Nero was NOT tyrant who started Great Fire of Rome, exhibition says

Nero was NOT a mad tyrant who burnt Rome to the ground: British Museum exhibition will show emperor was loved by the people for his extravagant games and grand building projects

  • Nero has long been derided as being a corrupt and tyrannical leader 
  • He has been accused of deliberately starting the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • But British Museum’s exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth, dispels this
  •  Nero in fact led the relief and reconstruction efforts after the fire, experts say

He’s the emperor infamous for ‘fiddling’ while Rome burned to the ground.

Nero, who killed himself in 69AD, has long been derided as being a corrupt and tyrannical leader who may have deliberately instigated the Great Fire of Rome.

But a new British Museum exhibition aims to demonstrate how the negative depiction of Nero is a partly false one.

In response to the fire in AD 64, which burned for nine days and destroyed large parts of Rome, Nero in fact led the relief and reconstruction efforts and built a grand palace. 

Stunning frescoes and wall decorations from the palace, the Domus Aurea which Nero built after the fire will be among more than 200 objects displayed in the exhibition, which opens on May 27.

Nero: the man behind the myth, will also reveal how he was the first Roman Emperor to act on stage and was in fact ‘widely admired’ by the civilisation’s citizens.  

Thorsten Opper, an Ancient Rome curator for the British Museum, said: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2000 years ago.’

Director Hartwig Fischer added: ‘Nero: the man behind the myth is the first major exhibition in the UK to look beyond the commonly held view of Nero as the Emperor who fiddled while Rome burned.’

A new British Museum exhibition aims to demonstrate how the negative depiction of Emperor Nero is a partly false one. Pictured: A marble bust of Nero which dates from AD55 and will be displayed in the exhibition

In response to the fire in AD 64, which burned for nine days and destroyed large parts of Rome, Nero in fact led the relief and reconstruction efforts and built a grand palace

The exhibition will draw on new research and archaeological evidence to challenge the ‘biased historical accounts’ which were written after Nero’s death, the museum said.

The recent discoveries relating to Nero’s 14-year rule include treasures which were hidden after the destruction of Colchester in AD 60-61, burned artefacts from the fire in Rome and evidence from the ruined city of Pompeii.

Contemporary written accounts of Nero’s rule claim that he deliberately started the Great Fire.

But the new exhibition will present visitors with the fact that he actually led relief and reconstruction efforts. 

Stunning frescoes and wall decorations from the palace which Nero built after the fire will be among more than 200 objects displayed in Nero: the man behind the myth, which opens on May 27. Pictured: A fresco of an actor dressed as a king, alongside a female figure with a small painting of a mask. This will be shown in the new exhibition

The British Museum’s exhibition will feature a bronze head of Nero which had long been mistaken as that of fellow Emperor Claudius. It was found in the River Alde, in Suffolk, in 1907. The head is believed to have been part of a statue which likely stood in Colchester, which was then named Camulodunum

The negative image of Nero largely stems from works created 50 years after his death by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Pictured: Marble bust of Nero. Italy, around AD 55

It will also display a warped iron window grating which survived the fire. It was discovered near Rome’s Circus Maximus and is being shown in the UK for the first time.

The negative image of Nero largely stems from works created 50 years after his death by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius.

However, the British Museum experts say this has been proven to be a ‘fabrication’.

Nero was forced to kill himself in June, AD68, after rebellions from his military officials.

Immediately afterwards, most traces of him were excised from official records and his name was vilified.

The negative image of Nero largely stems from works created 50 years after his death by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius


Left: Miniature bronze bust of Emperor Caligula, AD 37–41. Right: Bronze gladiator’s helmet dating from Pompeii, 1st century AD

As a result, very few statues of him still exist. The British Museum’s exhibition will feature a bronze head of Nero which had long been mistaken as that of fellow Emperor Claudius.

It was found in the River Alde, in Suffolk, in 1907. The head is believed to have been part of a statue which likely stood in Colchester, which was then named Camulodunum.

The statue may have been torn down during the rebellion led by warrior the Iceni Queen Boudicca.

Also shown at the exhibition will be the Fenwick Hoard, which was found in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street.


Left: Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii, 1st century AD. Right: Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii, 1st century AD. Both artefacts are being displayed in the new exhibition

Fresco fragments from Nero’s palace, Domus Aurea. They date from between AD 64–68

The museum’s press release added: ‘Visitors will ask themselves, who was Nero? A young ruler reconciling contrasting demands in a time of great change, or a merciless, matricidal maniac?

‘Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, extravagant games, and grand building projects, in stark contrast to the powerful voices of the senatorial authors who ultimately determined Nero’s legacy.

‘It is they who fabricated the enduring image of the mad tyrant that still fascinates us today.’

Mr Fischer added: ‘The exhibition’s representation of Nero is one that resonates with our times, in a world with deepening social and economic challenges, contested facts and the polarisation of opinion.

Also shown at the exhibition will be the Fenwick Hoard, which was found in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE ROMAN EMPEROR NERO? 

One of history’s most bloody tyrants, Nero appears to have derived much of his chilling ambition from his wealthy widowed mother, Agrippina.

One of history’s most bloody tyrants, Nero appears to have derived much of his chilling ambition from his wealthy widowed mother, Agrippina. 

Her first husband, Nero’s father, died of natural causes, but she is widely suspected of murdering her second.

She embarked on her third marriage, to the Emperor Claudius, in AD 49, and although he already had a son, Britannicus, by another wife, manipulated him into adopting Nero as his heir.

She then had Claudius killed with poisoned mushrooms, clearing the way for her son to inherit the Empire in AD 54.

Then just 16, Nero was described by Suetonius as being of average height, with a prominent belly and a spotty complexion.

‘He never wore the same garment twice,’ wrote Suetonius. ‘It is said that he never made a journey with less than 1,000 carriages, his mules shod with silver.’

He also had a terrible and vengeful temper. When, less than six months into his reign, Nero suspected a plot to replace him with Britannicus, he followed his mother’s example and killed his 15-year-old stepbrother with poisoned mushrooms.

Soon, even his mother was subjected to his murderous gaze. She is believed to have conducted a lurid incestuous affair with her son to maintain control over him – but he soon tired of her constant interference and had her stabbed to death in AD 59.

Before long, it was his wife Octavia’s turn. After divorcing her on a false charge of adultery, he banished her from Rome and had her maids tortured to death.

But this wasn’t enough to satisfy Nero’s bloodlust. Soon afterwards, he cut off Octavia’s head, and presented it as a trophy to his mistress, Poppaea.

Poppaea became his second wife – but not for long. When she complained that he had returned home late from the races, Nero kicked his pregnant wife – and her unborn baby – to death.

Nero then married a third time, after forcing the husband of his intended bride, Messalina, to commit suicide.

Disguising himself with caps and wigs, he delighted in creeping into the seedier quarters of Rome to beat up drunks, who would be stabbed and thrown into the sewers if they put up a fight.

Unsurprisingly, Nero became ever more unpopular with his people, not least after the Great Fire of Rome, which razed large swathes of the city in AD 64.

Some alleged that Nero had deliberately ordered the conflagration to make way for the ultimate statement of his power: the Golden House. Certainly, soon afterwards, taxes were raised to fund the construction of this fabulously ostentatious palace.

The entrance was guarded by 120ft bronze statue of Nero, while inside the palace grounds were an amphitheatre and a complex of bath-houses. Exotic creatures were left free to roam the gardens.

But the piece de resistance was the rotating dining room, where Nero would stage his infamous feasts.

There guests would dine on the most extraordinary delicacies, including peacock, swan, stuffed sow’s wombs and roasted dormice – occasionally vomiting into special-bowls to allow them to continue their culinary orgy.

Gorging on gallons of wine, they retired only to enjoy sex between courses. And to keep the party going, the bisexual Nero invited male and female prostitutes to mingle with his guests.

One of his favourite party tricks was to dress up in the skin of a wild animal, and have himself imprisoned in a cage while helpless young men and women were tethered to posts in front of him.

He would then ravage them one by one, roaring like a beast as his fawning admirers applauded.

He also regarded himself as a talented musician and writer, and if there were no Christians to burn, he might then insist on subjecting his audience to his lute-strumming or interminable poetry recitals.

Nero often inflicted such performances on the people of Rome, appearing in theatres and insisting that the doors be locked so nobody could leave until he had finished.

Similarly, there was no respite for Nero’s guests in the rotating dining room. On and on the parties went until, finally, they were allowed to leave.

The only consolation for those who abhorred such evenings was that the coenatio rotunda, as the rotating hall was known, did not turn for long.

The Golden House was only completed in AD 68 – the same year in which Nero faced a revolt by those sick of high taxation and the emperor’s profligate spending.

Declared a public enemy by the Senate, Nero was forced to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat, stopping only to lament: ‘What an artist the world loses in me.’

After his death, the palace was stripped of its treasures, and within a decade the site had been filled in and built over. It was only rediscovered in the 15th century, when a local youth fell into the remains of the structure.

Within days, people were letting themselves down on ropes so they could admire the elaborate wall paintings that remained – among them the artists Raphael and Michelangelo, who carved their names into the walls.

Source: Read Full Article