How Nasty Was Nero, Really?

In The New Yorker, Rebecca Reed reports on modern historians’ efforts to rehabilitate the Roman emperor Nero, whose name has become synonymous with corruption.

Depictions of Nero as notorious are “based on a source narrative that is partisan,” Thorsten Opper, a curator in the Greek and Roman division of the British Museum, told me recently. The museum has just opened an exhibition that, if not quite aiming to rehabilitate Nero, challenges his grotesque reputation. “Anything you think you know about Nero is based on manipulation and lies that are two thousand years old,” Opper, the show’s lead curator, said. Indeed, some of the stories told about Nero, such as the saying that he “fiddled while Rome burned,” are patently absurd: violins weren’t invented until the sixteenth century.

Most of what has been passed down about Nero comes from three historians: Tacitus, who portrays him as having “polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence”; Cassius Dio, who describes Nero skulking incognito through Rome at night while “insulting women,” “practicing lewdness on boys,” and “beating, wounding, and murdering” others; and Suetonius, who claims that Nero, having run through the usual roster of vices, invented a perversion of his own at public games that he hosted, in which he would put on an animal skin and “assail with violence the private parts both of men and women, while they were bound to stakes.”

Modern scholars have determined that many of the tropes used to characterize Nero’s depravities bear a remarkable similarity to literary accounts of mythical events. Opper said, “The whole thing is based on literary techniques that were taught in Roman rhetorical schools.” Tacitus’ and Dio’s accounts of the Great Fire of Rome, in 64 A.D., in their detailed evocations of citizens wailing and mothers grabbing their children, closely echo earlier accounts of attacks on cities, especially the siege of Troy. Nero wasn’t even in Rome when the fire started. Moreover, much of what was destroyed was slum housing constructed by exploitative landlords. During the fire, Nero “led the relief effort,” in Opper’s words, and afterward instituted a new building code.

Source: How Nasty Was Nero, Really?

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