BMCR 2023.09.44

Flavian Responses to Nero’s Rome

, , Flavian Responses to Nero's Rome. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022. Pp. 358. ISBN 9789463723756

Open access

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


The study Flavian Responses to Nero’s Rome, edited by Mark Heerink and Esther Meijer, is a collection of essays, based on a conference held at the University of Amsterdam in 2016. As the title suggests, it covers the crucial transitional period from Neronian to Flavian rule, addressing not only the different and varied “modes of remembering Nero” (e.g., p. 11; 16) through deconstruction and (re)construction of the past, but also assessing its influence on the developing Principate, especially in relation to “issues of dynasty and succession” (p. 12; on the whole, see Meijer’s ‘Introduction’). Under this guideline, the following ten contributions examine various sources—mostly literary and archaeological—on individual issues.

In keeping with the first section, Family Matters, this collection begins with an essay on ‘Nero’s Divine Stepfather and the Flavian Regime’ by Andrew Gallia, which analyses the complicated veneration of Claudius as Divus under Nero as well as the initiated but soon abandoned Templum Divi Claudi. Given Claudius’ ambivalent personality and politics, the author assesses Vespasian’s decision to revive the cult (not the princeps) as a purposeful means of strengthening Flavian auctoritas, which simultaneously paved the way for the practise of divinisation for subsequent emperors. Also part of the first section is Annemarie Ambühl’s comparative study, ‘The Flavians and Their Women: Rewriting Neronian Transgressions?’ on the women of the Neronian and Flavian imperial families as “discourse models” (p. 75) for the respective emperors. Drawing on post-Flavian historiography and biography, she shows that the women associated with Nero served as negative precedents to be “overwritten” in the case of Vespasian and Titus and “rewritten” in the case of Domitian (p. 60), in order to distance the former from Nero and bring the latter into line with him.

The next section, Building on Nero’s Rome, focuses on the archaeological remains. Thus, Aurora Raimondi Cominesi evaluates the ‘Flavian Architecture on the Palatine’ at first sight as a “break” with Nero and a return to Augustus, but on closer examination as a construction with traits of “continuity”. The author identifies certain architectural and decorative elements that had been innovatively applied in the Neronian Domus Aurea, but also adopted in the imperial residence complex, now confined to the Palatine Hill under Domitian—an acceptable solution of long duration. Eric Moormann presents with methodical balance, ‘Some Observations on the Templum Pacis’, its architecture, its material, and especially on the art collection on display (removed from the Domus Aurea). Distinguished from Nero and with recourse to Augustus, Vespasian’s Templum Pacis (with some modifications by Domitian) could be largely associated with Flavian themes in terms of “auctoritas and maiestas (p. 144) and thus understood as “a summa of Flavian politics”.

In the third section, Literary Responses to Nero’s Rome, Mark Heerink examines the Cyzicus episode as a remarkable and revealing example of ‘Civil War and Trauma in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica’, triggered by the cataclysmic events of 68-69 CE after Nero’s death, which could only be told through myth. In contrast, Tim Stover in ‘Imitatio, aemulatio, and Ludic Allusions: Channelling Lucan in Statius’ Thebaid 1.114-164’ deals with possible poetic allusions to the Lucanian Caesar (the enfant terrible of the Bellum Civile), their interpretation, and the playful rivalry between the Neronian and Flavian epic poets. Both Heerink and Stover, necessarily read the works of Valerius Flaccus and Statius not only in light of Lucan’s Bellum Civile, but also in light of Virgilian poetry of the Augustan period. To conclude this section, Ruurd Nauta conscientiously traces ‘Calpurnius Siculus in the Flavian Poets’, namely Silius Italicus, Statius, Martial and (in part) Juvenal, fruitfully arguing over which poet invokes whom to prove Calpurnius a Neronian.[1] Thus, intertextuality is particularly strong in “passages engaging in dialogue with the genre of bucolic poetry” (p. 237), and rare in panegyric sections.

With a focus on youth in section four, Presenting the Emperor in Early Imperial Rome, Anne Wolsfeld deals with, ‘How to Portray the princeps: Visual Imperial Representation from Nero to Domitian’, pointing not only to the drastic differences in portraiture between Nero and Vespasian, but also to the subtle discrepancies in the self-representation of Nero and the young Flavian siblings Titus and Domitian. At the same time, newly introduced fashion trends and impulses of the Neronian period were followed up—uninfluenced by the bad reputation of the last Julio-Claudian princeps. Regardless of age and single facial features, the Flavians were clearly recognisable as family unit (another difference from Nero). Lisa Cordes, in turn, comparatively examines the literary images of the young Nero and Domitian during their lifetimes and after their deaths and shows how the initially positive discourse about Nero’s young age was posthumously turned into the image of an “Iuvenis infandi ingeni scelerum capaxque: Flavian Responses to Nero’s Youth”,[2] thus creating a sharp contrast to the old and therefore wise statesman Vespasian. In another way, the strategy of Flavian responses also affected Domitian’s youthful deeds during the civil war in Rome, oscillating between praise in Flavian times and derision in post-Flavian times.

The collection of essays concludes with a fifth section, Looking Back, by Verena Schulz on ‘Historiographical Responses to Flavian Responses to Nero’, primarily in the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. While the first two authors distance Vespasian and Titus from Nero—in contrast to Domitian—and at the same time distinguish between the first two Flavian principes and the last one, Cassius Dio emphasises the separation between good and bad emperors in the mirror of his own time.

As this brief overview already suggests, the merit of this collection lies precisely in the diverse studies devoted to individual issues, some in great detail, although the overall theme of Flavian reactions to and memories of Nero and Nero’s Rome has been in the making for some time.[3] Nevertheless, three aspects of a general, although thought-provoking nature should be mentioned here, which can apply both to the Flavian period and beyond. First, the essays as a whole point to a great diversity of layers in the memory of the Neronian past. This is partly due to the material itself, for it is not always easy to interpret the archaeological and literary evidence of Neronian origin that was discarded or, more difficult to explain, renewed by Vespasian, Titus, or Domitian. This problem is discussed, for example, by Wolsfeld, who highlights and theorises the adoption of some originally Neronian developments and fashions in imperial visual representation in Flavian times. While there were features that were characteristic of Nero’s imperial portraiture, not all of them were necessarily tied to the former princeps and could therefore be modified and adopted by the Flavians—a fact that should be considered in scholarly analyses. This could also be fruitful for the study of imperial architecture on the Palatine Hill, as presented by Aurora Raimondi Cominesi. Finally, Moormann expresses similar thoughts on cautious interpretation with regard to the art exhibited in the Templum Pacis (p. 141-143). Another difficulty in dealing with the memory of Nero concerns the individuals involved: While ‘Flavian Responses’ (as the title reads) leaves the question of who is acting open, Nero’s Rome could be broadened to distinguish between Nero, Nero’s Rome, or even the Neronian period: for example, Gallia focuses on the Julio-Claudian and Flavian principes and their handling of divinisation (ad personam). The second section, Building on Nero’s Rome, looks at the urban transformation of the city of Rome (including architecture, building materials, and art collections), whereas Heerink, Stover, and Nauta concentrate on the poetry of the Neronian and Flavian periods—from a very text-based perspective, of course,—and therefore deal only marginally with Nero or with Nero’s Rome. Thus, the intensity of the engagement with the re- and (de)construction of the Neronian past varies greatly depending on the material, method, and subject matter.

Second, the analysis of Flavian responses to Nero’s Rome often implies the analysis of Flavian responses to Augustus’ Rome, important for all emperors of the 1st century CE (as it is for today’s scholars studying the Principate). The same applies, to a lesser extent, to the Rome of the other Julio-Claudian principes. This is especially true of Gallia’s study on Divus Claudius and the Templum Divi Claudi, which deals with the interrelationships between Vespasian, Nero, and Claudius.[4] Clearly, consideration of multi-layered references to the predecessor literature is a core element of work with literary sources. This is evident in the essays by Cordes on the youthful ages of Nero and Domitian, by Heerink on Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, by Stover on Statius’ Thebaid and by Nauta on Calpurnius Siculus and the Flavian poets, all of whom naturally drew on Neronian and Augustan’ antecedents. This interdependence also operates on more than one level, as Schulz shows via post-Flavian historiography and biography. It is Ambühl who examines this phenomenon in particular, emphasising that not only were the women surrounding Vespasian, Titus and Domitian modelled in light of the Julio-Claudian experience, but also vice versa, as Tacitus’ Annals (Augustus’ death to Nero’s death) were written later than his Histories (the period following Nero’s death).[5] Thus, responding to Nero’s Rome means dealing with a past that has been broken several times.

Third, looking at the Flavian responses to Nero’s Rome means not only looking back, but also evaluating Flavian rule in light of the developing Principate: the Flavian principes, especially in retrospect, seemed to act as a hinge between the Julio-Claudians and the emperors of the 2nd century CE. This is taken up, to give just two examples, by Andrew Gallia with regard to the cult of the “imperial divi (p. 47-48, here 48) and by Aurora Raimondi Cominesi with reference to the official function of the imperial complex on the Palatine Hill (p. 112-115). Since “dynasty and succession” were explicitly mentioned in the Introduction (p. 12) as keywords for the changing character of the Principate, a more detailed treatment of this topic would have been desirable, even if this goes far beyond the scope of individual detailed studies and is not meant as a reproach.

Finally, the present collection of essays is well crafted. In some cases, the interested reader would have wished for more illustrations (or, rarely, illustrations of better quality, e.g., p. 105 fig. 4.2a)—for example, in the case of the imperial complex on the Palatine Hill with its numerous rooms (sometimes referred to in the text) and of the Neronian Domus Aurea. Very helpful for orientation is the detailed appendix List of Works of Art (p. 158-159) presented by Moormann for his study of the Templum Pacis.

Overall, the essays here, especially in their plurality, inspire further work on the multi-layered and complex treatment of Nero’s legacy.


Authors and Titles

  1. Introduction, Esther Meijer

I Family Matters

  1. Nero’s Divine Stepfather and the Flavian Regime, Andrew Gallia
  2. The Flavians and Their Women: Rewriting Neronian Transgressions? , Annemarie Ambühl

II Building on Nero’s Rome

  1. Flavian Architecture on the Palatine: Continuity or Break, Aurora Raimondi Cominesi
  2. Some Observations on the Templum Pacis: A Summa of Flavian Politics, Eric Moormann

III Literary Responses to Nero’s Rome

  1. Civil War and Trauma in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Mark Heerink
  2. Imitatio, aemulatio, and Ludic Allusion: Channeling Lucan in Statius’ Thebaid114-164, Tim Stover
  3. Calpurnius Siculus in the Flavian Poets, Ruurd Nauta

IV Presenting the Emperor in Early Imperial Rome

  1. How to Portray the princeps: Visual Imperial Representation from Nero to Domitian, Anne Wolsfeld
  2. Iuvenis infandi ingeni scelerum capaxque: Flavian Responses to Nero’s Youth, Lisa Cordes

V Looking Back

  1. Historiographical Responses to Flavian Responses to Nero, Verena Schulz



[1] As an impuls for this topic and basis for his discussion, Ruurd Nauta refers to the following paper: E. Courtney, Imitation, chronologie littéraire et Calpurnius Siculus. Revue des Études Latines 65 (1987), p. 148-157.

[2] The quotation comes from the pseudo-Senecan Octavia 152-153.

[3] See also Meijer’s appreciation of the extensive academic literature in her ‘Introduction’, especially p. 11-15.

[4] See also Meijer’s ‘Introduction’ p. 16 (although Claudius is not explicitly mentioned here).

[5] On this point, see in particular p. 76-77 with footnote 57.