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

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

I’ve got the old 1961 Penguin translation by Robert Baldick. It has no notes but a handy nine-page introduction in which Baldick places the Tales in the context of Flaubert’s life and work.

Born in 1821, Flaubert spent his whole adult life living off a small private income in the remote Normandy village of Croisset and devoting his life to literature. But he was far from successful. His first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), was prosecuted for immorality and sold and misunderstood as a salacious scandal. His historical novel. Salammbô (1862), was condemned by critics as tedious, by the clergy as pagan and by archaeologists as inaccurate. The book he considered his masterpiece and laboured over longest, Sentimental Education (1869) was greeted with critical abuse and criticised for its cynical immorality (readers confusing Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of bourgeois immorality with endorsement). His religious fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), was greeted with blank incomprehension and mostly ignored. It is, as I can testify, difficult to read through to the end. And his one and only play, The Candidate (1874), was taken off after four disastrous performances.

The 1870s were a hard time for the middle-aged author. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Prussians occupied his house in Croisset, humiliatingly, and made Flaubert run errands for them. As the decade progressed a number of his best friends died, and his much-loved mother passed away in 1872.  In 1875 the husband of his beloved niece (Flaubert never married or had children) was threatened with bankruptcy and so Flaubert sold a number of his properties to raise money to save him, even considering selling up his beloved house in Croisset.

In other words the mid-1870s found Flaubert at a financial, emotional and artistic low point. And yet he not only wrote these three short tales relatively quickly but, when they were published, the volume turned out to be his most critically acclaimed and popular book. In fact, it turned out to be the last book he published during his lifetime.

The three tales in this short volume are A Simple Heart, Saint Julian the Hospitator and Hérodias. It’s not difficult to see them as recapitulating, in compressed form, the styles and settings of his previous novels: A Simple Heart is set in the same rural Normandy as Madame Bovary; Herodias is set in the barbaric and exotic ancient world of Salammbô; Saint Julian the Hospitator is a medieval folk story which echoes the early medieval setting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

A Simple Heart

Also known as Le perroquet (the Parrot) in French, this is the story of a servant girl named Felicité. Brought up in poverty, her parents die, she is brusquely wooed by a neighbourhood lad, who wins her heart but then marries another, rich, woman. Devastated, Felicité leaves the farm where she lives and walks to the nearest town, Pont-l’Évèque, where she gets a job with the first woman she speaks to, a widow, Madame Aubain.

The story describes Felicité’s fifty years of loyal service to the widow, particularly in bringing up the widow’s two small children, Paul and Virginie. Paul becomes a difficult adolescent and young man, perpetually getting into debt. Virginie is a frail little girl whose poor health necessitates several trips to the seaside, vividly described.

One day Felicité bumps into her sister, married with two children of her own. Realising she’s in a comfortable position, the sister encourages her children to visit Felicité and sponge off her at every opportunity. Felicité, in her simplicity, dotes on her nephew, Victor, who grows into a strapping young man and sets off to sea. Felicité makes the long hard journey to Le Havre to wave him off.

Later she is given a letter telling her that Victor died on the sea voyage. Yellow fever, then overbled by zealous doctors. Then Madame Aubain’s daughter, Virginie, catches pneumonia and dies. Grief for the poor little girl brings mistress and servant together into a new sympathy.

A neighbouring aristocrat, who was once posted as a diplomat to America and brought back with him a coloured servant and a parrot, makes a few social calls to Madame Aubain, because she has a certain status in the neighbourhood, on one occasion bringing the parrot to show off to all and sundry.

Felicité is enchanted by the parrot and tells everyone about it. This reaches the ears of the wife of the diplomat. When he is posted to a new job, he is only too happy to dump the parrot on this simple woman, seeing that it is noisy, dirty and temperamental.

Felicité tends the parrot with love, through summer and winter. When her mistress, Madame Aubain, dies, the parrot becomes a talisman for all the losses in her life – Madame, Victor, Virginie.

Eventually, the parrot also dies and she has it stuffed. On Madame Aubain’s death her son, Paul, and his greedy wife, had come to strip the house of all its valuables. They threatened to sell it but never quite manage to and so Felicité lives on, in increasing poverty, as the house crumbles around her, and the rain and wind get in, with the cage holding the dead parrot hung on the wall, as she grows old, deaf, lame, tended by a kindly neighbour.

Finally, one spring, come the weeks of the annual Corpus Christi festival, where temporary altars are erected around the town. One is set up just outside Felicité’s derelict house. Over the freezing winter, sleeping in a wet bed, she has contracted her final illness. As the neighbour tends her, Felicité hears the sound of the bells celebrating mass at the altar outside, her eyes open for one last time and she has a vision of the Holy Ghost as a huge green parrot, its wings open to welcome her to heaven – and dies.

Flaubert wrote to friends that the story was not intended in any way to be satirical or ironic, but as a straightforward depiction of a good woman, a good, heart and a good life. I grew up in a small village near a convent which was also a nursing home where very elderly patients were tended by the nuns. The nuns used to totter up to the village shop where I worked. My mother took us to visit the old ladies, lying quietly in rows of beds in the oak-panelled ward. I recognise the atmosphere of simple, feminine goodness. Goodness is simple, after all. Don’t hurt others.

Flaubert’s style is pared back to the bone. There are no metaphors or similes. Events are told in a brisk, no-nonsense prose. As with his other books, it is the descriptions I like most, the word paintings. Here is a description of winter.

On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple trees, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were barking around the farms; and Felicité, with her hands tucked under her mantle, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road. (p.48)

Simple. Vivid.

Saint Julian the Hospitator

The medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator (or Hospitalier) is portrayed in a stained glass window in Rouen cathedral, which Flaubert saw as a boy. In the 1840s he mentioned to friends the idea of writing about it, and he tucked away details about medieval hunting, weapons and castles from his omnivorous reading, for this purpose.

The story has all the fairy tale quality of a medieval legend. At Julian’s birth he is predicted to do great things. His father is told that he will marry into the family of a great emperor, while his mother is told he will be a saint.

But early on Julian displays violent tendencies. As a boy he kills a mouse which irritates him by appearing in the castle chapel. Then he stones a pigeon. His father introduces him to hunting and he takes to it with devilish enthusiasm, amassing an armoury of weapons, hunting dogs, and going out every day to massacre as much wildlife as possible, climaxing in his pointless massacre of an entire valley of deer. A stag approaches him with a doe and fawn and Julian shoots dead all of them. With his dying breath, the stag curses Julian, predicting that he will kill his own parents.

Soon afterwards Julian is wangling a heavy swords down from its fixture on the wall and drops it, narrowly missing his father. Then, on a misty day, he throws a javelin at what he takes to be the wings of a passing swan but are in fact the tails of the elaborate medieval head-dress worn by his mother. It pins the head dress to the castle wall while his mother shrieks and faints. Terrified at what might happen next, Julian flees the castle.

Julian enlists with a passing troop of soldiers of fortune, experiences hunger, thirst and battle, soon he commands a great army. Meanwhile, the emperor of Occitania is defeated by the Caliph of Cordoba and thrown in prison. Julian leads his army to the rescue, defeating the Caliph (and cutting his head off) before liberating the Emperor. Julian turns down all the rewards he’s offered until the Emperor produces his beautiful young daughter, at which Julian agrees to marry her and accept a nice castle.

The couple live together in happiness, but Julian categorically refuses to go on any hunts or kill any wildlife – still haunted by fear of the curse. Until one day, under the influence of his wife’s incessant nagging, he finally gives in and takes up his rusty weapons and goes for a hunt.

This turns into a strange visionary adventure. He finds himself wandering into a magical valley where the spirits of all the animals he’s ever killed surround him. Again and again he tries to shoot things but the weapons don’t work, or the animals dodge out the way.

Frustrated at his inability to kill anything, bewildered and upset by his vision of the spirits of the dead, Julian returns to the castle, and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, hoping his beautiful wife will calm him.

But leaning over their bed in the dawn light he strokes her face only to feel a long beard – and realises there are two bodies in the bed, a man and a woman. She has betrayed him! All his pent-up frustration makes him see red and in a frenzy he stabs his wife and her lover to death.

Then turns to see… his wife standing in the doorway holding a torch!!

She explains that while he was away hunting an old married couple came to the castle. Tired and dirty, it was his mother and father who had been seeking him all across Europe ever since he ran away from home. Touched by their story, his wife gave them dinner and then their own bed to sleep in.

So Julian has just murdered his own parents – exactly as foretold.

Next morning, Julian hands her instructions to perform a state funeral for his parents, wills her all his properties and possessions, then leaves. He wanders the world, begging like a monk, performing numerous good deeds. Eventually he comes to a wide river on the bank of which is a derelict boat, and it crosses his mind to repair it and to become a ferryman: it is a simple, practical good deed. So he repairs the boat, builds a hut, and lives off the donations given him by grateful travellers.

One day a figure calls from the other side of the river and, when Julian arrives, he discovers a hideously disfigured leper. Nonetheless, Julian rows him across. The leper is hungry. Julian gives him food. The leper is tired. Julian offers him his bed. The leper is cold. Julian offers him his clothes. The leper is still cold and asks for body warmth. Despite the obvious risk that he will contract this appalling disease, Julian hugs the leper to warm him up.

At which point the leper’s eyes take on the brightness of stars, his hair spreads out like the rays of the sun, and his breath smells like roses. Julian experiences superhuman joy as he is borne up to heaven by none other than Jesus Christ himself.

**********

Baldick’s introduction points out that Flaubert, as usual, made copious notes about all the factual aspects of the story, especially medieval hunting. And, as so often, this is regurgitated into paragraphs which read like extracts from an encyclopedia:

His father made up a pack of hounds for him. There were twenty-four  greyhounds of Barbary, speedier than gazelles, but liable to get out of temper; seventeen couples of Breton dogs, great barkers, with broad chests and russet coats flecked with white. For wild-boar hunting and perilous doublings, there were forty boarhounds as hairy as bears.

The red mastiffs of Tartary, almost as large as donkeys, with broad backs and straight legs, were destined for the pursuit of the wild bull. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin; the barking of the setters equalled that of the beagles. In a special enclosure were eight growling bloodhounds that tugged at their chains and rolled their eyes, and these dogs leaped at men’s throats and were not afraid even of lions.

But in a work like this it doesn’t much matter, since a lot of medieval literature is exactly as encyclopedic and factual as this (think of Gawayne and the Green Knight with its highly factual accounts not only of three hunts, but of how the kills from each chase were gutted and prepared for table). The oddity of the factual interludes among the fairy-tale story actually make sense in a tale like this.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Hérodias

Hérodias is another of Flaubert’s bracing fantasias of the evocative place names, wild landscapes and barbaric behaviour of the ancient world.

The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illumining the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. Engedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.

This time it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Part one establishes the uneasy relationship between the Jewish king of Palestine, Herod Antipas, and the forces which surround him:

  • his main military enemies are the Parthians to the east
  • the native inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, pass in voiceless but ominous caravans of camels
  • the Roman Empire has conquered Palestine and allowed Herod and other members of his family to ‘rule’ different parts of it, under their ultimate control; Herod is permanently fearful that the Romans are planning to replace him
  • he has to cope with the endlessly squabbling factions among the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the two main groups – the Sadducees and Pharisees

Above all, he struggles to control his haughty wife, Herodias. She was married to Herod’s half-brother and rival, Herod II, who has been imprisoned by the Romans. Herodias divorced him and has married Herod Antipas – in flagrant breach of all Jewish marriage law, prompting vicious criticism from religious leaders.

Now, as they stand looking out from the battlements of their hilltop fortress, Herodias tries to arouse her husband, but he is indifferent to her charms. Instead he gazes at a nubile, dark-haired serving girl hanging washing down in the town below the fort. Herodias notices and is angered.

But she has a deeper grounds for anger with her husband. Herod has imprisoned Jokanaan, the religious fanatic who the Latins call John the Baptist – but refuses to execute him, despite the fact that he waged a campaign of insults against her. Here’s an example of his anti-Herodias vituperation:

‘Ah! Is it thou, Jezebel? Thou hast captured thy lord’s heart with the tinkling of thy feet. Thou didst neigh to him like a mare. Thou didst prepare thy bed on the mountain top, in order to accomplish thy sacrifices! The Lord shall take from thee thy sparkling jewels, thy purple robes and fine linen; the bracelets from thine arms, the anklets from thy feet; the golden ornaments that dangle upon thy brow, thy mirrors of polished silver, thy fans of ostrich plumes, thy shoes with their heels of mother-of-pearl, that serve to increase thy stature; thy glittering diamonds, the scent of thy hair, the tint of thy nails – all the artifices of thy coquetry shall disappear, and missiles shall be found wherewith to stone the adulteress!’

(Note Flaubert’s lifelong addiction to exclamation marks at the end of every sentence spoken by his historical characters.)

In part two the Roman governor Vitellius, arrives. We are given, as you’d expect with Flaubert, factually precise descriptions of his armed guard and their uniforms and weapons, as a well as a comic description of his greedy fat son, Aulus.

It is Herod’s birthday and food is being brought up to the citadel in for a feast, alongside a throng of guests including leaders of the local Sadducees and Pharisees. Flaubert conveys the dirt and confusion of a first-century Palestine castle.

Unfortunately, Vitellius wants to see every aspect of Antipas’s mountain-top fortress and is surprised by what he finds. He is suspicious of the caves full of weapons, and the fine herd of a hundred snow white horses – is Herod planning some kind of rebellion? Sweating with anxiety, Herod assures him these are all for defence in case the Jews rebel.

Then Vitellius is astonished when, upon ordering Herod to open up his prison cells, he discovers the one in which the filthy dirty Jokanaan is kept. As daylight enters his deep dungeon, the Baptist starts up prophesying the overthrow of Herod, the day of Judgement to come, and the start of an era of milk and honey i.e. the advent of Jesus — though none of his listeners, of course, understand him.

Jokanaan then catches sight of Herodias among the throng and launches into another long diatribe against her filthy incest (divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother).

The third and final part of the story describes in detail Herod Antipas’s birthday feast (which features ox kidneys, dormice, wild-ass stew, Syrian sheep’s tails and nightingales), attended by Vitellius, fat Aulus who has picked up a pretty slave boy in the kitchens, and the various worthies from Antipas’s kingdom.

Conversation turns to the latest news, rumours of the miracles and wonders worked by various magi and fakirs around Palestine.

The comfortable well-educated audience laugh at these stories of miracle-working peasants, but are surprised when one of the guests, a certain Jacob, stands up to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah. He knows because Jesus cured his daughter of a fatal illness.

Vitellius asks what a messiah is. The learned Jews present explain how it cannot be so, since the Messiah will, according to the scriptures, be a) a son of David and b) preceded by Elias.

But Elias has come, claims Jacob: and his name is Jokanaan!

At this dramatic moment, the fat proconsul’s son, Aulus is violently sick and all gather round to offer their help and advice. When he is quite finished throwing up, Aulus drinks some refreshing iced water and returns to guzzling . Flaubert does a good job of conveying the rich mix of religions and beliefs swirling among the guests, who include German pagans, Romans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Platonists, followers of Mithras, of the god Azia and so on.

The conversation degenerates into a drunken argument. The Pharisees are so infuriated with Roman impiety that they smash up their plates, while Vitellius gets cross that his Galilan interpreter refuses to translate to the Jews his increasingly offensive remarks.

Herod Antipas is trying to calm Vitellius down by showing him a rare medal with Tiberius’s face on it which Herodias gave to him for precisely this purpose, when Herodias herself dramatically pulls back the panels of the golden balcony and appears among slaves carrying torches.

The male guests are just taking in this surprising and inappropriate appearance of a woman at an all-male feast when, at the other end of the hall, a beautiful young girl appears and starts dancing to the music of a flute and castanets. It is Herodias’s daughter, Salomé.

The graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators’ blood on fire.

Suffice to say that Salomé inflames them all with her youthful, athletic and erotic dancing, and especially Herod, who has never seen her before (Herodias having had her raised far from court for precisely this reason).

Herod is entranced, bewitched. When she dances up to him he offers her anything, his wealth, his throne, in return for her favours. Salome dances round him and laughs: ‘I want the head of… Jokanaan.’

Herod is horrified but then – realises that executing the Baptist might actually help him. It will show Vitellius that he can be decisive, it will please the Sadducees and Pharisees by sticking up for orthodox religion and, of course, it will placate his difficult wife.

So he orders his executioner to go and do the deed. This man returns in terror claiming Jokanaan is protected by a dragon, at which the entire company yells abuse at him. So the poor man goes back and this time carries out the task – returning with Jokanaan’s decapitated head held up by the hair.

Herod places it on a silver salver from the feast table and hands it to Salomé, who smiles and laughs and Antipas realises that she is the beautiful black-haired young woman he had glimpsed on a town rooftop back at the start of the story.

The tray and head are passed round among the guests who each react differently, a comic moment coming when the drunk, dazed eyes of Aulus look at the blank, dead eyes of the Baptist. The feast ends. The candles are quenched. The guests depart, leaving Herod alone staring at the head.

Off in a corner, the Essene, a minor figure who has been loitering in the background for most of the story, quietly prays for the soul of the Baptist. Two messengers from Galilee arrive and are shown to him. We don’t learn the message they bring but the implication is that they bring news of Jesus.

Herod finally stands and walks out the feast room. The two messengers and the Essene, clearly believes in Jesus and in Jokanaan’s prophetic role, pick up his bloody head and carry it off with them.

Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

It is easy to see the thread connecting the sensual sadism of Salammbô with much the same themes embodied in the story of Salomé. Given that the depiction of heterosexual sex in fiction at this time was illegal, any hints at homosexuality ditto, and lesbianism wasn’t even acknowledged – one way of looking at the late-nineteenth century obsession with Salomé is that its setting in the remote historical past, allowed the expression of ‘transgressive’ images of sexuality which were simply impossible if set anywhere remotely contemporary (as Flaubert had found out to his cost when the relatively tame Madame Bovary was prosecuted for immorality).

Another interpretation might see it as sensationalist titillation for its own sake, as sexist soft porn.

But as always with Flaubert, the interest is as much or more in the deadpan delivery of the story, in the minutely itemised details of clothes and places, languages and customs, than in the actual plot.

This explains why Salomé’s dance and John’s beheading occur only on the last two pages of this thirty-five page story. The interest isn’t really in this grotesque (or plain tacky) deed itself: it is the careful build-up of background detail which the text is really interested in.

Christianity

And it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that all three stories are about Christianity. Flaubert, as a cynical modern man, was not a practicing Catholic. But maybe his imagination was.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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