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Thoughts on Nero

I have just finished re-listening to all 179 glorious episodes of Mike Duncan’s amazing The History of Rome Podcast (not all in a single sitting – I’m not that crazy) and not only did it once again capture my imagination, trying to put myself into the shoes of these ancient people, but it also got me thinking that perhaps someday people will look back on us in the same way we look back on Rome.

The thing about the history of the era, and a point that Mike Duncan was always at great pains to point out, was how lumpy the record was. There were some periods for which we have quite good information, varied written sources and a lot of physical evidence with which to piece together the events and the world people lived in back then. Other periods however, regardless of how transformative they might have been, have infuriatingly scanty evidence. For the reigns of some emperors, for instance, we have but a single source or one that was written much later based on previous sources.

The problem with this is one of bias. Writers back then, and especially history writers, rarely wrote with even the slightest pretense of neutrality. Biographies especially tended to have an agenda, their aim being to teach the reader moral lessons or push a particular political view rather than relate the facts as they actually happened. The tough, charismatic men who became emperors became paragons of manly virtue or depraved villains depending on whether the author approved of them or not. Powerful women in those shockingly misogynistic times were invariably portrayed as virtuous matrons or as oversexed, overbearing harpies.

It puts us in a weird spot in terms of how to treat some historical figures.

Take Nero, for example. We know for instance that he died by committing suicide, friendless and abandoned by the people and Senate of Rome. That much makes a lot of sense and there’s little reason to dispute it. We also know that after his popularity took a sharp nosedive following the Great Fire of Rome, vicious (most likely untrue) rumours spread of his having started the fire deliberately. To take the heat off himself, so to speak, he blamed a widely disliked minority group for starting the blaze. These were the early Christians, weird impious atheists (yes, really – they were called this for denying the existence of the traditional Roman gods) whose secretive get-togethers apparently culminating in the eathing of human flesh and the drinking of blood. This started the first officially sanctioned persecution of Christians, which killed a number of prominent Christian leaders, including (traditionally) the Apostle Peter, who counted among Jesus’ original disciples.

That this treatment of the man who would later come to be seen as the first Bishop of Rome (i.e. the first Pope) came at his hands, it’s little wonder that Christian sources at the time came to portray Nero as being nothing short of the Antichrist. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the author of the book of Apocalypse/Revelations was referring to Nero and his persecution when writing down his visions of the Beast from the Sea. Nero’s name can even be equated to the infamous Number of the Beast, 666, in Jewish numerology. It is surely no coincidence that the Great Whore of Babylon was said to sit upon seven hills.

Suffice it to say that if you wanted an unbiased view of the man known to history as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, you would not look to Christian sources.

Another source we have is Tacitus, a gifted historian who wrote his account of the reign of Nero decades after the fact. Having lived not only through Nero’s reign but also that of the hated Domitian, he seems to have been trying to condemn rulers whose paranoia culminated in widespread and arbitrary political executions. What he wrote about Nero’s reign seems to be mostly within the realm of the plausible, barring a few colourful anecdotes regarding incest with his mother and playing the lyre while Rome burned.

If you ignore these dramatic flourishes, the story that emerges is one of a pampered princeling who came to the throne at too young an age. As emperor, he was first an irresponsible layabout who allowed his mother and close advisors to call the shots as he played music and wrote poetry, but became a capricious despot as he broke free of their shackles and lived a life of depraved excess, spending recklessly, appointing favourites to important positions over men of merit and arbitrarily having people executed, either for their money or because they had been accused by someone in his inner circle. He seemed determined to alienate everyone and undermine his own reign at every turn. By the time the Great Fire of Rome happened, it was little wonder people were ready to believe that he’d had it lit deliberately.

Then we have his contemporary Suetonius, who seemingly cannot wait to relay to us all the salacious details of Nero’s depravity. No story is too shocking, no rumour too outrageous for Suetonius, who gives us a picture of a man gone insane with power and whose sexual habits make him out as no less than a monster. I won’t repeat the stories here, but sexual murders, castrations and public humiliations all feature in Suetonius, who spins a tale that disgusts as much as it fascinates. He seems to conflate the perversion of the emperor with the decadence and rot he sees in Roman society. In condemning Nero, he condemns the world and times he lives in, yearning for a simpler time when men were virtuous, tough and good, thinking nothing of themselves and given wholly over to public duty and manly pursuits.

Put together, these accounts give us an image of a cruelty and depth of sadistic evil that is practically inhuman. If you take everything said about the man at face value, you could almost believe Nero really was the Antichrist.

But is this an accurate picture?

Probably not.

One thing you have to remember when you’re reading ancient sources is that to accuse your enemies of sexual deviance was a tried and true rhetorical tactic. Roman senators openly accused one another of being perverts all the time. Accusing someone of sexual misdeeds called other parts of their character into question, because it seems that in the popular imagination, people were either righteous or they were morally defective, wholly good or wholly rotten. Somebody born with a disability or disfigurement was seen as having being punished by the gods for one crime or other, and conversely, someone who was handsome or lucky was smiled upon by the gods. Someone with abnormal sexual appetites had to have something else wrong with them. It was just common sense.

It therefore wasn’t enough to simply call your political enemies liars, frauds, scoundrels and thieves, you needed to accuse them of partaking in sexually abhorrent acts to give your accusations some punch. You needed to besmirch their good name among society and not leave any room for sympathy. In the cut-throat world of Roman law and politics you couldn’t just accuse your opponents, you needed to destroy them.

In fact, the tactic is so common, it even shows up in the Bible. In one of Paul’s letters to Greek-speaking Christians, Paul accuses his correspondents of having been sexual perverts before having converted. He does it, not because he necessarily believes that all the Christians in that city had partaken in the acts he described, but because he wanted to shame his readers into contrition, to recognise that by Jewish standards, the worldview they had once lived by was considered evil and to contrast that with the clean lives he was asking of them. Basically, he was saying “You’re not as good as you think you are” using a common rhetorical tactic of his day.

The takeaway from all of this is that Nero probably was an irresponsible, spendthrift, drunken, debauched and cruel ruler, but it was probably not as bad as advertised. Did he engage in a systematic persecution of an innocent minority and subject many innocent people to horrific and painful deaths? Yes. Did he rape a vestal virgin, seduce his own mother, marry a boy he tried to castrate and kick his pregnant wife to death? Probably not.

Just remember – Tacitus, Suetonius and Christian sources just really, really hated the guy. It makes me wonder what people will be saying about hated figures like Adolf Hitler 2000 years from now.

Categories: History, Society
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