Say what you will about Nero, he’s the Roman emperor people have heard of. Fiddling while Rome burned? Having his mother done in? That’s him. The home life of the Caesars makes Game of Thrones people look like The Waltons. As the sponsors (BP) to the British Museum’s new exhibition, Nero, The Man Behind the Myth, observe, “It is fair to say that Nero represents none of the qualities we expect in our leaders today.”
This fascinating show sets out to put the record straight. “Nero is one of the most infamous Roman emperors”, we are told. “Does he deserve his reputation for cruelty, megalomania and excess?” The answer here is “no”. The director of the Museum, Hartwig Fischer, talks darkly about a world “in which fake news, contested facts… are commonplace.”
In this take, sources that depict Nero as cruel and licentious (Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, all drawing on earlier accounts) are fake news, a bid by “elite” authors to trash him. As for the imperial women’s affairs and machinations, that’s misogyny. So, we get little of the hair-curling stuff about Nero’s excesses and the lurid detail of the matricide (Agrippina just wouldn’t die – dropped off at sea, she swam ashore and had to be knifed there) and the persecution of the Christians. Instead we learn how popular Nero was with the underclass and in the east.
Still, there’s wonderful material, starting with the poignant statue of Nero as the promising heir, aged 13. There’s an early example of faking it in statuary, a head restored in the seventeenth century to make him look licentious. There are few known likenesses of Nero but here we have a tiny, lovely bronze statue of him in uniform. A telling panel of him being crowned by his mother, Agrippina is followed by a chilling coin series showing Agrippina on the front, then mother and son nose-to-nose, then one with him in the foreground until finally, she disappears altogether.
One of the excitements of Nero’s reign was Boudicca’s revolt: you can see the hacked bones of her unfortunate victims in Colchester. One chilling exhibit, from Wales, is an iron gang chain that shackled slaves, neck on neck. There’s another take on slavery in an adorable statue of a chubby little lamp-bearer asleep (the Romans, like Victorians, had their sentimental side). The Parthian war exhibits show Nero as peacemaker.
The Great Fire of Rome comes with sound effects and a fire-warped grating, though the curators don’t hold with the idea of him fiddling. His weakness for acting and chariot racing (that went down badly) are dealt with imaginatively – there’s an exquisite statuette of a tragic actor that looks almost Japanese. We get lots about his hair – young men went wild for his wavy fringe.
At the close, curators include a poignant inscription to Epaphroditus, Nero’s faithful secretary, who helped him commit suicide under pressure, aged 30. Yet you never learn how he did it (a dagger in the neck). As ever, the exhibition avoids sensationalism – even when the facts really are sensational.
British Museum, May 27 to October 24