Ten Great Things about Emperor Nero
The emperor Nero, who reigned from A.D. 54—68, has been called “the first mass market pop star” and “the Elvis of the ancient world.” Who could not want to know such a character better? Although he was emperor, he saw himself primarily as an artist, especially as a performer on the cithara, a lyre-like instrument fancied by Apollo and Orpheus. He eventually went on a year long artistic tour in Greece with his backup groupies where the sound of applause rang sweetly in his ears. Unfortunately, this cost him his throne. But no true artist balks at the price of art.
The historian Suetonius said that his ‘craving for immortal fame’ was his leading trait and his tragedy. He got what he wanted, but not in the way he wanted. He had a busy posthumous career after his death, with no fewer than three Nero impersonators popping up in various places around the Mediterranean, and numerous other ‘sightings’ (again like Elvis) before the Book of Revelation transformed him in to the diabolical Beast whose number was 666 (the letters of his name adding up to this in Hebrew), and from there he morphed into the Antichrist for early Christians.
In real life, he had a keen mind and a leaning toward science as well as the arts. He dispatched an expedition to discover the source of the Nile; they got as far south as the great Sudd in South Sudan, a vast impenetrable swamp on the White Nile branch that is 200 miles wide and 250 miles long, a thousand miles from the mouth of the Nile. It is still impenetrable today by either land or water.
He also tried to ascertain whether the legendary Alcyon Lake in Greece, purportedly bottomless, really was. He dropped long weighted lines down from a boat, hoping to feel a thump that would indicate the bottom. It didn’t happen.
However, it is his personality that fascinates and endures. Everything he did was theatrical and operatic, whether it was actually performing on stage, or orchestrating creative murders such as the famous episode of the collapsing boat for his mother, or the poison to simulate an epileptic fit that carried off a rival. It is not surprising that the rumor of his singing of the Fall of Troy while watching Rome burn started—although it wasn’t true, the backdrop of the fire would have been perfect for his theme.
He was blessed with boundless energy to attack all his interests with focused devotion. He could not stay an observer for long, but was driven to be a participant, needed to be a participant, never an armchair critic. Eventually he was not content even with amateur status but wanted to be a professional musician, actor, and chariot racer, and competed in contests, déclassé for an emperor. He was not afraid to be embarrassed or ridiculed, and he has been—for centuries.
Likewise he was honest about his looks. When he first became emperor at the age of sixteen, he was slim but as he put on weight he allowed himself to be portrayed on his coins as he really was, double chins and all. His vanity was for his projects and not his person. He is instantly recognizable on his coins two thousand years later, out of the welter of cookie-cutter emperors on other coins.
He was certainly an artist but hardly a starving one. His Domus Aurea—the Golden House—built in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64—was a visionary project that used light as an architectural element long before Frank Lloyd Wright thought of it. We can walk through it today and appreciate its genius. It showcased his talent that went hand in hand with his over-the-top extravagance. He may have seen himself more as an artist than as emperor, but being emperor was what paid for his artistic projects—he was his own National Endowment for the Arts.
So strong was his identity as an artist that he sealed it with his famous last words, , “What an artist the world is losing!” thus officially registering himself that way for all of history.
He was surprisingly modern in many ways: first, in that he was unmilitary, preferring diplomatic to military solutions, shocking for an emperor, especially one whose grandfather was the glorious Germanicus, and whose great grandfather was Marc Antony. Second, and the key to his character, he was also way out of his era in pursuing self-fulfillment as his highest goal. Third, he was an internationalist, not stuck on Rome as the ultimate model. He tried to foist Greek culture on them—it didn’t take. They still preferred their gladiator bouts to Greek theater and the audiences would flee from the theater when the shows at the arena were announced.
He was a romantic. Yes! When he was in his late teens, he fell madly in love with a freed slave who worked in the palace, and was determined to marry her and make her his empress. Marriage between a Roman citizen and a foreigner was illegal in Rome (as Marc Antony found out), let alone with a foreigner who was a slave. But the love-smitten emperor ordered a bogus pedigree of royal descent to be created for her to make it kosher. It did not work, but they remained close all their lives and in the end she was the one who gave him his funeral rites.
He may have been the first hippie, a prototype. He grew his hair long, grew a beard, and ditched togas for flowered tunics, receiving senators barefoot. He hung out with the lower classes, preferring the company of charioteers and slaves to the aristocrats, who disdained him for it.
Unfortunately, aristocrats wrote his history and from them has come the negative image he has endured ever since. He didn’t fiddle while Rome burned (in fact he was active in fire fighting and relief efforts), he wasn’t insane (just peculiar), he wasn’t a tyrant, and his reign was a stable and prosperous one for the empire.
If the aristocrats didn’t completely blacken his name, the succeeding Flavian dynasty finished the job. They filled in his Golden House, pulled down his statues, filled in his lake and built the Colosseum on top of it. But in a way he had the last laugh, as the original name ‘the Flavian Amphitheater’ is lost and the structure is known to all as the Colosseum, because of the hundred and twenty foot colossal statue of Nero standing beside it, which for some reason they didn’t bother to destroy. So it loomed over the structure for centuries.
Finally, he was the last true Caesar—that is, a member of the dynasty founded by Julius Caesar. There is a always a melancholy ring to being the last of a family, a culture, an era. That he holds this place fascinates me, and has others for centuries.