Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.24

Christoph Schubert, Studien zum Nerobild in der lateinischen Dichtung der Antike. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Band 116.   Stuttgart und Leipzig:  B.G. Teubner, 1998.  Pp. 503.  ISBN 3-519-07665-9.  DM 168.  

Reviewed by Andrea Scheithauer, Seminar für Klassische Philologie, Universität Heidelberg
Word count: 3658 words

In his doctoral dissertation Christoph Schubert (= C.S.) deals with a subject which philologists and historians have neglected up to now, Nero's image in Latin poetry. He intends 1) to elaborate the political importance of the different aesthetic conceptions in order to determine the political point of view of each poet, 2) to discover new information on Nero, 3) to analyse the image of this emperor in the texts and to reconstruct its modifications and constants, 4) to find out the artistic strategies of the poets in order to understand better the panegyrists especially. The doctoral dissertation consists of two parts. In the chronological part (p. 15-396) C.S. examines the texts, adding to his interpretations a short introduction to the life and work of every author and summaries of modern research and of Nero's life in order to demonstrate how the versions of the poets depend on contemporary history (p. 13). In the systematical part (p. 397-451) C.S. discusses general problems. After having summarized the results of recent research on Nero he points out the images of the emperor in Latin poetry and their causes, in the course of which he includes archaeological evidence and coins. He especially draws attention to the influence of the conventions of literary topoi (p. 14). He appends a voluminous bibliography (p. 455-495) and a record of literary testimonies (p. 496-503).

First of all C.S. deals with the laudes Neronis in Seneca's Apocolocyntosis (chapter I 1). In opposition to R. Heinze, who discerned two different conceptions of the symbolism of the Fates in the controversial passage Sen. Apocol. 4,1-2,1 C.S. demonstrates that the image of the Fates is logical and convincing and forms a clear picture of the death of Claudius and the future reign of Nero. The thread of life spun by the Fates symbolizes the person and reign of Nero. Since the thread becomes golden, Seneca promises golden times during Nero's reign. In his praise of the emperor Apollo emphasizes Nero's virtues (especially clementia, moderatio, innocentia), actions, similarity to the gods, appearance, talent for poetry and singing. He is a better emperor than Augustus, indeed he already is an absolute ruler.

In De clementia (chapter I 2) Seneca represents Nero as a stoical ruler, who needs help because his political virtues are not completely evolved, unlike in the Apocolocyntosis. Nero's role as a judge who restrains himself voluntarily by being obligated to iustitia is new in De clementia. C.S. thinks that this work is a memoir of Nero and an ideological defence of Seneca's political opinion in public.

In chapter I 3 C.S. first corrects the traditional date of the panegyric eclogues 1, 4 and 7 of Calpurnius Siculus. Since he believes that the work was published between 57 and 59 AD, the terminus ante quem 57 AD follows from this. In opposition to the existing view, according to which the first eclogue was composed before the accession in 54 AD, C.S. dates it to the year 57 or 58 AD because of the vaticinatio ex eventu of the faun. For C.S. the fourth eclogue was written when Nero had taken actions after his accession, and the seventh eclogue was composed between 57 and 59 AD. In the first eclogue Calpurnius praises Nero as patron of poets in opposition to Seneca and celebrates the blessings of his reign. The faun foretells an aurea aetas when Nero reigns in peace, takes care of the validity of the laws in opposition to Claudius and returns to the mos maiorum. Since he put an end to the civil wars and ascended to the throne without bloodshed, he surpasses Augustus, has the right to adoration during his life and acquires a tutelary god of the commonwealth. In the fourth eclogue the foretold golden age and Nero's reign of peace are represented as realized in opposition to the fourth eclogue of Virgil. With the image of the peaceable emperor is associated the image of the patron, for the reign of peace is the pre-condition that music and fine arts prosper. At the end of the eclogue it is evident that literary conditions changed after Augustus. As only the emperor promotes the liberal arts, Calpurnius in the character of Corydon asks him to be recognized as court poet. In the seventh eclogue Nero is represented as successful commander-in-chief by being compared to Mars. Moreover, he is again characterized as another Augustus; he surpasses the first princeps in the games in the wooden amphitheatre because the animals from the whole Roman Empire manifest Nero's world domination. Calpurnius mentions the motive of the Augustan renovatio, of the aurea aetas and of the symbolism of Apollo in his panegyrics on Nero.

In chapter I 4 C.S. deals with the minor poetical works and fragments of the Neronian period. Noteworthy is his remark that in the satirical poem about the huge dimensions of the domus aurea the speech of Camillus is alluded to (Liv. 5,51-54) and that Nero is represented as anti-Camillus and as evil enemy of Rome who impels the inhabitants to emigrate from their home town to Veii.

C.S. thinks that the first satire of Persius (chapter I 5) is not primarily directed towards politics but towards criticism of literature. By unmasking Nero, who is compared by Apollo with Midas as naive critic, Persius attacks the poor quality of contemporary literature.

Since C.S. believes that Lucan's De bello civili (chapter I 6) is addressed to Nero and the principate, he takes the encomium in earnest. In the second part of the proem (Lucan 1,33ff) the poet presents the image of Nero's reign of peace, which is influenced by Stoic conceptions and compensates for the misery of the civil wars. The aurea aetas begins with Nero's reign in heaven, where he has precedence among the gods. In the opinion of C.S. Nero becomes a new star, which remains stationary above Rome; there he guarantees the duration of the universe, brings peace to the people and promotes the greatness of the Romans. Since Nero is Lucan's source of inspiration in the proem the relationship between the emperor and the poet is not yet troubled. In 7,385-459 Lucan rejects, what he has said in the proem, denounces Nero's reign as tyranny and transforms the epos into a confession, which corresponds to the self-esteem of the opposition.

In Columella's De re rustica (chapter I 7) criticism of Nero is included too. Since Columella interceded on behalf of senatorial land-owners and peasants, he came into conflict with the wholesale dealers, who were encouraged by Claudius and Nero. He criticizes Nero's aurea aetas because there was no general prosperity and poor people had to garden, and he held the emperor responsible for the falling production of the peasants.

In opposition to previous research C.S. interprets the first Carmen Einsidlense (chapter I 8) as a parody of the political-panegyrical bucolic at Nero's court which attacks the emperor indirectly because he tolerates such poems and holds ideological conformity in higher esteem than artistic quality. C.S. depends on the unusual names of the shepherds, on the plurality of the panegyrical themes lacking an encomiastic leitmotiv, on the absence of words which are typical of the world of the shepherds, and on bucolic characteristics. C.S. identifies Midas, who is the critic in the singing contest without knowing the rules and who delights in panegyric, with Nero. In his song Ladas praises the emperor as divine player of the lyre, as creator, as governor of the world and as Apollo who killed the dragon. The encomium consists in the comparison of Nero with Jupiter and Apollo and in stoic-cosmic traits of the emperor. Thamyras presents Nero as a remarkable poet who surpasses the Greeks in his Troica and outperforms Homer and Virgil besides. C.S. interprets the second Carmen Einsidlense in opposition to D. Korzeniewski.2 In the tradition of Virgil's fourth eclogue the bad-tempered Mystes unhappily celebrates the present and the prosperity of Nero's reign. The emperor exceeds the former promises of the golden age and Augustus and is the envoy of heaven whom Virgil has promised. In Nero's reign the traditional cults of Italy, the morals and the mos maiorum flourish, lasting peace exists devoid of vitia, which hitherto caused civil wars.

In chapter I 9 C.S. devotes himself to Petronius' Satyricon. Since the work, in his opinion, is intended for the amusement of Nero and his friends and also aims at influencing the readers, the author values Nero and his ideals. Petronius mocks Trimalchio, who imitates superficial features of Nero and makes a fool of himself.

C.S. intends to interpret Seneca's tragedies in a different way (chapter I 10). In his opinion the tragedies constitute a cycle which is connected by formal elements and contents, i.e., a common leitmotiv and constructional links. In the tragedies the problem of power, of crime and of degeneration of the ruler is prominent. Seneca's aim of representing the basis and the structures of power necessitates the form of a cycle so that the fall of the culprits, the type of crime, the victims and the motives are highlighted. The tragedies are, for instance, connected by metre, the emotions ira, furor, metus, hybris, the determination of events by fatum and fortuna and the adaptation of mythological figures and motives to extraneous contexts. On the basis of his new interpretation, C.S. dates the cycle to about 59 or 62 AD because Seneca tries to explain his failure as a counselor of Nero with it. Further an interrelation between the tragedies exists. In the opinion of C.S. Seneca aims at competing with the dramatic tradition of the Greeks and Romans and with Virgil's Aeneid in describing the emotions ira and furor, showing the mechanism of power and demonstrating the change from monarchy to tyranny psychologically. In addition he intends to transmit the destructive effect of power to Nero's reign. Since the degeneration of the emperor depends on the system, Seneca also justifies his failure as a teacher.

In his epistulae morales (chapter I 11) Seneca shows the existence of the tyrannical personality in historical context. His description of the character of true friendship and his attacks on luxuria, inebriety, luxury, excessive construction, literary dilettantism, cruelty, bad administration, sexual perversion, greed for gold and beauty, hint at Nero. Seneca for instance interprets the anxiety of the fools about their beauty, which is contrary to the inward beauty and the virtues of the wise man, as allusion to the emperor in his 115th letter. Further he implicitly criticizes the splendour of the domus aurea, the immense power of money, the general corruption and Nero's avaritia and he doubts the saeculum aureum.

In the opinion of C.S., Baebius Italicus (chapter I 12) combines into his image of Nero passages, official ideology, variations from Homer's Iliad, and panegyric on the domus Augusta. The panegyric on Nero is evident from the modification of Aeneas and of Homer's description of the shield and from the new role of Apollo. Baebius enhances the status of Aeneas by following Virgil's conception of pius Aeneas. Apollo is a tutelary god of the Trojans and Romans in the Ilias Latina. Further he emphasizes that the god and Nero have a great deal in common; both are successful supreme commanders and peace-loving artists. Finally he introduces Apollo and the motive of the harmony of spheres into Homer's description of the shield in order to express the official ideology. He unites Apollo with Achilles on the shield in order to make clear the reconciliation between the god and his enemies. This reconciliation alludes to the present reconciliation between Greeks and Romans which the 'novus Apollo' Nero brought about. Further the poet supports the claim of the ruler to derive his legitimacy from his affiliation to the gens Iulia. Therefore Nero is a new pius Aeneas and Augustus.

In chapter I 13 C.S. ends up with the image of Nero in Greek literature, Christian prose and Lucan's laudes Neronis (60 AD). In the laudes Neronis which are influenced by Stoic ideas, the unlimited world domination of the emperor is treated and his artistic gift is praised by Apolline symbols.

C.S. gives full details of the Praetexta Octavia because Nero's image contributes to a new explanation of this work (chapter II 1). In the Octavia the gradual revelation of the characters is described. Octavia judges her husband by the dynastic legitimacy; she interprets him as an illegitimate tyrant who ascended the throne after having killed the hereditary prince and driven the gens Iulia from the throne. Poppaea is a menace because she infiltrates the legal marriage of the emperor. The nurse describes the fall of the Claudian dynasty as an example of the similar fate of kings. The chorus of pretorians is furious at Nero because of the rumour of Octavia's impending ejection and Nero's infringement of pietas to his mother and wife. Seneca interprets Nero as tyrant and criminal who personifies all the horrors of Apocalypse. Everyone condemns Nero for his matricide. In the opinion of the chorus and the nurse, however, he is a legitimate ruler for whom allowances must be made, whereas Agrippina and the chorus want to remonstrate with him. When he makes his first appearance, Nero presents himself as a ruler who grew malicious and suffered from power. Agrippina's ghost makes evident the psychic developments and enables the public to look into the future. In her image of Nero the contrast between the external pomp and the crimes against the relatives and the imminent punishment in Orcus becomes obvious. To her mind Nero is the greatest of all criminals and surpasses all mythical heroes. In his work the author analyses the principate of the Julio-Claudians which degenerates inevitably. Octavia's destiny manifests the turning-point in Nero's reign and his true character and is a typical example of the victims of his principate. Since Nero's destiny, too, is typical of the principate of the Julio-Claudians, the poet doubts the image of the illegitimate ruler which the Flavians propagated.

In the opinion of C.S., Martial's image of Nero (chapter II 2) is in agreement with the Flavian ideology. In the Liber de spectaculis (2; 28) he demonstrates the contrast between Nero's supposed hostility to the people and the quality of life in the reign of the Flavians on the basis of the new buildings in the area of the domus aurea. In the epigrams the emperor is pilloried for the splendour of his baths (2,48,8), the murder of Agrippina (4,63) and Lucan (7,21) and for the unfair administration of justice (7,44-45) and is called a tyrant (7,21,3).

Statius, who occasionally mentions Nero in the Silvae (2,7; 5,2), also, characterizes the emperor as tyrant whereas the satirist Turnus represents him as the confidant of the poisoner Locusta, who assisted him in killing Britannicus, and indirectly denounces him as a usurper (chapter II 3).

The elder Pliny (chapter II 4a) describes Nero as vicious, wicked and amoral. In his opinion the greatest crimes of the emperor are the murders after the plot of Piso because the conspirators were executed without trial. Because of his conservative view Pliny rejects Nero's philhellenic preferences and his autocratic transformation of the Roman commonwealth.

In the Jewish war Flavius Josephus (chapter II 4b) refrains from judging Nero as emperor negatively in order to avoid prejudicing the Roman commonwealth and Vespasian's interests. On the other hand he censures Nero's characteristics. Therefore C.S. thinks that the image of the emperor depends on Flavian ideology. Josephus pillories him for his morbid ambition, hybris, murder, the overwhelming influence of his freedmen and chiefly for his appearance on stage (2,250). In the Antiquites Josephus emphasizes the murder of Claudius and Nero's cruelty whereas he reserves judgement in his autobiography.

Juvenal's image of Nero (chapter III 1) joins the historical person and the topic of tyrants. The satirist accentuates the homogeneity of Nero's and Domitian's personality. Domitian's principate is the continuation of Nero's reign because they have the same advisers (satire 4). The avaritia and crudelitas of the tyrant Nero become evident especially from the murder of rich people (satire 10; cf. 4). Further, Juvenal insinuates that the emperor abused Roman citizens and had them castrated (satire 10). Nero illustrates the degeneration of the gens Iulia (satire 8). His dishonour culminates in his appearance on stage because he offends against the honour of his family and office. By attacking the unfounded arrogance of the aristocracy in Nero's reign Juvenal pillories the nobility of his own time for its presumption. He adopts the view of the homines novi and the ideology of the adoptive emperors.

In his letters (chapter III 2a) the younger Pliny represents Nero as an evil and amoral emperor and tyrant who infringes upon the privileges of the nobility and the jurisdiction, is unjust and cruel to the members of the upper classes and cedes too much power to the freedmen (Plin. Epist. 3,5; 5,3. 5; 6,31). In the panegyric on Trajan Pliny describes Nero as opposite to Nerva's successor, who tolerates criticism of former emperors (53,1ff).

The chapter on the prose works of later times is rounded off by some remarks on Nero's image in Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio (chapter III 2b) and in the historians of late antiquity.

In the poetry of late antiquity Nero is blamed for conventional crimes and vices. It is worth mentioning the following. Ausonius whose source is Suetonius interprets the suicide of the cruel tyrant as amends for Nero's matricide. In the opinion of Prudentius the murder of Agrippina, Petrus and Paulus and the persecution of the Christians are based on the pagan beliefs of the emperor (c. Symm. 2,669ff). Rutilius Namatianus thinks that Nero is the greatest criminal of all time, whom Stilicho alone surpasses and who suffers in Hades (Rut. Nam. 2,57ff). In the Carmen apologeticum vv 823ff Commodian represents Nero as an apocalyptical persecutor of the Christians who is characterized by the typical features of a tyrant and of pagan emperors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as another Pharaoh, as a false prophet and Antichrist of the Christians who will cause the fall of the Roman Empire. He identifies the apocalyptical Nero with the historical one who had Petrus and Paulus executed. Boethius cites Nero as an example of how power manifests the depravity of the bad. In the mind of Arator, whose source is Prudentius, the emperor is the first prominent pagan persecutor of the Christians, in whose reign Petrus and Paulus suffered martyrdom (Arator act. 1129ff).

In contemporary panegyrics two primary courses are evident (p. 412-438). The follows Augustan ideology and emphasizes the virtues pax, iustitia and saeculum aureum (until 59 AD), the other accentuates Nero's artistic ability (after 59 AD). The poets who fellow Augustan ideology underline the general guarantee of the laws and the privileges of the senate in Nero's reign in order to underscore the difference between Claudius and his successor. Further they attach great importance to Nero's talent for music but they make art secondary to politics. The poets who praise the artistic gift of the ruler deduce Nero's significant role of emperor from his talent for poetry and citharody. The primary subject of these panegyrics is the harmony of the spheres owing to which the divine musician Nero gives peace to the world. The motive of Phoebus Apollo is common to all laudes Neronis. The emperor is often compared with the god but is not equal to him. People accepted the panegyrics because they were based on the pattern of the stoical wise man who acquires perfection from his own ability; in that manner the divinity of the emperor did not cause offence. After the murder of Agrippina Nero was stigmatized as anti-Aeneas, anti-Camillus and false Apollo; further his artistic gift and the panegyrics at court were attacked. The attitude of the panegyrists to Nero (p. 449-450) is not ascertainable but their image of the ruler probably is positive. His real character nevertheless cannot be inferred from contemporary poetry.

After his death Nero's image in the west of the Roman Empire was negative without exception (p. 439-448). The Flavians considered him as an usurper whose ejection implies the re-establishment of the regular order. Besides his extravagance, the unworthy appearances on stage, the absurd building projects, his unmilitary attitude and his oriental effeminacy were criticized. The senatorial historians pilloried him for his contempt of the laws and the murder of senators. In the works of the late Flavian period the image of the historical person is combined with the image of the contemporary tyrant, i.e., Domitian. In late antiquity Nero becomes a topos. New characteristics of the emperor exist in Christian literature. The authors interpret him as Antichrist and murderer of Petrus and Paulus.

C.S. has written a very interesting doctoral dissertation with new findings. Some results however (especially the theory that Seneca's tragedies constitute a cycle) have to be investigated and verified by additional studies. This treatise has the merit of being methodically well-founded. C.S. uses different hermeneutical methods in order to interpret the texts. He considers their interrelation (parody), the relation between reception and intention of the author and the way in which the authors lead the reader for political reasons (p. 397-399). C.S. widens our knowledge of the authors by regarding the contexts and the historical circumstances of the texts with care. However C.S. is not able to enrich Nero's image in Latin poetry by new features because the poets characterize Nero in the same way as the historians. Further C.S. elucidates important problems with relation to the history of civilization (especially the management of literature in Nero's reign, the role of the emperor as patron and promoter and the correlation between literature and politics). Finally C.S. achieves findings which go beyond the theme of his study (especially new, more precise dates of some works and the structure of Seneca's tragedies). They contribute considerably to the innovative work of the author and give important, fertile impulses to other scholars.


1.   R. Heinze, "Zu Senecas Apocolocyntosis," Hermes 61, 1926, 49-78.
2.   Hirtengedichte aus neronischer Zeit. Titus Calpurnius Siculus und die Einsiedler Gedichte. Herausgegeben und übersetzt von D. Korzeniewski. Texte zur Forschung 1, Darmstadt 1987, 5. 116.

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