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.

Edward Champlin’s Nero is both more and less than a biography. Champlin’s main focus is on Nero’s later Roman reputation: how the now orthodox image was constructed and how it is reflected and debated in ancient literature, architecture and visual imagery (he includes several trenchant pages on the Colossus). The problem that launches the book is a relatively simple one. The picture of Nero presented by the three main surviving ancient accounts of his reign (by Tacitus, Suetonius and the third-century historian Dio Cassius) is more or less uniformly hostile. Nero slept with and murdered his mother; he killed his step-brother, two of his wives (the second, Poppaea, by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant), not to mention a substantial swathe of the Roman elite; he may well have started the great fire of Rome in AD 64, to help make space for his new palace; his megalomania extended to his imagining himself to be a champion athlete, a talented theatrical performer and singer, even a ‘new Apollo’. Jewish and Christian tradition chimes reassuringly with this, painting Nero as a demon or the Antichrist. It is surely no coincidence that, as many have calculated, the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters which spell ‘Neron Caesar’ adds up to 666.

Yet – and this is where the problem emerges – scratch the surface of the tradition, or look outside the main historical accounts, and a much more favourable image of Nero can be glimpsed. Most obviously, after Nero’s supposed death a rash of people tried to cash in on his legacy by claiming to be the emperor, still living after all. Unless they were entirely inept politically, this suggests that Nero enjoyed considerable support in some quarters. Champlin has done an excellent job in pulling together other, less familiar examples of the emperor’s posthumous popularity. He cites the more than life-size statue put up in Tralles, an important city in Asia Minor, a century after his death, and some second-century mirrors decorated with Neronian coins. This isn’t the treatment usually accorded to a monster. Even more striking is the story from the Babylonian Talmud which has Nero converting to Judaism, marrying, and becoming the ancestor of one of the greatest second-century rabbis, Rabbi Meir. Christians too, on occasion, could imagine Nero in a very different mode from the Antichrist. The sixth-century historian-cum-fantasist John Malalas gives him the honour of executing Pontius Pilate: ‘Why did he hand the Lord Christ over to the Jews,’ his Nero asks, ‘for he was an innocent man and worked miracles?’

How, Champlin asks, can we account for these discordant versions? Why was it that some people in antiquity paid ‘allegiance to an image of the emperor quite different from the one etched by our mainstream sources, an image which is at bottom favourable to him’? He is not the first to have raised such questions. Classicists have often been much more troubled than most modern historians or political analysts about conflicting judgments on major political figures. (Imagine being puzzled that there were very different assessments of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher or the presidency of Ronald Reagan.) They have also been more confident than most that some kind of accurate calibration of monstrosity v. political virtue is attainable. Hence there has been a long series of worthy studies reaching the unsurprising conclusion that Nero was probably not as bad as he is painted in the dominant tradition.

Any number of people said to have died of poisoning might not have been poisoned at all; and charging Nero with torching the city may be no more than the ancient version of blaming the government. Side by side with such injections of cold water or common sense, has come the equally unsurprising suggestion that Nero’s mistake was to offend the wrong people. The chances are – or so this argument runs – that his laddish antics, plus his enthusiasm for shows, spectacles and horse-racing, appealed greatly to the mass of the Roman people. It was the traditional elite who did not like them, and who were closest to the notorious crimes that took place within the palace; and it was the traditional elite, by and large, who wrote or influenced our mainstream histories.

Champlin is more sophisticated than this. He stresses at several points that he is not concerned to rehabilitate Nero or to justify his actions. His interest, he claims, is in the construction of the image, not with ‘whether Nero was a good man or a good emperor, but with how he might be seen as such’. His study, in other words, is more historiographic than narrowly historical. This, too, belongs to a long scholarly tradition, going back to the ancient world. Tacitus, reflecting on very much this issue, explained different treatments of the same reign as the consequence of the politics of literary production. ‘The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified while they were alive through cowardice; after their deaths they were composed under the influence of still rankling hatreds.’ In other words, you could trust neither a contemporary nor a later historical account.

There is something in this simple analysis, at least so far as the later accounts are concerned (dismissing contemporary praise as ‘flattery’ is itself a product of ‘still rankling hatreds’). A new reign, and even more a new dynasty, regularly saw historians scurrying to distance themselves from the previous regime by denouncing its horrors. Tacitus himself played exactly this trick after the fall of Domitian. Having enjoyed a smoothly advancing political career under that emperor, when a new dynasty came to power he took the expedient course of attacking Domitian’s villainy – maybe sincerely, but how do we know? The end of Nero’s reign must have seen similar realignments, as the new Flavian orthodoxy chose to justify the monster’s fall on the grounds of his monstrosity.

This cannot, however, entirely explain the discordance between the different images of Nero, which does not divide neatly on chronological lines. Champlin argues that the dominant tradition has consistently misunderstood or misrepresented the purpose and logic of Nero’s behaviour. Both ancient and modern historians have, for example, failed to see the wit and artful humour that underlay some of his most notorious (in their eyes) excesses. So his game of dressing up as a wild animal and then – as reported by Suetonius – attacking the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes is, for Champlin, ‘not (or not just) the whim of a demented tyrant’. The historians who decry its obscenity have not spotted that this ‘joke or prank’ is ‘a would-be artistic rendering of the standard legal punishment called damnatio ad bestias, in which bound criminals were exposed, often naked, to mauling by wild beasts’.

Similarly, some of the more horrifying actions that are regularly ascribed to Nero, such as kicking his pregnant wife to death, may be the result, Champlin suggests, of the emperor’s attempts to spin accidental events into an elaborate replica of earlier history and myth. With the death of Poppaea, he may have found an ideal occasion to present himself as a new Periander, the legendary tyrant of Corinth who made his city great but also killed his pregnant wife with a kick. Presenting himself as a mythic Greek hero (Nero cashed in on Orestes and Oedipus, too) revealed ‘a daring new conception of Roman power’. It was hardly his fault if the symbolism got read too literally. This is less silly than it sounds. Champlin has a keen eye for the parallels between Neronian history and the mythic inheritance of Greco-Roman culture (though those parallels are, in my view, much more likely to be the result of the conscious or unconscious interpretative framework of the elite historians than any grand conception of Nero’s).

There is much else in the book that is the fruit of careful and astute analysis. Champlin is excellent, for example, on the various forms of triumphal or pseudo-triumphal celebrations in Nero’s reign, especially the ‘triumph’ for the emperor’s athletic victories in Greece, in which he is supposed to have blended a traditional Roman military ceremony with the Greek ceremony of the victorious athlete’s return. Yet overall, Champlin’s suggestions raise more problems than they solve. In particular, in attempting to expose the logic and purpose of Nero’s actions, he is drawn increasingly, and perhaps inevitably, to those issues about the ‘real’ emperor’s behaviour that he set out to avoid. Over the course of the book, history of a rather narrow type decisively wins out over historiography. So much so that we repeatedly find Champlin passing judgment on the truth and falsehood, rights and wrongs of Nero’s alleged crimes. The murder of Poppaea? The verdict here is innocent (or at least manslaughter: ‘a tragically domestic incident: a wife in discomfort nags her husband, perhaps he has had a bad day at the races’). Arson at the fire of Rome? Guilty (it was, among other things, part of a plot to represent himself as a new Camillus, the hero who re-established Rome after the sack by the Gauls in 390 BC). And so on. In the concluding chapter, Champlin sums up the Nero ‘who has emerged in the preceding pages’: ‘Whatever his many faults as an emperor and a human being may have been, [he] was a man of considerable talent, great ingenuity and boundless energy.’ Much the same could be said of Jesus, Nelson or Stalin.

There is, however, a bigger question raised by Champlin’s Nero, and by any biographical study, ancient or modern, of a Roman emperor: just how influential on the wider developments of Roman history was an individual ruler? Imperial biographers are professionally committed to the idea that the emperor is crucial, and Champlin does his best to demonstrate that there was a significant imperial programme at work during this reign that can be traced back to Nero himself. This approach would, no doubt, draw support from Tacitus’ comments on the influence of changing rulers, the fear and flattery they provoked, on the pattern of Roman history writing. But Tacitus could also be taken to support almost exactly the opposite position: namely, that so long as the right words were mouthed, praise and blame delivered in the expected quarters, business could go on as usual from reign to reign, no matter who was on the throne. Even if you had been an elite ally of the last emperor, all that was required was some well-honed denunciation of the previous regime to keep your place in the new hierarchy. That, after all, is the message of the story of the Colossus. True, some minor readjustments might have been necessary from time to time, but essentially this was a statue by, or of, Nero that lasted throughout the imperial regime and could be used to symbolise the power of any emperor at all.

Some anecdotes told by Roman writers make this point explicitly, directly challenging their readers to reflect on the insignificance of the record or character of the individual emperor, which comes close to the modern view that the monarch is necessarily subordinate to the social structure that supports him. One is a memorable tale of a dinner party with the new Emperor Nerva, just after the assassination of his predecessor Domitian, whose villainy in most orthodox accounts was a fair match for Nero’s. Writing to a friend, the Younger Pliny explained how conversation at this select gathering turned to one of the most unpleasant hatchet men of the previous regime. ‘I wonder what he would be doing today, if he were still alive,’ the emperor mused naively. ‘He would be dining here with us,’ piped up a brave soul: epecially brave, given that another of Domitian’s cronies was also at the party, reclining right next to the new emperor. Pliny’s point (and he should know, for he, too, had enjoyed Domitian’s patronage) is that the structures of power and influence at Rome transcended the identity of any individual ruler.

An engagingly different version of this line is found in a collection of jokes, attributed to the first emperor Augustus, gathered by Macrobius, an omnivorous compiler, in the early fifth century AD. Most of them are about as funny as their modern equivalents in political humour. One, however, offers a revealing story of the interchangeability of imperial rulers – though that wasn’t its purpose. It concerns a man who came to greet the new emperor, when he returned from defeating Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, with a raven which had been trained to say: ‘Hail Caesar, victor imperator’ (a phrase which can mean both ‘our victorious general’ and ‘our victorious emperor’). Augustus was charmed and gave him a large sum of money as a reward. But the bird trainer failed to share this with his partner who had helped to coach the raven. So the partner went to Augustus with another bird which they had trained together. This one squawked a different slogan, ‘Hail Antony, victor imperator,’ for prudently they had been ready for either eventuality. Augustus took it all in good part and told the first man to share his reward with the second. The story is cited as an example of the emperor’s readiness to take a joke. It also points to the insignificance of the individual on the throne: someone is going to be emperor, it doesn’t much matter who. This is surely more interesting than differences of opinion about whether Nero was good or bad.