Has the violinist been supervised? How Nero could have been a good guy after all | Culture
NOTero has a grim reputation. “The main thing we know about him is his infamy,” says Thorsten Opper, curator of Britain’s first exhibition dedicated to the Roman Emperor. “The glutton, the debauchery, the matricide, the megalomaniac. Also, the arsonist: notoriously, Nero “played while Rome burned”, or at least scratched his kithara on one of his own compositions, The Fall of Troy, while a fire, supposedly started by him, took hold. destroyed three of Rome’s 14 neighborhoods and seriously damaged seven.
Its beyond on the page and the screen is certainly striking. Nero inspired some of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque operas, including Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina, which trace the emperor’s adulterous love for Poppea, who became his second wife. In the epic 1951 film Quo Vadis, Peter Ustinov played Nero as totally unbalanced: a toddler chopped up and wrapped in purple in a man’s body. Christopher Biggins took him in I, Claudius, the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel, and made him power-hungry, baby-faced and enough, pretty crazy.
The main old sources on Nero are without compromise. Historian Tacitus offers a vivid picture of a ruler devoured by cruelty and paranoia during his 14-year reign, which ended after an armed rebellion precipitated his suicide, at just 31 years old. This portrait includes the story of her extraordinarily elaborate plot to assassinate her powerful mother, Agrippina, using a cunning boat designed to collapse into the sea and drown her (the Empress Dowager swam to shore, but was then dispatched by the sword). It also includes, let alone up to date, the information that the Emperor killed his wife Poppea by kicking her in the stomach during pregnancy. Nero Suetonius’s biographer, meanwhile, tells us that – aside from his shameful habit of singing and performing on the public stage – the emperor enjoyed having fun by going out into the streets after dinner in disguise, attacking and stabbing. people and then throwing their corpses down the drain.
But the thrust of the British Museum’s exhibit, which opens this week, is that this story of excess and degeneration is, essentially, propaganda. “Sources should be viewed as texts that have a clear agenda,” says Opper, curator of Greek and Roman sculpture at the museum. The “elite senatorial writers” who formed this negative image, he argues, could not come to terms with the demise of the republic and the establishment of a one-person populist regime.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth tries to hint at another deleted version of the Emperor – one that survives only in fragments of pro-Nero graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii, aside from major ancient texts, and in objects and sculptures. who managed to escape the Roman habit of destroying images of a discredited ruler (known as the damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory).
The reputation for “sex, violence and gluttony” that swirls around Nero was, according to Opper, carefully constructed through the lavish invocation of unfounded conspiracy theories and the deliberate use of the rhetorical tropes of Nero. vituperatio. These techniques of undermining opponents – unhindered by modern legal restrictions on libel or slander – have often focused on the target’s supposed sexual incontinence and financial debauchery. The British Museum exhibit, he says, “is not about Nero’s rehabilitation – it’s about critically reading the sources and removing the accretions.”
Once you’ve brushed aside the anecdotes and gossip, he says, there is a rich and intriguing political image to be discerned – that of a traditional ruling class threatened by the wealth of an insurgent group of provincials; political pressure increases as “worry over money blurs class divisions”; and an emperor who tries to consolidate a fragile power base by attracting his popularity with plebeians, or ordinary people of Rome, while also facing pressures on the eastern and western fringes of the empire, in what is now l ‘Armenia and Great Britain.
The exhibition begins with a powerful metaphor for the shading of the “real” Nero in the Nero of Myth. A bust normally housed in the Capitoline Museums, Rome, showing Nero with a sullen and malicious countenance: a cruel curve to the mouth and an oversized chin that make him look rather rogue. This is the skillfully and pleasantly inhabited Nero Ustinov in Quo Vadis. Yet, says Opper, the sculpture was fragmentary: only the area above the right eye and left cheek is original. It was heavily restored in the 17th century by a Baroque artist who gave Nero that crazy chin and depraved mouth – one who had read his Suetonius, or at least had a firm idea of the “wicked” character transmitted by Roman historians.
Few of Nero’s complete original sculptures survive. But one or two remain: a striking statue of an angelic-looking 12 or 13-year-old boy, on loan from the Louvre, presents a very different picture. It is a portrait of a young boy “making his debut in the imperial family,” according to Opper. The sculpture may have been part of a dynastic group: officially adopted by his predecessor and stepfather, Claudius, this boy was prepared early for power to ensure a smooth transition. This was, in fact, achieved, Opper says, pooping the idea that Nero’s mother, Agrippina, killed Claudius – poisoning him, as ancient sources point out, with mushrooms.
For Opper, the real brutality of Nero’s reign is not contained in the Emperor’s personal acts of violence, whether real or imagined, but in the cruelty and exploitation of the Roman imperial system. A section of the show is devoted to Britain – at the time a young and unstable addition to the Roman Empire, with the southern and eastern part of the island having been invaded and conquered by Claudius in AD 43. Nero’s reign, however, saw one of the most famous incidents in British Roman history: the uprising of the former Roman ally Boudicca, queen of the Iceni people in what is now East Anglia.
Ancient sources allude to corruption, greed and tax farming (auctioning the right to collect taxes) by recent imperial rulers. Thus provoked, the revolt of Boudicca was bloody, as described by the historian Tacitus, and as observed in the archaeological records. The exhibit includes a recent find: a treasure trove of coins and jewelry unearthed under a Fenwick branch in Colchester, then the capital of the province of Britannia. They appear to have been buried, possibly by the terrified and fleeing Roman inhabitants, whom most of Boudicca’s forces slaughtered. The treasure was found under the layer of burnt material which is the physical trace of Boudicca’s rampage through the city. The recent discovery of a kneecap that a sword severed and a jaw pierced by a blade is also on display.
Perhaps most frightening of all, however, is the evidence of the Roman chain gangs, unearthed on Anglesey: metal chains believed to have held five slaves, or prisoners, or prisoners of war, a reminder that the Roman Empire ran on muscle power from the slave. Anglesey was the scene of fighting between the Romans and – according to Tacitus – a force of Britons which included “black-robed women with disheveled hair like Furies” and Druids “shouting terrible curses”.
It was the advance of General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus towards Anglesey that gave Boudicca his chance to strike when the bulk of the Roman forces were occupied in the west. She almost got rid of the Romans completely. There is a bronze Roman head in the collection of the British Museum, included in the exhibit, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. Opper believes it could represent Nero. Theories have been put forward that it was Iceni spoils of war, ritually deposited in the river after being snatched from Colchester or another Roman center.
What about the story that Nero was responsible for the fire that devastated Rome in AD 64? Surely that – the most famous thing about Nero – has to be true? Opper shakes his head. Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time, he says, and the city – with its poorly constructed and overcrowded housing – “was due to a fire.” He maintains that the story of Nero playing as Rome burned is kind of a slip, solidifying a rumor based on the fact that he actually wrote a poem about the fall of Troy, which included scenes from a city on fire. Instead, he points out, even ancient sources concede that Nero made sure the homeless were housed and that the reconstruction was much safer and more regulated – albeit with his own giant palace, the Domus Aurea, spreading magnificently over the Oppian. , The Caelian and Esquiline hills like a sort of downtown Versailles.
The pleasantly monstrous Nero therefore seems to disappear under the critical gaze of Upper. So who was he? The “real Nero”, he maintains, is no longer recoverable, as the propaganda of his opponents was effective. The exhibition ends as it begins, with another powerful image of the emperor’s erasure. After Nero’s death, a brutal civil war broke out. One after another, four powerful generals attempted to seize power. The one who ultimately succeeded was Vespasian, who had led the Second Legion in southwest England and Wales. He founded the second dynasty of Roman emperors, the Flavians. This final object is a stone head of Vespasian, recycled and recut from a sculpture of Nero.