Let’s hear it for Nero

When it comes to antiquity, there are people whom history hasn’t been kind to. Intentions have been misunderstood, achievements gone unappreciated and outright slanders have been perpetuated. Great artists have been forgotten, ingenious ideas reduced to scrappy two line fragments, and political reputations destroyed.

There aren’t many, however, who have come off as badly as Nero. His terrible reputation has arisen from that most enduring myth; his dilettante recital of the fall of Troy as his own city was consumed by fire. The thing is, though, it simply didn’t happen that way. Without any books with me (I still miss library access), I can’t remember any sources offhand which talk about the efforts the Emperor personally put in to stem the disaster, but as we’re all friends by now I’ll ask you to take me at my word that they do exist.

Nero’s decision to make scapegoats of Rome’s Christian population in the aftermath cannot be defended, but it can be explained. It’s a rare society which doesn’t find outsiders on whom to allocate blame – who knew about the existence of a single ‘Muslim community’ until we were constantly being told not to blame that monolithic beast for world terrorism – and Neronian Rome was no exception. The Emperor was probably harnessing sentiments already in existence rather than trying to force his own monstrous whims on the population. After all, with monotheism as alien (and alienating) a concept to Romans as polygamy would be to us, this weird new cult who were attacking the quintessential values of Rome needed to be reigned in. The fire must have seemed as good a means as any.

Whatever the reasons, Nero would pay for his political expediency with centuries of condemnation. Myths from the middle ages in Rome would tell of the rotting walnut tree infested with demons which sprouted from his secret grave (supposedly the site of Santa Maria del Popolo in the city’s Piazza del Popolo). Hebrew numerologists went as far as to name Nero as the Book of Revelations’ Anti-Christ. We may have calmed down with the religious rhetoric in this day and age, but I still can’t think of a sympathetic portrayal.

Any contemporary perspectives favourable to Nero have been lost irretrievably, and the enmity of the senatorial historians to the Emperor and his legacy mean that we are unlikely to reach a measured and fully informed opinion. However, in the years after his death, we know of numerous false Neros who popped up around the Empire claiming to be the real deal. Surely, this would not be a viable (if far-fetched) route to political power if Nero was already the pantomime villain of later centuries. The military and the Senate might have hated him, but there must have been an enduring popularity for the man amongst the more dispossessed.

This issue has come to the foreground recently, as an Italian historian has urged the city of Rome to finally reflect one of its most infamous sons by naming a road after him. The newspaper La Repubblica (the lefty one which Berlusconi regularly scraps with) is running a poll on the issue. Should you care to cast your vote either way, the poll can be found at http://temi.repubblica.it/repubblicaroma-sondaggio/?pollId=1838.

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