When the name Nero is heard, a few things are conjured up in our imagination. Nero the persecutor of Christians; Nero the brutal tyrant who embodied the worst aspects of Roman imperial despotism; Nero the wannabe artist playing the fiddle as Rome burned. “Everybody has heard of the Roman emperor Nero…He is the image of the bad ruler, cruel, vain, and incompetent.” In our cultural imagination, Nero is wholly bad, the worst example of many bad examples of Rome’s emperors. But how bad was Nero? That’s the question that Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth try to address in their new book, Nero: Matricide, Music, and Murder in Imperial Rome.
Nero wasn’t the first of Rome’s notorious emperors cascading into a period of decline in the mid-first century CE. Caligula was the mad emperor after Tiberius. Claudius, who ascended the purple after being discovering cowering in the palace after Caligula’s murder, was someone who pushed Caesaric rule toward greater autocracy. Conflicts with the Senate and assassinations, not to mention poor family relations, led to his murder (poisoning) by Agrippina who paved the way for the eventual rise of Nero. If we include Agrippina as regent-empress in a brief intermittent period after Claudius’s murder, her own scheming and politicking isn’t exactly the high watermark of pristine politics.
As Nero grew up, he was raised in an environment of a family at war. He was, however, somewhat sheltered from the murderous and conspiratorial politics of that had brought him near the throne of power during his youth. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, “was proud, ambitious, and sure of herself.” She was the main reason why Nero was so close to the imperial throne but was also the reason why he wasn’t directly involved in the brutal politics of conspiracy and murder in his adolescence (though he would soon find himself in the midst of such political scheming).
Agrippina was the wife of Claudius and “a gifted and professional politician.” Seneca had been hired to tutor Nero as he was becoming a young man. But if Nero was ever going to become emperor, he needed to remove his mother who ran things behind the scenes. So as Nero grew older, he orchestrated a failed assassination attempt before finally having the Praetorian Guard kill her as she tried to recover her health after escaping a botched murder plot on the seas. The young man who was sheltered from the murderous politics of his predecessors, even his mother, now entered the stage as a murderer. What began in blood would inevitably end in blood.
Nero is a revisionist account of the emperor Nero’s life. Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth attempt to overturn the singular story of Nero as a bad emperor. In (re)telling Nero’s story, our co-authors provide the context of Nero’s time, the turbulent history leading to his ascension, his ambitious cultural program, and, ultimately, his failure and death. In the eyes of our authors, Nero wasn’t the bloodthirsty and tyrannical emperor of cultural memory remembers him as but a flawed, confused, and at times, even sympathetic artist and visionary. More on this in a bit.
Nero never wanted to be a political ruler our authors assert. Rather, he sought to be an artist. And as so many of our great artists have communicated in their dramas—like Shakespeare and Wagner—the life of art (leisurely love and creativity) and the life of politics (the acquisition and maintenance of power) cannot coexist; they are mutually exclusive. Schooled in Greek art and culture, Nero “grew up [and] became increasingly convinced of the superiority of Greek civilization. Fascinated even obsessed, by its performing arts and literature, he dreamed of being a professional musician in Alexandria.” That dream never materialized. So Nero had to transform Rome and Naples into miniature hubs of cultural artistry to play second-rate musician and singer.
If there is one major contribution to our new understanding of Nero from this book, it is as a major patron of the arts. “Nero’s new plan for the arts had gotten off to an excellent start. This was due in no small measure to the sudden appearance of the brilliant, astoundingly prolific, insufferable twenty-year-old Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.” We remember Marcus Lucanus simply as Lucan. This became a recurring theme throughout Nero’s tumultuous reign. Although a great patron of the arts, and although Nero wanted to be an artist, it was other artists who exceeded the emperor in creative ability and talent. This made Nero jealous.
Nero’s hard luck in the arts was seen in a dramatic performance he put on. Although being successful in audience attendance (he had the benefit of also being the emperor), the theatre had been overpacked and crowded during the play. After the performance concluded and the audience left, the theatre collapsed. Though no one died and Nero escaped unharmed, if one permit the reader to indulge in the ominous superstitions that captivated ancient souls, this was an divine indictment foreshadowing Nero’s reign.
Why do we remember Nero as a bloodthirsty tyrant?
We must remember the odd nature of the Roman Empire after Augustus. The republic was not necessarily extinguished despite the civil wars and establishment of the Augustan military autocracy. Rather, the empire came about from the power of the military and the frontier generals who commanded the loyalty of the legions after the Marian reforms (this remained the case throughout the empire’s entire history). The Senate’s growing incompetence to govern meant political governance was maintained by force, the force of the legions and those who commanded them. Augustus established himself as the universal controller of the legions, the supreme commander of the military autocracy that had exerted itself across the ancient world in the name of Rome. The emperors were, then, the final and ultimate commander-in-chief of the legions whose orders generals and their soldiers obeyed which meant the emperor was the final arbiter of military power when desired.
Despite the empire as a military autocracy, the Senate, as mentioned, still existed and functioned as the face of Roman politics. The intellectuals of the empire, its many writers, including philosophers (like Seneca), were romantic republicans and drawn from the old aristocratic families that still populated the Senate. They yearned for the restoration of the republican constitution and style of politics freed from the military autocracy of the princeps. The upperclass intellectuals who wrote the majority of Rome’s literary and historical accounts of worth were opponents of Nero. “Nero’s upper-class critics,” our authors write, “gave him a reputation for overspending on a luxurious lifestyle, grandiose architecture, and populist cultural programs. This was largely undeserved.” Or it was deserved, but that’s neither here nor there.
The other reason we remember Nero as a tyrant is because of the memory of Christianity. Christian memory recalls Nero as the first major persecutor of Christians. After the Great Fire that consumed Rome where Nero supposedly played music as the city burned, later Christian authors blamed Nero as having launched the first great wave of anti-Christian persecution in the aftermath of that event. The only problem is that we have little actual evidence for the traditional stories of martyrdom in the middle first century CE. While our authors are decidedly anti-Christian in their rhetoric—for instance, calling the Apostle Paul Christianity’s chief “propagandist” rather than theologian and making some baseless and unsubstantiated claims of Christian editorial revisions of Tacitus (something that only online conspiracy theorists tend to indulge)—the general consensus among ancient historians is Nero’s persecution of Christians was no where near as significant as Christian cultural memory makes out but did occur (contra Everitt and Ashworth).
This combination of upperclass intellectual criticism and later Christian criticism painted Nero as the image of a bad emperor that passed down through history. While Everitt and Ashworth revise this account, it is also not the case that Nero was a particularly competent ruler. He made many mistakes. He murdered his own mother to free himself of her oversight and rule. He ignored the wise advice of Seneca and ordered the execution of his former tutor on the dubious grounds he was conspiring with plotters during the Pisonian conspiracy. He also used the Pisonian conspiracy to kill his artistic rival, Lucan. Nero was a brute no matter how Everitt and Ashworth try to dress him up.
Furthermore, Nero was an emerging demagogue. He understood the passions of the masses and “used the arts and sport as a means of communicating directly with ordinary Romans…His legitimacy would no longer depend on the constitutional settlement which Augustus had agreed with the Senate, but on the direct approval of the People.” Nero was a populist. And the march to empire was built on imperial populism, conspiracy, and murder—all of which Nero was guilty of participating in. Intellectuals tend to love populist demagogues, so long as they are libertine demagogues. And Nero was a libertine demagogue. So Everett and Ashworth love Nero. No surprises here.
Nevertheless, Nero didn’t seem to have the courage to remain steadfast in his own conspiracies and murders. He was regularly wracked with guilt after having committed his crimes. He was, by every account, a substandard ruler and fearful of those powerful individuals around him. He masqueraded that fear as bravado. His stubborn insistence that he shouldn’t be involved with military affairs was a great “weakness” since the Roman Empire depended on the military intelligence of its emperors, to which Nero had none. Far from a mastermind schemer and plotter, Nero comes across as a fickle and weak man who only embraced murder when his hand was forced. This is true, though it by no means exonerates the emperor as Everitt and Ashworth imply.
In Everitt and Ashworth’s account of Nero, they create a sympathetic portrait of an emperor whom they feel was unfairly maligned by his critics. “What was Nero like as a person? This is hard to say, for the literary sources are insufficient and heavily biased against him.” This is going a bit too far. When all the sources agree that Nero was a bad ruler, that is a strong indictment against the subject. More serious historians than our two authors of this work have repeatedly shown that Nero’s was, in fact, terrible. James Romm, for instance, in his great biographical history of Seneca, Dying Every Day, doesn’t romanticize Nero as our two authors do. Seneca, hypocrite though he was, lived and worked during Nero’s tumultuous and contentious reign and his life does reveal the depravity of Nero’s reign.
One might share sympathy with our authors’ rehabilitation of Nero as patron of the arts, but one shouldn’t uncritically accept the otherwise romanticized portrait of Nero as a humane ruler (especially from readers with little knowledge of the ancient historians and writers dismissed by our authors as anti-Neronian propagandists). “Nero’s most admirable quality was the purity of his commitment to art.” This we can, and should, agree on.
But then our authors go way too far in crediting Nero for other matters. Everitt and Ashworth assert that Nero was a visionary ahead of his time in seeing the future of the empire in the east. This is very poorly argued since Romans knew the future was in the east since the time of Pompey, Crassus, and Mark Antony. Nero as a haphazard plotter and schemer, supposedly making us think twice about him as a brutal man, is ultimately unconvincing given the preponderance of ancient sources that show Nero as having been a problematic ruler even as our authors try to argue otherwise. Furthermore, our authors state—completely inaccurately—that the eastern portion of the empire was “economically less developed than the western” and that the great economic boom of the east in Late Antiquity is a legacy Nero deserves credit for. This is complete and utter nonsense. The east was a far more developed economic region since the founding of Rome and the eastward expansion of the Roman Republic was precisely because the east held the riches of the ancient world while the lands of western Europe were a comparative backwater. How anyone could make such a mind-boggling inaccurate statement is shocking, especially given Everitt’s reputation as a leading popular writer of the ancient world and Ashworth’s profession as an investigative journalist. There are numerous other factual inaccuracies in this book, but we need not belabor them here as I’ve already criticized some of those inaccuracies above.
Moreover, in the places Everitt and Ashworth wish to credit Nero as being a successful emperor, Nero deserves no credit. The defeat of Boudica was solely in the hands of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and the 10,000 legionaries who valiantly defeated their much larger foes because of their own cunning and courage. This is made ironic since our authors do cover this event and explain quite well how Paulinus and his army chose the terrain that would most suit their outnumbered army. The defeat of the Jewish rebels in Jewish War also has little to do with Nero. The day-to-day operations were initiated by the Roman governors and generals in Palestine and not imperial micromanagement from Nero who would very quickly die after the revolt began. One should read Guy Maclean Rogers’s new book For the Freedom of Zion, which I have already reviewed, for that account to see how Nero had no influence on those events.
Even in the field of artistry, which does deserve our revised attention, our authors have contradictory statements about Nero as an artist. In one place we read, “As a matter of fact, [Nero] was quite a good singer and musician. The secret of Nero’s personality lay in his commitment to art. He was no dilettante and took music and drama extremely seriously. Audiences loved him. He was the prototype of a pop star.” Then, in another place we also read, “Was he a great poet and music maker? His tragedy is that he was not. He seems to have had a real but middling talent.” So which is it? Was Nero a talented musician or was he, at best, a “middling talent”? We do, in fact, know despite the contradictions and sophistry of our authors. Nero was a rather mediocre musician and poet (at best) overshadowed by greater luminaries whom he grew jealous and put to death.
Nero may not have been the awful, conspiratorial, and malicious ruler history has made him out to be, but when all the historical sources agree that Nero was bad that is sufficient—rather than “insufficient”—cause to recognize that he was not a good ruler. While it is time, two millennia after Nero’s life, to reassess and expand our understanding of this pivotal emperor in Rome’s history, Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth simply discredit and brush aside the historical accounts of Nero and create their own imaginary “pop star” out of an unknown and inexplainable adoration of the man. The infatuation in trying to rehabilitate poor and despotic rulers from the hands contemporary intellectuals is not new. Everitt and Ashworth follow in the worst footsteps of intellectuals in this regard. And rather poorly at times to boot.
If Nero was a tragic figure, as this new book attempts to portray, it wasn’t in the victory of his critics writing him as a despot. It was in the fact that Nero had no real appetite to govern and wanted to be an artist and never had that chance because of his life as emperor. Had he lived a life as an artist, he would have been forgotten instead of being remembered as one of Rome’s worst emperors. We must remember that even as our sycophantic authors want to rehabilitate Nero; their story still has Nero killing his mother, losing his temper and (accidentally) killing his wife and unborn child, ordering the executions of Seneca and Lucan who had no part to play in the Pisonian conspiracy because he had an inferiority complex toward both men, and rigging athletic competitions to ensure he would be declared the winner in front of raucous crowds.
Nero’s life makes for an exhilarating read. Two millennia after his death, we still find his life fascinating. But if Everitt and Ashworth want us to be skeptical of the ancient sources regarding Nero, we should also be skeptical of Everitt and Ashworth’s reimagined Nero too. While readers do get to see the other side of Nero, Nero as artist and patron of the arts, readers also lose in this romanticized biography of Nero as a sort of misunderstood rock star. Misunderstood rock star he was not. Bad emperor he was and remains.
Nero: Matricide, Music, and Murder in Imperial Rome
By Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth
New York: Random House, 2022; 448pp
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