Nero at the British Museum: a Rome that smelled of Game Of Thrones
If you could go back in time, would you kill a young Hitler? One of those moral puzzles that pop up in science fiction movies and at dinner parties. And it crosses my mind at the British Museum, studying a cherub statue of a boy who would become Nero – a man who executed his mother and wife, and – they say – saw his own city set on fire. .
Other artfully carved statues in the exhibit and busts line Nero’s family tree, and it quickly becomes apparent that none of them were pure as dragged snow; everyone seemed scheming, with betrayal and assassination, something every emperor was rightly nervous about.
If this all sounds very Game of Thrones so far, then meet Cersei Lannister of ancient Rome – Agrippina, mother of Nero.
When Nero became emperor at the age of 16, it was his mother who pulled the strings. She had done a lot of maneuvering to earn him the title, and relished the power and benefits that come with having an emperor as a son.
The plays of the first reign of Nero give Agrippina more importance to her image than to her own. But as Nero grew into his role, he gained more control, and later coins giving them equal billing. After a paranoid Nero killed his mother – in a self-sinking boat no less – she disappeared from the mint altogether.
Nero’s problems weren’t just domestic. He had to make war on the Parthians and counter the rebellion of Boudica in Great Britain; The man behind the myth shows human remains from the battles, as well as a bronze head of Nero found in Suffolk. Likely torn from a statue when a Roman colony was sacked by Boudica’s army, it is a tangible artifact of hatred towards Nero and his empire.
Nero preferred war games to war; he loved to watch gladiatorial fights and chariot races. While his extravagant spending on the sport may have endeared him to the public, it earned him the wrath of senators. Soon the only thing keeping Nero safe was his elite Praetorian Guard. We find six of these beautifully carved soldiers on a relief panel at the origin of the Claudius Arch. The simple detail here means that ancient Romans like this live all these centuries later. It’s a highlight of the show.
During Nero’s reign, a great fire ravaged Rome and rumors abounded that the Emperor was the fire-starter who then stood with his arms folded, hence “playing while Rome burned”. In fact, Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time. He, however, blamed a new Jewish sect for the fire, a sect that would later become known as Christians, and had them burned alive in what Nero considered fitting fate.
Eventually, scheming senators would gain the upper hand over Nero, and he was forced to commit suicide once he was declared an enemy of the state. Those who came after were quick to sully his name, even though many citizens still held him in high regard, and his fall created a chaotic power vacuum that led to more unrest.
Like a well-rounded GoT character, Nero was complex. He was cruel but sometimes generous; loved and hated; a tyrant, but arguably no worse than the elites around him.
This sizable exhibition is not a judgment call on Nero; it simply immerses us with beautiful objects and fascinating glimpses, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the man behind the myth.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth is in the British Museum from May 27 to October 24. Tickets cost £ 20 for adults.