BMCR 2006.04.20

Nero. First published in 2003. Paperback edition

, Nero. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. 346 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0674011929 $17.95 (pb).

Edward Champlin’s (C.’s) Nero is a glittering achievement badly in need of a subtitle. C. makes a major contribution to what he acknowledges as ‘the ever-flowing stream of modern literature on Nero’ (p. 236) by focussing upon the politics of theatricality and mythological representation in the emperor’s public imagery. The two fundamental assumptions underlying his study are (i) the rationality of the emperor’s actions and (ii) the far deeper resonance of these same actions with contemporary social attitudes than is allowed by an overwhelmingly hostile historical tradition. C. represents Nero as a brilliant interpreter and exploiter of mythological exempla, an ironic Saturnalicus princeps whose inversions of societal norms and power-structures were embedded within an overarching program of populist public imagery that sought constantly to confirm and extend the connection between the emperor and his audience. Influential predecessors upon C.’s work here are Bartsch, Coleman, and Wiedemann (whose work similarly facilitated Heckster’s re-assessment of the emperor Commodus along broadly similar lines);1 looming behind these and influencing the book in spirit rather than letter is the work of Bakhtin on the carnivalesque in Rabelais.2

C.’s book is not a biography (hence, I think, the need for a more restrictive title/subtitle), but is structured around a series of chapters treating separate issues and themes within the public representation of Nero. The first three chapters deal with preliminary material, the next five treat diverse themes within Nero’s program of representation.

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-35) begins at the end. C. assembles the testimony of Suetonius and Cassius Dio into a narrative of the last days and death of Nero. He then traces the afterlife of the emperor from the immediate reaction to his death and the exploitation of his image in 69, through the false-Neros of the first century and apocalyptic literature dating from the first to the third centuries, to his transformation into the antichrist in popular early Christian thought and, finally, his passage into folklore. C.’s aim is underscore the favourable tradition implied in the popular expectation of the emperor’s return and found scattered throughout diverse ancient authors from Josephus to Malalas and the Suda. This positive take is then used as the conceptual platform for the rest of the book. C. challenges us to accept the facts of Nero’s reign, but to reject the standard explanations of these facts and instead to substitute a ‘Neronian’ explanation consistent with the positive thread he uncovers in the emperor’s posthumous reputation. Scholars will have to contend with the suggestion that the iconographic representations of emperors from Galba to Caracalla were intentionally confused with Nero’s (pp. 30-1): C. should have been explicit whether or not he associates re-carving with the ‘official’ public imagery of any of these emperors or with popular sentiment altering that image from below, as it were. The evidence of posthumous portraits of the emperor seems at once more compelling and less problematic (pp. 31-4). This first chapter is admirably backed up with theoretical considerations of the folkloric hero and illustrated copiously with examples from western history and culture. I cannot leave unmentioned how refreshing it is to see (finally!) a list that will encompass both Saint Olaf and Elvis Presley (p. 21). I should incidentally defend the King from ‘the acts of savagery’ that earns him the company of Arthur, Charlemagne, and Frederick Barbarossa (p. 34).

Chapter 2 (pp. 36-52) is an exercise in source-criticism. It treats the problems and bias found in the accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio, and explores the lost sources (both literary and documentary) for these works. Of the major lost literary sources, Cluvius Rufus is isolated as dispassionate towards the emperor, especially compared to the hostility of Pliny the Elder and Fabius Rusticus. C. then demonstrates how difficult it is to recover ‘facts’ from the extent historical works by discussing the accounts of four notorious events: the death of Claudius; discrepancies regarding Poppaea Sabina; the fire of 64; Nero’s final words and suicide. The moral of this chapter is to be sceptical and not to construct the Nero we expect. This is very much a survey for the beginner; even so, for me, C. seems to labour heavily what is an easily digestible point. I would also have expected reference to Murison when discussing the historical problems associated with Poppaea.3 These quibbles are outweighed by C.’s brilliant re-interpretation of Nero’s last words as ‘what an artisan I am [i.e., I have been reduced to] in my dying’ (p. 51).

Chapter 3 (pp. 53-83) contains the last of the preliminary material. C. establishes the fundamental seriousness of Nero’s dedication to training and performance in singing, acting, racing chariots, and heralding as exhibited in his tour of Greece. There is also here an overview of Roman spectacula in which is emphasised the centrality of the theatre to Roman life, its political dimension, and its capacity to facilitate dialogue between the emperor and the populace. C. disputes the notion that Nero coerced anyone into complicity with his theatrical interests and traces the development of Nero’s obsession with performance; 59 is marked out as the watershed year. Again, objections are minor. C. takes Vespasian’s fall from Nero’s grace at face value and with no acknowledgement of the consistency of this anecdote with Flavian revisionism of the Julio-Claudian period (p. 60). The reader also needs to be referred to Wallace-Hadrill in the discussion of ciuilitas and the concept of the ciuilis princeps (p. 63).4

Chapter 4 (pp. 84-110) explores Nero’s ‘explanation’ of his killings of his mother and Poppaea via the various mythological exempla he enacted on the stage. C. recounts the influence and death of Agrippina as well as the guilt ascribed to the emperor through popular avenues (pasquinades, graffiti, etc.), then detours through a demonstration of the vibrancy and relevance of mythology in everyday Rome, especially as a vehicle for political allegory. There was, C. argues, the expectation of contemporary political content in theatrical representations of mythological material. This ubiquity and popular expectation is used as a frame for Nero’s onstage performances of Orestes, Alcmaeon, and Oedipus, in which Nero was contextualising his own matricide, his mother’s guilt in the death of Claudius, and his alleged incest with Agrippina. Likewise, when performing Canace in Childbirth and Hercules Furens, the emperor was attempting to re-frame the terms in which the public understood the murder of his pregnant wife. These mythological exempla are now joined by an historical paradigm in Periander of Corinth, whose morally-flawed and elemental genius provided Nero with both an alternate model of power to traditional choices (such as Augustus and Alexander) and a whole new conception of Roman power itself. In many ways this is the most brilliant of the book’s chapters and represents, I think, the fullest potential of C.’s methodology and central thesis. To me (and others 5), Periander is less immediately compelling as a commonly understood paradigm of behaviour at Rome. However, the parallels between the two tyrants are clearly remarkable, and C. will later establish Nero as an attentive and sensitive re-interpreter of historical material (pp. 194-200). Of course, the real issue for C.’s thesis is how Nero conceived of presenting himself in this fashion, not how he was understood (or not) by his audience: the potential for the audience’s understanding is established (as well as can be) earlier in this chapter in relation to mythological material (pp. 93-6).

Chapter 5 (pp. 112-44) treats Nero’s self-identification with Apollo in literature, public spectacle, coinage, and architecture. C. argues that early in the reign the idea of Nero as an Apollo figure is touted in literature such as Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and Lucan’s De Bello Ciuili. C. assumes here (especially in the case of Lucan) that there is no subversion or parody of Nero at work in the literature of his reign, although this possibility has been prominently and frequently discussed.6 What emerges to me personally is a one-dimensional confirmation of official public imagery that is, in the case of Lucan, completely unconvincing. An opportunity has been lost here to discuss the possible dynamics of resistance to or dialogue with the emperor’s image that would further enrich the fabric of C.’s study. In the bulk of the chapter, Nero’s evolving identity with the sun god is mapped out by his ever-increasing participation in singing, dancing and chariot racing. Likewise, the aftermath of the fire of 64, the arrival of Tiridates at Rome in 66, and many features of the Domus Aurea (discussed with particular panache at pp. 129-32) affirm the identity. The importance of assuming such an association was not theological—C.’s Nero is steadfastly atheist—but ideological: Apollo’s role in maintaining cosmic equilibrium and his benefactions to humanity were of use to Nero, so too the oblique cultivation of an Augustan image owing to the first emperor’s own program of identification with that god. I find the notion that Nero’s cultivation of Hercules resolved in the person of the emperor the opposition of the hero and Apollo (pp. 135-8) particularly attractive. On page 142, I think C. needs to explain to the reader why the statue of Augustus as Apollo in the Palatine Library is necessarily in the aspect of Apollo Citharoedus.

Chapter 6 (pp. 145-77) argues for Saturnalian impulses informing many of Nero’s most notorious actions. The wedding to Sporus, the night-brawling, the banquet of Tigellinus, and the marriage to Pythagorus are all re-framed as calculated populism on the part of the emperor. Nero’s outrageous subversion of societal norms is read as amusing and even liberating for the general populace. The cultivation of Antony is another example of Nero’s apparent ability to read historical exempla and incorporate them within his program of mythological imagery; here the notion that Nero resolves the opposition of Antony and Augustus in his person (as with Hercules and Apollo) is brilliantly observed and illustrated (pp. 171-7).

Chapter 7 (pp. 178-209) treats the fire of 64 and Nero’s response to it. C. re-weighs the evidence and argues for Nero’s guilt as an arsonist on the basis of the accusation of Subrius Flavus, the emperor’s abortive travel plans of 64, and historical analogies in the destruction of the Temple of Vesta (pp. 182-91). It is not hard to imagine that this part of the book will encounter strong resistance (I personally am not convinced), but that is in the nature of iconoclasm, and C. is transparent in providing his readers the necessary material to judge for themselves. The discussion of Nero’s response to the fire does not depend upon C.’s belief in Nero’s guilt. Nero’s expiation of the gods Vulcan and Ceres after the fire combined the imagery of Romulus’ foundation of the city with divinities particularly favoured by the populace. Likewise the propitiation of Juno Moneta evoked (Livy’s) Camillus and the birth of the old city after the Gallic sack of 390. The construction of the Domus Aurea is reduced in size (pp. 200-6) and read as an attempt to introduce something of the sea-side villas of Campania to a general population at Rome, who were not excluded but included by its amphitheatrical topography.

Chapter 8 (pp. 210-34) treats Neronian triumphal imagery. C. establishes the historical context of the triumph as well as its constituent elements, and lays emphasis upon the degree of variation the procession tolerated. The growing appropriation of triumphal imagery, trappings, and awards is then traced throughout Nero’s reign, where C. underscores the evidently genuine value recipients placed upon honours received from Nero even after his death: here perhaps mention of Tacitus’ dictum about good men under bad emperors ( Agr. 42.5) may have crystallised the issue for C.’s readers. The core of the chapter establishes and discusses Nero’s three paradoxical ‘triumphs’: in 59 over his dead mother (pp. 219-21); in 66 in Tiridates’ entry into Rome (pp. 221-9); and in 67 in the emperor’s return from Greece (pp. 229-34). The definitions of each of these occasions as triumphs will not appeal to all (C. himself declassifies the last): in the case of 66, the silence of Tacitus is passed over in favour of the definition of Pliny the Elder. More important perhaps than the pedantry of definition is the manner in which C. presents these events as collapsing or conflating the distinction between the triumphal and the spectacular, the Roman and the foreign (Parthian, Greek), the actor and the audience. In his discussion of Tiridates in Rome, another dimension of C.’s subject emerges: Nero the diplomat of genius.

Everything about C.’s book advertises the care and effort invested in it by the author and his publisher: the cover image of the emperor could have been a detail from Picasso’s Voillard Suite but turns out to be a Roman graffito from the Domus Tiberiana; the fluid style and compelling readability of C.’s prose; the spotless manuscript offering no apparent typographical errors. Those considering the emperor or the period for the first time are now in the fortunate position of contrasting the study of C. with the biography of Miriam Griffin:7 the different emphases represented in these two studies, I think, complement each other beautifully. Taken in its entirety, it is hard to praise C.’s achievement sufficiently. He defies the avalanche of verbiage devoted to Nero’s principate to prove that there still are not only significant things left to say but convincing wholesale re-evaluations possible. His Nero will not convince everyone in every detail, but anyone interested in the emperor or the early empire must consult this work. It is indispensable.


1. S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience. Theatricality and Double-Speak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, Mass. 1994); K. M. Coleman, ‘Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments’, JRS 80 (1990) 44-73; T. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (London 1992). O. Hekster, Commodus: an Emperor at the Crossroads (Amsterdam 2002); cf. BMCR 2003.07.11.

2. M. Bakhtin (tr. H. Iswolsky), Rabelais and his World (Cambridge, Mass. 1973). I should emphasise that this work is not mentioned by C. in his text or bibliography: I mention it to orientate BMCR‘s readers to a broad style of scholarship.

3. C. L. Murison, Galba, Otho, Vitellius. Careers and Controversies (Hildesheim 1993) 75-80.

4. A. Wallace-Hadrill, ‘ Ciuilis Princeps : Between Citizen and King’, JRS 72 (1982): 32-48.

5. Cf. the remarks of K. Bradley in Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 38ff.

6. See, e.g., F. Ahl, Lucan, An Introduction (Ithaca 1976); S. E. Hinds ‘Generalizing about Ovid’, Ramus 19 (1987) 4-31; M. Dewar, ‘Laying it on with a trowel: the proem to Lucan and related texts’, CQ 44 (1994) 199-211.

7. M. T. Griffin, Nero. The End of a Dynasty (London 1984).