London: Nero @ the British Museum

Regular readers will know that I generally avoid Roman history like the Antonine Plague – I’ve just never been a fan of classical history, and the Romans in particular bore me. However, one of my friends wanted to visit a museum with me (a rare occurrence, since he normally just wants to go to the pub), and I know his tastes are quite different to mine, so I suggested a few things that I thought might appeal, and we settled on Nero: the man behind the myth, which runs at the British Museum until October 2021 (and honestly, I was quite happy to look at Roman artefacts if it meant avoiding the pub, though of course we ended up doing that too). Admission is an extremely pricey £20, or £10 with Art Pass.

 

We went on a bank holiday Monday, and though I had no problem booking tickets the day before, the exhibition was dispiritingly crowded when we entered, which seems to be a recurring issue at the British Museum (this was definitely less crowded than the Arctic exhibition though). We politely joined the end of the queue for a while, but it was creeping along so bloody slowly, particularly the man and his daughter in front of us – he was taking about fifteen minutes to read and explain each caption to her, even though she was probably nine or ten and clearly more than capable of reading the captions herself, since she seemed to know more about Roman history than her dad did – it was sweet that he was taking his daughter to a museum, I guess, but I just don’t have the patience to stand behind someone reading at such a leisurely pace, so I ended up doing my usual thing of zipping ahead to whatever case was empty and then doubling back to read the things I’d missed once the people in front of them cleared out, which was possible here since there didn’t seem to be a one-way system in place.

 

As you can probably guess from my lack of enthusiasm about the Romans, my knowledge of Roman history is definitely patchy at best, and I didn’t even know that Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. The whole premise of the exhibition is to provide an objective perspective of Nero so that you can use the facts presented here to decide if he actually was as evil as history has led us to believe, or if he’s just gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Therefore, the exhibition started with information about Nero’s childhood and a sculpture of him as a child, I guess to show us how innocent he once was. Unfortunately, it then progressed into an entire wall showing the genealogy of various Roman rulers, and I rapidly started losing the will to live.

 

But I perked up a bit when I got to the section on Roman Britain, because there was some interesting stuff here, particularly the slave chain worn by native Britons enslaved by Romans. Other than Boudica, I don’t think anything especially significant took place in Britain during Nero’s fairly brief reign, so this was probably an excuse for the British Museum to give some of their collection that is normally in storage an airing, but I’m OK with that.

 

In an attempt to show a more human side to Nero, there was also a section on his family life, including the above sculpture of what his daughter Claudia Augusta might have looked like if she hadn’t died in infancy. She’s holding a butterfly, which, much as I hate the things, I can admire the skill it must have taken to carve something so delicate yet sturdy enough that it’s still intact millennia later. There were also sculptures of his wives – I think the one above might be Octavia – but it’s hard to see Nero as much of a family man when you realise he had her executed. And of course he had his mother, Agrippina, killed as well, even though they were once close. Oh, and allegedly kicked another one of his wives to death. What a charmer!

 

We also learned more about Nero’s interests. In addition to murdering and the traditional Roman blood sports, he was also fond of music and acting, apparently to an extent that his fellow upper class Romans found strange. He even appeared on stage when he was emperor, and apparently wasn’t that bad of an actor, though really, what are you going to say about an actor who has the power to kill you and isn’t afraid to use it? I picture him forcing his way on stage despite the protests of the other actors and gleefully ruining the play with hammy overacting just because he could.

  

The thing Nero is probably best known for is starting the Great Fire of Rome and then merrily playing his fiddle whilst Rome burned, but this is wrong for several reasons, the first being that his instrument of choice was a lyre, not a fiddle. Seriously though, he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire, and he later organised a relief fund for victims of the fire and allegedly even let some of them stay in his palaces. However, the fire conveniently cleared space for him to build a new massive palace in Rome, which may have fueled some of the later claims that he played a role in starting it. On the plus side, his new palace looked fabulous – I loved the frescoes of sea monsters and the collection of tiny arms and heads taken from mosaics. They were so small and perfect! I was also fascinated by the giant decapitated statue of Nero with his awful hairstyle that must have looked hilariously derpy when intact, if the sketch here (below right) was anything to go by!

  

Because Nero died when he was only 30, the exhibition soon ran out of things to say about his life and moved on to his downfall, which basically happened because he pissed off the wrong people with his tax policies, and his governors started rebelling. Eventually, his guards deserted him, and he decided to kill himself rather than wait around to be killed, but he of course had to exercise his imperial powers one last time and force one of his servants to help him commit suicide. Some guy called Galba took over the Roman Empire after Nero died, but people didn’t like him either, so he was killed after a few months, followed by three other randoms who all only ruled for a few months before either killing themselves or being killed. Eventually, Vespasian stepped up to seize the reins of power, and he proceeded to pay various historians to trash Nero’s memory, which is allegedly why people think ill of him today, but honestly, it sounds like he brought a lot of it on himself by being a terrible person, though I guess not significantly worse than any other Roman emperor. They all sounded like assholes, at least according to (the famously historically inaccurate) Horrible Histories.

 

Since I didn’t know all that much about Nero going on, I did learn a thing or two, but my friend, who is much keener on the Romans than I am, was not impressed. Weird though it sounds, based on the inclusion of special signs aimed at children, I suspect they were attempting to make this exhibition somewhat child-friendly. Perhaps because of this, they left out some of the juicier rumours about Nero, like the one where after killing his second wife, he had a boy who resembled his dead wife castrated, married him, and anally raped him. Even if that particular rumour isn’t true though, I think it’s pretty clear that this exhibition did nothing to win me over to the idea that Nero wasn’t a shit – he may not have been completely evil 100% of the time, but he was still a despicable human who was responsible for a lot of deaths. For £10, I probably got my money’s worth, but this was certainly not big enough for a £20 exhibition, and based on my friend’s experience, if you like Roman history, you probably won’t learn anything new, but you might enjoy looking at the artefacts. If you can get a half-price ticket, I think it is worth going to see some of the objects on display, which are better than the normal Roman crap they dig up, but I don’t think I’d pay full price for this one. 3/5.

 

11 comments

  1. I know Nero mainly as an opera character, for instance in The Coronation of Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi. In this opera, he really is an awful person, but they have such a beautiful love duet at the end (Nero and Poppea) that all the awfulness is forgotten, at least for a few minutes.

  2. Don’t see how anyone could make the case for Nero being anything but despicable. Interesting post, though, so I guess the exhibit was too.

    1. I don’t know. I get that some of the stories about him written after this death could easily have been fabricated, but all the Roman emperors seem to have been indisputably awful, so even if not every story is true, some of them definitely are!

  3. Great description of what sounds a bit of a dry exhibition, especially if Roman history isn’t your thing. Have to agree that I’m not really into that period of history either although Nero sounds an interesting guy. Wouldn’t want to marry him though.

  4. This was a fun read. I can’t claim to know much about Roman history, but what they left behind clearly indicates they were rather sophisticated technologically. They certainly were a violent lot. But I think that has always been true of humans and it is only more recently that we seem to be valuing life a bit more. Your image of Nero on stage is hilarious! I’d say he deserves his reputation, even if some historical inaccuracies have become ingrained. They seem insignificant.

    1. Thanks Eilene! The Romans definitely were technologically sophisticated in many ways – I think their heating systems were probably more advanced than the one currently in my house – but also very violent. But I agree that most societies have been pretty violent until relatively recently.

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