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Visual arts: Nero: The Man Behind the Myth at the British Museum

24 September 2021

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Nero exhibition at the British Museum

Musei Capitolini, Sala Imperatori, Rome

Head of Nero, AD 50-100 (with later restorations), marble. More images in the gallery

Head of Nero, AD 50-100 (with later restorations), marble. More images in the gallery

NERO (ruled AD 54-68), the fifth and last of the Julio-Claudian emperors to rule the expanding empire that stretched from Wales to Parthia, has not always had a good press. To have a villainous character in Danger Mouse (1981-92) named after him, he must have fought off many other contenders.

Tacitus (c.56-120), Suetonius (c.69-122), and later Dio Cassius (155-235) all put the knife in, but none of them was contemporary with the events that they purported to describe, although their writings occasioned a damnatio memoriae; we now recognise that Tacitus, who was a schoolboy when Nero died (9 June 68), was writing within certain literary conventions.

Nero’s notoriety was later compounded by the moralising Christian historian Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339), and then by the successful English MP Edward Gibbon (1737-94), in 1781.

Seneca from Cordoba, on the other hand, had composed his witty and scandalous satire, Apocalocyntosis (divi) Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the So-called Divine Claudius) in 54, immediately after the death of Nero’s predecessor. The oldest known manuscript of this text, thought to come from the German monastery at Fulda and to date to AD 800-900, is open at the page where, after vilifying Claudius in death, the Spaniard wished the 16-year-old heir a long and happy reign.

He hailed him as divinely chosen by Apollo, a salutation that might prove the truth of the claim that the gods move in mysterious ways, given Nero’s own tortuous route to the imperial throne and Seneca’s own suicide (AD 65) when relations between the Stoic philosopher and princeps had become somewhat strained.

And yet it was to this apparently tyrannical and maniacal emperor that St Paul entrusted himself to be judged when Festus offered him the choice of standing trial in Jerusalem (Acts 25). Preferring the irascibility of a megalomaniac to the court of public opinion in Jerusalem (even before he could have known of any planned ambush awaiting him), he may have had good reason to see the emperor as being a voice of both reason and integrity.

Perhaps he hoped to meet the august Caesar who is depicted in military uniform, sitting in judgement, his right hand outreached benevolently, in a small bronze no more than 11cm high, which comes from Oderzo in Italy.

As this exhibition makes profoundly clear, the jury may still be out over Nero’s inheritance and his heritage.

One by one, all those things that we thought we knew — that he murdered his mother, killed off his first wife, castrated a favourite teenage boy Sporus to marry him, and ended up dressing as the bride at a public marriage with Pythagoras, his wine steward — may all be the stuff of legend.

A provincial relief (photograph only) from the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias, the water-logged Hellenistic city in western Turkey, shows Agrippina crowning her 17-year-old son, and early coinage depicts the two together; but, by 56 or 57, she had been eclipsed. Five years into his reign, when he was victor over Armenia (commemorated by a fascinating fragment from the triumphal arch erected in his honour in Rome), Nero was strong enough to rule on his own.

Agrippina, very present here in an imposing statue carved from basanite, was invited out of Rome for what was billed as a conciliatory supper on the coast at Baiae with her estranged son. After a sumptuous banquet she was found dead. It is likely that soon afterwards Paul appealed to Caesar and set sail for Rome.

By the time he arrived (some suggest in spring 61), Nero had rather more on his mind than a troublesome rabbinic teacher or his followers, which could explain why Paul’s preaching in Rome went unhindered for a couple of years. Boudicca and the Iceni tribes had sacked Colchester, St Albans, and London.

Three of the 450 wooden writing tablets preserved from that sacking and found on a three-acre site opposite Cannon Street Station are on display, witnessing to life in London under Nero. Their presence reminded me to make a point to go upstairs to see the Vindolanda tablets in Room 70 which include the later letters from Flavius Cerialis, commander of the Ninth Legion, stationed at Chesterholm. But those date from forty years later (95-105); some of the Bloomberg tablets predate Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

Later, Nero provided generously for the victims of the July 64 fire that engulfed Rome in his absence, and in 68 he travelled to Greece, to take part in the Olympic Games, as well as those held at Patras, Lerna, Argos, Isthmia, Delphi, and Nicopolis, and begin excavation for a canal at Corinth in the same year.

Nero enjoyed popularity with his people, preferring chariot-racing, music, and plays to the company of elites; when the Senate declared him an enemy of the people, he arranged to end his own life. He was just 30; people continued to visit his tomb for decades, and several impostors claiming to be him in the East drew the crowds.

For what seems to be an extremely popular exhibition, there is now the standard coffee-table catalogue, the weight of scholarship often outweighing the later interest of the purchaser. The excellently illustrated booklet of highlights comes at a very reasonable price as a desirable alternative.

“Nero: The Man Behind the Myth” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 24 October. Phone 020 7323 8000. Visitors are advised to book a timed ticket in advance. www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions

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