Stage Emperor

James Davidson

  • Reflections of Nero: Culture, History and Representation edited by Jás Elsner and Jamie Masters
    Duckworth, 239 pp, £35.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 7156 2479 2

When Vespasian had put an end at last to the eighteen months of confusion and war that followed the death of Nero, he immediately set about undoing the reign of his predecessor, in an effort to wipe out its traces. The Senate had already voted a damnatio memoriae, demanding the erasure of all mention of Nero’s name from inscriptions throughout the Empire. His few achievements and many projects, some of them well on the way to completion, were promptly cancelled. His magnificent but still unfinished palace, known as the House of Gold, was dismantled, and the spaces it had occupied were turned over to the people. The artificial lake of its landscape garden was drained and work started on the first stage of a monument to the new dynasty, the huge Flavian amphitheatre. The Colossus of Nero, a gigantic portrait statue which had stood 120 feet high in the palace’s vestibule, was cleansed of the tyrant’s offending features, and carried upright through the city to stand at the eponymous arena’s side. Those same features remained on coins already in circulation, of course, but, according to the philosopher Epictetus, they were avoided wherever possible; in fact, if someone noticed Nero’s head among coins offered in payment he would shout out: ‘Take it away! It’s decayed and rotten! It’s not acceptable!’

Considering the uses to which his memory would be put in the ensuing decades and centuries, there must have been times when Nero’s ghost wished Vespasian’s efforts to oblivionise him had been more successful. Instead, like some antique precursor of Elvis, Nero enjoyed a unique and quite extraordinary afterlife. It began shortly after his death, when images of him dressed in the toga praetex-tata appeared on the speakers’ platform in the Forum, placed there by unseen hands, and edicts began to circulate under his name in which the recently despatched Princeps claimed to be still alive, planning his return and the destruction of his enemies. The stories of his survival were widely believed and seemed to be justified when a man bearing an extraordinary likeness to the Emperor, and sharing his facility with the lyre, disembarked on the little Aegean island of Cythnos and proceeded to capture it with a small band of deserters and slaves, as a first step to regaining his usurped dominions. This Nero was quickly murdered by the local governor, but more ‘false Neros’ sprang up in his place over the next twenty years, on each occasion throwing the eastern half of the Empire into a turmoil of rumour and unrest. And when the last of these pretenders was dealt with, it still did not put an end to the stories. Well into the next century, the showpiece orator ‘Golden Mouth’ Dio claimed in his 21st discourse, ‘to this day all men do wholeheartedly believe that Nero is still living.’ Three hundred years later, in the time of Jerome and Augustine, stories were still going around that Nero was alive and ready at any time to make a reappearance.

At this late date, however, there was much more involved in Nero’s nachleben than the prospect of a comeback concert tour. The tyrant’s return had taken on eschatological proportions. This tradition began early in Jewish and Christian circles. The interpolations which Jewish scribes wrote into the text of the pagan Oracles of the Sibyl depict Nero as a fugitive from Italy who has fled without trace across the Euphrates. From there he would return at the head of tens of thousands to destroy Rome and the whole world. Whether the writer of the Book of Revelation had Nero in mind as the Beast of the Apocalypse has been hotly debated for centuries, but certainly several early Christian writers explicitly identified him as the Antichrist, and one enterprising German scholar in the 19th century counted up the numerical values in the letters NERO KESAR transliterated into Hebrew, and arrived at the suggestive figure of 666.

In the Middle Ages. Nero seems to have been removed from this exalted position of Antichrist and demoted to the ranks of lesser devils. A local deputation to Pope Pascal II in the year 1000 complained that a ‘malevolent tree’ had appeared on the site of Nero’s tomb on the Pincian Hill, providing a gathering point for the evil spirits fostered by his corpse, who assumed the form of crows. It took a solemn procession, an exorcism and the intervention of the Madonna before the area was made safe and the church of Santa Maria del Popolo could be built in the same place. We get occasional snapshots of what Nero was up to in the Infernal Years from clerical handbooks. One account has him bathing in a seething pool of molten gold, from where he calls money-loving lawyers to join him as they pass. Poor Tom’s ravings in King Lear mention Nero as ‘an angler in the Lake of Darkness’.

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