As readers of Plague will know London hosts many a Roman remnant, from the baths beneath the West End to the Temple of Mithras underneath the Bank of England, but on Friday last I went to see those currently on show at the British Museum in the exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth.
This is one of the BM’s current large exhibitions showcasing their collection of Roman art and artefacts, together with pieces from Italy, Paris and other parts of the UK. It certainly tries to challenge the pervading image of Nero, the callous and brutal Caesar who fiddled while Rome burned, who persecuted the Christians, committed incest and matricide and kicked his pregnant wife to death. Only some of this is true. Nero certainly persecuted Christians – he blamed them for the great fire which raged for nine days – but he wasn’t alone in doing so. He did commit murders, at least indirectly – first century Roman palace power plays were brutal and murderous. There is evidence, however, that he cared about the people of the city – he instigated relief efforts after the Great Fire, offering shelter in his own palaces and organising food supplies and he started a very large rebuilding programme soon after. It’s almost certain that he was innocent of initiating the fire. The plebs certainly thought better of him than their Senatorial ‘betters’, Nero’s is the imperial name most often found in positive ancient graffiti. He improved the road to Ostia, Rome’s harbour where the grain shipments arrived, so as to protect the city’s food supply and insisted that the rebuilt Rome had better standards of housing. So, not all bad then.
I try and preserve a fair degree of scepticism about the common myths attaching to historical figures, preferring to look at the historical sources. That Nero was ruthless and brutal – well, which Emperor could have ruled Rome for fourteen tumultuous years if he hadn’t been? That he ‘fiddled while Rome burned’ or at least played a lyre, comes from Suetonius and Cassius Dio, historians writing during the age of later emperors and whose interests were served by making their masters look good in comparison. Tacitus, who was actually alive at the time of the fire, places Nero outside Rome when the fire happened. Given the title of the exhibition I was hoping there would be more exploration of how and why myths like those surrounding Nero were formed and how common ‘stories’ sometimes reveal a deeper truth, but that wasn’t where this was going.
It’s also the case that kicking one’s pregnant wife to death was something of a literary trope in the ancient world, as signifying not just brutal cruelty but also how self-destructive mad tyrants tended to be, destroying their own offspring in their rage. So King Cambyses of Persia is said to have kicked his pregnant wife in her stomach and Periander, the Corinthian tyrant, supposedly did the same. Nero, it seems, may have been bad-mouthed in the same way.
One story I’ve come across, though I’m not sure how true it is, is about his meeting with the Pythia of Delphi. Nero toured Greece in CE 66/67 when he granted the Greeks their ‘freedom’ ( largely from the steep taxes Rome imposed upon client peoples ) and took part in the Isthmian Games. Like anyone who was anyone in the ancient world, he went to Delphi. The Pythia forbade his entry to the Temple of Apollo, calling him a matricide and telling him that the number 73 would mark the hour of his downfall. He had her burned alive ( or so Dio Cassius says ) but took her words to mean that he would live until a ripe old age. In fact he was deposed only a year or so later, by the general, later Emperor, Galba, who happened to be 73 years old at the time ( or so the story goes ). What to take from this, other than not to cross a pythia, I’m not at all sure, but then, all stories about the Pythia tend to show how she was right in the end. Not much consolation when you’re killed horribly. It makes the murder in Oracle look tame in comparison.
And the exhibition? It is about such an interesting period in classical history and the Julio-Claudians were such a fascinating bunch, they still exert a celebrity-style, dark and seductive glamour even today, that it’s engaging. Some of the exhibits are exquisite – the jewellery, for example, or gruesome – the heavy slave chains, or the gladiator armour and the visitor forms a more rounded picture of the emperor, much more nuanced than the popular myth would have us believe. A good exhibition, worth visiting, that will make you reassess your understanding of Nero, but prepare to concentrate, there are a lot of coins.
The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 24th October and costs £22 full price entry without donation.