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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, July 11th, 2004




Read his lips

A review by Greg Woolf

Nero was just sixteen when he became Emperor. The bright hope of a generation that had suffered the tyrannies of vicious Claudius, mad Caligula and sullen Tiberius, he was meant to revive the fortunes and reputation of the Principate. At his side was the formidable Stoic philosopher Seneca, stern critic of luxury, and the sturdy but dependable soldier Burrus. Behind the throne was his beautiful mother, Agrippina, charming, brilliant and the daughter of the admired Germanicus, one of those many imperial princes who died young, leaving a sense of what might have been. Only Nero lived. At his accession he shone like a bright-eyed Blair or Zapatero, and in a speech ghost-written by Seneca promised reform, justice and good government. He was welcomed by Senate and people alike.

All were to be disappointed. The murders of his mother and of his wife, and the forced suicides of his closest advisers, as well as those who plotted against him, were not his greatest crimes; few Emperors could avoid such purges, courtiers always fell from grace, and in Rome it was never safe to be the Emperor's relative. But Nero, it was claimed, had transgressed in other ways. There were rumours of incest with his mother; allegations that he had organized the burning of the city; unease at the splendour of his new palace, his Golden House, built amid the smouldering ruins of a bankrupt city.

Most damaging, perhaps, were Nero's public performances, on the lyre, on the tragic stage, and as a charioteer. Nero's obsession with the stage began in private, then led him to perform to audiences, first in the Greek city of Naples and afterwards in Rome itself. Finally he crossed to Greece with his whole entourage and spent a year and a half there, competing in all the ancient pan-Hellenic festivals, which were synchronized for his benefit. His love for the Greeks led him to grant them immunity from taxation. "Other Emperors have freed cities, only Nero a province", he proclaimed to the crowds at the Isthmus of Corinth. Greek writers lined up to praise him. These gestures played less well in Rome.

All Emperors were accused of unspeakable practices in the dark recesses of their palaces and remote villas. Only Nero put his on the stage. Edward Champlin in his Nero shows brilliantly how this deliberate theatricality extended beyond the stage into Nero's performance of the role of Emperor. Consider the stage-managed reception of the Armenian King Tiridates, compelled by Roman arms and diplomacy to receive his crown again from Nero. The ceremony took place on the spot in Armenia before a statue of Nero. (Nero himself visited no provinces except Greece and never saw a Roman army in his life.) Then Tiridates came to Rome, in a great procession, riding with his Queen through the Roman provinces of Asia, crossing the Bosporus and following the Via Egnatia through the northern Balkans to descend into Italy and meet Nero at Naples. The Neapolitan ceremony done, both went on to Rome. Tiridates received his crown again in the Forum before cheering crowds; then on to the Theatre of Pompey, gilded by Nero for the occasion. This last performance of the tour took place under a canopy depicting Nero as the charioteer of the sun god. The crowds screamed their approval.

More controversial were Nero's performances in tragic costume. The roles he sought out were all too relevant to his own life: Orestes and Alcmaeon, matricides of myth; Oedipus, who slept with his mother. And no less controversial, his sex life. All Emperors were accused of sexual transgressions, if only adulteries and passions for low-born women. But Nero had been dressed as a bridesmaid and celebrated in public a marriage to a hunky freedman, and he went on to travel around accompanied by a boy who resembled his murdered wife, a boy whom he had had castrated and compelled to live in drag.

Many Romans were horrified, especially the well-born and well-educated, those whom the moral order of Rome placed in the first rank. Many, as Champlin shows, privately shared some of Nero's histrionic and sexual tastes. But few dared to indulge them publicly, except when the Emperor's example gave them licence. Nero's reign brought no lasting liberation: it was just a Roman summer of love. The tragedy of Nero concluded in his clumsy suicide at the age of thirty; on the run from his own soldiers, the Senate, guard and the provincial armies all turned against him. It took a vicious civil war to find a new Emperor for Rome; then the work of un-Neroing Rome began in earnest. The new style was restrained and sober, with lots of Italian peasant virtue, and nothing too flashy. The mass of the Flavian Amphitheatre — our Colosseum — rose where Nero's palace had had its great ornamental lake, a monument to military victory and to less highbrow tastes in entertainment.

Nero is an excellent read, an atmospheric retelling of the wonders and horrors of its fascinating subject. Champlin piles up contexts and material to fill out the shorter accounts offered by ancient authors in an attempt to find meaning in Nero's extraordinary actions. He draws on a mass of recent studies, of rituals like the Triumph and the Festival of Saturn, of the arena and the stage, most of all of the topography of the city of Rome, and the uses of Greek myth. Just as the Colosseum concealed beneath it a labyrinth of passages and cells, lifts and ramps, storerooms and concealed traps through which beasts, prisoners, gladiators and stagehands were deployed to engineer the pageants above, so Champlin conceals his scholarship in the endnotes. Exploring this underworld is a very different experience from watching the spectacles in the arena above. We are not exactly treated to darkness and cries of pain, to the stench and baying of caged animals and humans, to a world of shadows and fear. But some scholars will wince at Champlin's judgements on the quality of their translations, or at his sharp criticisms: "... an exceptionally imaginative scholar whose work was more often stimulating than convincing" or (targeting a particular article) "a rather haphazard selection of evidence". On two occasions he takes pains to note that a recently published idea had been anticipated by him or discovered independently. None of this detracts from the show above.

Champlin's spectacle is founded solidly on the great encyclopedic endeavours of past and present classical scholars, on the arcane skills of Quellenforschung and prosopography, and on a wide reading in more than a century of Neroniana. For Nero has fascinated many. The weight of words is oppressive, and fine biographies have been written already. The archaeological investigation of Neronian Rome has made some rapid progress in recent years, but no account of Nero could rest on it alone. So spectators waiting for the show to begin are entitled to ask, What's new? What news of Nero?

Nero has no introduction, but the blurb promises us "a brilliant reconception of a historical account that extends back to Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio" and invites readers to be engaged by its "effortless style and artful construction". It is difficult to believe the style took no effort. It is vivid and exciting. Nero's world appears in a series of brilliant tableaux and the central character entrances as he horrifies. But the construction of the book is certainly full of art. Indeed it ends with a sort of delayed introduction in the guise of an epilogue: "this is what the book was all about, dear reader, did you guess? were you right?". Here too are to be found the traditional apotropaic formulae employed to ward off demons and reviewers, the confession of what the book does not contain, the complimentary directions to books that include a chronologically ordered account of the reign, a full narrative with full bibliography, and so on. For Champlin offers instead a set of meditations on themes. One chapter ponders Nero's identification with the god Apollo, binding together music and chariot racing, the cult of the Sun, the colossal statue designed for the Golden House, coin images showing the Sun's rays coming from behind Nero's head, Christian women dressed as Danaids, and much else. Another chapter takes Triumph as its theme, making connections between military imagery, Tiridates' submission and Nero's return from Greece as victor in all the games of the traditional circuit. This presentational technique offers opportunities for intuitive leaps. Inevitably, some convince more than others. The chapter on myth makes sense of what seem at first sight suicidal efforts by Nero to advertise his matricide. Orestes never denied his matricide, and suffered for it, but it was justified and at last redeemed by divine command. The attempt to convict Nero of having started the Great Fire did not persuade me; but this is an old controversy that will never be settled.

Exploring Nero theme by theme has its costs. Some anecdotes and quotations appear several times. Equally, some incidents that fall between themes do not figure. One recent discovery not discussed by Champlin is a great inscription from the port of Ephesus in modern Turkey detailing all the tariffs that might be legally charged on imports and exports. It is fascinating for all sorts of reasons, but especially for a connection with Tacitus' story that Nero proposed abolishing all indirect taxes, but was prevented from doing so by the Senate. Instead, it seems, a survey was made, listing legal taxes for the protection of merchants. Some have seen Nero's gesture as a populist stunt, a proposal designed only to show how the Senators were illegally implicated in tax-farming. But others find in it support for a rather more favourable story of Nero, that of the youth who sincerely meant to rule well but was frustrated by others, by disappointment at the failure of his first efforts, or by his own weaknesses.

Finally, the thematic approach obscures chronological relationships, and impedes narrative. Champlin complains at one point of the complications caused by Nero's biographer Suetonius' "unchronological perspective". Yet his own method is Suetonian. Tacitus, by contrast, offered a gripping narrative of the collapse of Nero and the first Imperial dynasty. It is shaped, in fact, like a fugue, each variation marking another turn on the path to ruin. A series of forced suicides, unremarkable to begin with, progress through Seneca's Socratic death, through the cultivated frivolity with which Petronius — once Nero's "arbiter elegantiae" — ends his life, moving on to the (now lost) account of Nero's climactic self-destruction. Barthes called it "funerary baroque". It is exciting, compelling literature.

Literature is what is lost when historians of antiquity set about their traditional labours of cutting and pasting from rival accounts, splicing narratives, reconciling what is not absolutely contradictory and, as a last resort, choosing between alternatives in their search for the truth. "The line between truth and slander is neither clear nor particularly important", proclaims Champlin, modishly. But he does not believe it. In a footnote he castigates a recent collection on Nero for having "little interest in historical reality". Edward Champlin wants to get to the real Nero, to find out who really did burn Rome, to work out what all these quasi-triumphs really meant. To do this he must butcher, cut and paste with the best of them. But, unlike Nero, he keeps his efforts offstage.

Greg Woolf is Professor of Ancient History at St. Andrews and an Honorary Research Fellow of the British School at Rome. He is the editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World.

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