Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


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Roman writers

As well to remember that all Roman literature was written by an elite for an elite about an elite, and is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist in tone. Even when they’re writing about farmers or ordinary citizens or soldiers, Roman writers are doing it from the perspective of privileged members of the highly educated aristocratic classes. The only possible exceptions are the first two entries in the list, the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose work features numerous slaves and tradesmen (often cooks) – though here again, we should be cautious about treating these characters and their views as documentary evidence, as they are clearly based on standardised stereotypes which owe their origins, in any case, to the Greek theatre.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of Roman authors, that would be much longer. These are the important Roman authors and this is by way of being an ideal or personal, reading list.

The Republic

Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus, 254 to 184 BC) Plautus’s comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to survive in their entirety: Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi, Casina, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 to 159 BC) Six plays: Andria (The Girl from Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Phormio, Eunuchus, Adelphoe (The Brothers). Fanous for his t-shirt motto:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me

Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC) statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher. Cicero wrote more than 75% of the extant Latin literature that is known to have existed in his lifetime, including law court speeches, letters, treatises on rhetoric, philosophy and politics.

Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) author of accounts of his wars in Gaul, Egypt, Spain and Africa.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 99 to 55 BC) poet and philosopher whose only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura or ‘On the nature of things’, a poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC) author of two historical monographs, on the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84 to 54 BC) known for an anthology of 116 carmina or poems which are divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC to 17 AD) author of a monumental History of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Founding of the City’) which originally comprised 142 ‘books’, 35 of which still exist in reasonably complete form.

The Empire

Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 to 19 BC) composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics and the epic poem, Aeneid.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 to 8 BC) the leading Roman lyric poet during the rule of the emperor Augustus: famous for his Odes, Satires, Epistles and Epodes.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 18 AD) younger contemporary of Virgil and Horace, together considered the three canonical poets of Latin literature. His three three main works are the Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) and Fasti.

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC to AD 65) philosopher, statesman, dramatist and satirist: a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with moral issues, 9 tragedies: Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 BC to 65 AD) known for his epic Pharsalia or De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) about the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Plutarch (46 to after 119 AD) Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, author, among many other works, of the Parallel Lives, biographies of 50 eminent Greeks and Romans.

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 to 120 AD) widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians known for two incomplete works, the Annals and the Histories, covering the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73). Also a dialogue on oratory, the Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae). In the latter, a leader of the rebellious Scots is given a long speech criticising the Roman Empire which includes the famous quote:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they create a desert and call it peace

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 55? to 150? AD) author of 16 satires divided into five books.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61 to about 113) lawyer, author and magistrate famous because he wrote hundreds of letters, 247 of which survive: the most notable are the hundred or so in his correspondence with the emperor Trajan in his capacity of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, one of which asks advice about how to treat the new sect of Christians (one of the earliest references to Christianity) and the exchange where his friend Tacitus asks him for his memories of the eruption of Mount Etna which Pliny witnessed.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, 69 to 122 AD) historian whose most important surviving work is De vita Caesarum, a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter, 27 to 66 AD) was a courtier to the emperor Nero and is believed to be the author of the scandalously satirical novel, the Satyricon.

Cassius Dio (Lucius Cassius Dio, 155 to 235) Roman historian and senator of Greek origin who published 80 volumes of the history of ancient Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through to 229 AD, covering about 1,000 years of history.


Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


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