Jürgen Malitz, Nero. Blackwell Ancient Lives. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xi + 174, incl. 6 black-and-white illustrations, a map, a stemma, a chronological table and an appendix. ISBN 1-4051-2178-5. UK£14.99.
Somerville College, Oxford
This biography of the Emperor Nero fits well into the Blackwell Ancient Lives series with its aim of presenting, in brief compass and in the form of accessible historical narratives, the lives of influential figures of antiquity. Preceded by a chronological chart, a family tree, and a map of the Roman Empire, the story of Nero is told chronologically, rather than analytically, except for the three central chapters, where the Emperor's artistic pursuits, his provision of bread and circuses to the populace, and Roman foreign policy during his reign receive thematic treatment. There is an appendix giving an English translation from 1899 (with transliterated Greek) of 'extracts' from Suetonius's biography, accompanied by the translator's 'Remarks on Nero'. There is also a useful, but not overwhelming, bibliography, and a helpful index.
The most curious feature of the volume, and one evidently not the responsibility of the author, is the appendix, where the only passage of Suetonius actually omitted in this antique translation is that giving graphic details of incest with his mother at the end of Chapter 28, while the 'Remarks' have the tone of moral outrage suitable to that date. The body of the book, however, quotes the 1914 Loeb translation of Suetonius, while Malitz' salutary scepticism about Agrippina's poisoning of Claudius (p. 12) and about Nero's responsibility for the fire and his provision of a musical accompaniment to it (p. 68), forms a curious contrast with the certainty of the 'Remarks' on both points (pp. 159; 161). The author has also been let down by his translator. It is not just a matter of unidiomatic expressions, such as 'no one got the idea to demand' (p. 23); or of incorrect ones, like 'disinterested' for 'uninterested' (p. 39) and 'Neronic' for 'Neronian', (p. 48), but of sentences which make no sense, as when, after the murder of Britannicus, Agrippina is said to recognize 'that her son could be just as scrupulous as she' (p. 27 -- read 'unscrupulous'), or when the senatus consultum on the gold and silver coinage is said to be 'an acknowledgement by the emperor that he owed the honor formulated through his form of address to the Senate'.
Given the limited size of such a volume, Malitz can only provide references to the ancient sources very sparingly (and not always explicably). But he quotes some of the best set pieces: Tacitus Annals 15.44 on the punishment of the Christians as responsible for the fire of 64 (p. 69), Suetonius Nero 31 describing the Golden House (p. 73), Nero's speech, recorded on stone (ILS 8794), proclaiming the liberation of Greece (p. 92). These afford the reader the chance to read some ancient historical narrative and rhetoric.
The blurb makes various predictable claims to originality and reassessment; it is more accurate in describing this as a balanced account which gives full weight to Nero's promising beginning as ruler and to his artistic taste and patronage of the arts, while not palliating his crimes and his cruelty. It is a pity that when the translation from the German was made in 2005 no account was taken of Champlin's eccentric but fascinating book on Nero, published in 2003[] and fully exploring his showmanship.
Malitz traces Nero's actual fall from power to his tendency to panic in situations of crisis (pp. 28, 32, 102). Nero's failure as an emperor he seems to ascribe to his mistake in valuing 'applause in the theatre more highly than his reputation among the political and military elite' (p. 52), though elsewhere he ascribes somewhat excessive political importance to popular support, speaking of 'Nero's awareness that it would be more difficult for him to do without this segment of public opinion than without the more critical segment of the senators' (p. 49). In fact, the populace could not save an emperor when he had lost the loyalty of the senatorial army commanders and the praetorian guard.
There are other inconsistencies. At p. 35 Nero's failure to visit Athens on his Greek tour is ascribed to his fear, as a matricide, of the Furies (as in Suetonius Nero 34), but on p. 92 two different explanations are offered: successful flattery by Corinth and Nero's wish to honour 'Roman' as opposed to 'classical' Greece. The fact that Seneca was banned by Agrippina from teaching Nero philosophy is ascribed (on p. 9) to leaving such instruction to Greeks, and (on p. 14) to a fear that Nero would lose interest in ruling, but on p. 38 it has become a later accusation brought against Seneca, for having taught a tyrant. More seriously, we hear, in the context of the Pisonian conspiracy, of those 'who, based on descent and character, would be in a position to replace Nero and at the same time be acceptable to the senate' (p. 80) -- and it is certainly true that the claim of Caius Calpurnius Piso to Nero's position rested on his descent from Republican nobility. But then we are told, on pp. 77, 99, and 101, that descent from Augustus was 'the only essential rule of succession'. In fact, there was no 'rule of succession', nor could there be, because the Principate was not an avowed monarchy.
Though the author had no space to explore the political system, there are interesting insights into motive: that it was because Agrippina had her eyes on Acerronia's wealth and will that she made no attempt to mobilize support after Nero's attempt on her own life (p. 32), that loyalty of the praetorians to the imperial house was founded on their awareness that no one else could afford to pay them such bounties (p. 78), that Nero's getting rid of suspects in 65 and 66 was a way of paving the way to a safe absence in Greece (p. 87). The translation of Nero's remark qualis artifex pereo as 'what a loss for the world of the theater' (p. 36) neatly extends the literal meaning of artifex as a cithara player to incorporate Nero's attachment to showmanship. And it takes a computer buff like Malitz to discover for us that 'there is software to "burn" CD-ROMs that carries the tradition-conscious name "NERO BURNING ROM"' (p. 113).
[] Edward Champlin, Nero (Cambridge, Mass. 2003).