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Nero – so bad?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of Emperor Nero
Bust of Emperor Nero. The facility is located in Rome, in the Capitoline Museums

There are many people in the history of the world whose literature has hurt or distorted our judgment of these people or created a legend that persists in the public eye despite the facts. Lieutenant Ordon did not die in the redoubt in Wola, but many years later in Florence, and the medieval model of a knight, Roland, died at the hands of Basque highlanders, not Arabs.

Image of Emperor Nero.

But we remember their literary patterns. Among them, the emperor Nero had the worst opinion, to whom our Nobel Prize winner Sienkiewicz affixed the label of a bloody madman, murderer of Christians, despot, matricide. It is hard to find a more damaging opinion of this very sensitive man. Perhaps if a sect that did not come to power in later times (e.g. the followers of Mithraism) was accused of setting fire to Rome, Nero would be treated like any other emperor like him, that is, as a guy who had advantages and disadvantages. In this post, I will try to deal with the myths about Nero.

For people to judge the character of Nero goes back to source texts, it is somewhat of a shock to learn that Nero hated gladiatorial fights. He hated them so much that when he was forced by religious customs to organize such games, he forbade killing defeated gladiators, much to the displeasure of the crowd. Well, this “despot and madman” considered the gladiatorial fights as a manifestation of the highest barbarism. Nero had a dream, and that dream was another Rome, a thoroughly Hellenic empire. He shaved his youthful beard, giving rise to the games of youth – Juventus (hence our student juveniles) – but later he grew stubble again, proving his Hellenic preferences. This was Nero’s Achilles’ heel. He did not know politics at all and believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that he did not have to know each other. But he was very knowledgeable about music and literature.

It was also here that the influences of later historians made themselves known, who necessarily wanted to make this “enemy of Christians” a poor artist. It was said that his texts were weak, and if they were good, he would write them on dictation or brazenly rewrite them from others. Suetonius put a lie to this, who, although very reluctant to Nero, had to admit that the manuscripts of his texts, which he personally dug up in the archives, bear traces of corrections, deletions, overwriting, which clearly proves that this is not someone else’s work, nor a text written under dictation but the result of long-term own work. Besides, come on people! Nero’s teachers were the most outstanding creators of this era, and the chronicles prove that he was not a lazy student. When he wanted to learn from the Greeks to play and sing the guitar, he invited the most eminent kitardos, Terpnos, and, following his instructions, he practised many days, day and night, training the game and tone of voice. From the poems composed by Nero, barely verse crumbs have survived, but even they prove that they were created by a man thoroughly familiar with the culture of Hellas.

Nero went through several breakthrough periods in his history, although he usually had no influence on them. It began with the murder of Claudius, and later of Britain, which allowed him to take full power. Only Nero was not behind it, but his mother Agrippina, Burrus Praetorian Prefect, and philosopher Seneca. While young Nero was studying Greek art, the former followers split into two camps, one with Burrus and Seneca, the other with Agrippina and Pallas. The former won the match, and they actually stood behind all the political decisions of the young Caesar (remember that it was only twenty years old sorrel then). The fact that Nero had to approve the execution of his mother was, in fact, nothing special, as it is in the circles of power to this day, and it has been so throughout the history of mankind. Agrippina was a woman bad and spoiled to the core, she certainly deserved her fate. Despite this, Nero never forgave himself for condemning her to death, and for the rest of his life, he bore the stigma of a mother killer.

Burrus died, Seneca passed away, and the ruthless Tigelin began to fester. And then Rome burned down. The night of July 18-19 began at the stalls surrounding Circus Maximus. The fire easily seized the goods to move to the Palatine, Celius and Esquiline, to finally consume several dozen per cent of the city. All in all, in the narrow streets, wooden houses, the fire was nothing special, but then it consumed probably 90% of the city. According to historians, Nero’s reactions were two. The first was Nero reciting verses about the burning Troy, which quickly gave support to rumours that he had set fire to Rome. Complete nonsense. Scipio Africanus recited similar lines while looking at the destroyed Carthage. The tragedy of the city put in a lyrical mood, the leaders looked at the fire as if hypnotized, quoting the seers. Perhaps a normal reaction of great people to tragic events?

Michał Bajor as Nero in “Quo vadis”.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Nero, as befits a sensitive man, in response to a fire, gives his estate to the unfortunates, orders to erect barracks for fire victims in his gardens, and lowers the prices of grain. Unfortunately, the plots of the hostile senate cast suspicion on Nero. He, at the urging of Tigelin, throws the ball at the Christians. Contrary to appearances and Sienkiewicz’s description, it was not that difficult. Well, the Christs of this period were not a joyful, merciful group singing Cumbaya, as depicted in Quo Vadis, but a slightly twisted apocalyptic sect, filled with faith that Christ would soon return and with him will extinguish the fire. sinners. As today, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, early Christians believed that they lived in the end times, the present order will soon pass away, so all material goods are irrelevant. Perfect candidates for arsonists. In accordance with the law of retaliation in force (ius talionis), they were punished with a death coinciding with their offence. Also, the fact that human candles were lit in the gardens of Nero, located in the present-day Vatican, was not due to his madness, but to the dry letter of the law.

Nero was hated by the senate at the time, which was still living on the conservative fantasies of the republic period because he was active in acting, poetry and music, something that the Romans liked to watch, but what they thought the Greeks should be doing. This is the result of the strange approach of the Romans to the Greek cultural heritage, which is a combination of both admiration and contempt. Nero’s position in the provinces was different. The times of Nero are a period of internal peace, and in the case of wars in border provinces, the emperor trusted his advisers and, based on their opinion, appointed the best commanders to solve the problem, who did their job well (for example Corbulo or Vespasian, later emperor). Nero restored the glory to the Greek Games, including poetry and song duels in the canon. He made a great contribution to the development of Roman architecture, paradoxically through probably the most hated object, i.e. the Domus Aurea – the Golden House. Earlier Greek patterns, full of columns and rectangles, were contrasted with octagonal halls, covered with circular domes, instead of triangular roofs. Without Domus Aurea, there would be no Pantheon.

Nero the cruel, poor poet, oversensitive about his genius, is a common opinion. Meanwhile, history recorded a funny anecdote about a consul and former governor of the Province of Africa. Well, this simple-minded man, who came from a poor family, born in a breathtaking village near Reate, not used to sophisticated intellectual entertainment, took a nap in the theatre while Nero recited his piece Troica. Of course, there were also kind people who reported it to the emperor. What did this bloody tyrant do? He took a sleepyhead on a trip to Greece to show him the beauty of their culture. He later sent him at the head of legions against the Jewish insurgents in Judea. This unfortunate sleeper was the future Emperor Vespasian.

Nero on the throne.

Nero neglected military affairs, never visited the border legions, did not win the favour of soldiers, focused solely on the arts. So in the end he was faced with conspiracies and rebellions which he had not dealt with. It seems that the greatest harm to Nero was done by his mother who made him emperor – she cast him in the only role he could not play well. If instead, he became a rich noble focused on art, perhaps we would mention his name today next to Horace, Virgil, Lucian, or at least Patronas, because he never spared money on art, and unlike the Roman tinned food, he saw in the art a manifestation of higher human development, not corruption.

Nero died at the age of only 31, and here he is played by somewhat mature Michał Bajor. The distortion is also about his last words. Indeed, he said, “What an artist dies in me“, But not at the very end, but during lamentations in a suburban villa, in which he found temporary shelter when he fled Rome after declaring him an enemy of the nation. Nero’s last words were: “Too late! This is fidelity!” and were directed towards the centurion who had come to capture him, who, seeing him wounded on the neck, pretended to dress his wound.

The news of Nero’s death was greeted in Rome with both joy and sorrow. In the provinces that were not interested in the capital scandals, the emperor was sincerely mourned, especially in Greece. After his death, chaos seized the Empire for a year, and Vespasian finally emerged from the turmoil. Vespasian was truly an equal peasant. About him maybe another day.

Author: Gajusz Juliusz Krisbaum (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Ciechanowicz Jerzy, Rzym. Ludzie i budowle

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