NERO, THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH

Nero

Some months ago, I found occasion to investigate the series of accounts devoted to the clerical agenda of the early first millennium which appeared in the “Anglo Saxon Chronicle”, a body of work that, in placing many of the occurrences that were observed to distinguish the first years of Britain’s occupation by the Roman Empire into perspective, gave me cause to reflect upon the anomaly that the period seemed to represent in retrospective terms, an instance in which Rome paradoxically appeared to both extend province across the breadth of Europe yet remain relatively local with regards to the archaeological evidence that had been employed in it’s specification…

It immediately seemed to me, as I pored through the Chronicle, that there was, in effect, not a city built during the period placed beneath my investigation that remained untouched by some evidence of Roman occupation within it’s scheme, and yet that the Empire’s axis was, nonetheless, perversely observed to rest uniquely within a relatively unexceptional Italian province upon the coast of the Mediterranean sea, a city which seemed to arise instantaneously miles away from it’s satellites as the well spring from which all classical architecture and Latin may once be presumed to have spawned…

Examining the various accounts which presently constitute the modern conception of medieval history, I would, in fact, have been inclined to imagine, with regards to such issues, that an event like the “Black Death” in the mid fourteenth century, may instead have been survived in Rome and served, by default, to reinterpret it’s Empire’s diverse and extensive character as a single Italian state at a much later date then would otherwise be supposed…

“What was the Roman Empire ?” “Was it already established in Europe before it was cited to have been founded ?” “Was it a Federal body ?” The civilization was presumably named after it’s capital city, a temple complex built a thousand years before it was effectively invaded by it’s own Imperial stridency, it’s understandings coming to represent a generalized term that could be applied at once to all aspects of human culture across the extent of the known world, a pretext beneath which they were, in being observed to have originated in “Rome”, repeatedly confirmed to be the guiding influence behind a sudden inexplicable cultural expansion waged for it’s own sake in pursuit of domain during a period before which Europe did not, to all intents and purposes, even exist in a tangible sense upon the cultural map..

It was, with regards to such matters, certainly the case to my mind, that the ecclesiastical system which arose in Europe during the seventh century spoke Latin, and, by default, that it would be among “it’s” concerns to which the origins of the Roman language would ascribe, an instance in which the true heritage of the Empire would be deduced to lie in books like “the Gospels of St. Augustine” at a far later date than it’s vast network of smallholdings were recorded to have existed and contrarily not in the many strains of historical speculation which had, with all due respect to the contemporary historians engaged in such research, subsequently been devoted to the issue.

Despite what I perceived to be a degree of uncertainty pertaining to such matters, a variety of confusion which I can only credit to my own ignorance with regards to the many variables that they may, within reason, be construed to constitute, I nonetheless remained fascinated by the references which modern history seemed honor bound to make with respect to ancient Rome, an instance in which the exploits of the “Julio Claudian” and “Flavian” Imperial dynasties were yet witnessed to retain an intriguing allure that, in circumstancing both hardship and endeavor, continued to betoken reverence and awe.

Glancing casually through my Internet link in efforts to confirm when London’s Museums were due to re-open after the recent “Coronavirus” pandemic, a scare which, in circumstantially starting during the March of 2020, was observed to gradually mount impetus, quarantining virtually every public event in the city for over a year, I was, with regards to my interest in such matters, delighted to learn that Bloomsbury’s “British Museum” would be greeting the relent of the restrictions that had been imposed upon it with an exhibition devoted the celebrated Roman Emperor “Nero”, a series of displays which, in promising to present a collection of over two hundred artifacts before the attentions of the general public, would include a number of items that had never before been shown in the United Kingdom within it’s catalog.

Duly making forth across town in efforts to investigate the show, I immediately found myself facing a restored seventeenth century bust of “Nero” upon entering the exhibition, an item which, in being recorded to have been loaned to the British Museum by Italy’s “Musei Capitolini”, stood replete with a chaotic shock of hair, thick side burns and a singularly large nose, glowering down upon those that fell before it’s gaze with what appeared to be a detached expression of workmanlike disdain from it’s podium.

Nero

Christened “Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus” in the years directly succeeding Christ’s crucifixion, “Nero” was, in being recorded to have been the nephew of the emperor “Tiberius”, noted to have lost his father when no more than three years of age, a pretext beneath which his widowed mother “Agrippina” was, upon marrying the emperor “Claudius”, to re-christen him “Nero Claudius Caesar Germanicus”, a term beneath which he was, in marrying a thirteen year old girl named “Claudia Octavia”, witnessed to have been made Emperor when just sixteen years old, an observation that, with regards to the many aspersions subsequently cast over the fourteen year period which then constituted his reign, would suppose that he had lived his life, ‘in a Dickensian sense’, at a dramatically accelerated rate, experiencing all of the obligations conventionally ascribed to maturity when still a boy.

Upon passing the emperor’s bust I found myself standing in a room pinioned with a series of life sized statues who were conceived to represent various member of the “Julio Claudian” family from which “Nero” was descended, a consortium of interests that, in having assisted in the youthful ruler’s meteoric rise to success, gave some indication as to how Roman families may once have bonded in unanimous support of their youngest members, organizing marriages and establishing vocational training in efforts to secure province throughout successive generations of their respective lines.

Nero” was, in this instance, noted to be the last male heir of “Augustus”, an emperor who, in himself, having been descended from “Julius Ceasar’s” family, was very much a part of what is currently perceived to be the Roman aristocratic tradition replete with it’s boards of senators, advisors, prefects and officials, an instance in which “Nero” was notably thought to have been tutored by the Stoic philosopher “Seneca” during his youth, a man who, in having been exiled to Corsica for allegedly plotting against “Nero’s” adopted father, was later restored to grace by his mother and placed in charge of the young emperor’s education .

In keeping with the general attitude which Romans were inclined to espouse towards such matters, “Claudius” was, in this instance, observed to have minted a series of coins embossed with images of both “Nero” and “Agrippina” upon their faces and to have commissioned a number of statues depicting the pair, a process through which the relationship that the two shared with each other was witnessed to have entered history as a well recorded fact.

Nero’s” own children were, with regards to such matters, also noted to have been honored in a similar manner to the emperor himself, an endearing statue of his daughter “Claudia Augusta” playing with a silk moth taking pride of place among the catalog of artifacts on display at the exhibition, an effigy which, in being found among the ruins of “Claudius” palace in “Baiae”, was observed to bear more than a passing resemblance to that of a gnome like lantern bearing child cast into the river Tiber at approximately the same time, both objects representing evidence to suggest that, in actively apprenticing infants into trades and guilds, Roman households revered their young with what would later become an almost Trinitarian degree of esteem.

The practice of apprenticeship which the exhibition finds occasion to describe was, in this instance, almost certainly continued throughout the period of “Tetrarchy” that distinguished the emperor “Diocletian’s” reign over the Midlands somewhat later in 293 A.D, a convention beneath which ex soldiers were, in pronouncing themselves to be“August” or incarnations of the Roman God “Jupiter”, observed to patronize younger “Ceasares” who were accordingly upheld to be incarnations of “Hercules” as such youths were, through correspondence with the traditions that then ascribed to their upbringing, granted the chance to perform labors following the instance of any criminal conviction for which they may incidentally stand charged in favor of immediate execution.

It was potentially through association with such observations that rumors of the Emperor’s legendary matricide also began to circulate, an instance in which “Nero” was, upon hearing of a plot staged by his mother to end his life, recorded to have thrown the woman’s body into a river before stabbing her to death, an act which, in accordance with many accounts of the tale, he was later thought to have been accompanied with the slaughter of his young wife “Claudia Octavia” whom he coincidentally believed to have been involved in the same conspiracy against him.

Agrippina

It was interesting to note in this respect that the two murders were witnessed to have occurred in the years directly before and after the infamous rebellion against Rome which was staged in 61 A.D. by the “Icene” tribe of “Colchester”, a revolution that, through association with the reputation for ferocity espoused by the pagan queen “Boudicca”, would perhaps serve to explain how the notion of female conspiracy or any romantic connotation that could be drawn from the indomitability of women found occasion to enter the Roman political forum and dominate it’s heart.

The museum was, in this instance, observed to pay homage to the rebellion with the inclusion of the “Fenwick Horde” among it’s catalog of exhibits, a collection of gold coins and jewelry that was recorded to have been discovered beneath the floor of a high street shop in “Colchester” during the early twentieth century, an assortment of objects which, in sharing space with a bronze head of “Claudius” that was discovered lying upon the bed of the river “Alde” between land held respectively by the “Trinovantes” and “Icene” tribes in Suffolk, substantiates the assertion that Romans were present in East Anglia during the first century A.D. and that the animosity they entertained with the “Icene” was real.

Claudius

Taking such evidence to be indicative of the general demeanor of Roman culture throughout the entirety of Britain, the British Museum was also noted to include a chain of shackles within it’s collection of artifacts, an object which, in having once been used to bind Welsh lead miners together, was noted to have been exhumed from a lake bed in “Anglesey”.

Conceived as a brutally simplistic string of cast iron collars, an item that could, irrespective of the allusion towards slavery which they were believed to entail, well have been employed to simply drown captives together in precisely the location that it was found, the chain of shackles betokened association in my mind with the peculiar contrivance of the “Meyrick Helmet”, a neck brace which, in also being displayed at the exhibition, was perversely observed to shield it’s wearer’s eyes, rendering him unable to see what was happening around him.

Many of the weapons which the Romans were thought to have employed to defend themselves in Britain were, by the same measure, similarly crude, being little more than adaptations of the sticks and stones that would quite circumstantially be used to such an effect by an uncivilized community, an array of cast iron spear heads, knives and swords which, in resembling flint instruments, were nonetheless perceived to be invested with enough ingenuity to proclaim themselves objects of Roman origin.

Through correspondence with the Roman Empire’s legendary proclivity for cultural novelty the museum was also noted to exhibit an assortment of intricately molded clay oil lamps decorated with animals and fruit, a selection of items which would suppose that, in Italy at least, the ancient civilization had, during it’s heyday, been inclined to play with fire.

Following the death of “Claudia Octavia” Nero was observed to have married two more times, an instance in which his second wife was thought to have died of a miscarriage, an event which, in being noted to have caused the emperor grief, nonetheless entered history as yet another example of his proclivity for murdering relatives. It seemed with regards to such matters, that the ruler was presumed to have been of a temperamental disposition which, in being inclined towards episodes of impassioned mania, was, in a strangely familiar sense, effectively cursed to destroy all that it held dear.

Perhaps the most celebrated of the Emperor’s exploits pertain to his prowess as a fiddler whilst Rome was burning, a legend which, in subsequently being misinterpreted to represent a euphemism for decadence when beset by catastrophe, was surprisingly inferred within the exhibition to be based upon fact, a pretext beneath which “Nero” was, in being both a trained actor and charioteer who was personally responsible for founding the “Neronia” games during the latter years of his reign, actually thought to have played a fiddle on stage as the flames of the fire which were recorded to have engulfed the city for nine days in 64 A.D. raged about him.

Presenting as it’s evidence a piece of mangled iron grating which had once been attached to a window in “Circus Maximus”, the exhibition proceeded to explain that Rome was, before the event of it’s destruction, distinguished by a concentration of multi story buildings which, in being interspersed with a number amphitheaters and gladiatorial rings, would effectively predetermine how any evacuation that may occur within it’s bounds may ensue, a process through which seeking refuge upon the grounds of an open air arena in the event of fire would, to all intents and purposes, serve to substantiate the tale of “Nero’s” peculiar concert, it being observed in this instance, that he may also have worn a silk cloak and a mask of the variety traditionally worn during the performance of the “Eleusinian” mysteries when the conflagration broke out.

Nero” was, with regards to the matter, also paradoxically blamed for starting the fire alongside many notable Christians including “St. Peter” and “St. Paul”, men that were, in this instance, observed to have been executed by the emperor for their implication in the incident, a contradiction which, in hailing “Nero” as both a protagonist and victim of the affair, would suppose that such stories were, throughout the passage of time, simply inclined towards sensationalist re-interpretation.

Irrespective of the issue of responsibility with respect to such matters, “Nero” was recorded to have commissioned the construction of the “Domus Aurea” in Rome some time after the fire was assuaged, an extensive building which, in being lavishly embellished with frescoes and internal decorations, was noted to have possessed a hall devoted to the Greek hero “Achilles” within it’s scheme, fragments of which are, in suggesting an association between Greek and Roman culture during the Emperor’s reign, duly displayed at the exhibition.

As the “Domus Aurea” neared completion, “Nero’s” rule was observed to have been imperiled by the event of the “The Pisonian Conspiracy”, a plot, which, in threatening to depose and replace him as emperor, was, in this instance, noted to have been thwarted by his secretary “Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus”, leading to the enforced suicide of all those involved in the affair, a term beneath which both “Nero’s” old tutor “Seneca” and eventually the Emperor himself were, in what appeared to have become a generalized term, paradoxically also requested to kill themselves.

It seemed, with regards to the matter, that “Nero’s” edict was, in both recommending and accepting suicide, effectively perceived to preserve his status as emperor after his death, a titular clause which, in retaining decorum, would presumably have been instituted to prevent the fragmentation of the Empire, an instance in which it crossed my mind that the policy which Rome appeared to have adopted with regards to such matters would, in effect, serve to explain the tale of the Emperor’s supposed matricide.

Nero” was, irrespective of the inclination towards tyranny which he was later believed to embody, notably observed to have been surprisingly popular in such an instance and many of the statues that had been sculpted in his honor were perceived to have been defaced by Roman sympathizers to protest his death, a selection of articles that, in being collectively termed “Damnatio Memoriae”, were duly included among the many exhibits presented for display at the Museum as an indicator of Roman sentiment at the time.

The incident of civil war was, through correspondence with this assertion, also observed to have ravaged Rome in the immediate aftermath of “Nero’s” death, a period which, in being termed “The Year Of The Four Emperors”, was witnessed to both ensconce and dispatch a quick succession of “Spanish”, “Portuguese” and “German” rulers that, upon killing each other almost immediately after having acceded power, were perceived to have remained of a largely fluid persuasion until “Vespasian” finally managed to stabilize premium for the “Flavian” dynasty in 70 A.D by sanctioning the death of one million one hundred thousand Jews in Jerusalem.

Although the end of “Vespasian’s” reign was, in this instance, circumstantially observed to coincide with the eruption of “Mount Vesuvius” in the Mediterranean, an incident which the exhibition is correspondingly witnessed to commemorate with the inclusion of “The Moregin Treasure”, a collection of Alexandrian silverware discovered buried beneath the ruined city of “Pompeii”, among it’s horde, the “Flavian” dynasty was nonetheless noted to have retained imperial premium in Rome through until 96 A.D.

Destruction of Pompeii And Herculaneum, John Martin

It was interesting to note, in this instance, that “Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus” was thought to have been condemned to death for his implication in “Nero’s”suicide at approximately the same time that the “Flavian” dynasty came to an end. It seemed, with regards to such matters that “Nero’s” memory was still capable of inflaming patriotic sentiments in Roman hearts long after he had died.

Sponsored by British Petroleum, “Nero The Man Behind The Myth” is due to run until the 24th of October and provides an intriguing interpretation of what, in modern accounts of the early first millennium, are perceived to represent the first years of Rome’s decline, a pretext beneath which the attention to detail which the British Museum is observed to invest in it’s subject matter proves capable of granting the events placed beneath it’s investigation a surprising degree of intimacy.

Although presenting what may, in retrospect, be supposed a rather dark or unforgiving account of the Emperor’s exploits with regards to the nature of the political climate that he was almost certainly forced to endure, for those interested in the achievements and tribulations of early Roman civilization the “Nero The Man Behind The Myth” exhibition nonetheless comes highly recommended.

For more information please contact…

@britishmuseumweb

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A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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Tom Scrow

Tom Scrow

A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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