BMCR 2017.03.09

The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources

, , , The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016. xxvii, 300. ISBN 9780691156514. $35.00 (pb).


This sourcebook is a superb addition to current interest in Nero, not least because its authors form an all-star team for any study of Neronian Rome. Their goal is simple: “to illuminate incidents of Nero’s life and rule that are either historically significant or just inherently interesting” (p. vii). They also aim throughout to help readers get a sense for how radically sources can differ and how the tradition came to be; thus, where possible, they include at least two sources on each event/topic. Unusual are the heavy footnotes that occur throughout, but these are a treasure trove of further information (selected highlights below). The book includes a preface and introduction followed by ten thematic chapters. Each chapter includes an introduction (ranging from a paragraph to five pages) and excerpts from Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio. This is important to note at the start: while the volume’s subtitle might suggest a wider variety of sources, the book is really a guide to the historiography of Nero; other literary texts serve more as complements than objects of inquiry, often left unannotated or relegated to the end of a chapter.1 For example, the only excerpts from Seneca ( Clem. 1.1-5) appear at the end of Chapter 2 without much help guidance for interpreting this complex work of political philosophy; so too excerpts from the Octavia do not orient readers to its status as a play and its difficulties. Documentary and material sources, however, are more successfully integrated throughout.

The book begins with a Preface on its scope, intended audiences (students and laypersons interested in Nero), division of labor, and how best to use its ancillary materials. An Introduction follows, which outlines major events from the late Republic to Nero’s reign, and introduces us to major players and themes. A particular strength is the balance of traditional views (e.g. Nero as domestic tyrant) with hints of other perspectives that will be developed subsequently (e.g. Nero’s disaster management after the Fire of 64 CE). The chapter ends by looking at the textual sources: Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio take center stage with notes on problems of genre and transmission. Attention is also given to Seneca, Pliny the Elder, and the records of the Arval brothers as well as to lost works such as the Flavian historians or Agrippina’s memoirs. A black and white map of the empire under Nero and a timeline follow.

Chapter 1 focuses on Nero’s childhood and rise to power, but its introduction begins with the weaknesses of the Augustan system. The sources range from the familiar (the ambition of Agrippina as seen in Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio) to those less often featured (Pliny on Nero’s breech birth). The excellent notes include, e.g., mini-biographies of prominent figures, tidbits of historical interest (e.g. Agrippina’s remarkable honorific title ‘Augusta’), and matters of style and translation. This chapter also discusses the Claudian coins that feature Agrippina and Nero. The chapter ends with an informative appendix on Nero’s date of birth.

Chapter 2 tackles Nero’s early years as emperor. Its introduction covers Rome’s anticipation of Caligula and Nero as restorers of the ‘Golden Age’, Nero’s positive start, and Seneca’s role in shaping early policy. There is also a useful discussion of Nero’s so-called quinquennium and its sources. Particular attention is paid to Nero’s governmental practices and Agrippina’s influence (though here and elsewhere throughout their treatment of Agrippina, the editors seem to place too much emphasis on her ambition vs. other explanations for her prominence). In addition to material drawn from Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio, we find P.Oxy.VII.1021 (celebrating the accession of Nero in the East) along with a helpful info- box on how to approach papyrological evidence. Numismatic evidence, especially concerning Agrippina, is prominent; there is also an excellent discussion of the Aphrodisias relief in which Agrippina/Demeter crowns Nero. The chapter concludes with the aforementioned excerpt from De Clementia 1.1-5.

Chapter 3 looks at the dynastic strife that plagued Neronian Rome. Its first part traces Nero’s relationship with male rivals for power: Britannicus, Cornelius Sulla, and Rubellius Plautus. The introduction covers various theories on Britannicus’ death, including the possibility that he was an epileptic. Extensive excerpts from Tacitus’ Annales complemented by Suetonius and Dio follow with the addition of Josephus, the earliest surviving historian to recount Britannicus’ murder. The chapter’s second part focuses on the murder of Agrippina and the question of why Nero decided to eliminate her in 59 CE. The editors rightly reject Poppaea’s influence as a Tacitean retrojection and seem somewhat sympathetic to Nero’s own suggestion that Agrippina may have been plotting against him. Added to the usual trio are excerpts from the pseudo- Senecan Octavia. Tacitus’ account of the public celebration after Agrippina’s death is usefully juxtaposed with Suetonius on anonymous one-liners circulating at the time. Also included is Nero’s numismatic commemoration of his food market, which Dio believes was a measure designed to increase popular support after Agrippina’s death.

Chapter IV, Parthia, begins by tracing the development of the Parthian empire and its relationship with Rome from Sulla onward. The editors here break with their organizational scheme by excerpting Tacitus’ account as a continuous narrative. Their reasoning is explicitly stated: Tacitus’ is the longest, internally coherent narrative to survive, despite its issues (highlighted in the notes). Additional material, such as Dio’s treatment of Corbulo, serve to illuminate Tacitus’ compositional method and possible sources. Also included are ILS 9018 commemorating the transfer of the 6 th legion from Syria to Armenia, ILS 232 commemorating the formal submission of Tiridates to Corbulo before his visit to Rome, and Nero’s famous Temple of Janus issue (and the controversy over the date of the closure). The notes throughout are excellent, including an introduction to Tigranes VI and Tacitus’ violation of his annalistic method, as well as astronomical and solar anomalies noted by Pliny the Elder.

Chapter V, Britain and Germany, is divided into two. The introduction to Britain focuses on the sources available to our three major historians and the episode’s significance for understanding certain weaknesses in provincial administration. The editors highlight divergences between sources—including Tacitus’ accounts in the Annales and his earlier Agricola —as problems for readers to wrestle with. The ability to compare and contrast speeches written by Tacitus and Dio in particular is an excellent opportunity for source criticism. The introduction to Germany focuses on Roman perceptions of Germany and the Rhineland since Julius Caesar and a history of imperial interventions. Nero here is credited with great success in contrast with the selections from Tacitus which divorce Nero from praise for the peace. Once more the notes are rich: we learn about Roman perceptions of Druids, stereotypes in representing foreign queens, etc.

Chapter VI begins with an overview of the Great Fire of 64 CE as a turning point in Nero’s reign, a history of significant fires at Rome, an account of Nero’s disaster response, and reasons for skepticism over Nero’s subsequent portrayal as an arsonist. The sources—which include excerpts from Pliny and the Octavia —follow the fire from its origins to the building of the Domus Aurea. Perhaps the most important section of the entire sourcebook can be found here: the discussion of Nero’s persecution of the Christians begins with an overarching essay highlighting the problems of this famous story, including its curious absence both in Roman historical accounts (Tacitus’ problematic passage excluded) and in early Christian writings—even those dealing with the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. Excerpts from Lactantius and Eusebius are included.

In Chapter VII, The Emperor’s Wives, Octavia, Poppaea, and Statilia Messalina each get a brief introduction, as does Acte. We then follow a chronology of Nero’s marriages, drawn largely from Tacitus. I found this somewhat disappointing. Though Suetonius and Dio are usefully integrated, as is Nero’s Augustus/Augusta coin of either Poppaea or Statilia, additional material could have shed important light on these women, such as further selections from the Octavia, Josephus’ sympathies to Poppaea (summarized vaguely in n. 65) contrasted with Pliny’s hostility, or an excerpt from the recently published hymn celebrating Poppaea’s deification (P.Oxy LXXVII 5105). At the very least such sources would illuminate Tacitus’ own rhetorical construction of Nero’s women, a question at the heart of this sourcebook’s concerns.

Chapter VII introduces the reader to the difficulties that conspiracies pose for historians—ancient or modern—in terms of disentangling truth from falsehood. Attention is given to the so-called First Pisonian Conspiracy, to a history of Piso himself, and to the Pisonian conspiracy as a turning point in Nero’s slip from power. Tacitus’ 26-chapter treatment from Annales 15 (including the death of Seneca) and its aftermath in book 16 is included, supplemented by Suetonius and Dio. The notes contain, amongst other things, introductions to Stoicism, the differing views on Seneca given by Tacitus and Dio, Tacitus’ rare citation of documentary sources, and a brief biography of each conspirator.

Chapter IX, Emperor as Artist and Showman, traces Nero’s growing obsession with stage performance and Neronian theatricality. The sources selected include the typical three (Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio) but also excerpts from Augustus’ Res Gestae, Suetonius, and Macrobius’ Saturnalia on Augustus’ interest in games and performances as imperial benefactions. Due attention is given to Nero’s early interest in artistic pursuits, his creation of games on the Greek model, the visit of Tiridates, and Nero’s tour of Greece including his proclamation of freedom to the Corinthians. Here a translation of the surviving inscription with an explanation of the three documents combined on the stone is complemented by a line drawing of the inscription including the subsequent erasures of Nero’s name. The chapter ends with Suetonius’ and Dio’s accounts of Nero’s “triumphal” return and Suetonius’ misunderstanding of Nero’s citharode coin, an episode that usefully illustrates how the subsequent tradition reinterpreted Nero’s public imagery. Following this chapter is an appendix on “Nero as the Object of Contemporary Poetry,” which includes a discussion of poetic panegyric from Augustus to Nero before moving onto excerpts from Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and Lucan’s Bellum Civile.

The final chapter looks at the events leading up to Nero’s death. The editors note that, despite the loss of Tacitus’ account, Nero’s final hours are among those best documented for any Roman. The introduction gives an overview of Nero’s final years, at times month by month or day by day. The sources include not only Dio and Suetonius, but Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s biographies of Galba. Unlike the treatment of Tacitus and Dio elsewhere, Suetonius’ narrative is broken up, but here this allows the editors to juxtapose famous yet contradictory details across various accounts for readers to unpack. The chapter also includes sources on the mixed reactions to Nero’s death, the false Neros, and how we should interpret them. A postscript follows that gestures towards Nero’s enduring Nachleben over the past 2000 years.

The volume concludes with an index, a general bibliography of works and translations, and a separate bibliography for each chapter.

This review has barely touched on this book’s many strengths. The quality of the photographs, line drawings, and maps are excellent, even if only in black and white. The translations are also perfectly pitched—readable, accurate, yet preserving something of the style of each historian. This is a sourcebook designed to promote inquiry not only into Nero, but into how the Nero we know today came to be. It will be welcome in many classrooms or on the shelves of anyone looking to learn more about Nero.


1. Compare the more heterogeneous selection in M. G. L. Cooley (ed.), Tiberius to Nero (2011) BMCR 2013.05.04 which would form a useful complement in the classroom.