injuries suffered by herself and her daughters and to expel Rome from the island. Her army destroyed three Roman cities with the utmost savagery, Colchester, London, and St. Albans falling to sword and fire. But Paullinus met the enemy horde at a site still unknown and destroyed the vastly larger British forces. [[5]] Nero is said to have considered giving up the province of Britannia because the revenue it produced was far lower than had been anticipated about a score of years before, and it cost Rome more to maintain and expand the province than the latter was able to produce. Yet, at the last, Nero decided that such an action would damage Rome's prestige enormously, and could be interpreted as the first of a series of such actions. The status quo therefore remained. [[6]]

The problem in the East was different. Parthia and Rome had long been rivals and enemies for preeminence in the vast territory east of Syria and Cappadocia. The key was Armenia, the land which separated the two great powers. It served as a buffer state the important issue in the minds of both concerned the ruler of Armenia. Was he to be chosen by Rome or by Parthia, and thereby be considered the vassal of one or the other? In the latter fifties there were frequent disagreements which led to war, fought viciously and variously. Rome suffered some significant losses, until Cn. Domitius Corbulo [[PIR 2 D142]]was appointed governor of Syria and made commander of all military forces. He won the day by diplomacy as much as by force of arms. The upshot was that the man chosen for the Armenian throne came to Rome to be crowned by Nero with enormous panoply and display.

The year 66 saw the beginning of an uprising in Judaea which was brutal in the extreme. The future emperor Vespasian was appointed to crush the rebels, which he and his son Titus were able to accomplish. Four legions were assigned to Judaea the neighboring province of Syria, under its governor Mucianus, also possessed four. This was a mighty military muster in a relatively small part of the empire.

The great fire at Rome and the punishment
of the Christians

The year 64 was the most significant of Nero's principate up to this point. His mother and wife were dead, as was Burrus, and Seneca, unable to maintain his influence over Nero without his colleague's support, had withdrawn into private life. The abysmal Tigellinus was now the foremost advisor of the still young emperor, a man whose origin was from the lowest levels of society and who can accurately be described as criminal in outlook and action. Yet Nero must have considered that he was happier than he had ever been in his life. Those who had constrained his enjoyment of his (seemingly) limitless power were gone, he was married to Poppaea, a woman with all advantages save for a bad character [[7]], the empire was essentially at peace, and the people of Rome enjoyed a full measure of panem et circenses. But then occurred one of the greatest disasters that the city of Rome, in its long history, had ever endured.

The fire began in the southeastern angle of the Circus Maximus, spreading through the shops which clustered there, and raged for the better part of a week. There was brief success in controlling the blaze, but then it burst forth once more, so that many people claimed that the fires were deliberately set. After about a fortnight, the fire burned itself out, having consumed ten of the fourteen Augustan regions into which the city had been divided.

Nero was in Antium through much of the disaster, but his efforts at relief were substantial. Yet many believed that he had been responsible, so that he could perform his own work comparing the current fate of Rome to the downfall of Troy. All his efforts to assist the stricken city could not remove the suspicion that "the emperor had fiddled while Rome burned." He lost favor even among the plebs who had been enthusiastic supporters, particularly when his plans for the rebuilding of the city revealed that a very large part of the center was to become his new home.

As his popularity waned, Nero and Tigellinus realized that individuals were needed who could be charged with the disaster. It so happened that there was such a group ready at hand, Christians, who had made themselves unpopular because of their refusal to worship the emperor, their way of life, and their secret meetings. Further, at this time two of their most significant "teachers" were in Rome, Peter and Paul. They were ideal scapegoats, individuals whom most Romans loathed, and who had continually sung of the forthcoming end of the world.

Their destruction was planned with the utmost precision and cruelty, for the entertainment of the populace. The venue was Nero's circus near the Mons Vaticanus. Christians were exposed to wild animals and were set ablaze, smeared with pitch, to illuminate the night. The executions were so grisly that even the populace displayed sympathy for the victims. Separately, Peter was crucified upside down on the Vatican hill and Paul was beheaded along the Via Ostiensis. But Nero's attempt, and hope, to shift all suspicion of arson to others failed. His popularity even among the lower classes was irrevocably impaired. [[8]]

City planning, architecture, and literature

The devastation in the center of the city presented an opportunity for Nero to build a mansion worthy of himself, the vast estate known as the "Golden House," the domus aurea. It consisted of a very extensive residential quarter, with numerous architectural innovations, a lake, and a colossal statue of himself. In subsequent years, all were destroyed or transformed. The Golden House was filled in and served as the foundation of Trajan's baths, the lake disappeared under the Colosseum, the amphitheatrum Flavium, and the statue's head was changed to that of a divinity. The entire project was a huge example of Roman building techniques and imagination. Indeed, the architects responsible, Severus and Celer, [[9]] are the first in Roman history whose names are known. [[10]]

There is little else of importance in the field of architecture. Nero did have other grand plans, such as cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece, but they did not come to fruition.

The situation was different in the arts and literature. Nero considered himself a virtuoso in music, acting, chariot racing, and literary activity, to the point that he could not tolerate any rivals. In competitions, it was routine that he always won, and those compelled to attend his performances were faced with execution if they did not evince appropriate attention and enthusiasm. The future emperor Vespasian fell asleep on more than one such occasion but was spared.

We know essentially nothing about Nero's competitors in other fields, but in literature there were substantial rivals. Chief among them was Lucan, whose epic on the Caesarian civil war evoked the majesty, in subject and manner, of Vergil. Lucan offended Nero by criticism of the latter's poetry and was forbidden to recite his own work. Seneca was the other great figure of the literary age, but his specialities of philosophy and rhetoric did not appeal to the emperor. Pliny the Elder similarly devoted himself to works of massive scope, such as his History of the German Wars and the Natural History, which defied competition from the emperor.

A failed conspiracy

The year 65 was marked by a conspiracy of a large scale, the purpose of which, it goes without saying, was to eliminate Nero and replace him with a member of the senatorial order. [[11]] The chosen designee was C. Calpurnius Piso [[PIR 2 C284]], although there was talk that Seneca was the favorite of many. The conspiracy failed, in part because there were too many people involved in it and some, by action or word, caused suspicion which Tigellinus ruthlessly pursued. Once it was broken, leading members of society behaved miserably and dishonorably, squealing on others and facing their own ends with fear and shame. Only two persons who were tortured or put to death behaved in the fashion of an "old Roman," and these were members of the lower classes. A freedwoman Epicharis, after torture had not succeeded in breaking her resistance, committed suicide by hanging herself before a second day of interrogation. [[12]] Subrius Flavus, a tribune of the praetorian guard, was the only person, as reported by Tacitus, who bluntly spoke when Nero asked him why he had ignored his oath as a soldier and acted against him.

"I hated you, yet not a soldier was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you when you became the murderer of your mother and your wife, a charioteer, an actor, and an incendiary." [[13]]

Flavus' judgment of Nero essentially expressed the views of subsequent history. Among the other deaths were those of Piso and Seneca by suicide.

Nero was now twenty-seven years old. He had been emperor for more than a decade and had overseen or been responsible for three major disasters in the space of little more than one year. The only positive result from any of these was the imposition of strict building laws for the reconstruction of the city, calling for wider streets, a limitation on the height of buildings, and the use of safer building materials. Though Rome became a healthier and more attractive city, resentment remained because Nero had taken for his own use such a large part of the central city and had brought the countryside into the city. Yet Nero's response to these challenges was to devote ever more attention to his artistic leanings, in ever more public contexts. First there came an extended visit to Naples, the most Greek city of Italy, then a trip to Greece, where he participated in each of the great festivals and won hundreds of contests. Who, after all, would dare vote against the man who held the power of life and death over all? [[14]]

The end - Nero's death and its aftermath

Nero's and Tigellinus' response to the conspiracy was immediate and long-lasting. The senatorial order was decimated, as one leading member after another was put to death or compelled to commit suicide. The year 66 saw the suicides of perhaps the most distinguished victims of the "reign of terror," Caius Petronius [[PIR 2 P294]]and Thrasea Paetus [[PIR 2 C1187]].[[15]] Petronius, long a favorite of Nero because of his aesthetic taste, had been an able public servant before he turned to a life of ease and indolence. He was recognized as the arbiter elegantiae of Nero's circle, and may be the author of the Satyricon. At his death, he left for Nero a document which itemized many of the latter's crimes. Thrasea, a staunch Stoic who had been for some years an outspoken opponent of Nero's policies, committed suicide in the Socratic manner. This scene is the last episode in the surviving books of Tacitus' Annals.

In the year 68, revolt began in the provinces, with the uprising of Julius Vindex, a Gallic noble, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis. His purpose, it seems clear, was not a nationalistic undertaking but an attempt to depose Nero and offer Rome the opportunity to choose a new ruler. But he received little support from other governors indeed, only the elderly Galba in Spain indicated approval. Vindex may have been in communication with Lucius Verginius Rufus [[PIR 2 V284]], governor of Germania Superior, but when he moved his army in Gaul, a battle ensued between the two forces, perhaps instigated by the army of Germany. Upon Vindex's defeat and death, Verginius was offered the purple by his troops, which he rejected, stating that such a decision was a prerogative of the Senate. By this action he gained enduring fame, which was recorded on his epitaph almost thirty years later:

Hic situs est Rufus, pulso qui Vindice quondam
imperium adseruit non sibi, sed patriae. (Pliny the Younger 9.19.1)

Here lies Rufus, who once, after Vindex's defeat,
claimed the empire not for himself, but for his country.

Nonetheless the end of Nero's reign became inevitable. Galba claimed the throne and began his march from Spain. Nero panicked and was rapidly abandoned by his supporters. He finally committed suicide with assistance, on June 9, 68, and his body was tended and buried by three women who had been close to him in his younger days, chief of whom was Acte.[[16]] His death scene is marked above all by the statement, "Qualis artifex pereo," (What an artist dies in me.) Even at the end he was more concerned with his private life than with the affairs of state.

The aftermath of Nero's death was cataclysmic. Galba was the first of four emperors who revealed the new secret of empire, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than in Rome. [[17]] Civil war ensued, which was only ended by the victory of the fourth claimant, Vespasian, who established the brief dynasty of the Flavians. The dynasty of the Julio-Claudians was at an end.

Nero's popularity among the lower classes remained even after his death. His close friend, and successor to Galba, Otho paid him all public honors. But with Vespasian's triumph Nero began to fade from public memory. Vespasian built the enormous amphitheater known from the beginning of the Middle Ages as the Colosseum on the site of Nero's lake, the stupendous statue of himself was transformed into a representation of a god, and in the decades of Trajan and Hadrian most of the remainder of the Golden House disappeared under the Baths of Trajan on the Esquiline Hill and the Temple of Venus and Rome built by Hadrian at the extreme east end of the Roman Forum. The land claimed by Nero for his private pleasure was restored to the Roman people, for enjoyment and worship.

Nonetheless, over the two decades or so after his death, several pseudo-Neros appeared on the scene, claiming to be the emperor. But these claimants had no success, and Nero then passed entirely into history.

It is not excessive to say that he was one of the worst of Rome's emperors in the first two centuries and more of the empire. Whatever talents he had, whatever good he may have done, all is overwhelmed by three events, the murder of his mother, the fire at Rome, and his savage treatment of the Christians.

Precisely these qualities are the reasons that he has remained so well known and has been the subject of many writers and opera composers in modern times. These works of fiction particularly merit mention: Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis, one of the finest works of the 1907 Nobel Laureate in Literature, and John Hersey's The Conspiracy. Nero unquestionably will always be with us.

Bibliography

Ball, L.F., The Domus Aurea and the Roman Architectural Revolution (Cambridge 2003)

Barrett, A.A., Agrippina. Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire (New Haven and London 1996)

Beaujeu, J., L'Incendie de Rome en 64 et les chrétiens (Brussels 1960, Collection Latomus 49)

Benario, H.W., "Three Tacitean Women," in S.K. Dickison & J.P. Hallett, eds., Rome and Her Monuments (Wauconda, IL, 2000) 587-601

Boëthius, A., and J.B. Ward-Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture (Harmondsworth 1970)

Champlin, E., Nero (Cambridge, MA, 2003)

Eck, W., Der Neue Pauly 8 (2000) cols. 851-55

Elsner, J., Reflections of Nero: culture, history, and representation (London 1994)

Freudenberger, R., Das Verhalten der römischen Behörden gegen die Christen im 2. Jahrhundert (Munich 1967) 180-89

Garzetti, A., From Tiberius to the Antonines. A History of the Roman Empire AD 14-192 (London 1974)

Grant, M., Nero (New York 1970)

Griffin, M.T., Nero. The End of a Dynasty (London 1984)

Kleiner, F., The Arch of Nero in Rome: a study of the Roman honorary arch before and under Nero (Rome 1985)

MacDonald, W.L., The Architecture of the Roman Empire I (New Haven 1965)

Malitz, J., Nero (Oxford 2005)

Rudich, V., Political Dissidence under Nero: the price of dissimulation (London and New York 1993)

Shotter, D., Nero (London and New York 2005 2 )

Smallwood, E.M., Documents Illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (Cambridge 1967)

Temporini-Gräfin Vitzthum, H., Die Kaiserinnen Roms. Von Livia bis Theodora (Munich 2002)

Waldherr, G.H., Nero (Regensburg 2005)

Warmington, B.H., Nero. Reality and Legend (London 1969)

Wlosok, A., Rom und die Christen. Zur Auseinandersetzung zwischen Christentum und römischem Staat (Stuttgart 1970)

Footnotes

[[1]] Suetonius 53 and 49. All translations from Suetonius are taken from J.C. Rolfe's Loeb Classical Library edition II, 1950.

[[2]] Tacitus 12.5-6.

[[3]] Tacitus 12.66-67.

[[4]] Tacitus 14.1-11 Dio 62.11-14.

[[5]] Tacitus Agricola 15-16, Annals 14.29-39 Dio 62.1- 12.

[[6]] Suetonius 18.

[[7]] Tacitus 13.45 huic mulieri cuncta alia fuere praeter honestum animum.

[[8]] Tacitus 15.38-44, Suetonius 38. See Beaujeu, Freudenberger, Wlosok.

[[9]] Tacitus 15.42-43.

[[10]] See Ball, Boëthius and Ward-Perkins, MacDonald.

[[11]] Tacitus 15.48-74, Dio 62.24-25.

[[12]] See Benario 589-91.

[[13]] Tacitus 15.67. The translation is from A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, 1942.

[[14]] Dio 62.8-11.

[[15]] Tacitus 16.18-19, 34-35.

[[16]] See Benario 591-92.

[[17]] Tacitus, Histories 1.4.2, evolgato imperii arcano, posse principem alibi quam Romae fieri.

Copyright (C) 2006, Herbert W. Benario. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Herbert W. Benario

Updated: 10 November 2006

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Colossal head of Emperor Nero - History

*If you happen to be interested in eunuchs, or indeed sexual depravity, click here for one of my previous history girls posts that features Nero.

He knew how to impress

From Museum of
Classical
Archaeology, Cambridge

I’ve never understood the ‘bicycling’ monarchies of Europe. I mean what’s the point of a monarchy if it behaves just like you and I. Surely if you are going to have a royal family it should feel, well royal, with their preferred mode of transportation being huge golden coaches accompanied by many shiny helmeted soldiers riding a top the finest horses available. There should be crowns and jewels and full on grandiose pageantry.

This is something that Nero really gets. He understands that to be Emperor is to put on show that demonstrates just how powerful, mighty and loaded Rome is to the rest of the world. He does this by never wearing the same outfit twice, refusing to travel anywhere with less than 1000 carriages (presumably to hold all the costume changes) and, most gloriously, fishing with a golden net woven with equally ludicrously expensive purple threads.

When the Armenian King, Tiridates was sent to Rome to be crowned as part of a peace settlement between Rome and its rival empire Parthia (both of whom fancied sucking up Armenia into their territory), no expense was spared. The visit cost a staggering 800,000 sesterces per day.

A rear shot of that Nero statue. Picture Marco Pontuali, wikicomms CCBY

This was the grandeur of Rome and its ruler on full display. Few visitors would leave the city without an appreciation of the might and wealth of the Empire. Not to mention a vision of what Nero looked like sans loincloth.

He was a man of passions


Nero’s famous much quoted final words were “what an artist dies in me!”
Nero’s pretension at art is something that sets our sources in full sneer. But I would argue that it’s nice that he has interests and hobbies. Everyone needs a passion in life and Nero has passions a plenty he sings, he writes poetry, he plays the lyre and water organ, he acts and he races chariots. All things to round the character.

But these interests of Nero's are no whims mind, no passing fancies. The Emperor puts real efforts into his passions, as Suetonius tells us:
“For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice.”

Whilst in Greece he races a 10 horse chariot, yes he crashes but that he dares to attempt something so ludicrously dangerous (chariot racing even with the standard four horses has a high level of crash potential) surely shows a certain fearlessness and willingness to try new things.

Ships fighting! Monsters in the sea! Gyrating teenagers on a gap year! What’s not to love?


However, not only did the audience get a fabulous spectacle to enjoy, there were also prizes to be had:
“Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.”
And to think all we get is the Royal Variety Show.

He had the popular touch.

Nero by Paulus Pontius
Metropolitan Museum of Art


Given Nero’s reputation today we might be forgiven for believing that his demise by his own hand aged only 32, was roundly greeted by all.
Not so at all, Suetonius tells us :”There were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies”

Tacitus talks about the dregs of the common people being distraught by Nero's death. Tacitus is quite the snob, so these dregs might likely constitute a majority.


Colossus of Nero

T he name Amphitheatrum- Colyseus appeared for the first time in the eleventh century as a designation for the building, which had previously been called Amphitheatrum Caesareum”, and was later extended in the name regio Colisei to the entire valley. It derives from the colossal bronze statue of Nero, which stood in the immediate vicinity. Commissioned from the sculptor Zenodoros and inspired by the famous Colossus of Rhodes created by Chares of Undos at the beginning of the third century B.C., it portrayed the emperor standing and decorated the vestibule of the Domus Aurea on the site now occupied by the Temple of Venus and Rome.

«… a colossal statue of Nero, 120 feet tall, stood in the vestibule of the house. The size of the latter was such that it had three colonnades a mile long and a pool that ivas more like a sea, surrounded by buildings as large as cities. On the other side were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, and woodlands full of all kinds of domestic and wild animal»
(Suetonius, Nero, 31, 1).

Its gigantic size – it was about 35 meters tall, as can be calculated from the proportions of the base and a passage from Piiny the Elder – made it the largest bronze statue ever made in the ancient world. Thus Hadrian, in order to build the Temple of Venus and Rome, had to use a cart pulled by twenty-four elephants to move the statue from its original location.

Reconstruction of the Colossus of Nero – National Geographic

The Meta Sudans, the Arch of Titus, the Temple of Venus and Rome, and the Cobssus as reconstructed by E. Coquart (1863)

The pedestal of the Colossus of Nero. Rome, 1920. Via Roma Ieri Oggi.

Vespasian had it transformed into a radiate image of the Sun, while Commodus preferred to characterize it with the attributes of Hercules and his physiognomy. When the latter emperor died, the Colossus again became the image of Helios and remained such during the reign of Septimius Severus , as demonstrated by the coins of the period portraying the god with his left hand resting on a helm and his right one holding a globe. At first a symbol of immortality and later of the Eternal City, it continued to be an object of worship even in the Christian era.

The Colossus was probably destroyed during the Sack of Rome (410 A.D.), or perhaps it fell as a result of one of the earthquakes of the fifth century. His bronze was almost certainly reused by Pope Gregory the Great (540- 604 A.D.) who had it melted down to produce the cannons of Castel Sant’Angelo. The base of the statue, of which only a few vestiges still exist today, was demolished in 1933, when Via dell’lmpero and Via dei Trionfi were built.

Zoomed area of the aerial photo of the base of the Colossus of Nero. Photo: https://www.roger-pearse.com

Base of the Colossus of Nero, Coliseum, Rome, Italy. 1929

Tourists in area of base The Colossus of Nero in Rome city. Now nothing remains of the Colossus of Nero save for the foundations of the pedestal.


Was Nero cruel? British Museum offers hidden depths to Roman emperor

Nero, one of the most notorious Roman emperors of them all, murdered his mother and two wives, ruthlessly persecuted early Christians, including Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and even set fire to Rome itself – famously fiddling amid the flames – to make room to build himself a vast, luxurious palace.

Or did he? That is the question posed by an exhibition opening at the British Museum next month which seeks, if not to rehabilitate Nero’s reputation, at least to challenge some of history’s assumptions about him.

Assembled in “nail-biting” fashion during Europe’s latest lockdown, and launching just days after the museum itself is expected to reopen its doors, Nero: the man behind the myth will bring together more than 200 artefacts that, say its curators, present a more complex picture of a figure long reviled in popular culture.

A copper statue of the emperor Nero. Photograph: British Museum/PA

These include a statue of the young Nero aged about 12, already with his distinctive close-cropped fringe and prominent ears, who just four years later would become ruler of the vast Roman world, and the famous bronze head found in a Suffolk river and probably torn from a statue toppled during Boudicca’s destruction of Colchester in AD61.

The Fenwick hoard, hastily buried by fleeing Romans during that raid and discovered only in 2014, will be displayed as part of the exhibition for the first time, an example of the turbulence of the emperor’s 14-year reign.

Nero’s empire was certainly cruel – a slave chain found in Anglesey is witness to a culture of ruthless exploitation which, the British Museum’s curator Thorsten Opper said, is “a red thread that goes through the exhibition”.

But contrary to the “brutally biased and partisan” accounts of his reign, written by the ruling elites in the decades after his death in AD68, the evidence shows Nero was popular among the masses. The eruption of Vesuvius more than a decade after his death preserved a lot of graffiti in praise of the late emperor, said Opper, an example of which from Pompeii will be on display.

The Fenwick hoard will be on display for the first time. Photograph: British Museum/Colchester Museums/PA

“Nero’s memory was contested after his death, and that really was divided along class divisions. You have a very hostile elite, but we also know that the common people in Rome, the plebs urbana, honored his memory for decades after his death. Already, you have an intriguing story with accounts that don’t quite match up. And this is really what we want to investigate in the story.”

Also under examination will be the accounts of the women in Nero’s life, said Opper, who were “described as outrageously ambitious, adulterous, incestuous, sexually transgressive in undescribable ways. And it’s clearly all politically motivated. Powerful women are not wanted. It’s shocking how misogynistic the sources are, by our standards.”

The popular image of the emperor “is largely based on manipulations, bias and outright lies”, he said. Not only did Nero not fiddle while Rome burned – that instrument would not be invented for more than a millennium – he was not even in the city when it started.

Fascinatingly, one of the statues on display, apparently of Vespasian, was found to have originally portrayed Nero before being remodelled – which the museum will illustrate with a multimedia reconstruction. “This is super-topical, think of what happens to statues in the UK, in the US, these days. It’s nothing new.”

Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director, said the exhibition offered “a great moment to reassess a portion of history, and to perhaps also be inspired to draw parallels – carefully”.

A marble portrait of Nero, AD64–8, Rome, Italy. Photograph: British Museum

Gathering the exhibits – two-thirds of which have been loaned by international institutions – had been a “huge logistical effort”, said Opper. “All of our partners were in lockdown … in different phases, exhibitions throughout Europe had to be rescheduled. It was a nail-biter as you can imagine, but it just shows that people in the culture sector work together and they are used to challenges. And it all came together in the end.”

The exhibition comes at a crucial time for the British Museum, which, like other institutions, will have been shuttered for almost five months when it hopes to reopen on 17 May. The absence of overseas tourists and reduced visitor numbers due to social distancing leave it even more reliant on sponsor income, including its highly controversial partnership with BP, the current contract of which expires next year.

Asked if the museum was out of step with the public mood in continuing to accept sponsorship from the energy giant, Fischer said: “These exhibitions, which are part of our core mission, can only be realised with external funding, and this is why we have this partnership.” BP’s branding for this exhibition, nonetheless, is notably discreet.

Nero: the man behind the myth opens at the British Museum in London on 27 May

This article was amended on 22 April 2021 to correct a misspelling of Anglesey.


Watch the video: The Absurd Powers of the God Emperor of Mankind (May 2022).


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