Rehabilitation of Nero, a bad rap emperor

LONDON – Tangled window grills are not the idea of ​​a museum piece for everyone. It is a rusted piece of iron, which is folded in shape. Yet for the next five months, it has a vitrine of its own in the British Museum.

The grille is a relic of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE and the centerpiece of the museum’s massive new show “Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, “About the first-century Roman emperor who, for nearly 2,000 years, has been blamed for starting hell and playing music during its outbreak. The purpose of the exhibition is to demonstrate that Nero got a bad rap.

The director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, wrote in the exhibition’s catalog, “Nero is known as the emperor, who used to squander during the burning of Rome, an oppressor who was cruel and ruthless to his family and to some extent Till was pathetic megalomaniac. “

Yet through sculptures and pieces of architecture, coins and ornaments, frescoes and writing tablets, the British Museum presents an alternate tale of a young man who became emperor at the age of 17 and by his opponents at the age of 30 Was driven to suicide.

The charge sheet against Nero is long and familiar. He is accused of having an incestuous relationship with his mother; To kill her as well as his first two wives; And “generally evil: a glutton and frivolity that burned Rome just to build a grand palace,” said the exhibition’s curator Thorsten Opper.

Those allegations are based on “manipulations and lies that are 2,000 years old and very powerful,” Opper said. The negative spin campaign began when Nero was still alive, when members of the Roman aristocracy felt threatened by the emperor’s social reforms and their promotion of the lower classes, he said, and this continued long after his death. In fact, Opper said, Nero “was trying very hard, and he was treated very badly.”

The British Museum is not the first institution to revisit the Nero tale. In 2016, A show at the Rhineland State Museum In Trier, Germany, he was portrayed not as a prototypical dictator but as a lover of art, who ignored politics and paid dearly for it. In 2011, Rome’s Parco Archaeologico del Colosio, who oversees the Colosseum as well as Nero’s palace, Domus Aurea, staged an exhibition re-evaluating Nero’s figure and his image as a bloodless firework.

The London show opens with an example of anti-Nero propaganda: a marble head that is one of the most widely reproduced representations of the emperor. The top half is an original Roman sculpture of Nero, with his trademark bangs. It was remodeled in the likeness of another Roman emperor (as was often done with Nero statues) and eventually changed to a portrait of Nero in the 17th century – this time with a beard, double chin, and a mouth. Turned into ridicule.

“It’s a stereotype, an artificial image. Nero’s lifespan pictures look completely different,” Oper said.

Yet that image of Nero prevailed in the collective imagination. The catalog words on the back wall are “Nero’s most iconic development in the modern era”: a scene from the 1951 film “Q Vadis” in which a bearded Peter Ustinov, starring as the mad Nero, plays his song during Rome’s combustion.

The exhibition reviews the legend through objects and documents from throughout the Roman Empire. It becomes clear that the fire was almost certainly an accident and was not even in Rome when Nero started.

After the fire, Nero fed and sheltered the homeless and rebuilt the city. A year or two later a gold coin (not in the catalog but in the exhibition) shows Nero on one side and the new temple of Vesta, on the other, one of the first monuments he built.

Nero also had to “find the culprits” for the fire, so he went after a “Jewish subgroup”, later known as Christians, Mr. Opper explained. Nero became “anti-Christ” for followers of the West’s dominant faith, Christianity.

Meanwhile, he developed entertainers such as chariot racing, gladiator fighting and stage performances. (Nero himself was a chariot racer and musician.) Under Nero, the Circus Maximus, a massive stadium in Rome, could fit an audience of 150,000. The emperor had his own gladiatorial school and chose a famous gladiator as the commander of his bodyguards.

Mary beard, Professor of Classics of the University Cambridge and a British Museum board member, said that Nero was much maligned for indulging in too much joy and excess – but there was an emperor who came before and after, such as Caligula and Dominitian.

“The figures of these individual emperors are very surprising,” she said. “We are being mediated by a very strong political agenda coming after them.”

“One of the things that material culture shows you is that the Roman Empire moves in the same form with ups and downs, no matter who is on the throne,” he said.

One of the most beautiful parts of the show is dedicated to the palace that Nero built for his court, the government of Rome, and a service worker of thousands: Domus Aurea, Or Golden House. It is probably named during his reign in reference to its gold-water-covered interiors or architectural decorations that shone in the sunlight. The show featured pieces of a gilded plaster panel and a bronze-and-gemstone pillar decoration that gave the castle a notoriety as a center of extravagance.

Only one section of Domus Aurea survives: rooms used for banquets and ceremonies. The rest was wiped out by Nero’s successors.

Domus Aurea is set to reopen to the public in the second half of June New entrance Designed by architect Stefano Boeri. Next to the Colosseum, the site was first made accessible to visitors in 1999, but was closed in late 2005 as restoration work became necessary due to heavy rains. It reopened in 2014 and was a popular tourist destination until the outbreak of Coronavirus.

Alfonsina Russo, director of the Parco Archaeologico del Colosio, said that while Domus Aurea would originally cover a vast area of ​​Rome, it was no more grand than the palaces of other emperors.

Nero “was the victim of his time: the last emperor of his dynasty, with many enemies, and the face of a tragic fate,” he said.

Under attack by a faction in the Roman Senate and deserted by his own Praetorian guards, Nero committed suicide in a small villa outside Rome.

Russo noted that all sources on Nero were “negative sources” and that it was “important to re-contextualize everything and compare Nero to other emperors who, despite committing crimes, did not meet the same fate.”

Could history be better for Nero in the future? “I think so,” Ms. Russo answered. “That should be the goal of academics.”

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