By Jessica Hill
We’re not talking about the British trio dubstepping it up with Skrillex. No, we’re talking about Nero—the cold-blooded, murderous, and perverted emperor of Rome from 54-68 AD. In case you haven’t heard, here’s a rundown of some of Nero’s monstrous acts. He poisoned Britannicus, his brother-in-law. He attempted to strangle his first wife multiple times. He kicked his second wife to death while she was pregnant with his child. He devised an elaborate plan to murder his mother, Agrippina—with whom it was said he had incestuous relations. He lit Christians ablaze and used them as lighting fixtures in his dining hall. He castrated a man and made him his wife because he resembled one of his former wives. He partook in a sexual game of his own creation where he wore animal fur, was released from a cage, and “attacked” bound men and women. Wasn’t he a hoot?
Now let’s look beyond the madness. He didn’t scratch discs or drop the bass, but Nero was quite interested in the performing arts. In his review of the book Nero: Emperor in Revolt, T. J. Luce praises the author for his detail regarding “the emperor’s artistic aspirations and activities—an obsession which toward the end made him more of a stage professional than an emperor” (276). Nero was quite the theater fanatic. It was towards the middle of his reign—in the midst of the madness—that he took to the stage as Oedipus, Hercules, and Canace to name a few. He chose his roles carefully; many of his performances mirrored his own actions. Was this to provide some reasoning behind his actions? Was it his way to lament? Perhaps it was a method to preserve the image of his power. Who knows? It’s hard to read the mind of someone who would have killed you because he was jealous of your voice.
Nero had the musical bug as well. He began singing in his solitude, but then gradually moved it to the public’s notice. People applauded their emperor and his musical talent—which only added fuel to the flame. Nero became so consumed with singing that he restricted his diet—refusing any foods that could harm his voice. When the competitive spirit began to bubble up within him, he started holding musical competitions throughout the city. During these competitions no one was allowed to leave the theater. The attendance requirement was so strict that it was said women gave birth during these competitions. Nero did not limit his musicality to just his voice. He also played the water-organ, flute, and bagpipes. Historians even say that the tune-obsessed emperor fiddled his lyre and sang while he watched his magnificent city burn during the Great Fire of 64 AD.
Tradition and some historical accounts contend that Roman Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Nero certainly left his mark when it comes to psychotic emperors of history. However, Edward Champlin reveals “that outside of court circles and Christian congregations, Nero was vastly popular, both before and after his death. He was a popular monster” (98). Even Emperor Trajan who ruled long after Nero praised him for a “glorious five years” (Thornton 570) of reign—although which five years Trajan was referring is still in dispute amongst several scholars. Apart from his vices, Nero was a fondly recognized emperor. In the initial years of his reign, Nero was very generous—abolishing absurd tax laws, sentencing none to death, and providing gifts to his people in the form of food, clothing, and even land. He built up Rome’s state of luxury with bathhouses, gymnasiums, and amphitheatres; he animated the city through his various contests and theatrical performances. Nero knew how to make his people love him—and he reveled in the popularity.
But did he become too accustomed to this popularity? As Nero gave out presents, built several structures, and held elaborate performances and festivities, the city’s income was stagnant. The emperor despised militarism, so revenue from conquests was few and far between. In an attempt to please the large lower class, Nero’s economic policies only tightened the budget. He became swept up in pleasing the people and the popularity only fed his ego. When he realized that others could interfere and take away his popularity, his murderous acts began with Britannicus and Agrippina. By the end of his reign, his focus had shifted. He no longer aimed to please the people, but instead to glorify himself. Although ironic, his work was not in vain. He will forever be remembered as the green-eyed monster that brought color to Rome.
Bettman, and Corbis. Tradition and some historical accounts contend that Roman Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Digital image. Rome Burns. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/timeline_02.html
Champlin, Edward. "Nero Reconsidered." New England Review (1990-) 19.2 (1998): 97-108. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.
Geer, Russel M. "Notes on the Early Life of Nero." Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 62 (1931): 57-67. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.
Luce, T. J. "Nero. Emperor in Revolt by Michael Grant." The Classical World 64.8 (1971): 276. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.
Thornton, M. K. "The Enigma of Nero's "Quinquennium": Reputation of Emperor Nero." Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 22.4 (1973): 570-82. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.
Tranquillus, C. S. "The Life of Nero." Suetonius: Life of Nero. Loeb Classical Library, 1 Apr. 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Nero*.html