Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 1

High speed and racy

As the corny ‘triumph and tragedy’ subtitle suggests, Holland isn’t aiming at originality or depth. He is aiming at writing a gripping, gung-ho, boys’ own adventure narrative history of the Roman Republic, and he does it very well indeed. Rubicon won a history prize, was shortlisted for several others, and opens with no fewer than five pages of laudatory reviews from a host of famous historians and authors (Ian McEwan, A.N. Wilson, Beryl Bainbridge Joanna Trollope), many of whom chose it as their book of the year. It was even described as ‘gripping’ by Boris Johnson, than which there can be no higher praise.

Despite all this puffery, for the first 40 or so pages I was quietly horrified at the casual speed with which Holland skips through Rome’s prehistory and early history:

In a memorable manoeuvre on page 6, we are in the 360s BC in one sentence and then, two sentences later, in the 260s BC. A century flashes past in the blink of an eye.

Rome’s epic conflict with Carthage, the three Punic wars which lasted off and on from 264 and 146 BC, are dispensed with in just two pages (7 and 8) with the third and final Punic war and the destruction of Carthage knocked off on just one page (page 34). By page 10 it is already the 140s BC and Rome has conquered Macedon (the most important kingdom in Greece), Sicily and a good deal of Spain i.e Holland has skipped over400 years of history in a few pages.

The Achaean War, which marked the final ascendency of Rome over Greece and climaxed in the brutal destruction of Greece’s most prosperous city, Corinth, in 146 BC (the same year Carthage was razed to the ground) is dealt with thus:

Meanwhile, just in case anyone was missing the lesson, a Roman army spent the same spring of 146 rubbing it into the noses of the Greeks. That winter a ragbag of cities in southern Greece had presumed to disturb the balance of power that Rome had established in the area. In a war that was over almost before it had begun, a Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp, and the ancient city of Corinth reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. (p.35)

As you can see, instead of detail or analysis the reader gets a cheerfully brisk, slangy summary, which sounds like a stagey narrator of a novel, mixing a kind of tabloid journalism with dated schoolboy slang (‘rubbing their noses in it’). ‘A Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp.’ How would you characterise that sentence? Prep school patois? Anyway, the book is like this from start to finish, written in a deliberately irreverent, casual, prep school slang and hyper-vivid vernacular. No wonder Boris liked it so much.

I thought Mary Beard’s history of Rome often skipped through military and political events without fully explaining them, but Beard feels like the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with Holland’s speed of light race through Rome’s early history.

The last century of the Republic

Things begin to make sense around page 40 when you begin to realise that Holland is very much not writing a complete history of the entire Roman Republic (509 to 31 BC). Indeed, Holland has skipped through the 650 or so years between Rome’s (legendary) founding in 753 down to the 90s BC in little more than 40 pages. (An approach confirmed by the timeline at the end of the book: this is seven pages long and whereas the first page covers the 620 years from 753 to 133 BC, the remaining six pages settle down and cover 123 BC to 14 AD in granular detail. There’s the strategy of the book, right there.)

No, it’s not at all a history of the Roman Republic – it’s a racy account of the Republic’s final century from, say, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 down to Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC.

Why? Because:

  1. the last 100 years of the Roman republic is the period we have by far the best documentation for
  2. during which we know most about the characters of political leaders, because they and their supporters or enemies left copious writings, histories, speeches and letters
  3. and it’s also by far the most dramatic period, when then republican system began to break down, leading to a series of dictators and civil wars

The last twenty years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history… (p.xxv)

Holland’s account deliberately skips the legendary founding (753), the era of kings (753 to 509), the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud (509) and the long evolution of Rome’s complex political and military administration (500s to 140s), in order to get to the juicy stories, melodramatic events and larger-than-life characters of its ill-fated last century.

Thriller style

Holland or his publishers realised there was a gap in the market for a history of Rome written as page-turning thriller. It really is written in a kind of prep school variety of lurid airport novel prose. As well as processing the content, it was entertaining to try and categorise some of the effects involved:

Ending paragraphs with a sentence. Then completing it in the next paragraph, for dramatic effect

  • No wonder that Sulla loathed him. / Loathed him and dreamed of winning the same greatness that Marius had won. (p.65)
  • Free Gaul prepared itself for war. / As did Caesar. (p.245)
  • Whatever happened the Republic would endure. / Or so everyone assumed. (p.257)
  • It was Caesar who had taught the Gauls what it meant to be a nation. Now that achievement threatened to destroy him. / Or so it seemed. (p.278)

Melodrama

  • Devastation shadowed the Mediterranean. (p.34)
  • The legions moved in for the kill. (p.34)
  • It was a moment pregnant with menace. (p.73)
  • The resulting goldrush was soon a stampede. (p.42)
  • Long-held grudges, never entirely extinguished, flared back into flames. Warfare returned to the Samnite hills. (p.50)
  • Various tribunes began to strip Lucullus of his provinces one by one, snapping at him like wolves on the trail of a wounded beast. (p.165)
  • The news spread like wildfire. (p.256)
  • Senators on the make, their nostrils filled with the scent of power, scrabbled for advancement. (p.260)
  • But still the whisperings would not be silenced. They could be heard throughout the feverish, troubled capital. (p.289)
  • As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world. (p.313)

Bombastic descriptions

  • Throughout the monarchies of the East, assorted royal poodles would jump whenever the Romans snapped their fingers… (p.37)
  • The arteries of empire were hardening with gold, and the more they hardened, so the more Rome squeezed out. (p.42)
  • The cities groaned under punitive exactions; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontier, petty princelings snarled and snapped. Over the wounds of the ruined province [Asia in the 80s BC] Roman flies buzzed eagerly. (p.155)
  • The longing of the Romans for glory, which burned brightly within them and lit their city and indeed their entire empire with its flame, also cast flickering and treacherous shadows. (p.206)
  • The scent of [Pompey’s] failure hung like carrion-perfume over Rome. In the Senate scavengers whined and snarled with excitement. (p.256)

Pop psychology

  • Sulpicius was not a man lacking in principle. Causes mattered to him, even to the point of destruction. (p.67)
  • Pompey always had a nose for where the richest opportunities might lie. (p.91)
  • As ever with [Sulla], opportunism was the obverse of an icy conviction. (p.101)
  • Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web. (p.140)
  • Pompey could fuss with territories as though they were counters on a gaming board, rearranging them as he pleased, handing out crowns, abolishing thrones, the still-boyish master of the fates of millions. (p.179)
  • As the two rival armies sparred nervously with each other, jabbing here, feinting there, [Anthony] was always in the thick of the action, dashing, tireless, the most glamorous and discussed man on either side. (p.319)
  • The female of the Ptolemaic species had always been deadlier than the male. (p.328)

And the sometimes obsessive iteration of stock phrases

  • The Venetian fleets, taken by surprise, were wiped out. (p.273)
  • The invaders were summarily wiped out. (p.273)
  • The garrison of one legionary camp was ambushed and wiped out. (p.277)
  • The senators in Pompey’s train, impatient for action, wanted Caesar and his army wiped out. (p.320)

Above all Holland’s really obsessive reiteration of his central idea, repeated literally hundreds of times, that all Roman aristocrats were bred and trained and lived for ‘glory’ – a word which appears on every other page.

It is Roman history rewritten by Lee Child. Or maybe by the scriptwriters of Dallas, with an occasional dash of Barbara Cartland or Jilly Cooper or writers who glory in posh, stereotyped and simplified characterisation.

A tiny epitome of this is Holland’s frequent use of the word ‘whore’. In the olden days we described these as ‘prostitutes’ and I remember the good work of the English Collective of Prostitutes back in the 70s and 80s in trying to change the law to protect its members. In our value-neutral, woke times we nowadays refer to them as ‘sex workers’. Holland’s insistence on using the word ‘whore’ is a small symptom of his determination not to write some fuddy-duddy, academic tome but a rollicking Texas barnstormer of an airport novel, where men are men and women are either high society hostesses or whores, goddamit!

  • The necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-price whores. (p.14)
  • [Naples] ancient streets had recently begun to fill with tourists, all of them keen to taste the Greek lifestyle – whether by debating philosophy, complaining to doctors, or falling in love with a witty, well-read whore. (p.48)
  • Throughout his life Sulla deployed his charm as a weapon, on politicians and soldiers as much as on whores. (p.70)
  • Sulla, who had spent his own twenties running after whores… (p.103)
  • It would have been as insulting for Cato to be labelled a demagogue as for a matron to be confused with a whore. (p.233)

Key players

But precisely because he does focus entirely on the action-packed 1st century BC, and dwells on the lurid and blood thirsty and over-the top personalities of the key players, you do certainly emerge (slightly punch drunk) with a much more vivid sense of the characters of the successive strong men who plunged the Republic into civil wars and internecine bloodshed.

In Holland’s account the swing year is 89 BC, a year of two wars. In Italy the widespread revolt of the Italian allies and confederates against Rome, demanding equal rights and freedoms under the law, had amounted to a cruel civil war, with ethnically identical Italian people massacring each other the length and breadth of the peninsula.

But the so-called Social War coincided with the revolt of King Mithradates of Pontus in Anatolia, which hugely raised the stakes. For a ruling class constantly athirst for glory, the prospect of victory in the Social War overlapped with the potentially huge riches to be won by whoever was chosen to go and reconquer the East.

Gaius Marius makes his first appearance on page 56 as the 60-year-old leader of the Roman army sent against the Italian rebels during the Social War, 91 to 87 BC. Marius was fabulously rich and successful, having held the consulship a record six times (p.65).

Gaius Pompeius ‘Strabo’ (p.58) ‘treacherous and brutal’ (p.117) very unpopular in Rome but led successful campaign against the Italians and so was a necessary ally for Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (p.62) took over command in the Social War from Marius, leading a huge army of 13 legions which besieged and massacred the Italian rebels.

It’s with this cast that series one of Rubicon – having scooted through the previous 500 years of Roman history in the blink of an eye – really gets under way. For as Sulla brought the Social War to an end he fell into rivalry with his old commanding officer, Marius, about who would lead the army to Asia to defeat Mithradates. Sulla was elected war leader, but Marius politicked against him.

Sulla’s first march on Rome Briefly, Sulla was still campaigning against the Italians when he received the news that command of the army about to be sent to the East to fight Mithradates, and which he had lobbied hard to be given, had been rescinded and given to his arch rival, Marius. Not only that, but the staff officer who brought the message was to replace him in his command against the Italians. When Sulla announced this to his assembled troops and introduced the staff officer his men promptly stoned the messenger to death and clamoured for Sulla to lead them on a march on Rome. No Roman had done this before. Armies were meant to be in the trust of a consul, until he was replaced and handed over command.

The model of insurrection Sulla marked the advent of a completely new type of conflict, war, leadership and politics. The later civil war between Caesar and Pompey and then between Caesar’s assassins and the second triumvirate, followed the model of military insurrection, seizure of the capital and paying off of personal scores established by Sulla. There are two eras in the history of the Republic – Before Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC, and Afterwards (p.71).

Sulla’s coup Sulla busted laws and conventions by a) leading his legions on Rome b) crossing the holy boundary, the pomerium, within which no Roman was meant to bear arms (p.72) c) actually sacking the city, commanding his troops to retaliate with fire arrows against civilians chucking roof tiles down on them. And once he had established martial law and set his soldiers at all key points d) he set about executing his opponents. Lists were published and opponents hacked down in public buildings or the streets.

Sulla’s arch enemy Marius fled south and then across the sea to Africa, where he planned a comeback and revenge.

Lucius Cornelius Cinna was one of the two consuls elected in 88 BC after Sulla had taken Rome. Cinna publicly criticised Sulla but then was forced to make a pledge, along with his fellow consul Octavius, not to remove any of Sulla’s legislation (p.70).

Having massacred his opponents or driven them into exile, Sulla finally sailed with his army for the East to deal with Mithradates’ rebellion. Cinna, one of the two consuls he left behind, promptly reneged on his promise not to tamper with Sulla’s laws but was forced out of Rome by his fellow consul Octavius who stayed loyal to his absent master. Once Sulla was out of Italy, Marius returned, joined forces with Cinna, and they marched on Rome and seized power. Cinna’s fellow consul, Octavius, was hacked down in his consul’s chair and his head brought to Cinna who displayed it from the public Rostrum. These were not the ways of the old Republic.

Having returned to Rome, Marius arranged to hold an unprecedented seventh consulship but was an old man, exhausted after a life of fighting, took to debauchery and was dead in a few weeks. And so Cinna now emerged as the regime’s new ‘strongman’ (p.117). He arranged, contrary to all the rules, to hold the consulship for three years in a row, precisely the kind of sustained grip on power which the constitution was supposed to prevent.

In other words, all restraint had been lost and Roman politics had descended to warlordism and gang warfare. Political life had been ‘brutalised’ says Holland, in a phrase which reminds me of the immediate post-war years in the Weimar Republic. Once that element of street violence has entered the political domain it is very hard to remove it because you’ve shown people who are prepared to use it, that it works.

When, after three years of campaigning against Mithradates and rebellious Greek cities, Sulla wound up his affairs in Greece and gave notice of returning with his legions to Italy, Cinna tried to rouse Rome’s home legions to resist him, but the troops mutinied and, in confused circumstances, Cinna was killed. So both Marius and Cinna were dead.

On Sulla’s second march on Rome he was joined by the glamorous and fabulously successful young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who was to become known as Pompey the Great (p.90).

Also to his side came the scion of one of Rome’s most noble families, Marcus Licinius Crassus (p.89). Crassus’s father had opposed Marius and been murdered, as had his brother, and his entire family estates confiscated.

Marius had died but had been replaced by his confident and able son, who had rallied the anti-Sulla forces. In other words Rome’s ruling class was by the late 80s BC completely polarised between the group Holland calls ‘the Marians’ and Sulla and his supporters. The conflict between the two parties got mixed up with a final rebellion by the Samnites in the mountains east of Rome who took advantage of the confusion to launch an attack on Rome itself. Sulla hastened his march and, with crucial help from Crassus’s wing of the army, defeated the Samnites at the Battle of the Colline Gate, before marching into Rome for a second time, posing as its saviour and its undoubted ruler (p.92).

About 6,000 Samnite fighters had been taken prisoner or turned themselves in. Sulla ordered them penned up in the Field of Mars an then systematically slaughtered. Then he set about executing all his political opponents, first and foremost every member of the Marian party (p.99). An entire section of Rome’s political class was annihilated. Bounty hunters were paid to track down abscondees, who brought back their severed heads for Sulla to inspect before releasing the fee.

Huge estates were confiscated or passed into the hands of leading figures in Sulla’s party, most notoriously his vital left-hand man at the Colline Gate, Crassus. Sulla himself became the richest man in Roman history (p.101).

Sulla’s conservative revolution

Throughout his course of actions Sulla was convinced he was reforming the Republic and returning it to its purity. Holland describes how he set about trying to purify and rationalise the constitution. He did this by redefining the cursus honorum. He change the numbers of the main posts of office which aspiring politicians had to progress through (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul, censor), set age limits under which they could not be held, defined the number of years gap between holding them. Since one of the political attacks on him had come from a tribune he passed a law declaring that anyone could still be elected tribune, but that anyone who had held the tribunate was ineligible for any further office In this and numerous other adjustments to the rules, he tried to ensure that the kind of bitter conflict which had led to his own rise, could never take place again.

In 81, with no warning, Sulla resigned his posts and abdicated his authority. He served as a conventional consul for one more year and then abandoned public life altogether. So feared was he, and so thoroughly had he extirpated his enemies, that he felt safe to abandon power, a move which puzzled later generations and historians to this day. He returned to the hard living of his youth, holding huge parties, frequenting the demi-monde, before dying, possibly of liver failure, in 78 BC (p.111). At which point the baton was passed on to a new, younger generation, two leading luminaries of which were Pompey and an ambitious young man named Julius Caesar.

Competition and glory

‘The clash of wits, the fight for pre-eminence, the toiling day and night without break to reach the summit of wealth and power…’ (Lucretius)

One massive point which comes over again and again is that Roman society was based on unbridled and unrelenting competition, especially for the ‘glory’ associated with victory in war.

  • It seemed self evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, towards a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. (p.24)
  • Competitive elections were crucial to the self image as well as the functioning of the Republic. (p.25)
  • A system that encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated a dynamism so aggressive that it overwhelmed all who came near it. (p.30)
  • …a state where ruthless competition was regarded as the basis of all civic virtue. (p.34)
  • the Roman desire to be the best (p.34)
  • Traditional Roman morality…fostered competition as the essence of life. (p.62)
  • In Rome a man was reckoned nothing to be nothing without the fame that accrued from glorious deeds. (p.64)
  • …a society where prestige was the principle measure of a man’s worth. (p.76)
  • Competition for honours had always been the lifeblood of the Republic (p.
  • …the Roman appetite for competition and glory. (p.109)
  • Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining characteristic of a citizen. (p.111)
  • Child rearing, like virtually every other aspect of life in the Republic, reflected the inveterate Roman love of competition. (p.115)
  • Because he had simultaneously neutralised the tribunate and doubled the size of the Senate, [Sulla’s] legacy was one of increased competition. (p.123)
  • As they had always done, established families dominated the competition. (p.123)

Competition for military glory and the prestige of holding high office was drummed into every upper class boy from the youngest age. This culture of unrelenting competition served Rome well for centuries, transmitted to its army which never gave up, accepting defeat after defeat but always coming back with more men and arms and, ultimately, conquering all enemies.

However, Holland repeatedly makes the obvious point which arises from the Sulla era which is that, in the bitter rivalry which developed between Marius and his successful general Sulla, somehow this all-consuming competitiveness which had once been such a positive motivating force, turned rotten, spilled over from politicking into military coup, seizure of the capital itself, bloodbaths of enemies, and so on.

And once all these taboos had been broken, once all restraint had been lost, the same pattern was to recur again and again during the Republic’s last half century.

The Roman constitution

Holland regularly stops his headlong narrative to give explanations of various aspects of Roman political and social culture and the Roman constitution. Obviously, Mary Beard refers to this from time to time in her chronicle of Rome but, as is her way, often only explaining an isolated aspect of it in order to illustrate a broader point, more often than not leaving the reader frustrated. Holland is much more straightforward. He stops the narrative and explains stuff. I found this surprisingly useful.

And the way he does this – intermittently – is probably wise because the whole point of the Roman constitution (we learn) was that it was a chaotic, rickety inheritance of roles and positions and posts and elections, which had accumulated over the centuries, which the Romans themselves didn’t fully understand and outsiders found baffling i.e. you couldn’t really sit down and write one definitive description, it’s best approached from different angles and perspectives. And it changed over time. And during the period Holland describes, new laws were continually adjusting and tinkering with it.

  • The Republic was as full of discrepancies and contradictions as the fabric of the city, a muddle of accretions patched together over many centuries…the Republic was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work…The constitution was a hall of mirrors… (pages 24 to 25)
  • It was the nature of the Republic to thrive on complexity (p.94)
  • Then constitution, subtle and finely modulated as it was, had evolved to restrain any violent change. (p.99)
  • The Republic had many different traditions, confused and confusing and defying codification. (p.137)

Central to the system was the hierarchy of posts the politically ambitious could seek, the cursus honorum (course of offices), mentioned above, the one which Sulla comprehensively reformed.

The cursus honorum

Military service Anyone seeking political office was expected to have seen military service. The aspiring politician would serve in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Military promotions or honours would improve his political prospects. A successful military career might culminate in the office of military tribune to which 24 men were elected by the Tribal Assembly each year.

Consuls Having ejected kings, the Romans took steps to ensure power was never again vested in one individual who ruled for a lifetime by vesting the most senior power in the state as residing in two consuls who were elected to serve for just one year (p.2). The minimum age was 42. Years in Rome’s history were identified not by a number but by the names of the two consuls elected for a particular year. Consuls were responsible for the city’s political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. They were accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of twelve lictors who bore on their shoulders the bundle of strapped rods called fasces, symbol of their power (p.64). Candidates for the consulship had to put their names forward by the start of July (p.224). Every consul, once he had finished his year in post, was given a governorship aboard (p.225).

Aedile Aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals.

Quaestor A quaestor served for a year as assistant to a more senior magistrate (p.101). Twenty quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to a governor in the provinces. They could also serve as the paymaster for a legion. Some of the quaestors were tasked with supervision of public games (p.198).

Praetor Junior in rank only to the consuls, a praetor was charged with administering the city’s laws, convening and presiding over sessions of the Senate (p.104). During the republic, six or eight praetors were elected each year to serve judicial functions throughout Rome and other governmental responsibilities. In the absence of the consuls, a praetor would be given command of the garrison in Rome or in Italy. Also, a praetor could exercise the functions of the consuls throughout Rome, but their main function was that of a judge. They would preside over trials involving criminal acts, grant court orders and validate ‘illegal’ acts as acts of administering justice.

A praetor was escorted by six lictors. After a term as praetor, the magistrate would serve as a provincial governor with the title of propraetor, commanding the province’s legions, and possessing ultimate authority within his province(s).

Two of the praetors were more prestigious than the others. The Praetor Peregrinus was the chief judge in trials involving one or more foreigners. The Praetor Urbanus was the chief judicial office in Rome with the power to overturn any verdict by any other courts, and serve as judge in cases involving criminal charges against provincial governors.

Tribune The tribunes has right of veto over bills they disliked and power to convene public assemblies to pass bills of their own. The post was considered sacrosanct and so tribunes were not allowed to leave Rome during their tenure (p.27).

The Senate A body of about 300 older men, elected to the Senate because they had held one of the other ‘magistracies’. The Senate didn’t actually make any laws but debated legal and political matters and issued decrees which had no binding force but the magistrates did well to take into account (p.37). During Sulla’s reign of terror he executed or drove into exile so many senators that the number fell to 100 but during the period of his reforming rule, he packed it with new blood, expanding its number to 600, and demolished the old Curia building and had a grand new Senate House built.

Censor The censorship was the single most powerful and influential position or magistracy, responsible for overseeing the census, held every five years to produce a detailed assessment of every household, its wealth and income and number of slaves and dependents, on which the elaborate hierarchies of Rome were based (p.96).

N.B. This series of posts is only one part in the jigsaw of the constitution. I haven’t mentioned the priesthoods, for example the priest of Jupiter, the father god of Rome, a post Julius Caesar held while still a boy. Or the pontifex maximus, the most prestigious post in the entire state, which a man held for life and came with a mansion on the Via Sacra, in the Forum, in the heart of Rome (p.199).

Nor any of the assemblies with their various rules for elections, the importance of ‘tribes’, tribunes or tribunals, or the densely structured economic and social hierarchies which applied to every citizen and determined their rights and votes and place in the grand scheme.

As Holland’s narrative proceeds, the scale of the bribery involved in each subsequent set of elections grows and grows in scale (e.g. p.225).

Other learnings

Rome was a squalid maze

Surprisingly, ancient Rome was a shambles of narrow dirty alleys and wiggly roads packed with people, horses and carts. Since the consuls only ruled for a year there was no long-term town planning which meant the city became a byword for narrow roads and alleys, temples, houses and tenement blocks called insulae looming over alleys full of mud and excrement (pages 15 to 18).

Clutter was the essence of the Republic. It spread everywhere that Sulla cared to look. It could be seen in the very appearance of Rome itself. (p.106)

Cicero has a famous quote on the state of Rome, when criticising the senator and moralist Cato the Younger (born 95 BC) which Holland translates as:

‘He addresses the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s shit-hole.’ (quoted on page 196)

[The more restrained H. H. Scullard translates this as Cicero complaining that ‘Cato talked as if he were in the republic of Cato, not in the sink of Romulus’, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard, page 117. L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters gives it as: ‘He talks as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s dunghill‘, page 39.]

As well as pausing his narrative to describe various aspects of the culture or constitution of Rome, Holland also stop periodically to give a page or two on the history and social and political function of various famous locations around the city. These are always interesting and the vivid thriller style which sometimes seems out of place in his political history works very well to bring these Roman places and the milling noisy crowds who filled them to life.

The Circus Maximus (pages 20, 122)

Right at the start of his account Holland explains how the legendary Romulus was said to have built his camp on what was to be named the Palatine Hill while Remus built his on the Aventine Hill a few hundred yards south. The triumph of Romulus marked the Palatine as the seat of Rome’s richest, later the hill of the emperors, while the Aventine became associated with the poor. It was to the Aventine that the disgruntled plebs went during the series of secessios – in effect, general strikes – when they were campaigning for equal civil rights.

The shallow valley between the two hills had been the site of games and then chariot races from time immemorial. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome, measuring 2,037 feet in length and 387 feet in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. As such it was one of the two big spaces in the city where citizens could meet and mingle and enjoy a sense of civic community. It was where politicians in power, magistrates or victorious generals could receive the cheers or boos of huge crowds (p.20). Games were organised by the class of magistrate called the aediles.

On page 122 Holland gives a brief but vivid description of the chariot races held in the circus. Although the building was huge the track itself was quite narrow with only width for four chariots and the turn at the end of each lap required the charioteer to steer close to the huge metal poles which defined the turn, the metae, without actually touching them with his chariot’s wheels, which would almost send chariot and him ricocheting to certain death.

The Forum (p.85)

Along with the Circus Maximus, the Forum was one of the two open spaces in the city where citizens could mingle freely. Originally a marsh, it was drained to provide a meeting place for squabbling tribes from the hills and so could be said to be the place where Romans learned to sort out their differences through political means. Like the rest of the city it was a jumble of discordant monuments. (p.85)

The Field of Mars (p.93)

Holland gives an excellent description of the Campus Martius and its central role in the republic’s political processes. It was originally, in this plain outside the city walls that citizens were taken and administered the oath which turned them into soldiers. Here they were ranked by wealth and status. At the top were those who could afford their own horse and so were named the equites. Below the equestrian class were five further classes ranked by wealth until you reached the lowest class, people who couldn’t even afford a slingshot and were named the proletarii.

Worth stopping a moment to consider this word: in the census the poorest citizens were defined as those who had little or no property except for their children. The Latin term for these was proles or ‘offspring’. So while the richest citizens could offer horses and arms, the poorest could only offer their proles as future Roman citizens available to colonise conquered territories – and so this class was called the proletarius (producer of offspring), singular, or proletarii in the plural.

Anyway, Holland explains how the Field of Mars evolved into the location of elections for the many magistrate positions or assemblies. The key building was the Ovile or ‘sheepfold’, an enclosure with gates and barriers, where citizens lined up to vote, richest at the front, poorest at the back. Exemplifying the Roman love of complexity, the precise order or procedure for voting was different in the case of each election or magistracy, with strict rules and protocols to be observed.

Holland gives a vivid description of the scene at a typical election, the hoisting of a flag, the blowing of trumpets, the enormous queues of shuffling citizens, the dust raised in the hot air, the tension for election days creating ‘one of the greatest excitements of Roman civic life’ (p.95). Then appearance of the candidates in their specially whitened togas (as Mary Beard tells us the word ‘candidate’ derives from the Roman for white, candidus, referring to these specially whitened togas). The milling crowd, the jeers and chatter and then, when the winning candidates were announced, cheers from their supporters and they were escorted off from the Ovile to the Capitol Hill to take up office.

In passages like these, Holland’s strategy of eschewing scholarly detail in favour of vivid description and atmosphere works very well indeed.

The Rubicon

The River Rubicon which Julius Caesar so grandly crossed with the Army of Gaul, thus decisively plunging the Republic into civil war, thus giving us a phrase we have used for centuries to indicate taking an irrevocable decision…this river was in fact so small and insignificant that nobody in later centuries, and even today, knows where it actually is.


Credit

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland was published in 2003 by Little, Brown. All references are to the 2004 Abacus paperback.

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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