The truth about Nero….

Nero: the man behind the myth. The British Museum has assembled sculpture, images and artefacts which capture the image and spirit = of one of the most notorious Roman Emperors. Nero is presented in the context of his turbulent reign with some fascinating portraits of the man and the historical villainy for which he is best remembered. Fascinating stuff.

Young Nero, depicted as the perfect hero.

If you’re going to be a hero, a political tyrant or any kind of celebrity it’s a good move to have a distinctive hair do. Nero was no exception. His long fringe with fetching curls around the forehead stayed with him throughout his life and was meticulously depicted by sculptors during his 30 years. Born into the first Dynasty – a powerful family – the son of ambitious mother Agrippina, he became Emperor of Rome and its huge empire in AD54 when he was just 16. This is what we see in this early bust of Nero – a healthy, strong, ambitious young man taking the reins of power in both hands and making his mark.

Bronze head of Nero found in Colchester. The eyes would have been made of enamel or glass.

Nero was renowned for his careless cruelty. He thought nothing of slaughtering any opponent and seems to have had no allegiance to his family. He ordered the murder of his mother and his wife (who did not produce an heir) and maintained a reputation for brutal treatment of enemies and anyone who threatened his power.

I was first introduced to Nero through the compelling books by Robert Graves – I, Claudius and Claudius the God. The television series in the 1970s was brilliant too. You gather, from these fictional and dramatic interpretations of life in Rome in the first century AD is that you had to be ruthless if you wanted to maintain your power.

Image of a play from a wall in Herculaneum, Italy.

One is left with the sense that Nero was successful as a leader but that he was not loved by his people. He used only brutality, cruelty and power to keep his great empire in check but there were protests and it was only a matter of time before the farthest flung regions of the empire – like Britain – would chase away the Romans through bold and courageous insurrections by local leaders such as Boudicca. He reigned through turbulent times, not least the terrifying nine days when Rome burned out of control and much of the city was razed to the ground. We are told in this exhibition that he wasn’t at home (fiddling or playing the lyre) but away at a holiday palace. To his credit he returned to Rome to help the rescue operation and assist the survivors.

This may look charming but it’s a depiction of a small child slave employed to walk in front of his owners and light their path.

A portrait from the last days of Nero’s reign, probably to mark his tenth anniversary as emperor. His face is fuller, he still looks determined but the fringe of curls is still in place.

But this is a fascinating show and a great way to time travel to a terrifying period in history.

Nero: the man behind the myth is on show at the British Museum until 24th October 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s