A controversial outsider unexpectedly gains power. Democratic institutions groan. The new leader is a populist beloved by broad swaths of the population but widely despised by elites who will go to almost any length to undermine him. He is accused of financial improprieties, sexual immorality, unconscionable stupidity, and sheer incompetence. His sanity is questioned. His family life is mired in scandal. A deluge of hostile reporting—much of it received as ‘fake news’—impugns his character and distorts his record. Eventually military and civilian officials begin to question whether his orders should be obeyed. There is a growing consensus among the powerful to remove him, while many further down the social ladder believe he is being conspired against. Once removed, his achievements are forgotten among elites, while his memory is sullied by exaggerated tales of his worst excesses—tales that linger long after, even after they are debunked. The common cultural narrative then remembers him as a capricious tyrant, despite empirical evidence suggesting corrections may be in order.
It took Donald J. Trump only five years to traverse this very cycle. The Roman Emperor Nero has languished through it for nearly two millennia. Recognizing this, the exhibit at the British Museum last year—Nero: The Man Behind the Myth—asked the blunt question: “Does Nero deserve his reputation for cruelty and excess?” In other words, was he the raving lunatic whom Peter Ustinov played so hammily in the 1951 Mervyn LeRoy film Quo Vadis?
Perhaps nothing in this five-month-long exhibit—which combined well-known artifacts from Nero’s time with recent archeological findings—made this interrogative point more clearly than the opening display of a bust of Nero lent by Rome’s Capitoline Museum. Damaged in antiquity and restored in the 1660s to make him seem crueler and nastier—in line with the historical depictions passed down from Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and other hostile Roman historians—the image contrasts markedly with other intact and rather benign depictions of the maligned Emperor. Official imagery was naturally always flattering; but recent archeological discoveries have found likenesses of the good and benevolent Nero adorning households and staring back from people’s vanity mirrors. Such accoutrements of daily Roman life would have been unlikely if he were truly despised.
The last of five rulers in Imperial Rome’s founding Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero reigned from 54 to 68 AD. He became Emperor at 16, after having been declared heir by his stepfather Claudius, who had married Nero’s widowed mother Agrippina when Nero was 12. The circumstances of his accession over Claudius’s natural son Britannicus generated immediate controversy. Agrippina was accused of having poisoned her husband and other possible rivals in order to secure the throne for her teenage son—so that she could wield power through him.
Photo: Image courtesy of Carol Raddate, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Her role as perceived across the Empire was clear in a relief panel of Nero’s coronation that had been lent by Turkey’s Aphrodisias Museum. In the image—taken from the Sebasteion complex near Geyre, in modern Turkey, and dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite and the Julio-Claudian Emperors, collectively—a shy and diffident Nero looks downcast as the far more confident and sternly countenanced Agrippina places the laurel wreath on his head. Coinage from Nero’s early reign initially presented Agrippina as the primary ruler and then as a joint ruler with her son before she was removed altogether.
Agrippina’s fate is one of the first mysteries. Did Nero kill her or have her killed? And what of his wives, two of whom were long thought to have died unnaturally: did he kill them or cause their deaths as well?
In exploring these questions, the British Museum clearly gave Nero the benefit of the doubt. But there was no obvious rationale for doing so (though there is evidence that Nero’s second wife, Poppea, likely died of complications from a miscarriage rather than, as the legend goes, being stomped to death by Nero during a fit of rage).
A careful examination of Nero’s handling of larger challenges facing Rome more convincingly brings into question his poor image in posterity. Confronted with a fierce uprising in recently acquired Britannia and facing military challenges from the Parthian Empire, Nero showed himself to be a skilled diplomat, not an unstable tyrant. He used military force when warranted but also sought shrewd diplomatic solutions. Britannia was pacified in large part through administrative reforms that responded to the complaints of the province’s oppressed population, symbolized in the exhibition by a gang chain from the National Museum Wales that would have bound what the commentary calls “enslaved people,” the modish new euphemism for what we used to call ‘slaves.’ (The exhibit does, however, favor ‘AD’ over the more inclusive ‘CE’ to note years after Christ’s birth.) Of perhaps greater importance in understanding Nero’s diplomatic strengths, the British Museum’s own collection offers the ‘Meyrick helmet,’ which is of obvious Roman design but incorporates Celtic decorations, a cultural fusion of the type that has undergirded successful imperial rule throughout recorded history.
On a more prosaic level, Nero implemented tax and commercial reforms that improved Rome’s prosperity and matched public expectations. While his penchant for performing onstage might have abased his position, such actions may be better understood as a way to broaden his appeal to the general population. Nero also faced criticism from elite Romans for constructing an ambitious new imperial palace, the Domus Aurea, which they interpreted as a sign of excess; but the palace may have served Nero as a way to project imperial authority.
New archeological evidence also offers to exonerate Nero of his most famous purported crime: starting the fire that destroyed most of Rome in AD 64. Traditionally, we have been taught that Nero likely set the fire—or ordered it to be set—so that he could claim the urban real estate for his new palace and then blame the tragedy on the capital’s Christians, using it as a pretext for persecuting them. It sounds like a dastardly misdeed. and it fitted well with the anti-Nero spin, making the Emperor look hopelessly corrupt. It also helped feed later Christian mythology by dramatizing the early martyrdoms. We now know, however, that Nero was far from where the fire broke out, that fires were a common affliction of a Rome still largely made out of wood and covered in straw, and that Nero expended great efforts to stop it while also providing for its victims. He did, however, persecute Christians once the fire was contained, an act for which he was widely reviled.
Even if many of the accusations against Nero could be described as ‘fake news,’ enough of them eventually piled up to undermine his reign. Faced with an armed rebellion led by prospective successors from among the Roman administrative and military elite, Nero took his own life in AD 68, at the age of 30. He was succeeded in short order by four emperors, each an ambitious man whose determination made instant enemies and led to his own overthrow in turn. In the ensuing new era of instability, numerous pretenders claiming to be Nero popped up, feeding the popular legend that he would return to save the common folk from the depredations of elite officials. Such a message was powerful.
In its final and perhaps most convincing segment, the British Museum’s exhibit came full circle. Noting that Nero’s images were often repurposed to resemble some of the new rulers, the commentary explains that depriving him of having a voice and legacy was a necessary step when seizing the disputed empire. Still, it took many decades to return to the kind of stability known during Nero’s rule. This exhibit provided a glimpse of the complexity of both the man and his age.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.
To watch exhibition curators Thorsten Opper and Francesca Bologna lead a video-tour (total time: 26:32) of the Nero exhibit, click here. You can also join famed classical historian Mary Beard here, as she walks viewers through the exhibit, elaborating here and there while focusing on her favorite objects.