Mary Beard

  • Nero by Edward Champlin
    Harvard, 346 pp, £19.95, October 2003, ISBN 0 674 01192 9

The most lasting memorial to the Emperor Nero is the Colosseum, even if that was not the intention. In fact, the new Flavian dynasty which took control of Rome in AD 69 erected this vast pleasure palace for the people precisely in order to obliterate Nero’s memory. It was a calculated decision to build a public amphitheatre on the site of the artificial lake that had been one of the most infamous features of Nero’s palace, the Golden House: what had been private imperial property was here seen to be given back to the citizens of Rome. But even this was not enough to dislodge Nero from the city and its ‘sites of memory’. By the Middle Ages, the amphitheatre was being called the Colosseum. Not just because it was very big, though its sheer size must be one factor in explaining why the nickname has stuck. It was named after the Colossus, the 120-foot bronze statue commissioned by (and perhaps originally representing) Nero that was part of the display of the Golden House and continued to stand near the amphitheatre at least into the fourth century. Nero and the Colosseum have in modern times come to belong so closely together that most film-makers manage to persuade their audiences that Nero slaughtered Christians there, even though the amphitheatre was not yet built and there is no clear evidence that any Christians ever met their death in its arena.

Both the Colosseum and the Colossus offer important lessons in how ancient Rome remembered its past emperors, and how the physical layout of the city was adjusted to changing dynasties and changing views of what was worth remembering. Simple obliteration was usually a double-edged sword. The harder you tried to wipe an emperor’s monuments off the face of the landscape, the more you risked drawing history’s attention to what you were trying to remove. Even without its medieval name, the Flavian amphitheatre was always liable to be remembered as the monument that stood on the site of Nero’s lake. The Emperor Trajan erected a vast set of public baths over another part of the Golden House: these are remembered not as Trajan planned, but as a building that has preserved Nero’s palace in its foundations.

The story of the Colossus reveals even more complex realignments across the centuries. There is a good deal of dispute about the origins of the statue. Was it finished before Nero’s death? Was it meant to stand in the vestibule of his palace, as many people – but not all – have taken Suetonius, Nero’s biographer, to be suggesting? Did it represent the Sun God, or Nero, or Nero as the Sun God (how would you tell the difference)? However it began, Roman writers refer to repeated attempts to fit its imagery to new circumstances. Several imply that, while they may have left the statue in place, the Flavian dynasty made efforts to remove its Neronian associations (perhaps changing Nero’s facial features to be more unambiguously those of the Sun God; although some people, we are told, detected a resemblance to the Flavian Emperor Titus).

Hadrian later moved the whole statue closer to the amphitheatre to make room for his new Temple of Venus and Rome (so, probably, encouraging the twinning of statue and building). The Emperor Commodus, it is said, looked back more warmly to Nero and found propaganda value in giving the Colossus another makeover, inserting his own features in the face and dressing it up as his favourite deity, Hercules. But, with the fall of Commodus, it was soon back as a sun god. The famous slogan, quoted by Bede in the eighth century – ‘So long as the Colisaeus stands, Rome also stands, when the Colisaeus falls, Rome will fall too’ – probably refers to the statue, not, as it is usually taken (partly because it makes a better prediction), to the amphitheatre.

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