Was Nero cruel? British Museum offers hidden depths to Roman emperor

Esther Addley
·4 min read

Nero, one of the most notorious Roman emperors of them all, murdered his mother and two wives, ruthlessly persecuted early Christians, including Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and even set fire to Rome itself – famously fiddling amid the flames – to make room to build himself a vast, luxurious palace.

Or did he? That is the question posed by an exhibition opening at the British Museum next month which seeks, if not to rehabilitate Nero’s reputation, at least to challenge some of history’s assumptions about him.

Assembled in “nail-biting” fashion during Europe’s latest lockdown, and launching just days after the museum itself is expected to reopen its doors, Nero: the man behind the myth will bring together more than 200 artefacts that, say its curators, present a more complex picture of a figure long reviled in popular culture.

A copper statue of the emperor Nero.
A copper statue of the emperor Nero. Photograph: British Museum/PA

These include a statue of the young Nero aged about 12, already with his distinctive close-cropped fringe and prominent ears, who just four years later would become ruler of the vast Roman world, and the famous bronze head found in a Suffolk river and probably torn from a statue toppled during Boudicca’s destruction of Colchester in AD61.

The Fenwick hoard, hastily buried by fleeing Romans during that raid and discovered only in 2014, will be displayed as part of the exhibition for the first time, an example of the turbulence of the emperor’s 14-year reign.

Nero’s empire was certainly cruel – a slave chain found in Anglesey is witness to a culture of ruthless exploitation which, the British Museum’s curator Thorsten Opper said, is “a red thread that goes through the exhibition”.

But contrary to the “brutally biased and partisan” accounts of his reign, written by the ruling elites in the decades after his death in AD68, the evidence shows Nero was popular among the masses. The eruption of Vesuvius more than a decade after his death preserved a lot of graffiti in praise of the late emperor, said Opper, an example of which from Pompeii will be on display.

“Nero’s memory was contested after his death, and that really was divided along class divisions. You have a very hostile elite, but we also know that the common people in Rome, the plebs urbana, honored his memory for decades after his death. Already, you have an intriguing story with accounts that don’t quite match up. And this is really what we want to investigate in the story.”

Also under examination will be the accounts of the women in Nero’s life, said Opper, who were “described as outrageously ambitious, adulterous, incestuous, sexually transgressive in undescribable ways. And it’s clearly all politically motivated. Powerful women are not wanted. It’s shocking how misogynistic the sources are, by our standards.”

The popular image of the emperor “is largely based on manipulations, bias and outright lies”, he said. Not only did Nero not fiddle while Rome burned – that instrument would not be invented for more than a millennium – he was not even in the city when it started.

Fascinatingly, one of the statues on display, apparently of Vespasian, was found to have originally portrayed Nero before being remodelled – which the museum will illustrate with a multimedia reconstruction. “This is super-topical, think of what happens to statues in the UK, in the US, these days. It’s nothing new.”

Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director, said the exhibition offered “a great moment to reassess a portion of history, and to perhaps also be inspired to draw parallels – carefully”.

Gathering the exhibits – two-thirds of which have been loaned by international institutions – had been a “huge logistical effort”, said Opper. “All of our partners were in lockdown … in different phases, exhibitions throughout Europe had to be rescheduled. It was a nail-biter as you can imagine, but it just shows that people in the culture sector work together and they are used to challenges. And it all came together in the end.”

The exhibition comes at a crucial time for the British Museum, which, like other institutions, will have been shuttered for almost five months when it hopes to reopen on 17 May. The absence of overseas tourists and reduced visitor numbers due to social distancing leave it even more reliant on sponsor income, including its highly controversial partnership with BP, the current contract of which expires next year.

Asked if the museum was out of step with the public mood in continuing to accept sponsorship from the energy giant, Fischer said: “These exhibitions, which are part of our core mission, can only be realised with external funding, and this is why we have this partnership.” BP’s branding for this exhibition, nonetheless, is notably discreet.

Nero: the man behind the myth opens at the British Museum in London on 27 May