Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 38.
NERO: THE SUN-KING
Edward Champlin, Nero. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 346. ISBN 0-674-01192-9. US$29.95.
Classics, University of Notre Dame
A generation after his death the bleak image of Nero that dominates the modern tradition was firmly in place: it is evident for instance in the play Octavia, in which Nero appears as a murderous, unredeemable tyrant with pretensions to divinity.[] Killer of his mother and wives, arsonist, and first persecutor of the Christians -- the indictment is all too familiar. But was Nero really as terrible as his reputation suggests? Under the Flavians Josephus recorded (AJ 20.154) that some earlier writers had had good things to say of the last Julio-Claudian, and remnants of a favourable tradition still survive in a substantive portion of Suetonius' biography, a work from the early second century which purposefully segregates the emperor's if not praiseworthy then not altogether reprehensible accomplishments from the crimes and follies that are catalogued at greater length. The names of some of the early writers are known but their writings no longer exist. It is impossible therefore to reconstruct the history of Nero from contemporary narrative sources and to distinguish the man from the myth. Even the best surviving account, that of Tacitus in the Annals, is not a true primary source (for all its greatness), contemporary as it is with Suetonius' life.
Trying to fathom who had earlier said what about Nero has long been a preoccupation of scholars devoted to the science (or art) of Quellenforschung, with results often disproportionate to the degree of ingenuity displayed. Not the least of the many fine features of Edward Champlin's brilliant new book on Nero, however, is a refreshing discussion of the lost sources on which the extant accounts drew (including that of the third-century Greek historian Cassius Dio), in which Champlin argues for the superiority of Cluvius Rufus' lost work over the versions of the Elder Pliny and Fabius Rusticus, but also, more importantly, shows how impossible it is ever to know anything of Nero's life and reign with real certainty. The facts about Nero as they appear in the surviving narratives must always be weighed for their inherent 'accuracy and probability' (p. 52), and historians must always be sceptical of how those facts were construed.
It is something of a surprise, however, to find in the body of the book that Champlin consistently takes passages from the extant narratives at face value with little regard for putting this principle into practice. He follows Suetonius very literally on Nero's vices (p. 156), the tour of Greece (p. 170, where Suetonius' comments are 'more precise' than those of others) and the great fire (p. 179, where Suetonius is 'eloquent'; conversely his story about Nero and the Vestal Rubria is dismissed as 'extremely unlikely' [p. 163]), and he can even quote the biographer to show what was in Nero's mind at the time of the iselastic triumph of 67 (p. 233). Dio is also taken very literally to support the notion that it was Nero who gave Sporus his name (pp. 149f.), and Tacitus for the view that Poppaea persuaded Nero to kill Agrippina (p. 86 even though the truth behind Poppaea's rise to power has earlier been said to be beyond recovery [pp. 46-48]). Why in cases like these one source is preferred over others Champlin does not explain, confident enough in his own judgement, it seems, to decide what can and cannot be trusted in the surviving material. He is convinced, comparably, that Suetonius' unique and notoriously problematical account of Nero's flight from Rome and death is based on eye-witness accounts ('certainly' [p. 6]) and that Cluvius Rufus, presumably Suetonius' source, 'must have' interviewed them (pp. 49f.). But who those eye-witnesses were and precisely why they 'must have' been interviewed by Cluvius (no one else?) are matters that warrant no discussion.
Many of the details in the book are thus, I think, open to question. But this does not alter the fact that the book is by far the most enjoyable and rewarding modern work on Nero I know. The chief reason for this is that it is not in any sense a conventional Roman historical biography. Traditional topics are mostly avoided (nothing on the influence on the young Nero of Seneca and Burrus), tortuous prosopographical reconstructions of Neronian politics are absent, and pedantic attempts, inevitably benighted, to create a reliable chronology for this year or that are wisely eschewed. Instead, Champlin's project is to reveal Nero as in every sense a theatrical ruler who consciously set out to present himself to Rome and the Romans as a showman and stage-actor, a figure whose every performance was an act of obsessive self-justification and validation, and who deliberately sought and achieved mass popularity in everything that he did. In itself this is by no means new of course. But the way in which the project is carried out is, for Champlin sets the facts in their cultural context in a way that has never been done before by pointing to the ubiquitous presence in Roman society and culture of myth and legend which, Champlin believes, provided Nero with a readily available language for communicating to mass audiences the explanations and justifications of the many crimes he was thought to have committed. At the same time he insists that the events of the reign must be evaluated from Nero's own perspective. So it is here, in the methodology and the assumption that Champlin takes as his starting-point, that the book's originality lies.
The results are often very good. Champlin maintains for example that the charges of murder that followed the deaths of Agrippina and Poppaea were publicly accommodated when Nero appeared on stage as Oedipus, Orestes, and Hercules, stressing how these mythological roles had the effect of presenting the emperor to the world as an innocent victim of fate whose crimes were not his personal responsibility -- or as Champlin puts it: 'By mythologizing himself and his crime, he both distanced the crime and clothed himself in the aura of a hero. The goal was not to prove his innocence, but to accept guilt and to justify it' (p. 103). Again, and more importantly still, by pursuing all the mythological ramifications of the Apolline, Solar, and Herculean imagery so prevalent in the sources, Champlin reveals how Nero consciously created an Augustus-inspired image of himself as a sort of superhuman 'Roi-Soleil' that his subjects would easily recognise and appreciate, arguing persuasively that Nero's ideological and aesthetic experimentation became more and more self-conscious over time. Thus if it was in 59 that he first promoted the idea of an Apolline Golden Age -- detectable in Lucan's poetry and celebrations of Nero as Apollo on the coinage and as New Apollo on inscriptions -- from 64 on he became Sol the benefactor of mankind who through the microcosmic medium of the Golden House presided over a macrocosmic empire in which Herculean acts such as the cutting of the Isthmus at Corinth were well within his reach. Champlin stops short of claiming for Nero a solar theocracy. But by relating the mythological imagery evident in the sources to the manner in which the Roman public saw its emperor in the theatre, circus, and amphitheatre, he presents a powerful and seductive case for envisioning Nero as a Sun-King who imaginatively contrived his own political ideology.
If contextualising myth is the main way in which Champlin finds a logic in the narrative sources, at times he extends the technique to other aspects of Roman culture. Thus the centrality of spectacula is spelled out to show the increasing professionalism of Nero as aesthete and sportsman (his skills as a horseman, incidentally, had a certain appeal for A. N. Sherwin-White). The conventions of the Saturnalia are explored to provide a view of Nero's sexual and luxurious excesses as topsy-turvy orchestrations by a philhellene with a taste for low company who found inspiration in the subversive behaviour of his ancestor Antony. And the traditions of the triumph are described to allow reconstruction of three richly triumphalist moments, the return to Rome after Agrippina's death in the summer of 59, the coronation of Tiridates in 66, in what amounted to an elaborate public pageant, and the iselastic entry to Rome in late 67, when 'the very streets of Rome were for a time one vast theater, and Nero was again the star performer' (p. 234). The account of Tiridates' coronation in the Roman forum is especially gripping (pp. 228f.):
'When Nero entered with the senators and the guard, he ascended the Rostra and sat in his chair of state, looking back down the Forum in an east-southeasterly direction. That is, as Tiridates approached him through the ranks of soldiers, the rising sun would have hit Nero full on the face, in all his triumphal splendor. The prince then addresed the emperor from the ground, looking up to him on the Rostra: "I have come to you, my god, worshipping you as I do Mithra." The important point -- something Nero would know as an initiate, whether others did or not -- is that for Zoroastrians the sun was the eye of Mithra, and Mithra was often so closely associated with the sun as to be identified with it: "the Sun whom they call Mithres," as Strabo puts it. Moreover, when Zoroastrians prayed in the open air, they turned toward the sun, since their religion bound them to pray facing fire. Thus, when Tiridates stood in the open Roman Forum facing the sunlit emperor, and worshipping him as he did Mithra, he was in essence worshipping the sun. An ex-praetor translated his words and proclaimed them to the crowd. At this stage in Rome's history, very few of those present would have known who Mithra was, but there is a good likelihood that the interpreter relayed Tiridates' words as "I have come to you, my god, worshipping you as I do the Sun." For Nero, the marriage of Roman triumph and Parthian ceremony culminated in a splendid theatrical affirmation of his role as the new god of the Sun.'
How credible is the overall case? The issue of the narrative sources apart, there are three considerations which might give pause.
First, the myths explored sometimes require an excess of faith to work as explanatory devices. For instance, Champlin believes (p. 106) that after Poppaea's death Nero sang the role of Canace in childbirth to win popular sympathy for her loss, but his reasoning is entirely speculative and depends on Nero's presentation in unknown form of one of several variations of what is admitted to be an obscure and minor story. Likewise, to bring forward Vesta's connections with the safety of the city as evidence that Nero himself started the great fire (p. 190; though he hedges: 'It looks as if Nero was responsible' [p. 191], my emphasis) is very close to special pleading.
Second, the theory that Nero was a dramaturge who used myth as a vehicle of communication demands a public audience able to understand his messages. This is constantly assumed but never convincingly argued. After the great fire Nero propitiated Vulcan and Ceres in ways, Champlin proposes, that made people recall on the one hand Romulus' digging of a trench when founding the city that became associated with Ceres as an entrance to the Underworld (the mundus), and also reminded them on the other hand of Romulus' first victory in warfare and eventual death or disappearance on the Volcanal (pp. 192-94). But even if the point is granted that Roman audiences expected to see contemporary meaning in public spectacles, how could it be known, or shown, that the entire city population had the sort of intimate knowledge of myth and legend that this proposition requires, perceptible as that knowledge now is only through elite and often arcane literary texts such as, appositely enough, the tragedies of Seneca?[] Champlin likes to say in such circumstances that everyone understood the rich treasury of classical myth and legend -- 'All these stories were familiar to every Roman' (p. 195) -- but this is no more than assertion and the fact of the matter is never demonstrated (there is a difference). To take another example: a story of incest between Periander and his mother found in the Greek poet Parthenius is key to Champlin's notion that the Greek tyrant 'provided for Nero a veritable mirror for princes' (p. 109). Yet how could the Roman public have known the story and understood Nero's meaning if, as a recent critic has observed, Parthenius' story failed to find much of a following?[]
Third, the view that Nero was a highly self-conscious actor is again difficult to substantiate, so that the degree of initiative Champlin ascribes to him in the manipulation of spectacular events must often be left open. The idea for example that it was Nero himself who decided to dress his Christian victims as Danaids and Dirce (p. 123) might be appealing, but it cannot be authenticated any more than the notion that the 'creative reason' (p. 125) behind Nero's wandering through the city dressed as a sun-symbolising charioteer after the fire was to restore light to a darkened night. No one today will be unmindful of the implications of the 'fatal charades' that were so crucial an element of Roman culture, but the problem of establishing the historical actor's agency is fundamental here and needs to be addressed directly, which it is not. Sometimes, moreover, wider perspectives could come into play. Champlin attributes inspiration for the Golden House solely to Nero, which may of course be right, but the names of Severus and Celer are notably absent from his discussion of the Sun-God's house, which means that any conceptual contributions to the complex that may have come from those gifted men (cf. Tac. Ann. 15.42), or from the painter Fabullus (Plin. HN 35.120), who is equally neglected, are automatically concealed from view.[]
What Champlin has written, therefore, is a marvellously rhetorical brief for a theory that illuminates much of what remains in the historical tradition about Nero but which in the end raises as many questions as it answers. The book is imaginative, evocative, stylishly written, and a delight to read (and re-read). It is based on impeccable research and a fine sense of Roman topography. But the points I have raised are, I think, real issues, no matter how captivating the rhetoric. And in the end of course, despite Champlin's sensitivity to problems of historical tradition and the early demonstration that Nero long retained the popularity he once enjoyed while alive, and despite the persuasiveness of the idea that Nero was an energetic artist and ingenious manipulator of his own public image, the monstrosity of the man cannot be dispelled. The loss of the early narratives that made counter claims on his behalf with an authority (one supposes) no longer attainable is a cause of enduring regret.
A final point. Suetonius (Nero 56) records that Nero despised all cults except that of the Dea Syria. It does not seem to me to follow, however, that the Sun-King did not believe in other divinities, especially in Apollo, the god who was so important to him (cf. p. 133). Religious belief is a complex category in any time and place. Yet what it meant in the polytheistic world of Rome calls for no investigation here. Moreover, the radiate crown with which Nero is shown on certain of his coins is correctly taken as a symbol of divinity, and the logical consequence must be that a personal claim to godhead was made. The divine Sun-King, I imagine, believed in himself.
[] Though attributed to Seneca, the play was composed in the Flavian era; see R. Ferri (ed.), Octavia (Cambridge 2003) 5-30; cf. J. G. Fitch (ed.), Seneca: Tragedies II (Cambridge, Mass. 2004) 512f. (between AD 68 and 70).
[] On the highly literary qualities of Seneca's tragedies, see C. A. J. Littlewood, Self-representation and Illusion in Senecan Tragedy (Oxford 2004).
[] E. Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination (Oxford 2001) 60.
[] For possibilities, see L. F. Ball, The Domus Aurea and the Roman Architectural Revolution (Cambridge 2003); E. W. Leach, The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples (Cambridge 2004) 156-66.