Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.29

Emma Buckley, Martin T. Dinter (ed.), A Companion to the Neronian Age. Blackwell companions to the ancient world.   Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 486.  ISBN 9781444332728.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by Lauren Ginsberg, University of Cincinnati (

Table of Contents

It has been thirty years since Miriam Griffin’s Nero: The End of a Dynasty judiciously reexamined the historical tradition surrounding Rome’s scaenicus imperator and twenty years since Jaś Elsner and Jamie Masters’ edited volume Reflections of Nero (BMCR 94.09.09) brought to the problems of the Neronian Principate the multi-disciplinary approaches previously reserved for the reign of Augustus. Together these two books represent decisive catalysts for the present aetas Neroniana as well as divergent approaches to the source material, the one trying to uncover the historical Nero, the other investigating the process of myth making which keeps him at a distance. The volume under review owes much to both. To Griffin (who wrote its epilogue) it owes its careful reconsiderations of the Nero left to us by the historical record in essays that seek less to rehabilitate than to look at the evidence afresh. Reflections, on the other hand, provides an important model that similarly aimed to synthesize disparate evidence and a variety of methodologies and approaches within one volume. The fundamental difference between the Companion and its predecessors, however, is its wider aims—not just Nero and his various (re)constructions, but his entire age and its diverse and fractured reflections. Moreover, a Companion, by definition, must aim at a more general audience than Reflections did and thus must introduce the idea of an age that can be coherently defined as Neronian even as it challenges and deconstructs the same. This is an ambitious aim, and one which the volume’s individual essays largely succeed in meeting, despite some overarching issues that I address at the end of the review.

Martin Dinter’s introduction, “The Neronian (Literary) 'Renaissance'”, begins with the artificiality of referring to a “Neronian age” at all, as the term implies a cultural coherence (and perhaps even a level of imperial influence) that many chapters in the volume naturally challenge. With that caveat, however, Dinter provides a historical account of the rise and reign of Nero within a wider analysis of the development both of Neronian (literary) culture and of the “Nero myth” in later historiography. He finishes with a case study in defining “Neronian” through the lens of the canonical Neronian authors, Seneca, Lucan and Petronius. On Dinter’s reading, their combined emphasis on repeating and surpassing the past, the topos of spectacle, and the idea of “über-realism” transcend these works to become overarching concepts throughout the Neronian age. While it might have been useful to lay out more explicitly the organizational scheme of the volume, its choice of essays and its precise aims (especially if, as he argues, “Neronian age” is such a multivalent term), Dinter succeeds in whetting the appetite for the investigations that follow.

The volume contains 25 chapters divided into four sections and an epilogue by Griffin. The three chapters of Part I, “Nero”, focus on the self-fashioning of Nero as performer and philhellene as well as on the reflection of that self-fashioning in the biographical tradition. Part II, “The Empire”, examines the administrative and cultural contexts of Nero’s empire from several perspectives (administrative governance, militarism, the imperial domus, Neronian religion and philosophy). Part III, “Literature, Art, and Architecture” is by far the largest in the volume, with ten essays on literature and three on art and architecture. Moreover, in a refreshing change from other treatments of Neronian culture, we find here not only the expected canonical authors (Lucan, Seneca, Petronius) and public images (Nero’s portraiture, the Domus Aurea), but also investigations of material often considered ancillary, such as Columella (Christiane Reitz), Greek literature under Nero (Dirk Uwe Hansen), and the wall-painting of domestic spaces in the 50s and 60s CE (Katharina Lorenz, Michael Squire). Part IV, “Reception”, takes up the reception of the aetas Neroniana in the Jewish and Christian tradition (Harry Maier) and in the literature and art of the Renaissance (Susanna Braund, Yanick Maes). Griffin’s epilogue, “Nachwort: Nero from Zero to Hero”, concludes the volume with the look at the current trend of rehabilitating Nero and the intellectual dangers of mistrusting the ancient historical tradition so uniformly. Because it is impossible to do justice to every essay in a review of this length, I will illustrate some overarching themes that highlight the volume’s central questions and perspectives.

The malleability of Nero’s image and symbolic potential from his own reign to the present day is an important theme that the Companion borrows (and beautifully expands on) from Reflections. I will highlight a few contributions. Donna Hurley explores the historiographical record through the lens of biography in order to show that the only Nero we have is the Nero that was created. Aude Doody looks at the divergent uses to which Seneca and Pliny could put the idea of Nero’s interests in nature (Seneca sees a princeps appropriately encouraging research into nature and Pliny the epitome of unnatural monstrosity). Marianne Bergmann explores the various ways in which Nero’s portraiture could be read throughout his reign and after his death (see also the chapters of Christopher Whitton , John Henderson, Maier, and Maes).

Both Nero and Neronian culture are revealed to be thirsty for knowledge and a vibrant milieu for innovation. Nero himself is perhaps most famous in this regard for his Nilotic inquiry, although his interest in expanding Roman knowledge and in furthering innovation can be seen throughout his reign (Elaine Fantham, Sigrid Mratschek, David Braund, Dirk Hansen). Michael Mordine sees the Domus Neroniana to be a deliberate innovation away from Augustus’ Republican image of the domus and towards an eastern, monarchical reorientation. Nero’s influential innovations in public and private architecture and building projects continue to come to light (Heinz-Jürgen Beste and Henner von Hesberg, Bergmann, Squire), and his reign saw new aesthetics and thematizing of architectural space in private art as well (Lorenz). On the literary side, the essays on Petronius (Tom Murgatroyd), Lucan (Philip Hardie), and Seneca (Jenny Bryan, Whitton, Jonathan Mannering, Emma Buckley, and Doody), as well as those on less frequently studied “Neronian” authors like Columella (Reitz), trace a complex pattern of innovation within generic boundaries now considered characteristic of Neronian literature. Nero’s reign also saw a flourishing of technical literature and in interest in the unknown (Doody, Hansen). In fact, one of the most important contributions of this volume is exposing the degree to which the celebrated intellectual climate of the Second Sophistic is in fact prepared for by Nero’s philhellenism (Dinter, Mratschek, Hansen, Bergmann). Additionally, as several essays argue, part of this culture was created by Nero’s desire to find a public sphere in which to celebrate otium and its related activities as being of value to the state (Dinter, Mratschek, Beste and von Hesberg, Bergmann).

As we would expect, alongside this atmosphere of innovation, the legacy of Augustus and the Augustan age looms large— politically on Nero, and culturally on the literature and art produced while he was in power, a concept addressed in the chapters of Whitton, Mordine, Henderson, Buckley, Hardie, Murgatroyd, Marden Nichols, Reitz, Beste and von Hesberg, and Bergmann. Moreover, an important part of Nero’s Augustan legacy is the prominence of Apollo and Sol – the subject of several provocative essays which see Nero rebuilding his ancestor’s chief god to suit his own aims (see Fantham, Mratschek, David Braund, Whitton, Henderson, and Bergmann). Several chapters explicitly take on the “Nero myth” of the megalomaniacal emperor in order to explore the topoi through which Nero becomes the anti-exemplum of the system Augustus founded. For example, by focusing on the evidence for Nero’s policies and campaigns in the East, David Braund reveals a princeps whose record of success in foreign affairs belies the hostile tradition’s representation of him as unmilitary, while Darja Sterbenc Erker confronts the topos of Nero as hater of religion to show the traditionalism of Nero’s religious practices. (see also the chapters of Beste and von Hesberg and of Bergmann).

There has long been a temptation to view Neronian culture in terms of monolithic concepts like rhetorization, decadence, and theatricality. These textbook ‘Neronian’ traits are not dispensed with here, but themselves become objects of interrogation yielding new perspectives, e.g., on Nero’s self-fashioning as a performer and the nature of the opprobrium it earned (Fantham), or on the falsely-perpetuated idea that the proclivity for fantasy in 4th style wall-paintings is somehow representative of Nero’s own desire to distort reality with myth (Lorenz). See also Buckley, Nichols, and David Braund. Moreover, through the volume’s divergent approaches to Nero and his age, the idea of heterogeneity appears almost paradoxically as a defining and overarching marker of Neronian culture. Bryan elucidates the heterogeneity in Neronian philosophy (especially in Stoicism) in general, while Mannering and Buckley offer complementary perspectives on the heterogeneity within Seneca’s philosophical and tragic corpus (on heterogeneity see also Reitz and Hansen).

This Companion has much to offer. Certain essays provide succinct introductions and up-to-date surveys of questions central to the study of Neronian culture (e.g. Hurley, Myles Lavan, Buckley, Hardie, Beste and von Hesberg). Others bring previously underutilized material to the study of Neronian Rome (e.g. Reitz, Hansen, Lorenz, Maier) or approach anew key problems with interpreting Nero, his Rome, and the influence of his age (Fantham, David Braund, Bergmann, Squire). This combination—and the fact that, as per Blackwell’s standard format, each essay is accompanied by a useful starter bibliography to orient the uninitiated – creates a volume of use to students and scholars alike.

There are, however, some imbalances that might have been justified more explicitly in the volume’s introduction. First, it is at times unclear whether the Companion is meant to focus predominantly on Nero’s particular influence on the Neronian age. Most essays seem implicitly to accept this idea and offer at least one subsection on Nero’s influence on and role in the topic at hand, and Griffin’s chapter—set as an epilogue to the volume on the whole—suggests that Nero is indeed meant to be the central figure. And yet several essays either eschew this approach or deliberately remove Nero from the equation of examining “his” age. While this is not in and of itself an issue, it brings us back to the central question posed (but not answered) at the volume’s beginning: what does “Neronian” mean and how will this Companion (re)define it?

More problematic is the overwhelming focus of the volume on literary questions. The chapters explicitly devoted to literature represent over thirty percent of the volume, while others either include extensive discussions of literature or frame their content as aiding the interpretation of literature (cf. Dinter’s introduction to a “Neronian (Literary) ‘Renaissance”, Hurley’s investigation of post-Neronian authors, the subsections in Erker on “literary representations of the dichotomy religion/superstition” and “religion and superstition in the Satyrica”, the emphasis on literary texts by Bryan in her chapter on philosophy, the literary bent of Part IV “Reception”). No doubt a Companion to Neronian Literature would be a worthy independent volume and this collection does much to further such a goal with its exciting blend of canonical authors and those less studied; such a volume might also make use of essays on the representation of, e.g., militarism, religion, philosophy, and theatricality in contemporary literature. But given this volume’s aims to function as a companion to the age as a whole, it seems that archaeological, art historical, and historical questions should be given equal weight in the selection of individual essays and also in the volume’s organization as a whole.

These criticisms are not meant to detract from the Companion’s many merits. Many of its essays should become the standard discussions on the topic, whereas others gesture importantly toward future work to be done in the field. Moreover, the clarity of the chapters makes them suitable to be used pedagogically in an advanced undergraduate or graduate course.

A final note on production: while it is unclear why Plates 1-4 (the only images in color) are placed as extra pages in the middle of Bergmann’s essay (which does not refer to them), the volume is largely free of errors and includes many useful black and white illustrations (although fig. 20.5 is difficult to see).

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