As with all the other emperors, you know, of course, that there is no ‘real’ Nero, only constructs.
But is it possible that any of those constructs has chanced upon the truth of the ‘real’ Nero?
Apart from the fact that the Senate declared him a public enemy, very little remains about Nero from the time … except for coins and inscriptions – and a recent archaeologists’ claim to have found his ‘Golden House’. The original written sources have been lost, and it is impossible even to guess what they said.
There are a few tantalising hints as to Nero’s popularity. Otho took the cognomen 'Nero' and re-erected many statues to Nero. Vitellius felt it necessary to give him a grand funeral. Three ‘false Neros’ led popular rebellions in the east of the Empire. And in Greece, the orator Dio Chrysotom (before ad120) could write: ‘even now everyone wishes he was still alive’.
But amongst the later ancient writers, however, the verdict was almost unanimously hostile: Nero was a monster. Pliny described Nero as ‘the poison of the world’. In Tacitus, Nero is a homicidal, matricidal tyrant, living in fear of the consequences of his own evil, and Tacitus eventually apologises for the endless story of ‘servile passivity and so much blood wasted’. In the account of Suetonius, Nero comes across as a deluded pervert whom, 'after the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off'.
Most of all, by persecuting Christianity – the future religion of the Empire – Nero had secured his everlasting damnation (literary and theologically), and the Christian writer of Revelation, it is widely believed, used Nero for his description of the Beast.
Until the 20th century, therefore, most historians simply read the ancient record, and repeated the ancient verdict.
- ‘Let not ever the soul of Nero enter this firm bosom’ pleads Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- The 19th century French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote of Nero in terms of a Frankenstein: ‘une créature mal faite, un produit incongru de la nature’.
- The English essayist Thomas de Quincey declared Nero: ‘in a true medical sense, insane’.
- The mid-19th century historian Charles Merivale declared him: ‘a barbarous despot … this arch-tyrant, the last and most detestable of the Caesarean family’.
Henderson was offended that:
Six lines in our ancient records may suffice to outline Imperial edicts for good government; some six pages must be devoted to the tale of unabashed wickedness in Rome’.In fact, he pointed out, whilst Nero’s government was allegedly descending into vice and slaughter: ‘we see that the Empire prospers peacefully, wrongs are redressed, frontiers are guarded and extended, the provinces and Italy rejoice in peace'.
Nero, Henderson concluded, had ‘done good service to the state’ and does not deserve our excoriation. ‘The ignorance’ which had led him to persecute the Christians ‘was that of his day … it is therefore excused. The cruelty was Roman cruelty’.
Since Henderson, all historians have rejected an unquestioning acceptance of the ancient authorities, and have tried to understand Nero in the context of the times. Miriam T Griffin (1984) analysed why Nero’s government collapsed, focussing, not on his personal character, but on his policies, and on impersonal factors such as financial problems and the loyalty of the army.
One school of historians even manages – in stripping away the sensational legend – to find good in Nero. Arthur Weigall, in The Singing Emperor (1930) portrayed him as a lover of culture who did not ‘fiddle while Rome burned’, but worked hard to relieve the suffering caused by the Great Fire. BH Warmington (1970) found a talented administrator and positive ruler. And Richard Holland (2000) reveals ‘a liberator, who tried to democratize the state’.
On the other hand, the tradition of a malign and unbalanced tyrant persists. Once you have seen Peter Ustinov’s lyre-playing portrayal of Nero in the film Quo Vadis (1951) it tends to infect everything else you read and learn! And Edward Champlin (2005) has tried to re-establish Nero as a truly barbaric ruler – ascribing anything positive written about him to the fact that the emperor was ‘a showman and PR man of considerable talent’ … i.e. the apologists have been fooled.
Recently, historians have tried to get away from a ‘hero or zero’ approach to Nero, and to investigate his reign in other ways – for example, trying to analyse the importance of the arts in his reign.