Can History Be Changed? Nero Revamped

ln her meticulously researched essay, “How Nasty Was Nero?”, in The New Yorker (June 14, 2021), Rebecca Mead writes about a new exhibition at the British Museum, Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, which challenges the monstrous image of the emperor Nero. (I would love to see this exhibition, but the UK is not open to Americans right now.) We all remember the hyperbolic “fun fact” that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Mead points out the facetiousness of this well-beloved legend: the violin had not yet been invented. And Thorston Opper, a curator of the Greek and Roman division at the British Museum, also questions the riveting reportage of the Roman historians, Suetonius, my favorite Roman gossip; Tacitus, a glorious writer who shaped his histories into literature; and Cassius Dio, a Greek historian and senator who wrote his Roman history in Greek.

Thorston Opper is unimpressed with these primary sources. “Anything you think you know about Nero is based on manipulation and lies that are 2,000 years old,” Oper told Mead.

Opper more or less takes what I call the “no-fun” approach to history. Most of us do approach it with caution: if you are aware that the word historia (history) in Greek and Latin can mean”inquiry,” “narrative,” “report,” and “story,” you are used to appreciating many elements and you take them with a grain of salt. Still, the primary sources of 2,000 years ago are closer to events than speculations in the twenty-first century. There is nothing new under the sun: twentieth-century scholars also questioned the reliability and read ancient history with a mix of admiration, fascination, and skepticism. The twentieth-century English historian Michael Grant often used the word “alleged”in his brilliant books, which include Nero: Emperor in Revolt, History of Rome, and The Twelve Caesars.

I first encountered the revamping of the reputation of Nero in Margaret George’s historical novel, The Confessions of Young Nero (2017). In the Afterword, she writes, “This novel is my mission to rescue a gifted and remarkable young ruler, who was only sixteen when he became emperor, from what historian David Braund, in his essay ‘Apollo in Arms: Nero at the Frontier,’ calls ‘the extensive fog of hostility, which clouds and surrounds almost all the historical record on Nero’ and ‘makes historical analysis extraordinarily difficult. (George did an enormous amount of research, and I scribbled down several titles of books she mentioned .) By the way, George has also written a sequel, The Splendor Before the Dark.

Margaret George and modern scholars agree that political machinations influenced the Roman historians and biographers: Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and perhaps the Flavian dynasty wished to practice cancel culture. Most historians agree that Nero was a liberal, progressive emperor in the first years; he gave up when things got ugly and went the sex-drinking-crazy route.

Tacitus tells us that Nero tried to kill his mother by sending her out in a collapsible ship (she swam back, and was killed later). Scholars try to debunk this story. But why couldn’t it be true? The lord knows, Nero had money: his extravagant Golden House had a large artificial lake, baths with sulforous and salt water, and moving panels that dropped scent and flowers on his dinner guests. What’s a collapsible ship compared to this? One of the most horrible scandals: Suetonius reports that Nero killed his wife by kicking her when she was pregnant. But Thorston Opper is skeptical: he points out this is also a scene in one of Seneca’s tragedies. On the good side, Nero was artsy-craftsy: he wrote poetry, performed in plays, and supported games. On the other hand, he ordered his tutor and advisor Seneca to kill himself. Wrists were slit.

History can be changed by artefacts: coins, new inscriptions and archaeological findings, which continue to influence the interpretation of the story of Nero. If only more of the ancient histories had survived: depending on the three surviving ancient histories by Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius is problematical.

You can see the exhibition, Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, at the British Msueum (now through October 24).

4 thoughts on “Can History Be Changed? Nero Revamped”

  1. “Tacitus tells us that Nero tried to kill his mother by sending her out in a collapsible ship (she swam back, and was killed later). Scholars try to debunk this story. But why couldn’t it be true? ”

    It’s so complicated – like something out of a bad detective story – and so unlikely to work. Why not use Agrippina’s own favourite – poison – which is supposed to have got Nero the throne?

    1. Michael Grant refers to Tacitus’ story of the collapsible ship as one of his “greatest set pieces.” Grant is certainly skeptical. But Nero loved the arts and spent money on set pieces, so it does seem in character. I do think it is the stuff of historical novels. Maybe I should finish that Margaret George book… I never got to the collapsible ship.

  2. Very interesting article, particularly as I was getting ready to read the New Yorker essay this weekend! The winners write history and, as you point out, since Nero was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian line it wouldn’t be surprising if Vespasian and his successos deliberately tried to make him look bad. As you also point out, our primary sources are few and not altogether to be trusted. But . . . it’s still difficult for me to conclude that Nero’s bad press was largely unjustified. Aside from Mom and Seneca, his first wife Octavia and stepbrother Britannicus were also murdered (maybe the article argues Nero wasn’t responsible). And while he may not have caused the great fire that destroyed much of Rome, he was pretty quick to confiscate huge amounts of the city to use as the site of his Domus Aurea. On the other hand, he WAS popular with a segment of the common people and there’s no doubt that his name was removed from monuments and so on by his successors’ attempts to destroy his place in history. I suppose my own feeling at this point is that, regardless of his worth as a human being, he was a bad ruler or he wouldn’t have lost his throne! Guess I should run off and read the article and see if I change my mind.
    Like you, I’d love to see the exhibition!

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