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.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes (1950)

I stiffened in sudden, mortal terror. I knew those fingers. Lying there I knew who it was bending over me in the dark. I knew the touch of his hand and the way he breathed as certainly as if I could see him, and I screamed. It was a scream torn from the memory of the pain those hands had caused me. And as my scream went shrieking round the room, I lashed out with the frenzied violence of a man fighting for his life. (p.92)

Hammond Innes makes Eric Ambler look like Tolstoy. The tone is fraught and hysterical from the start of this melodramatic page-turner.

Backstory

The story is told by a deeply unreliable narrator: Dick Farrell represents B.&H. Evans, machine tool manufacturers of Manchester. He flew bombers in the War, then was transferred to fly supplies to partisans in north Italy. He was shot down, captured and a particularly sadistic Italian doctor experimented on his damaged leg: it could have been saved but instead they carried out three amputations – each one without anaesthetic. By the third operation he confessed and gave the names of the British officers he’d just flown in and where they were hiding. The two officers – Reece and Shirer – were picked up and themselves experimented on by the sadist doctor. As the War drew to a close the doctor, Sansevino, asked them to sign a document saying he had treated them well if he would let them escape. He starts giving them proper rations and one night helps them escape: next morning he is found at his desk where he has shot himself. Farrell, who couldn’t join the escape because of his leg, is told the two men were captured and killed by a German patrol, but not before Reece had written a letter telling his sister, Alice – to whom Farrell was engaged – how Farrell had betrayed them.

Farrell

All this explains why, although he has a decent job, Farrell

  • has a metal leg to replace the amputated one, which is uncomfortable and sometimes painful and about which he is terribly self-conscious and embarrassed
  • has frequent nightmares, night sweats, lives with vivid memories of the agonising operations and the guilt of betraying his colleagues
  • drinks heavily, very heavily – quite routinely he has to be helped to bed, passes out, has to throw up, or gets drunk enough to start shouting at people, throwing his glass across the room etc – he is a deeply damaged man

In all these ways he is reminiscent of the protagonist of Nigel Balchin’s 1943 novel The Small Back Room, David Farrar, who has a prosthetic foot, is in constant pain, has a bad temper and drinks to excess. Even their names are similar.

The plot 1 – Czecho

Starts in Czechoslovakia. Farrell is visiting a few factories to sell his firm’s wares. In Pilsen he looks up an old friend from their Battle of Britain days, a Czech named Tuček. Out of the blue an Englishman he knows called Maxwell tells Farrell he must give Tuček an urgent message: tell him tomorrow night, not Saturday night. Maxwell also amazes Farrell by telling him that Shirer and Reece, who he thought had been killed five years earlier, in that prison escape, are both still alive. In his usual fashion Farrell responds to pressure by drinking himself comatose and the bar staff have to help him to his hotel bedroom. In the morning the porter winks that he received a guest in the early hours but Farrell has no recollection of it. When he returns to the Pilsen factory to convey Maxwell’s message he finds Tuček absent and his room being searched by secret police. When he arrives for his plane to Italy the secret police detain him and take him to be ‘questioned’: he has to account for every minute of his visit and every word he exchanged with Tuček. By now he is quaking with fear and, back at the hotel, drinks the day away until he can catch the next flight out of Czechoslovakia and to Italy.

The plot 2 – Milan

But, when he arrives in Italy – in Milan, to be precise – Farrell finds he hasn’t escaped the nightmare. Almost immediately, Maxwell finds Farrell and tells him he couldn’t find Tuček at the factory because Maxwell had successfully smuggled him out of Czecho by plane. But when the plane arrived at Milan, Tuček wasn’t aboard. Did he come and see Farrell? Did he give him something? Has he heard from him?

Meanwhile, it turns out Reece is staying in the same hotel and, when they bump into each other, has murder in his eyes – he hasn’t forgotten the wartime betrayal. And Reece’s sister, Alice, is there too – they have a tormented encounter in which she says she can never forgive him etc; he tells her about the leg tortures but it doesn’t change anything – neither of them can go back to how it was.

And Maxwell then produces Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, a freckle-nosed young woman, desperate to know what Farrell knows, what did her father tell him, did her father give him anything? —What the hell is it all about?

Next, a Milanese manufacturer contacts Farrell and is keen to see him. Out at his apartment Farrell meets the seductive contessa Zina Valle. They are ‘getting to know each other’ when the man Farrell knew as Shirer from the wartime hospital walks in. Amazed and surprised he leaves immediately, as Farrell leaps up.

The contessa seduces Farrell. She is onto him from the start with a soft voice and alluring looks and compliant body.

The smooth mounds of her breasts seemed to rise up out of the shoulderless dress, the ruby blazed at her throat and her eyes were large and very green. (1973 Fontana paperback edition p.143)

But Farrell has been seized by a horrific thought: his friend Shirer and the sadist doctor Sansevino were always similar in appearance. What if… could it be… might it be Sansevino who escaped and Shirer whose suicide was faked, all those years ago?

That night Farrell gets roaring drunk and is walking up and down his hotel bedroom ranting so loudly about torture, Nazis, sadist doctors, partisans, beautiful contessas etc, that he wakes up the nice decent American next door, Hacket, who comes round to calm him down. After some chat Hacket suggests Farrell needs a complete break, a rest, a holiday. ‘Wire your firm you need a few days off, catch a flight with me down to Naples, the sun and sea will do you good.’ So Farrell allows himself to be flown south for a break.

The plot 3 – Naples

Turns out the contessa owns a villa outside Naples. Farrell checks into a hotel on the seafront and enjoys one carefree day before the net closes in on him again. He is surprised to see a former street urchin, Roberto, who the Allied troops used to pay to guard their cars back during the War, now dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform. Then amazed to discover that he is chauffeur to the contessa. He has, of course, been tailing him.

The contessa offers to take him and Hacket, a keen tourist, round the ruins of Pompeii. Farrell is horrified to discover that Maxwell and Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, have followed him to Naples. What do they want with him? And why does the chauffeur, Roberto, change his attitude to Farrell from servantly deference to mounting antagonism?

The contessa invites Farrell away from everyone up to her isolated villa on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Here she combines barely covered breasts with lashings of booze till Farrell almost passes out. But he manages to just about keep conscious, then to throw up, which makes him awake at the moment someone slowly opens his door and creeps into the room. Farrell slips out and down the hall and discovers the contessa in the same room where Roberto had been. Suddenly a lot of things become clear:

  • the contessa is at heart a Naples street urchin got lucky; she married the ageing count for his money, he for her sex
  • she is in love with Roberto the street urchin turned chauffeur
  • she has been blackmailed into seducing Farrell and luring him to this isolated villa by Shirer who is in fact the wartime sadist doctor Sansevino
  • and at last Farrell realises that whatever everyone’s after, Tuček must have slipped it into his artificial leg when he was out cold in his hotel room in Czechoslovakia! No wonder everyone’s chasing him.

 Plot 4 – the angry mountain

Farrell realises all this as he confronts Sansevino in a dark room at the villa when — Mount Vesuvius erupts! There’s a big bang followed by a continous fine cloud of ash covering everything. Everyone in the villa wakes up and rushes into the drawing room: Zina, Farrell, Sansevino, Roberto, when there’s a knock at the door and Hacket appears (!) he had been staying nearby to view the volcano – and then a few moments later, Maxwell and Tuček’s daughter, Hilda. There’s a fantastically intense scene where volcanic ash is coming in through every window and chimney as the contessa plays Faust on the piano and all the people in the room size each other up, weighing what they know about each other and what they hope to get from each other.

Until the tension breaks, the contessa snaps and begs Sansevino for her morphine: aha, so she is a junkie, that is his hold over her. And it is Sansevino. And before he can stop her she babbles about the other hostages up at the old monastery, letting Maxwell and Farrell know these hostages must be Tuček and his companion who had escaped from Czechoslovakia on the secret plane, then gone missing. So Sansevino hits her, hard, and next thing Roberto smashes him in the face and is advancing to beat him to a pulp when Sansevino draws a gun and shoots Roberto dead. Pandemonium – while Vesuvius flares blood-red with flames through the windows!

And suddenly the lights go out and Sansevino is up and out of the room, across the ash-filled courtyard into a car and driving like a maniac up to the old ruined monastery of Santo Francisco, and our heroes jump into their cars and follow him! It’s all breakneck stuff, littered with exclamation marks!

I gripped her hand, nerving myself for the dash to the doorway, for the groping along endless corridors and through huge, silent rooms expecting every shadow to materialise into that damnable doctor. (p.185)

The tension is racked up to fever pitch as Sansevino cunningly traps Maxwell and Hacket in the same medieval prison tower as Tuček, then corners Farrell on an ash-laden rooftop, takes Farrell’s gun and unstraps his false leg to reveal the secret packages Tuček had stashed there. Aha! So the treasure is finally revealed. Then Sansevino bolts the door to the roof and leaves Farrell to be killed by the advancing barrier of molten lava.

The next 30 pages or so describe in a high fever Farrell’s pitiful efforts to open the thick, ancient oak door. He is only freed as the entire house begins to collapse as it is crushed by the thirty-foot high wall of approaching lava! And then Farrell’s frantic attempts to find and free the others, trapped high in a tower of the monastery as the lava slowly creeps towards them. Preposterous tosh and absolutely gripping!

Someone to believe in me

Buried somewhere in all the adrenalin-packed frenzy there is a sort of theme to do with trust and belief: Farrell has never been a man since he was forced under torture to reveal the whereabouts of Reece and Shirer; a lack of trust compounded by Reece’s sister’s refusal to accept him, and then nobody believing him when he told them that Shirer was in fact the evil Dr Sansevino. This drunken failure, this man haunted by a sense of his own inadequacy, is strikingly similar to the protagonist of the Balchin novel.

But unlike in Balchin, it is all redeemed in a very Hollywood-style movie ending when, against all the odds, Farrell not only manages to escape his own collapsing building but rounds up Tuček’s daughter in the flaming village square, then is instrumental in freeing all the others from their gaol, and then – improbably but somehow fittingly – finds a mule which they hitch to an abandoned cart and which trots them out of the lava-threatened village.

In this moment of respite, he finds Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, looking up into his eyes. He has saved her. He has saved her father.

The blood was suddenly singing in my veins. She believed in me. She wasn’t like Alice. She believed in me. She offered me hope for the future… I looked past her to the gaunt remains of Santo Francisco and the mountain behind it with the great belching column of smoke and the broad bands of the lava and I was glad I’d been there. It was as though I’d been cleansed by fire, as though the anger of the mountain had burned all the fear out of me and left me sure of myself again. (p.220)

Except that, as they trot out of Santo Francisco they can all see that the two spurs of lava have joined up south of the contessa’s villa. And, covered with ash and exhausted, who should they meet blundering up the track but Reece who confirms that they are trapped, surrounded by 30-foot high lava flow which will slowly merge. they are doomed.

They trot over to the villa in the mule cart to drink, for the contessa to get a fix of morphine, for Hilda to fix up Maxwell’s badly broken leg, and for them all to realise that their only hope lies in one last-ditch act of heroism, when Farrell will have a final opportunity to convert all the unbelievers and allay all the doubts which have gnawed his soul away for five long years!

Will it work? Can he save them? Can he be a whole man again? Will he and Hilda Tuček live happily ever after? And what is inside the packages smuggled in Farrell’s false leg? You’ll have to read the book and find out!

Conclusion

Being narrated by an alcoholic nervous wreck means the entire text is on edge and over-wrought from the start. Every time he hears a car backfire or a door slam, Farrell has flashbacks of the grisly operations on his leg, the accusation in the eyes of Shirer and Reece, his torment at the loss of the love of Reece’s sister or some other psychic wound. You need to get used to this hysterical tone and the claustrophobic effect of the same characters popping up no matter where Farrell flees, and accept the book for what it is, a well-made and exciting pulp thriller, with a nail-biting air of tension, double-crossing, terrible secrets, a sultry Italian dame and a fair young marriageable maiden to be rescued. But fear is the dominant key, fear and panic.

I didn’t say anything and we faced each other. There was a sudden void in the pit of my stomach and the hairs crawled along my scalp. (p.156)

Related links

1952 Bantam edition of The Angry Mountain (Cover art by Mitchell Hooks)

1952 Bantam edition of The Angry Mountain (Cover art by Mitchell Hooks)

PS – Paradise Lost

At least the third of Innes’ novels which references Paradise Lost, comparing the red glare of the lava flowing down Vesuvius to Hell in Milton’s poem (p.147). ‘The whole night sky seemed on fire like a scene from Paradise Lost.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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