Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.18


David Shotter, Nero. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. Pp. xvii + 101. $11.95. ISBN 0-415-12931-1 (pb).


Reviewed by Christopher T.H.R. Ehrhardt, Dunedin, New Zealand, chris.ehrhardt.classics@stonebow.ac.nz.

There is no shortage of books about Nero. S(hotter), in his final appendix on 'Accounts of Nero's life and principate' mentions the old book by B.W. Henderson, The Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero (London 1903), and the newer ones by B.H. Warmington, Nero: Reality and Legend (London 1969) and M.T. Griffin, Nero: the End of a Dynasty (London 1984); he could equally have mentioned John Bishop, , Nero, the man and the legend (London 1964), Michael Grant, Nero, Emperor in Revolt (New York 1970), and several more. So what is special about this new offering?

Most obviously, its size: only 82 pages of text, followed by four appendices. The book is one of the series 'Lancaster Pamphlets', whose avowed purpose is to 'offer concise and up-to-date accounts of major historical topics, primarily for the help of students preparing for Advanced Level examinations, though they should also be of value to those pursuing introductory courses in universities'. Therefore this short book should not be judged as a work of original research, but as a clear and accurate account of the major features of its topic, suitable for reasonably intelligent and motivated readers aged between about sixteen and twenty-one, which preferably also introduces them to the sources and their problems, and explains at least some of the chief controversies. How well does S. fulfil these requirements?

S. starts badly, with four pages devoted to the stemmata of the Julio-Claudians and various related families -- even Vespasian finds a place. It is not easy to draw up a clear genealogical table, but this one is a disaster, most obviously by omitting, on the first double page, the vertical line which would make clear that C. and L. Caesar, their sisters Agrippina and Julia, and their young brother Agrippa Postumus were the children of Agrippa and Augustus' daughter Julia; similarly, the line which should connect Nero's father and grandfather is not there. Almost as bad is the omission on the second double page of any indication that the Julia who was grandmother of the various Junii Silani is identical with Julia, the sister of C. and L. Caesar. Any student who from these pages can get a clear picture of the relationships between the descendants of Augustus, of Octavia, and of Livia, deserves commendation.

Before discussing Nero's actions, and his squalid end, S. must of course set the stage, introduce the main actors and main concepts, and tell 'the story so far'. It is very difficult to explain what the Roman republic was, why it collapsed into civil war, how Augustus re-established peace and ordered government, and what his three immediate successors did, in less than ten pages, and not surprisingly S. does not succeed: any newcomer to the subject would be baffled by the important but unexplained concepts and confusing names which fill these pages. S. is right, however, to emphasise (p. 3) that not everyone accepted that Augustus' special position in the state must necessarily be held by a successor after Augustus' death, or that a Julian (or Julio-Claudian) dynasty was the only answer to Rome's political problems. Whether he is also right (p. 4) that the Julian family 'were the heirs of the populares of the republic' while the Claudian family was 'a natural rallying point for the descendants of the old optimates', is less certain; not that it matters much, since these two Latin words never appear again in the book apart from the glossary (pp. 92, 93).

In the first three pages, S. sometimes gives references to the sources; unfortunately thereafter, with one or two exceptions, he gives no more, even for direct quotations, so newcomers to the subject get no guidance about where to find and check the evidence.

Claudius' death is reached on page 10, and S. mentions that Josephus is the single ancient author to express doubts about the poisoning story, and, very reasonably, is sceptical himself, but his phrase 'It has been pointed out ...', unsupported by any reference, is the worst sort of example for beginners. If the case is worth making (and it can be a good example of how to argue a point), S. should either take the responsibility for his statements himself, or give explicit references, notably to Gilbert Bagnani's excellent article, 'The case of the poisoned mushrooms' (Phoenix I 2, 1946, 14-20).

S. takes a clear line about Nero as emperor, depicting his personal behaviour as representing 'the progressive effect of over-pampered self-indulgence' (p. 47) rather than springing from any deliberate intention to rule as a deified Hellenistic monarch, or to live as a Greek, devoted to Greek arts. This, of course, entails giving the credit for good government, and particularly for the policies of the early years of the reign, to Nero's advisers, above all Seneca and Burrus, and making A.D. 62, the year of Burrus' death, the critical turning point.

S. usefully (p. 16) includes a translation of the papyrus (POxy 1021) which announced Nero's accession in Egypt and the accompanying official rejoicing, and also Nero's official genealogy as emperor, which included both the deified Claudius and the deified Augustus, though he does not point out that this was only done in defiance of all precedent, by Nero tracing his descent through his (unmentioned) mother Agrippina, since neither his natural father, Domitius Ahenobarbus, nor his adoptive father, Claudius, was descended from Augustus.

A gross anachronism (perhaps a homage to the current enthusiasm for deregulation and low taxes) is the suggestion (pp. 20-21) that Nero's proposal to abolish indirect taxes (Tacitus, Annals XIII 50) might have been a far-sighted plan to stimulate growth of trade 'and thus the ability of individuals ... to enhance their wealth', so that the lost revenue would be compensated by 'a correspondingly greater yield from direct taxation.' Not only does this ignore the fact that Roman citizens paid no direct taxes, so the scheme would only work if provincials became wealthier, and were then taxed in proportion to their wealth; more fundamentally, it suggests that Seneca and Burrus had economic insights which, otherwise, were unknown before the age of Adam Smith. To include such speculation in a work for beginners is irresponsible.

Much less serious is the failure even to mention the contradictions about when Otho was sent to govern Lusitania (p. 22): on the one hand, he allegedly spent ten years in this quasi-exile before he joined Galba's rebellion in April 68 (Suetonius, Otho 3. 2; Tacitus, Annals XIII 46); on the other, he allegedly entertained Nero and Agrippina on the evening before Agrippina's murder, in March 59 (Suetonius, ibid. 3.1). It is perhaps easier to suppose that 'ten years' is an exaggeration, to a round figure, than that the story of Otho as host on the fatal evening is an invention.

S.'s chapter on 'Empire and provinces' (pp. 25-39) is, overall, very good: there is a clear though brief account of the military strength along the Rhine and Danube, though it would help if S. gave the modern names of the countries in which the various legionary camps lay, as well as of the towns (pp. 28-29); of the problems of the invasion of Britain and Boudicca's revolt (pp. 29-31); of the relations with Parthia and the Armenian settlement (pp. 31-34); and of the Jewish revolt (pp. 35-36). However, Syria is not in Asia Minor (p. 32). But the last two pages of the chapter are less satisfactory: 'Romanization still needed to progress', without any discussion of what 'Romanization' may mean (p. 37); worse -- in the well known fashion -- what on page 20 had merely been an idea, about the economic purpose of the proposal to abolish indirect taxes, becomes a fact by page 37, 'As we have seen, Nero's government proposed ... a way of enhancing the wealth of provincials by waiving indirect taxation.' Once again, for a text book to present beginners with this tempting progression from idea to probability to established fact is irresponsible; and this is not the only time S. does this.

The fourth chapter (pp. 40-57), 'Hellenistic monarch or Roman megalomaniac?', is a mixed bag, with brief summaries of Roman literature from Catullus to Seneca, of architecture from Scipio Aemilianus to the 'Golden House', of 'eastern religion' and the imperial cult from the suppression of the Bacchanalia in 186 B.C. to Claudius' deification, all in six pages (one devoted to a plan of Rome, complete with Aurelian's wall, which would not be built for two more centuries, but without any imperial fora), before S. begins to discuss the internal politics of Nero's reign. His main interest lies in Nero's cultural pursuits, and how far they are evidence of 'Hellenism'; it is odd that, though S. considers the possible effect of Nero's descent from Germanicus, he says nothing about possible influences from Mark Antony, Nero's ancestor in both the paternal and the maternal line, whose physical resemblance to his descendant is striking. The climax of 'Hellenism' was Nero's tour of Greece and 'liberation' of the province, and it is useful that S. gives a translation of his speech, but regrettably without reference to its source. He rightly states that Nero's popularity is shown by the appearance of 'false Neros' after his death, but misleadingly implies that there was only one (p. 50), when there were at least three. He is also misleading, when describing the Great Fire at Rome, in stating that 'Tacitus, though mentioning the charge of arson, placed no credence in it'; forte an dolo principis incertum (Annals XV 38) expresses doubt, not denial. Nonetheless, this is an interesting and sometimes illuminating chapter, and gives good grounds for S.'s conclusion that 'Nero appears to have suffered from an immature and inadequate personality ... On 9 June AD 68, it was a megalomaniac and an inadequate man with Greek tastes who died, not a Hellenistic god-king' (pp. 56-57).

The brief fifth chapter on 'Opposition and rebellion', claims that 'there were three principal sources from which opposition ... might surface -- the imperial family itself, the senatorial order and the Praetorian Guard' (p. 58), which strikingly omits the provincial armies, among which there were mutinies in A.D. 14, and a rebellion in A.D. 42; Tigellinus warned Nero of the danger of his supposed rivals, Plautus and Sulla, appealing to them (Annals XIV 57); and they finally ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

In discussing senatorial opposition, S. asks 'What, then, was stoicism?' (p. 59), but gives no clear answer. He does make the point that not all Stoics opposed emperors, rightly using Seneca as example, but fails to say that not all senatorial opponents were Stoics -- Cassius is never mentioned. Much of the chapter is devoted to the trials of Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus (confusingly placed before the Pisonian conspiracy, though chronologically later), and is a tissue of hypotheses, full of phrases such as 'he may have', 'it prompts the suggestion', 'we may glean a connection', 'it is possible', 'there may indeed have been further connections' (all p. 63). Even the 'Vinician conspiracy', detected at Beneventum, therefore presumably late in A.D. 66, when Nero would have passed through the town on his way to Greece, is associated with Soranus. At the beginning of the next chapter (p. 67) this conspiracy has acquired more substance: 'the rebellion of Vinicianus in A.D. 66 may have been more serious if, as it appears, army-commanders were involved.' No hint that this 'rebellion' is known only from a single phrase in Suetonius (Nero 36. 1)!

S. deals with Piso's conspiracy in a single page, even though this is the one plot for which we have a detailed account, in Tacitus, and supporting evidence from Dio. S. does not consider the possibility that at least some of the plotters aimed to make Seneca emperor (as some of the conspirators against Gaius probably intended Claudius to succeed him); for him, 'Seneca was subsequently required to end his life -- perhaps a case of guilt by association' (p. 62).

The final chapter, of twelve pages, describes the events of A.D. 68 and 69. Four pages describe Nero's downfall; the rest deal with the 'Four Emperors'. S. nowhere points out that, after Corbulo, the viceroy in the east, and the Scribonii brothers, who commanded the Rhine armies, the biggest military concentration in the empire, had been summoned to Greece by Nero and killed there, no army commander would ever again have obeyed a summons to the imperial court -- if he was to die, he might as well make a fight for it. Like most Anglophone writers, S. is unaware that the 'anonymous' coinage of A.D. 68 was all (as far as it is genuine) struck in Spain for Galba, between the opening of his rebellion on 3rd April (not the 2nd, as S. has it, p. 68 -- the 2nd of every month was unlucky) and about mid-June, when he received the news that the Senate had voted him the imperial powers; there is no 'coinage associated with Vindex' movement' (p. 67). Furthermore, the coinage -- the only immediately contemporary evidence we have -- makes it plain that the professed aim of all the rebels was to put an end to the monarchy and restore power to the Senate and Roman People, not Nero's 'replacement by another princeps' (p. 68).

S. is wrong in claiming that Verginius Rufus' refusal of his soldiers' offer to make him emperor 'left them one option only -- to return to their earlier allegiance' to Nero (p. 70), since in fact they did not do so but, however reluctantly, swore the oath of allegiance to Senate and people, which made them open rebels against the emperor. It was Nymphidius Sabinus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, who saved the monarchic system, by persuading his men to abandon Nero, proclaim Galba as emperor, and ensure that the Senate voted him the imperial powers and titles.

The rest of the chapter deals with the events of late 68 and 69, culminating in the defeat and death of Vitellius, and has nothing directly to do with Nero. Nor, surprisingly, does the 'Conclusion' (pp. 79-82), which does not sum up the book, but looks forward to the Flavians.

The first appendix gives Tacitus' version of Galba's speech at the adoption of Piso, with no hint that it might be satirically intended (Syme, Tacitus, 206-208); the second, Suetonius' description of the 'Golden House', followed by a brief bibliography; the third is a useful glossary of Latin terms, though one may be sceptical that Tiberius in 6 B.C. 'was given tribunician power simply to annoy Gaius and Lucius Caesar' (p. 91).

Appendix IV acts as an annotated bibliography of ancient sources, including speculation about the sources behind the surviving sources, and of modern works. Significant omissions are the recent translation of Plutarch's Lives of Galba and Otho by D. Little, with commentary by C. Ehrhardt (London 1994), the indispensable Roman Provincial Coinage, vol. I (London 1992), the translated collections of source material by D. Braund, Augustus to Nero, a sourcebook on Roman history (London 1985), and R. Sherk, The Roman Empire, Augustus to Hadrian, Fergus Millar's discussion of Dio Cassius, A study of Cassius Dio (Oxford 1964), B. Warmington's edition, with commentary, of Suetonius' Life of Nero (Bristol 1977), and the books by Bishop and Grant mentioned at the beginning of this review.

The printing of the book is excellent, with no apparent misprints, and its gluing and stitching will withstand hard wear. The author's only serious solecisms are the use of 'sewerage' for 'sewage' (p.45), and 'aggravate' for 'irritate' or 'annoy' (p. 60).

Altogether, this book is a curate's egg. The interesting ideas in it would have been better placed in brief articles (S. has in the past published several good ones). The book does not give a clear picture of Roman politics, of the imperial system, or of Nero's own life and times, and would probably baffle most beginners, though some better ones may find it stimulating. The lack of index and of references means it cannot be used for quick reference. It cannot really be recommended for its 'target' audience, though individuals interested in the early empire may profit from it.