By Constantine Palaiologos
I would say that it is sad to see classics sliding into irrelevance as a field but, having studied it myself in college, I know that the slide is already complete. When I see that Princeton is abolishing requirements for classics students to learn Latin or Greek I can only shrug, and not just because I’m rubbish at languages myself. Classical scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have for years been doing their best to eliminate everything that makes their field unique and separate from their neighboring history departments. I am not here to complain, however, about the drawn out harakiri of classical studies; the field truly does have no business existing on a 21st century campus which aims to dismantle whiteness. For four years I watched my professors struggle to explain why they had their own department; it couldn’t be done. Once the foundation of every decent western education, this field is now reduced to examining old potsherds and halfheartedly trying to teach Latin grammar to hopeless cases like me.
When I saw the latest campaign crop up to rehabilitate Nero through a new exhibit at the British Museum I could hardly be surprised by the ubiquitous “was he really that bad?” headlines. A skeptical professor mentioned the cause of Nero revisionism to me several years ago and I have kept a skeptical eye of my own on it ever since. To me, the Nero reappraisal has always looked like the confused flailing of a field which doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. For the scholars who worked hard to keep this fringe cause alive I still believe this to be the case. Yet why has it now gone mainstream? Why is the British Museum hosting this exhibit and why are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal praising it?
The answer, I think, has little to do with any genuine passion for redeeming Nero. We live in a period in which every last vestige of the conventional wisdom your grandfather may have learned needs to be given the subversive treatment. You need to be constantly reminded that “the experts” are here to tell you why you’re wrong about pretty much everything. Nero is the quintessential ancient tyrant, the name is synonymous with depravity and criminal governing. Well guess what, the experts are here to tell you that he was actually a pretty swell guy. The starting point for it all is to inform you that, no, he actually did not fiddle while Rome burned. Every successful push to rehabilitate a historical villain seems to start with this sort of line. Did you know that the Vikings didn’t actually wear horns on their helmets? The assumption from here is that the unwashed masses will now be ready to trust the experts to correct the rest of their old misconceptions. Now the Vikings become multicultural humanitarians who, by the way, kept themselves wonderfully clean and washed.
What of Nero himself then? Apparently, debunking a tale which is widely understood to be apocryphal is as concrete as the British Museum is willing to be in their rehabilitation campaign. As for the rest, the story is supposedly just a typical case of rich old white men writing history from a biased perspective. The senatorial class and the Christians who hated Nero wrote the histories and ignored the attitude of the common man, who was really quite fond of the deranged emperor. There is no denial, however, of the evils that made Christians and senators despise Nero; the scapegoating, the forced suicides, the matricide. Even if one ignores the more lurid account of Suetonius and adheres only to the generally sober Tacitus, Nero was bad. We are informed confidently that this was all nothing out of the ordinary for an ancient ruler, but is that true? Men like Augustus and Marcus Aurelius made genuine efforts to be just and merciful to all classes of Romans. Even at the span of nearly two millennia Vespasian and his son Titus appear to have been quite decent both as men and as emperors. No one has ever argued, as the British Museum seems to imply, that Nero never once did anything positive in his reign. It is a rare human indeed who does not possess a single redeeming quality. Nero did offer aid to those left homeless and destitute by the Great Fire. The suggestion that the charitable endeavors of Nero were enough to make him popular with the Roman masses is, however, completely baseless.
The supposed evidence for these assertions reveals far more about academia in 2021 than it does about Rome under the Julio-Claudians. A number of imposters in the years after 69 A.D. did indeed claim to be escaped Nero’s waiting to reclaim the throne. This says practically nothing about the supposed popularity of Nero himself. His death was a rather private one, and as the last of his dynasty it was natural that a certain mystique be attached to the lost emperor in the eyes of discontented provincials. Enemies of Henry VII of England repeatedly attempted to trot out boys who were meant to be the lost sons of Edward IV; this had nothing to do with the personalities of the Princes in the Tower themselves. More bizarrely, the claim is made that Nero must have been beloved by the people for his public singing performances. I can only assume that this idea comes from watching modern American politics, where shameless pandering and folksy acts are presumed to be enough for a Senator or President aiming to acquire the common touch. For a society which is not so devoted to the worship of egalitarianism, however, this behavior might be considered frivolous and demeaning in the eyes of both commoner and aristocrat alike. It is insulting to the common Roman to imagine that they could be won over by such low-brow stuff as Nero had to offer.
I also take issue with the assumption, which I encounter frequently, that the common Roman citizen cared not a whit for what happened in high society. We know that people under the Principate were concerned about what was happening in the imperial palace; when Nero killed his mother and his first wife, the people most certainly knew it and were disgusted by it. Why did the people not overthrow him then? You might ask that about any number of unhinged modern dictators who cling to power for years; in 1969 Macias Nguema rounded up hundreds of opponents on Christmas Eve and had them shot in a football stadium by soldiers dressed as Santa Clause while “Those Were the Days” was blasted over the speakers. We do not assume that the population of Equatorial Guinea was willing to overlook this. “Everyone else was just as bad” is not a valid excuse in such cases; we know that Claudius was not particularly beloved at the end of his reign. Yet in the Walters Museum in Baltimore there is a head of Nero which was likely re-carved after his fall to resemble his predecessor instead. Claudius must have seemed quite tame in comparison then. The people were appalled by the decision of Nero to build his Golden House above the ruins of fire-stricken Rome. Tacitus even suggests that the Romans were not particularly enthusiastic about the use of the generally unpopular Christians as scapegoats by Nero.
The entire thing is simply bad history stuffed with flimsy assumptions and absurd claims. Is it a desperate and intentionally provocative play for relevance by scholars from a fading field of study? Undoubtedly yes, but I believe that there is still something more sinister involved here. I do not think that there is any secret cabal of authors and curators scheming to remake the reputation of a long dead Princeps. I do think that “the experts” as a class take pride in their ability to influence the public perception of things. To change your view of Nero requires no action on your part. This is not “eat the bugs,” this is seeing an authoritative looking statement and storing it somewhere in your mind, to resurface when something next leads your thoughts to Rome (all roads lead there, after all.) “The experts” have flexed their collective muscles again and rewritten another piece of history for thousands of headline readers and article skimmers with a passing interest in the Caesars. Carpe diem experts, reality is what you make it now.