A bust at Musei Capitolini, Rome. Lanmas / Alamy Stock Photo

Emperor Nero—tyrant, or misunderstood?

Fiddling with the reputation of Rome’s great despot is not enough. A total reappraisal is due
July 14, 2021

In the game of “name the most grotesque Roman emperor,” Nero comes pretty much on top. He didn’t quite make his horse a consul (that was Caligula, his predecessor-but-one). But his reputation for wickedness is nevertheless lurid. Aside from famously fiddling while Rome burned, he is said to have killed his wife by kicking her in the stomach while she was pregnant and to have commissioned an elaborate trick boat designed to collapse mid-voyage in order to despatch his inconveniently powerful mother, Agrippina. (The dowager empress managed to swim to shore but was later killed more conventionally, with a sword.) Vain, greedy, incompetent, murderous: the man seems unsalvageable.

And yet. Increasingly historians—including those behind a new exhibition at the British Museum, which runs until 24th October—have argued that there is barely one hostile anecdote in near-contemporary portraits that cannot be filed away as pure invention. How can we tell? According to the Nero-rescuers, they are so clearly stock slurs from the armoury of Roman vituperatio—the rhetorical device of reputational attack, used to damage political or legal opponents in a culture unhindered by libel laws—that they are very unlikely to be true.

“After the fire Nero rebuilt Rome carefully, with attention to safety”

Violence, promiscuity, out-of-control appetites—these were accusations taken from a rich and varied menu of standardised slights. The men whose accounts of Nero survive had an agenda: the historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius were writers of the elite senatorial class who hankered desperately for an age before the republic had collapsed, for a system in which families like theirs could rise uninhibited by an autocratic imperial dynasty.

Even that charge about fiddling while Rome burned feels shaky—and not just because the violin is an obvious anachronism. There was indeed a devastating fire in 64 CE, and Nero really did once perform a poem of his own about the burning of Troy, quite possibly accompanying himself on an ancient stringed instrument, the cithara. But this bore no connection to Rome’s fire. And his ancient detractors had to concede that he rebuilt the city carefully, with attention to safety.

As for the Roman empire itself, Nero did no damage to that immense project; despite a hiccup in the form of Boudicca’s revolt in Britain, it kept on going and it kept on growing. Out in the provinces life went on, the emperor just a name, the imperial machinery turning inexorably and relentlessly. The alleged peccadilloes of the man in charge made not one jot of difference.