Nero comes with a lurid reputation. “The main thing we know about him is his infamy,” says Thorsten Opper, curator of the first British exhibition devoted to the Roman emperor. “The glutton, the profligate, the matricide, the megalomaniac.” Also, the pyromaniac: famously, Nero “fiddled while Rome burned”, or at least strummed his kithara to one of his own compositions, The Fall of Troy, while a fire, supposedly begun by him, destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts and seriously damaged seven.
His afterlife on the page and screen is certainly arresting. Nero inspired some of the greatest Renaissance and baroque operas, notably Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina, which chart the emperor’s adulterous love for Poppaea, who became his second wife. In the epic 1951 movie Quo Vadis, Peter Ustinov played Nero as entirely unhinged: a mincing, purple-swathed toddler in a man’s body. Christopher Biggins took him on in I, Claudius, the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel, and made him power-hungry, baby-faced and quite, quite mad.
The main ancient sources on Nero are uncompromising. The historian Tacitus offers a vivid picture of a ruler consumed by cruelty and paranoia during his 14-year reign, which ended after an armed rebellion precipitated his suicide, aged just 31. This portrait includes the story of his extraordinarily elaborate plot to assassinate his powerful mother, Agrippina, using a trick boat designed to collapse at sea and drown her (the doughty dowager empress swam to shore, but was later dispatched by sword). It also includes, even less palatably, the information that the emperor killed his wife Poppaea by kicking her in the stomach when pregnant. Nero’s biographer Suetonius, meanwhile, tells us that – aside from his disgraceful habit of singing and playing on the public stage – the emperor liked to amuse himself by going out into the streets after dinner in disguise, attacking and stabbing people, and then chucking their corpses into the sewers.
But the thrust of the British Museum’s exhibition, which opens this week, is that this story of wantonness and degeneracy is, essentially, propaganda. “The sources need to be seen as texts that have a clear agenda,” says Opper, the museum’s curator of Greek and Roman sculpture. The “elite senatorial writers” who formed this negative picture, he argues, could not reconcile themselves to the demise of the republic and the establishing of populist, one-person rule.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth tries to hint at another, suppressed version of the emperor – one that survives only in scraps of pro-Nero graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii, in asides in the main ancient texts, and in objects and sculptures that managed to escape the Roman habit of destroying images of a discredited ruler (known as damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory).
The reputation for “sex and violence and gluttony” that swirls around Nero was, argues Opper, carefully built up through the lavish invocation of unfounded conspiracy theories and deliberate use of the rhetorical tropes of vituperatio. These techniques of undermining opponents – untrammelled by modern legal restraints on libel or slander – often focused on the target’s supposed sexual incontinence and financial profligacy. The British Museum exhibition, he says, “isn’t about rehabilitating Nero – it’s about critically reading the sources and stripping out the accretions”.
Once you push the anecdotes and gossip out of the way, he says, there is a rich and intriguing political picture to be discerned – one of a traditional ruling class threatened by the wealth of an insurgent group of provincials; political pressure building up as “anxiety about money blurs class divides”; and an emperor who is attempting to shore up a shaky power base through currying popularity with the plebeians, or ordinary people of Rome, all the while coping with pressures on the eastern and western fringes of the empire, in what are now Armenia and Britain.
The exhibition begins with a powerful metaphor for the shading of the “real” Nero into the Nero of myth. A bust normally housed in the Capitoline Museums, Rome, showing Nero with a brooding, malevolent physiognomy: a cruel curve to the mouth and an oversized chin that give him a rather thuggish air. This is the Nero Ustinov skilfully and enjoyably inhabits in Quo Vadis. Yet, says Opper, the sculpture was fragmentary: only the area above the right eye and left cheek is original. It was heavily restored in the 17th century by a baroque artist who gave Nero that mad chin and depraved mouth – one who’d read his Suetonius, or at least had a firm idea of the “wicked” character passed down from the Roman historians.
Few complete original sculptures of Nero survive. But one or two do remain: a striking statue of an angelic-looking boy of 12 or 13, on loan from the Louvre, presents a very different picture. This is a portrait of a young boy “making his debut as part of the imperial family”, according to Opper. The sculpture was perhaps once part of a dynastic group: officially adopted by his predecessor and stepfather, Claudius, this boy was groomed for power early to ensure a smooth transition. This was, in fact, achieved, says Opper, pooh-poohing the notion that Nero’s mother, Agrippina, killed Claudius – poisoning him, as ancient sources insist, with mushrooms.
For Opper, the real brutality of Nero’s reign is contained not within the emperor’s personal acts of violence, whether real or imagined, but within the cruelty and exploitation of the Roman imperial system. A section of the show is devoted to Britain – at the time a young, unstable addition to Rome’s empire, the southern and eastern part of the island having been invaded and conquered by Claudius in AD43. Nero’s reign, however, saw one of the most famous incidents in Britain’s Roman history: the uprising of the former Roman ally Boudicca, queen of the Iceni people in what is now East Anglia.
Ancient sources hint at corruption, greed and tax-farming (auctioning off the right to collect taxes) on the part of the recent imperial rulers. Thus provoked, Boudicca’s revolt was bloody, as described by the historian Tacitus, and as observed in the archaeological record. The exhibition includes a recent find: a hoard of coins and jewellery excavated from beneath a branch of Fenwick in Colchester, then Britannia’s provincial capital. They seem to have been buried, perhaps by the terrified and fleeing Roman inhabitants, most of whom Boudicca’s forces massacred. The hoard was found beneath the layer of burned material that is the physical trace of Boudicca’s rampage through the town. Also on show is the recent find of a kneecap that a sword sliced off, and a jawbone hacked through by a blade.
Perhaps most chilling of all, though, is the evidence of Roman chain gangs, discovered on Anglesey: metal shackles that would have restrained five slaves, or prisoners, or prisoners-of-war, a reminder of the fact that the Roman empire ran on the muscle power of the enslaved. Anglesey was the scene of fighting between Romans and – according to Tacitus – a force of Britons that included “black-robed women with dishevelled hair like Furies” and druids “screaming dreadful curses”.
It was the general Gaius Suetonius Paulinus’s advance towards Anglesey that gave Boudicca her chance to strike while the bulk of Roman forces were occupied in the west. She very nearly got rid of the Romans altogether. There’s a bronze Roman head in the British Museum’s collection, included in the exhibition, that was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. Opper thinks it could represent Nero. Theories have been put forward that it was Iceni war loot, ritually deposited in the river after being snatched from Colchester or another Roman centre.
What about the story that Nero was responsible for the fire that devastated Rome in AD64? Surely that – the single most famous thing about Nero – must be true? Opper shakes his head. Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time, he says, and the city – with its badly built, overcrowded housing – “was due a fire”. He argues that the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a kind of slippage, the solidification of a rumour based on the fact that he really did write a poem about the fall of Troy, which included scenes of a city ablaze. Instead, he points out, even the ancient sources concede that Nero made sure the homeless were housed and that rebuilding was along much safer, more regulated lines – albeit with a giant palace of his own, the Domus Aurea, spilling forth magnificently over the Oppian, Caelian and Esquiline hills like a kind of city-centre Versailles.
The enjoyably monstrous Nero, then, seems to be fading away under Opper’s critical gaze. So who was he? The “real Nero”, he argues, is no longer recoverable, so effective was the propaganda of his opponents. The exhibition ends as it begins, with another powerful image of the emperor’s erasure. After Nero’s death, a brutal civil war broke out. One after another, four powerful generals attempted to seize power. The one who finally succeeded was Vespasian, who had led the Second Legion into south-west England and Wales. He founded the second dynasty of Roman emperors, the Flavians. That final object is a stone head of Vespasian, recycled and recarved from a sculpture of Nero.
• Nero: The Man Behind The Myth opens at the British Museum, London, on Thursday.