It should be made clear from the start that Edward Champlin’s Nero is not a biography in the usual sense of the term.
Champlin, professor of classics at Princeton, has devoted his life to teasing meaning from obscure fragments of the Latin world. (I see from his bibliography that one of his books is a study of Roman wills.) Here, Champlin faces the opposite problem: Nero is probably the most famous of Roman emperors, the only one recognizable enough to be featured in a WB cartoon.)
Nero owes his immortality to his detractors. Early Christian writers singled him out as the persecuting emperor par excellence, even though the short-lived Neronian persecutions of the tiny new church must have occurred on a much smaller scale than the empire-wide campaigns of the emperors of the later 200s. But many of these later emperors, especially Diocletian, had reputations as “good” or at least effective emperors. Nero, by contrast, had been execrated since his death by established Roman opinion, and especially by the great historian Tacitus. For Late Imperial Christians, who inherited both Latin and Christian history, the condemnation of Nero neatly united their faith and their culture: the worst of all emperors was the worst of all persecutors!
One of Champlin’s themes is the highly propagandistic character of the posthumous denunciations of Nero. The winners of the post-Nero struggle for power, the general Vespasian and his family, had a very weak claim to legitimacy. Vespasian came from an equestrian, not a senatorial family, and could claim no connection with the Caesars. This was embarrassing – and dangerous. Tacitus observed that the most important political consequence of the events of 68-69 was the discovery that emperors could be made outside Rome. What had been done by Vespasian could be done to Vespasian. To secure his claim to power, Vespasian and his supporters had to do two things: argue that Vespasian ranked among the greatest generals in Roman history (hence the magnification of the Judaean war that Martin Goodman describes in Rome and Jerusalem – see my review here) – and vilify the overthrown Nero as Rome’s greatest villain.
Champlin does not seek to revise (much) the harsh verdict on Nero as a bad man and bad emperor. What he seeks to do, rather, is uncode some of the more lurid Nero stories – to determine whether (or to what extent) they were true, and then to unpick why Nero did what he did. Unlike Caligula, Nero was not insane. He had rational goals and he pursued them rationally. Champlin believes that by retracing Nero’s motivations, we can learn some interesting things about the way Romans thought about the world.
I think Champlin succeeds in this purpose. One example:
One thing every schoolboy is taught about Nero is that he arrogantly built himself an outrageously lavish palace, “the Golden House,” covering at least 100 and maybe as much as 300 acres, that shamefully arrogated to one man’s personal use the entire area between the Palatine and the Esquiline Hills. Nero then erected a giant statue of himself in the vestibule. When it was complete, Nero remarked “at last I am beginning to live like a human being.”
Champlin deconstructs the story. The Golden House, first, was not a house. It was a complex of buildings and colonnades, constructed around an artificial lake, to create an idealized country landscape within city limits. Second, not only was it not a house – it was not Nero’s house. He never lived there. Indeed, the Golden House seems to have had no bedrooms.
The buildings that made up the house featured famous works of art. Champlin suggests that these works were open to the public. In other words, the Golden House was not a personal party palace, but a museum situated in a park.
The giant statue may have had Nero’s features, but it was not a statue of Nero – it was a statue intended to honor the Sun God. Nor did it go up in Nero’s vestibule, but in its own space that defined the entrance to the new park. The park buildings were covered with stones cut to reflect light, again to create a connection to the Sun God, the favorite god of the emperor Augustus and thus the patron god of the Julio-Claudian imperial family.
If Champlin is right, the Golden House was simultaneously a theatrical emperor’s bid for popularity by offering a new amenity to the Roman public – and an assertion of divine protection and support for his rule. These purposes make sense, and are consistent with the ongoing policy of the rulers of Rome.
This interpretation helps to make sense of what happened next: Vespasian and his sons built over the Golden House and placed the Colosseum and a baths complex there instead. In other words, they upped the ante, offering an even more astounding entertainment complex to the Roman public in place of the aesthetic but perhaps rather dull walkways, gardens, and statues offered by Nero. They left the golden statue where it stood as a continuing honor to the god of the Sun.
Champlin goes through the remainder of the Neronian legends in the same spirit, seeing in Nero’s actions a continuing campaign to legitimate his power. He doesn’t rule out that Nero murdered his mother, but does dispute that Nero kicked his pregnant wife to death. As for “fiddling” while Rome burned during the Great Fire of 64 – or even playing the lyre – Champlin points out that Nero in fact organized and supervised the firefighting. What Nero did do, regularly, was to try to use music, art, and performance to mobilize ancient legends and traditions to his own support.
This plan did not work out. It proved better to rely on the army: Nero would be the last emperor for a long time to live as a civilian rather than a soldier. But as Champlin points out, Nero’s theatricality served at least the purpose of delighting the public and prolonging his memory: for decades after his death, pretenders to the Roman throne claimed to be the returned Nero, counting on that claim to do them good. Archaeologists have found tokens with Nero’s head on them on the site of festivals that occurred decades after his death. The Romans remembered him, in the marvelous phrase of a British archaeologist working on the site of the Golden House, not as the man who threw Christians to the lions, but as the emperor “who gave the best parties ever.”