Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.09.09

Jas Elsner and Jamie Masters (edd.), Reflections of Nero: culture, history, & representation. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Pp. viii + 239. $42.50. ISBN 0-8078-2143-8.

Reviewed by Christina S. Kraus, University College London.

Until recently I lived in a New York City building, one of whose doormen was a former Olympic wrestler who had played the gladiator Croton in Quo Vadis. When two years ago I spent a year in Durham, where Peter Ustinov had just been installed as chancellor, I suspected the existence of a theme. And indeed, now comes the chance to review this new collection of essays, the cover of whose British edition features a still from Sign of the Cross, a fetching Charles Laughton in full decadence, leaning enticingly toward the reader.1 Inside are a baker's dozen of articles by young scholars, investigating from many angles the proposition that the picture of Nero-the-monster that has been transmitted in our sources -- the man who, in Mervyn Leroy's words, was 'a guy plays with himself nights'2 -- is 'impossibly crude' (1). Instead, the contributors suggest a scenario (one in fact familiar from the BBC version of 'I, Claudius') in which the imperial court factions control an essentially powerless princeps who is allowed to follow his desires only if they further the wishes of his keepers. Add to this a popular, theatrically-inclined emperor who could really sing and dance, and a group of historians and poets who produced competing and exaggerated representations of that emperor, and one could end up with the familiar Neronian myth: 'Nero's populist policy was, it appears, remarkably successful (and his positive reputation survived for a surprisingly long time in popular tradition); but in the end he had been too imaginative for his own good. Perhaps the very vehemence with which he was condemned at the end of his reign is an indication of just how nearly he succeeded in portraying himself as the glorious culmination of the Julio-Claudian dynasty -- cultured, generous and magnificent -- against all attempts to represent him as an incompetent egomaniac with a taste for arson and matricide. They had tried to control him; they had nearly failed; and their revenge was crushing' (4-5).

This reexamination of 'the problem of believing the image of Nero' falls into three parts: 'The representation of Nero,' in which three contributors interrogate the cinematic, historiographical, and biographical traditions; 'Tropes of history,' four papers on Nero's self-presentation; and 'Tropes of literature,' six investigations of Neronian literary production and its relationship to both contemporary and modern images of the artistic tyrant. Ancient citations are translated throughout; each paper has its own bibliography, and there is a collective index. The individual articles vary, of course, in quality as well as in approach. Yet, while there are few cross references among the papers, the positions argued show a remarkable coherence and a convincing result: not a rehabilitation of Nero, but a certainty that his traditional image rests on extremely tenuous and in many cases untenable assumptions.

In 'Make like Nero! The appeal of a cinematic emperor' Maria Wyke discusses the 19th-century novel Quo Vadis? and the films of the book, the best known of which are DeMille's Sign of the Cross and Leroy's Quo Vadis, but also including several pre-WWII Italian versions. She argues that each country reinterpreted the story of Nero and the persecution of Christians in the arena to suit its own political and nationalistic myth (sometimes paradoxically, as DeMille, e.g., appropriated the beneficent Nero to epitomize Hollywood's generosity).3 While there are some interesting points in the essay, however, to me it reads as if it were constructed largely from previous studies of film and of the classical tradition. The second piece, Joan-Pau Rubiés on 'Nero in Tacitus and Nero in Tacitism: the historian's craft,' is also disappointing. Its two aims, to show how the Renaissance used Tacitus as fuel for pro- and anti-despotic arguments (=Tacitism), and to demonstrate that Tacitus' Nero was a 'literary figure,' an 'anti-Agricola' (38), do not come together very well. The conclusion that Tacitus is rhetorical and that we must be aware that we read him through the film both of his own manipulations and of the centuries of intervening interpretation, is true, but does not take us very far (Syme, whom Rubiés cites at the beginning as a defender of Tacitus' reliability (19), is an easy target in such matters).4 I would have been happier to see much of the second section replaced with more on the 'many possibilities for active engagement with Tacitus' rhetoric' in the later tradition (36) -- and it is a pity that Rubiés could not take advantage of T.J. Luce and A.J. Woodman, Tacitus and the Tacitean tradition (Princeton 1993). Last in this section, Tamsyn Barton on 'The inventio of Nero: Suetonius' brings a welcome clarity to a discussion of the traditional image of Suetonius-as-sieve, which she argues is based on a misreading of Suetonius' deceptively disengaged authorial persona. She shows how Suetonius' description of Nero's character reverses traditional categories of encomium (a nice parallel, which she does not mention, are the popular top-to-toe ugliness catalogues, most famously in Shakespeare's 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'); I found especially enlightening the section adducing comparanda from contemporary physiognomical treatises (56-7).5 Her demonstration of Suetonius' place in the tradition of 'plausible and well-constructed invective' (58) does not claim that the biographer was an outright liar, but posts a large, well-lighted, and much-needed sign: caveat lector.

'Tropes of history' turns from readings of Nero to the historical record more narrowly conceived. In the clever and well-argued 'The tyrant at table,' Justin Goddard contends that Nero's extravagance had a designedly popular basis. The emperor's feasting and related activities, especially his inclusion of and even imitation of the lower classes, demonstrated the imperial virtue comitas; where Nero failed was in neglecting (and often endangering) the elite -- who were, of course, to write his story. Next, Catharine Edwards investigates the combined glamor and shamefulness of actors in Rome.6 Following Dupont, she connects the deep suspicion aroused by actors to the 'vital performative force' of speech in Roman law and public life (84-5): the words of actors, being not their own and yet capable of moving an audience, were dangerous and threatening to the authoritative voice of the state. Nero-the-actor presented an impossible, subversive challenge to Nero-the-emperor. 'Beware of imitations: theatre and the subversion of imperial identity' closes with a look at acting and the theater as metaphors deployed not only by Nero but also by his hostile chroniclers, who represented his rule as the triumph of illusion and dissembling (92-3). Edwards's able and thought-provoking look at the acteur-roi is followed by Susan E. Alcock, 'Nero at play? The emperor's Grecian odyssey,' which rereads the most notorious acts of Nero's tour: his involvement in the games, his removal of statues from sanctuaries, his failed Corinthian canal, and his liberation of Greece. Alcock invites us to see these as the acts of a ruler trying to foster contemporary Greek culture: not the dead Greece of Athens and Sparta, but the living Greece, as most clearly centered in the colony of Corinth, 'a unifying, pro-Roman force in provincial life' (105). By participating in the games Nero gave personal imperial approval to a long-standing Greek cultural heritage as well as establishing his own authority (105; a useful comparandum might be the Athenian self-boosting in the tragic festivals of the mid-fifth century); in 'transferring' cult-images to Rome he may have intended to share them, rather than to appropriate them as part of 'a game of domination and symbolic control' (101; this argument is the least persuasive, and badly needs a parallel); the Corinthian canal, as well as reflecting a time-honored method of demonstrating imperial power by dividing the world up in a new way,7 would have immeasurably benefited the Greek economy (102); while the liberation of the Greeks would have brought Nero real political advantage through increased popularity, and may have been part of larger trends toward 'deprovincialisation' in the East (103). All of this, of course, was rewritten by those who cast Nero as a flamboyant madman. Next comes what is to my mind the best paper in the collection so far, Jas Elsner on 'Constructing decadence: the representation of Nero as imperial builder.' Like Goddard and Alcock, Elsner argues that Nero was a purposely popular emperor whose innovative and extravagant building programme comprised the three types of buildings -- monuments honoring the imperial family, public buildings (including temples), and luxurious palaces (which still maintained some public function) -- celebrated in the laudatory accounts of Augustus' rebuilding of the city and perpetuated by the other Julio-Claudians. After Nero's fall, his architectural programme, which like other imperial building 'encapsulated both the self-presentation of emperors by contrast with their predecessors and a public definition of their relationship with the populace' (123), was countered by the prudent and conservative Vespasian, and almost immediately we find in Pliny, 'a highly mythologised and polemical version of Nero, in which his activities, his buildings, and the nature of his principate become mapped ... onto a negative ideal of how not to be an emperor' (118). If Nero had not fallen, even the Domus aurea would have been the subject of praise; as it is, by transgressing the 'natural' boundaries of Roman topography, and especially as a rural villa in the center of Rome which brought the country into the city (121-2), it came to epitomize unnatural Neronian vice.

The third and longest section considers Neronian literature. Emily Gowers, in 'Persius and the decoction of Nero,' traces the thematics of 'boiling down' (as most famously represented in the decocta Neronis, Nero's experimental yuppie water) through the sunlit glare of Neronian literature, the 'galloping consumption of the genres of Augustan poetry' by writers fated to die young, burned out, victims of the emperor's own 'feverish haste' (131-2). She begins with Nero himself and the images of haste, vegetable growth, and extremes of temperature found in accounts of his reign; reading Nero via Detienne's work on the gardens of Adonis and the Roman 'moralisation of luxury,' she focuses on the contrast between precocity and early withering, praecox and decoctus, in the emperor's life, loves, and murders. She then moves to Persius and his two voices: 'one ... preaches salvation; the other is irredeemable but can see his inevitable end. The uncooked youth bubbling and spitting in bed is always looking ahead to the final stage of putrefaction' (143). Gowers's style, in this piece itself hinting at a lush fullness, fortunately does not burn out like its subject: I was sorry to see this essay end. Less satisfactory, though with flashes of brilliance, is Jamie Masters on 'Deceiving the reader: the political mission of Lucan Bellum Civile 7.' Masters's 1992 book, Poetry and Civil war in Lucan's 'Bellum Civile', unambiguously established Lucan as a doctus poeta and Masters as a consummate reader of his difficult epic. In this paper he returns to Lucan (though with less flair, I thought), and specifically to the poet's political bias. After establishing the critical context for the discussion, Masters shows, via a careful reading of the notorious death of Domitius at 7.205-13, that Lucan is (surprise!) playing games-through-exaggeration. We cannot believe the pro-Pompeian reading of this scene: its very sincerity deconstructs itself. Masters concludes by arguing that 'Lucan's poem is a reductio ad absurdum of politically committed writing (as it is, indeed, of every other feature of Vergilian epic)' (168). As such, this 'insanely provocative project' makes sense only if Nero was tolerant of such libertas (171), and indeed wanted to advertise that 'persecution of literary figures was a thing of the past'; after Lucan's political fall, his artistic project would naturally have been (re/mis)read as propaganda against the emperor. While I am sympathetic to the idea of misreading, I am less so to the idea that Lucan designed his epic to be misread in a very subtle and complex way (169): to put it simply, as a sophisticated joke (168, 171). Take too much of the terrible passion out of Lucan -- and there is passion there, however ironized and however unsure as to which side is/was right (can either side ever be right in a civil war?) -- and the poem collapses back into the 'mere rhetoric' which sanitized it for so long and from which it has only recently been rescued by Ahl, Johnson, Henderson, and Masters himself.

The next three papers deal with [Seneca] and Seneca. Gareth Williams, in a smart, close reading of the Octavia, shows that the Nero it represents is the incarnation of negative Stoic virtues, as his rule is the embodiment of the Iron Age. Particularly illuminating is the section on Nero in love, where Williams argues that the emperor takes on the attributes of Amor -- right down to his fire, which Nero/Cupid wields in his vengeance on the popular resistance to his authority (189). The end of the play, in which Nero emerges unscathed and Rome remains in the Iron Age, problematizes the whole Stoic ideal (191). 'Nero, Seneca and Stoicism in the Octavia' ends by supporting the consensus that this fabula praetexta is post-Neronian, and that it therefore affords us an early example of the creation of the Nero monster after his death. In 'Seneca's Thyestes and the morality of tragic furor,' probably the most difficult and theoretically sophisticated piece in the volume, Alessandro Schiesaro explores the metatheatrical elements of the play's prologue. In this compelling reading Schiesaro shows that from the very beginning Seneca constructs an opposition between repression and its removal, encoded in the dialogic form of the prologue and explicit in the struggle between Thyestes, who would silence the scelus and the nefas of his house and the Fury, who would give them voice -- make them, literally, fas. This opposition repeats throughout the play, which 'hinges on the antithesis of two series of characters who are functionally similar: on the one hand the Fury, Atreus and Tantalus, on the other Tantalus' shadow, the satelles, Thyestes' (206-7). The poet and the audience are deeply implicated in the desire for violence and sin, without which there is no poetry: 'The audience is made to realise that the aesthetic pleasure afforded by the play is coextensive with that [tragic] nefas' (203). Also interested in the opposition of fundamentals, and in the tendency of a text to contain its own unraveling, is Yun Lee Too, who writes on 'Educating Nero: a reading of Seneca's Moral Epistles.' She reads the philosopher as a retiree from the world and from politics who yet manages, by consistently privileging the word over the thing -- the res, including the res publica -- to take the world with him. Though her arguments are at times too fast, even slippery, to my mind, it is long past time that these letters were read between the lines; Too is particularly good on Seneca's metaphors, and on the problems that the concept of translatio poses for a philosophy that on the surface advocates stability.8

The collection closes with 'Famous last words: authorship and death in the Satyricon and Neronian Rome,' an interesting (if in places overly tentative) examination of what Catherine Connors calls 'a Roman discourse of authorship and death' (227). She moves from epitaphs through 'a text [that is] produced or re-enacted in the final moments of life' (228, e.g., Seneca's reenactment of Socrates' death) to similar enactments of parodic texts (e.g., the Tacitean deaths of Lucan and Petronius) and to less-easily classified deaths of creators who perish with their art: e.g., Petronius' Eumolpus, who writes his Bellum civile during a shipwreck that nearly drowns him, or the end of Nero himself, who 'marks the close of the artfully manipulated narrative that is his life with a remark that calls attention to his status as a monument builder' -- which, she notes, playfully echoes closural gestures like Horace's exegi monumentum (230). In conclusion, she suggests that Eumolpus/Petronious consciously echoes the end of Lucan's Bellum civile in such a way as to remind us that the emperor prevented that epic poem from being finished. Whether or not that echo was intended as a criticism of Nero she leaves open: 'Perhaps such openness to competing interpretations is just what we should expect from a text produced in the latter part of Nero's reign' (232).

Despite occasional unevenness and a slow start, this is in general an admirable collection. It is designed to be provocative and some readers may find it overly so, though its contributors work entirely within traditional academic discourse. Aside from individual arguments, however, the volume is important from a methodological standpoint. Scholars increasingly emphasize the theoretical point that the historical and literary record of any period can -- and should -- be read in many different ways. Reflections of Nero shows how it can be done, and should open fruitful debate on the last of the Julian dynasty.


  • [1] The American publishers have inexplicably replaced the picture with an unattractive arrangement of reflected and shadowy letters, leading one to wonder exactly where our priorities are.
  • [2] I thank David Levene for showing me Peter Ustinov's memoir, Dear me; the section on the making of Quo Vadis is in chapter 14.
  • [3] Though I question her bald assertion (19) that 'the eagle signifies an oppression and moral decadence which is quintessentially foreign' to America -- there are eagles and there are eagles, after all.
  • [4] In general, I found the piece fuzzy and hard to follow, and at times self-contradictory: e.g., p.39 claims that Tacitus' Seneca is spared the 'direct criticism of double-standards hinted at by Suetonius and Dio Cassius,' but the top of p.40, on Seneca's letter justifying Agrippina's murder, seems to belie this statement. The proofreading does not help (punctuation in the notes is inconsistent; parenthetical dates on p.32 and in fn. 14 are unexplained; the titles of Connors's and of Barton's papers in this volume (nn.66, 70) seem to be from earlier versions), and important classical bibliography is ignored, e.g., J. Ginsburg, Tradition and theme in the annals of Tacitus (Salem, N.H. 1984) on the conflict between annalistic and imperial style (p.37); A.J. Pomeroy, The appropriate comment (Frankfurt am Main 1991) on the style of deaths in Tacitus (p.40); anything on Tacitus' life under Domitian, which 'seems [!] to have coloured his assessment of imperial power in earlier times' (n.49).
  • [5] N. 17 cites Syme (1980), which is not in the bibliography; on the topos of impious tyrants, T.P. Wiseman in Clio's cosmetics (Leicester 1979) would have been illustrative, and I do not think that the quotation from 'Hermogenes' (53) supports purely conventional accusations of temple-robbing, though it does allow for its development in conventional terms 'once agreed that so-and-so is a temple robber' (italics mine); it is scarcely true that Pliny's Panegyricus is 'the sole survivor of what must have been a constant outpouring of encomia of the living emperor' (50; sole of its period, perhaps). Barton's argument bears comparison in large with K. Sacks's similar study, Diodorus Siculus and the first century (Princeton 1990).
  • [6] Those interested in the subject will also want to see C.A. Barton, The sorrows of the ancient Romans (Princeton 1993), which must have appeared too late to be included in Edwards's bibliography.
  • [7] One could compare the water-manipulation of world-builders throughout ancient literature, from Herodotus to Lucan, not just Xerxes' canal -- an inescapable model for Nero's.
  • [8] Her assigning the Ad Herennium to the early first century AD (p.220) must be a slip (the latest dating of which I am aware, by A.E. Douglas, CQ 10 [1960], is late Republican); I am not sure what Seneca's 'failure to fulfill his own language' (218) means, and something has gone wrong with the sentence beginning 'Such an individual' on p.221; Frede 1980 (n.7) is not in the bibliography, while J.E.G. Zetzel on emendatio (CP 75 (1980)) might have been (n.20); Parker's Literary fat fadies, though in the bibliography, is not cited in the notes.