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Nero: zero or hero?

Despite everything we thought we knew, Nero may just possibly be regarded as a half-decent emperor

Artillery Row

Sixteen can be a difficult age, but happily most angst-ridden teenagers do not find themselves also emperors of Rome. 

The subject of the British Museum’s Nero: the man behind the myth decided that too many of his close relations were cramping his style, and so had them killed. Depending on whose account you read, his hapless attempts to dispose of his mother Agrippina were blundering to the point of comedy; Suetonius’ is the best, with shades of a Benny Hill-style chase-scene of characters all trying varied and ingenious ways of doing her in to the tune of Yakety Sax.

It is his reputation for psychotic bloodthirstiness that the British Museum seeks to evaluate afresh

Nero eventually gave up the pretence of making it look like an accident, and just selected an old-fashioned stabbing in the finest traditions of his Julio-Claudian line. About this sort of thing the curators of this exhibition are laudably up-front; nevertheless the title alone immediately suggests an element of rehabilitation, which is emphasised by the question written in large letters at its entrance, next to a huge photograph of Peter Ustinov hamming it up in Quo Vadis in 1951: “Nero is one of the most infamous Roman emperors. Does he deserve his reputation for cruelty and excess?” 

Nigel Molesworth might have been tempted simply to write “Yes”. As “any fule kno”, the Emperor Nero was a shit of the first order, and a particularly nasty one at that. Yet it is his reputation for psychotic bloodthirstiness that the British Museum seeks to evaluate afresh, in order to present other facets of Nero’s life, character, and leadership. There is nothing wrong with this, although at first glance searching for the real Nero may seem like an exercise similar to one reminding visitors that Hitler was fond of dogs, or that Idi Amin was a natty dresser for a man of his size. 

Lineage is everything, and a small marble statue of Nero as a child opens the narrative. This serves as an obvious starting point, as well as being a neat way of introducing a designated children’s route through the impending bloodbath. For the whole time I was there two little girls, who cannot have been more than nine or ten, followed it with enthusiasm and evident glee. Passing under a swathe of purple satin, we meet the family: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. Plenty of intermarriage, a few murders, and just a smattering of incest. 

The thrust of the exhibition is that despite everything that we thought we knew, Nero may just possibly be regarded as a half-decent emperor, to whom history has been unkind. This is emphasised on boards around the Sainsbury Gallery: one states that “Nero was well-prepared for his accession to the throne.” This is a perfectly fair point: Claudius had named him as his heir years before, and the early part of Nero’s rule was full of promise ― setting the matter of matricide aside, which might have been an indication of some of what was yet to come.

This is a show of two halves; its hushed silence only broken by the bleep of museum walkie-talkies and the occasional well-chosen audio effect. The posh stuff sits between faux-marble panels and intricate cut-out dividers which evoke elegant Roman living: triclinia; atria; Cæcilius est in horto. Here we find the story of the intrigues of life at court; in carved stone, beaten silver, and struck coinage the tale of those who served Nero loyally, and those who hated him in equal measure. 

The other half belongs to the plebs, whose favour Nero curried and retained for most of his tenure: all dark wood and scaffolding, as if in the bowels of some great edifice being constructed above, or outside in the forum — as suggested by the striking projection of architectural facades onto mesh screens. Here are the everyday items of those on whom the empire relied for its day-to-day life, and on whom Nero based his ultimately-doomed personality cult: ancillæ; milites; Grumio coquus est. 

Nero knew all about the importance of bread and circuses, and even performed in the theatre himself; another board baldly states that “he became the first Emperor to appear on stage — an act that at the time divided public opinion and determined later perceptions of Nero as a deluded artist.” In many ways this statement goes to the heart of a problem; the curators sometimes seem so keen to get visitors to think differently about Nero that they run the risk of deflecting attention away from the more obvious Nero in front of them. 

Nero was not some sort of frustrated first-century Billy Elliot, kept from his true artistic calling by a cruel twist of circumstance. His establishment of the Augustiani ― whose sole purpose was to provide applause and cheering for their patron should it ever have been lacking ― suggests that he was perhaps at least partly aware of the limits of his talent. 

His acting career, such as it was, caused scandal because it was unthinkable for an emperor to stoop to the level of treading the boards, even if it endeared him to the people. The problem with being imperator populi was that Nero was also the emperor in a more general sense; the people did not oversee imperial business, and they did not sit in the Senate. 

In the end it was partly because he lost the support of the Senate that Nero was forced to commit hara-kiri at the age of thirty in AD 68; he was also the first emperor to have to take such a course. That it was not entirely unrelated to his appearance on the stage, the exhibition boards are silent. 

They are also silent on the matter of religion (although here and there we meet Sol and Venus, Jupiter and Janus), and it seems strange to discuss the various charisms of an Emperor of Rome without introducing the temple cult at the head of which he presided, and on the favour of whose gods he and the empire depended for success.

This is a superb gathering of artefacts from near and far, and worth patient attention

In a similar context the fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64 is rightly treated along modern lines, for no-one now really thinks that Nero set it himself or pranced around playing the lyre while enjoying the view. He did, however, absolutely calumniate the nascent Church, unleashing torments which ― while not necessarily as large-scale as those of some of his successors ― were severe enough for early Christians to name him Antichrist. From arson and indifference in this setting he can be reasonably absolved; but not from religious persecution, even if it is only mentioned in passing. 

These minor quibbles aside, this is a superb gathering of artefacts from near and far, and worth patient attention. A neat full circle brings the exhibition to a close: the boy Nero at the entrance gives way to the man Nero at the exit in damnatio memoriæ, his bust repurposed as Vespasian, who finally rose to dominance at the end of the chaotic Year of Four Emperors that followed Nero’s death. I wondered whether if in viewing this final piece the curators perhaps wanted visitors to feel a bit sorry for him. 

Well, I didn’t. Clearly there were elements of Nero’s reign that speak of competence and statesmanship, decision and action, diplomacy and military skill; they are well-presented here, and in any case he would have been disposed of much earlier had he been a total non-starter. Even after gazing long and hard at the chiselled features of that last lump of marble, I still left thinking that Nero was also what I’d thought he was all along: a doolally psychopath; a chip off the block.  

Nero: the man behind the myth is at the British Museum until 24 October

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