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
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
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.