Ancient Rome has long been a source of fascination and enjoys a significant presence in popular culture, though in film and fiction, the life depicted is often highly romanticized. In their new book The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley use source material to examine the life of one of Rome’s more notorious and extravagant figures: murderer, tyrant, and likely madman Emperor Nero. The book offers a comprehensive history of Nero’s personal life in the context of historical events that happened during his rule, such as the great fire of Rome. The three authors recently answered some questions on the enduring allure of Rome and in Nero.
There seems to be considerable popular interest in ancient Rome at the moment. Can you explain this?
AB & EF & JY: This is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Interest in antiquity does seem to have waned during the middle ages, but it enjoyed a vigorous revival with the renaissance, beginning on the fifteenth century, and that interest has never died away. That said, we do seem to be particularly fascinated by the ancient world at the moment. It may be that modern life, so utterly dependent on machines and technology, where so many of our daily transactions are conducted through the computer, without human contact, has created a void, and a general attachment to the past, when life seemed so much more interesting and romantic, is one of the things that we use to fill it. Within the general area of antiquity, the Romans have particular appeal, for the West at least, perhaps because their empire represents the first manifestation of a global superpower, governed by people who are in many respects so different from us, yet, in their ambitions and their motivations, are strikingly similar to us. There are in addition two fortuitous factors. One is that the traditional birth of Christ occurred at the time of the birth of the Roman empire. The over-towering place of the Christ story in the thought of the West has by association kept the Roman empire in our consciousness. Also, at a mundane level, Rome just lends itself well to film and television, with its rich use of imagery and symbols to convey the phenomenon of power. As a consequence, some of the most popular cinematic spectacles, from Quo Vadis, to Spartacus, to Ben Hur, to Gladiator have Rome as their setting and inspiration.
There is a general fascination with Roman Emperors, but Nero seems to attract more attention than most. Why do you think that is?
AB & EF & JY: That is a undoubtedly true. Basically, people find villains engrossing. We may admire Mother Teresa or Saint Francis of Assisi, but for most of us the Jack the Rippers and Vlad the Impalers of this world are far more compelling and entertaining characters. Nero has a special reputation for villainy, and a number of factors have come together to foster that reputation. Perhaps first and foremost, he appears in the Christian tradition as the Antichrist, the first emperor to persecute the Christians after their supposed role in the Great Fire. And he is traditionally blamed for the martyrdoms of the two earliest great champions of the Christian cause, Saints Peter and Paul. We also have reasonably detailed accounts of Nero from three ancient authors, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, which ensures a rich store of anecdotes. These anecdotes may be of highly dubious validity, but that does not prevent them from being vastly entertaining. Additionally, Nero was not only cruel, other emperors were no less so, but he disgraced himself in Roman eyes by his public performances on the stage and on the racecourse, providing yet another store of irresistible anecdotes. Finally, there is the simple chance fact that a combination of larger-than-life historical events, which have provided themes for generations of writers and artists over the centuries, occurred during his reign: the murder of his mother, the Great Fire of Rome, the rebellion of Boudica, his melodramatic yet tawdry suicide. Caligula, with a similarly villainous reputation, for similar sorts of reasons, comes a close second, but Nero gets the top billing.
There is a popular belief that Nero was mad. Is that your conclusion too?
AB & EF & JY: Defining and identifying madness is a difficult process, and the tag of ‘mad’ is used loosely to cover anything from wacky eccentricity to severe mental illness. Assessing someone’s psychological state is a great challenge; it is striking that experts who testify in court proceedings after lengthy one-on-one interviews and full access to the patient’s clinical history are often met with scepticism, even ridicule. Thus one has to be even more wary about trying to assess the mental state of someone who lived two thousand years ago and whose conduct is known from incomplete records, produced well after the fact by writers who are hostile to their subject and as often as not relish the prospect of telling the lewdest and most outrageous anecdotes they can amass. It would be dangerous to make broad statements about Nero’s mental health. His conduct does seem to be outrageous at times, but we have to remember that he was only sixteen when he was thrust overnight into a position of enormous power, surrounded by fawning toadies willing to applaud his each and every act. It is probably little wonder that he behaved at times like a spoilt teenager.
There is perhaps one troublesome pattern detectable throughout his adult life that does seem to point to something disturbing. Nero seems to have had a tendency to fall under the spell of powerful women, and his ultimate response to their dominance was invariably a violent one, thus he murdered his mother Agrippina and he reputedly kicked to death his wife Poppaea. He also had a supposed proclivity for look-alikes of these powerful women, using courtesans and actresses (essentially powerless females) to impersonate them. The stories might be fabrications, of course, but the fact that they form a repeated pattern gives them an aura of authenticity. Perhaps something of interest there for the psychologists.
Academics who write about ancient history seem to be more interested in the sources than in the actual events. Can you explain this?
AB & EF & JY: No history, of any period, can be a perfectly accurate record of events. The instant we report on the past our reports are contaminated by the social and intellectual baggage that as historians we carry into the discussion. But for the history of much of the world in recent centuries we do have a considerable body of archives and material records that makes possible a fairly reliable reconstruction of past events. As a broad principle the further back we go, the more tenuous the records. This does not always hold true: we have, for instance, fairly detailed accounts of the Rome in the last century BC, but have very sketchy information about the early middle ages from the fifth century AD on. But as a general broad principle, the historian of a period of history separated from our own is going to face enormous difficulties. The records are in most cases lost or fragmentary, and the contemporary accounts make no pretence of the principled search for the truth that we expect of modern historians. Consequently it is often difficult for the students of ancient history to reconstruct even a reliable outline of events, let alone identify broad historical development. It is admittedly the case that for the Julio-Claudian period we are relatively fortunate, and can draw on the accounts of a number of ancient writers. Yet the material that they have preserved is often inconsistent and even contradictory, and at times reaches levels of absurdity that beggar belief. For much of Nero’s reign we would be hard put to say in which city he was present at any given time, in whose company he passed his time, how he spent the large part of his day. As a consequence as historians we have to spend much time and effort in an attempt simply to work out what was happening. The narrative of past events can be a stimulating and exciting one, but first of all we must work out how to put a reliable version of that narrative together.
What is the main thing that Nero can teach us today?
AB & EF & JY: It is always risky to draw close analogies between events that happen in widely separated periods that have different social and political contexts. That said, it is possible to discern some identifiable common themes that seem to run throughout human history. Perhaps the main thing that Nero teaches us, ironically, is what Churchill called the confirmed unteachability of mankind. In AD 37 the Roman world, including its governing classes, embraced with gusto a youthful and almost totally unknown emperor who had no proven talent for government and virtually no experience of it. His qualifications seem to have consisted exclusively of a general affability and good family connections. This youthful emperor was Caligula, and his subsequent reign was a disaster. Less that 20 years later, in AD 54, Rome went through almost the same scenario, when an even younger and even less experienced Nero was enthusiastically greeted as the new emperor, because of those very same personal qualities, family connections and an amiable manner. It is unsurprising that the net result was quite similar, but it does seem surprising, even astonishing, that Romans had not learned at all from their previous experience. But, as Churchill seemed to have perceived, that reason may derive from a basic flaw in our make-up. The concept of ‘never again’ has a brief shelf-life in the store of human experience.
Anthony A. Barrett is professor emeritus of classics at the University of British Columbia. His books include Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Elaine Fantham is the Giger Professor of Latin, emerita, at Princeton University. Her books includeRoman Literary Culture: From Plautus to Macrobius. John C. Yardley is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Ottawa. His books include Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation. All three recently collaborated on The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources.