Finding Nero

Young Nero, long before everything went south for the emperor (2021, British Museum, my photo)

There are two ways to rediscover ancient historical figures: the Humanist-critical way and the postmodern-revisionist way.

The scholars of the Renaissance rediscovered, at least in their own mind, the figures of antiquity by returning to the sources. Our ages rediscovers, and by this I mean it rekindles interest in, forgotten icons of the past, by making the sources conform to the hermeneutical strictures of the day. A good example is the rehabilitation of bad Roman emperors.

Nero’s historiographical show trial started soon after his death and ended in the 19th century. Seen as one of the most unworthy successors to Augustus, he embodied the worst ancient society had to offer. He was a murderer, a matricidal, uxoricidal maniac, a sociopath, a ruthless populist and a monster of genocidal proportions. Accused of nearly every crime in the Roman playbook, he was condemned to something far worse than damnatio memoriae, the ancient Roman custom of banning an individual’s name from memory. He was the evil benchmark against all evil leaders of Europe. I’m sure Nero would’ve preferred the former sentence, unless, if we are to indulge his detractors, he was so twisted and perverse that he would’ve loved being cast as the bogeyman of ancient Rome.

But Nero, like many other victims of historiographical revilement, has much to hope from a latter-day revisionist trend in historical criticism. If you think you know Nero, think again. You haven’t met him, instead you’ve met his traducers, whose castigating narratives have dominated the picture for almost two thousand years. Nero, a recent exhibition at the British Museum assures us, was not as bad as we think. He was, like everyone else, a product of his own age, a victim of circumstance, a figure made up of tones and tinges of every colour, whose radical behaviour and populist politics brought him into tragic conflict with other stakeholders, mainly the Roman senators. The takeaway from this revisionist trial is that Nero was misunderstood and hated – perhaps for the wrong reasons. By breaching the traditional code of conduct, such as indulging in poetry or getting too involved in the games, he made himself hateful to the goalkeepers – at least until he managed to shift the goalpost himself. Then resentment followed seasoned with blood and political crisis.

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