Jas/ Elsner & Jamie Masters (edd.), Reflections of Nero: Culture, History & Representation. London: Duckworth, 1994. Pp. iv + 239, incl. 8 plates and 12 b&w illustrations. ISBN 0-7156-2479-2. UK£35.00.
University of South Africa
In 69 a rumour had spread to Achaia and Asia that Nero was still alive and was about to travel East. Immediately a man from Pontus announced that he was Nero, and, supported by a more than superficial likeness to the dead emperor, he managed to bring the eastern provinces into turmoil. The proof of authenticity was that the man was a professional harpist and singer (Tac. Hist. 2.8). This is one of three 'false Neros' of whom we know and there may have been more.(1) Their appearance under successive emperors shows two things: the popular appeal of Nero, especially in the East, and the strength of the image of the artist-emperor. Keeping his last words in mind -- qualis artifex pereo ('what an artist dies in me', Suet. Ner. 49.1) -- this would have appealed to Nero.
It is more difficult to find the 'real' Nero underneath his masks of anti-senatorial tyrant, artist-criminal, and megalomaniac blasphemist. The study of Nero is basically a source problem; the historical accounts are predominantly negative. We know that there must have been positive accounts of his rule, but these have not survived because of the strength of the anti-Neronian propaganda-machine. Most of the contributors to this volume have concerned themselves with the image (or reflections) of Nero and make very little effort to come closer to historical reality. Instead, the authors repeatedly express their pessimism in ever getting to the 'real' Nero.
Reassessments of Suetonius and Tacitus, by Tamsyn Barton (pp. 48-66) and Joan-Pau Rubie/s (pp. 29-47) respectively, ask us to look at their works with different eyes. Tacitus, of whom Sir Ronald Syme claimed that there was in his account of Nero 'no item where the credit and veracity of Cornelius Tacitus can be seriously impugned' (quoted by Rubie/s [p. 29]), is the more skilful deceiver. Rubie/s describes him as a historian 'whose skill consisted of arranging and rewriting his sources in a personal way' (p. 38). That is putting it mildly. Literary and historical analysis over the last years has proved that certain episodes from the Neronian books cannot but be rhetorical constructs.(2) Historians have recognized Tacitus' rhetorical skills, but they have simultaneously emphasized the value of his factual analysis of Nero's reign. Rubie/s is dealing with this particular paradox, and the diagnosis is stated clearly: 'In this [rhetorical] tradition, oriented towards a range of moral concerns quite different from our own, inventio played a role that no modern historian would be ready to accept' (p. 41). Unfortunately, the author only focuses on Tacitean moral asides. It would have been welcome if Rubie/s had given us at least one test-case for his altogether valid points, where the factual analysis of Tacitus may be qualified as incorrect, because of moralistic inventio.
The question that has to be raised, then, is whether there are 'Tacitean' episodes which are more or less free from rhetoric. In other words, can we still use Tacitus, with his apparent (and hidden) rhetorical tricks, as a source for historical analysis, or must we in future be content to read his works as an enjoyable world of 'virtual reality'? An interesting discussion on Tacitean 'veracity' will no doubt erupt in the next couple of years on the basis of the recently found SC de Gn. Pisone patre.(3) This important piece of evidence seems to provide confirmation of the more than informal influence of Livia on Tiberian decision-making, and thus to vindicate Tacitus.
Tamsyn Barton's discussion of Suetonius' Life of Nero deals with the world of political invective. Consequently, rhetoric and rhetorical tricks dominate her pages (Barton explicitly states that she does not want to participate in the literature versus real life debate [p. 58]). Her analysis shows that historians should plunder his works for evidence with caution, a warning that cannot be sounded too frequently. She expertly leads us through the various aspects of the imagery of the tyrant: the killing of relatives, the sexual transgressions, the cruelty. However, to banish Suetonius' invective to the world of 'virtual reality', as Barton does (p. 58), is no solution to the problems we encounter in reading his Life of Nero.
The offering of parallels in extant forms of political invective obscures the fact that some accusations made against Nero undoubtedly originated from historical facts, while others can be singled out that are more nonsensical. One of the few instances where Barton indicates that Suetonius is deliberately misrepresenting Nero is his involvement (or non-involvement) in Claudius' death (p. 55). Of course, Suetonius should not be read as a historiographer using the same standards of objectivity that we attempt to apply. To discredit Nero, he sometimes chooses the version of a story that puts the emperor in the worst possible light (in the case of the fire of 64 and the death of Claudius [p. 55]). Nevertheless, the picture that results is not completely negative; we find signs of Nero's positive intentions as well. The emperor's plans for erecting porches in front of houses in Rome, from which to fight fires, must be understood as having been launched after the fire in 64 (Suet. Ner. 16.1).(4) I do not think, contrary to Barton (p. 52), that Suetonius is deliberately ironic here. By separating these plans from his account of the great fire and Nero's alleged involvement in it, Suetonius cannot be blamed with malice. Here, and in other passages, Suetonius' work is showing the strains of describing the life of an emperor who was popular with the masses and dangerous to a limited e/lite of courtiers and members of the upper classes. The latter happened to be literate and skilful in the use of rhetorical devices to pass on the image of a cruel tyrant.
In his contribution, Justin Goddard describes Nero's gluttony and feasting in terms of conviviality and accessibility (pp. 67-82). Pliny's Trajan presents the ideal aristocratic dinner companion. He entertains senators in the palace, is affable, frank, and even visits senatorial homes unannounced without bringing in his body-guard. Nero's extravagance in his feasting, however, formed part of a tradition. Lavish banquets during which the people of Rome were wined and dined had become important vehicles for displaying the virtues of the emperor (p. 68). Letting the people of Rome share in the bounty of the empire was excellent propaganda used by 'good' and 'bad' emperors alike. Other behaviour, however, negated the virtues of a 'good' emperor. Nero did not invite the upper classes to dine with him - 'or if he did, it was to poison them' (p. 75). Instead, our sources inform us that Nero visited the taverns in the most obscure parts of Rome, intimating that he ate with the drunkards, pimps and other 'scum' that frequented these establishments. And when he dressed up in disguise to roam the streets, he beat up senators returning home from dinner parties - dinner parties, be it noted, that Nero, as a good emperor, should have been attending in person. Goddard argues: ' . . . eating and drinking are the means through which Nero expresses, or is accused of expressing, his contempt for senators and equestrians, those men whom a good emperor would treat as his peers' (p. 75).
Goddard's assertion that Nero's patterns of eating and drinking reflect 'a desire on Nero's part to win popularity not with senators and other members of the upper orders but with the common people of Rome' (p. 76) is not necessarily equally true. Certainly, most of Nero's rituals of public display would fit this picture. However, Goddard's point of departure for his conclusions -- Nero's wanderings and his frequenting taverns -- might not be a reflection of a bid for plebeian popularity. The author claims that these nocturnal revelries are told with a hostile purpose, distorting Nero's good intentions: to do away with imperial ceremony in order to fraternize with his more humble subjects. Similar stories of popular kings with a genuine concern for the welfare of their people are indeed known from other periods of history (p. 77). In the ancient world, however, these stories are always told of notoriously 'bad' emperors: Caligula, Otho, Vitellius, Lucius Verus, Commodus. Augustus is, as far as I know, the only emperor who is portrayed as carousing freely with ordinary citizens, even exchanging witticisms with a slave-trader. Stories of a Republican politician like Crassus knowing ordinary citizens by name and shaking their hands (Plut. Crass. 3.3) may be another reflection of this ideal of accessibility to everyone. Nevertheless, it is more logical to assume that the existence of lowly citizens was usually ignored by haughty aristocrats (Lib. Or. 2.6). It might be suggested, therefore, that an emperor 'going to the other side of town' and doing so _at night_ can never have had good intentions on his mind. Nero's behaviour in this respect is more consistent with that of young men disturbing the social order, as described for instance by Apuleius (Met. 2.18).(5)
The worst offence that Nero committed against the sanctity of the image of the emperor was to perform on stage as an actor. Catherine Edwards lucidly discusses Roman prejudices against actors and how performing on stage affected the image of Nero (pp. 83-97). It is to be noted that in the accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio, Nero's acting is not confined to the stage: he is 'always playing a role - but never the right one' (that of emperor [p. 92]). Nero's love for theatricality was an obvious opportunity to cast his reign in terms of illusion and unreality. However, Nero is not the only victim of theatricality; the events surrounding the matricide and the Pisonian conspiracy seem to cast all characters involved in the role of actors.
I agree with Edwards that by appearing on stage as an actor Nero showed that he could transcend the rules that ordered the rest of Roman society, and, in fact, 'demonstrated his power to turn the social order upside-down' (p. 87). Was glory on the stage to Nero the equivalent of military glory? Given his lack of interest in military affairs and in politics in general this is far from impossible. Consequently, Nero may have been trying to find new ways to represent imperial power -- obviously directed not at the upper orders, but at the plebs (p. 87, with note 34).(6) What was his reason for including senators and equestrians in his shows? Performance on stage by members of the upper classes is usually described by ancient sources in derogatory terms, but among the very same classes there was a strong undercurrent of enthusiasm for such spot-light occasions.(7) By encouraging this latent love for amateur dramatics there can be no doubt that Nero was considered as a dangerous element by more traditional senators. Hence the condemnation in the sources.
Susan Alcock's reassessment of Nero's 'concert tour' through Greece in AD 66-7 puts his behaviour into the context of the activities of his predecessors and successors (pp. 98-111). By viewing Nero's behaviour against this background, the accusations of eccentricity lose most of their sting. It cannot be denied that, because Nero's reign was conceived of as being generally bad, his trip to Greece was also described in the worst possible light. Alcock's discussion of the various aspects of the tour is on the whole sound and balanced. Sometimes, however, she cannot resist the temptation to 'read back' Nero's positive intentions from behaviour that can hardly be termed beneficial, and is unlikely to have been intended as such. On Nero's temple-robberies -- for that is what 'cult deplacement' boils down to in this case -- she assumes, apart from punitive measures, an additional possibility, namely that the transfer of cult statues could also be viewed as a sharing of them. This would then have been a 'means to unite the peoples of Greece and Rome through their shared veneration of the same respected images' (p. 101). As she realizes, the Greeks themselves were not amused. This 'additional explanation' seems to have been inspired by an urgency to view Nero's 'philhellene' attitude in a more positive light. Surprisingly enough, in Alcock's recent book on Roman Greece the phenomenon of transfer of statues is given a more traditional (and more convincing) explanation: 'Depriving one's enemy of sacred objects and possessing them yourself served two related purposes: defeating them in perpetuity and adding the power of their gods to your own symbolic arsenal'.(8)
Nero's avoidance on this trip of the two most important cities of Classical Greece has been unsatisfactorily explained by our sources. Sparta was allegedly avoided because of its unsympathetic Lycurgan regimes; Athens because of Nero's matricidal guilt, since criminals were not allowed to participate in the Eleusinian mysteries (p. 105). Alcock rejects these explanations and comes up with a convincing alternative. Most of the time Nero stayed in Corinth, a Roman colony and the capital of Achaia: by basing himself in part at the colony at Corinth, 'the emperor encouraged a new conception of Greece: not as a land of the past, but as part of the imperial present' (p. 105).
Nero's literary tastes encouraged him to establish a literary circle of poets, 'men who possessed some versifying ability but were not yet known' (Tac. Ann. 14.16). Their method was to string together verses which they had brought with them or extemporized on the spot -- they filled out Nero's own suggestions, such as they were. The method of composing was haphazard and this, according to Tacitus, accounts for the inconsistent tone of the emperor's poetry. In spite of the negative judgements of Nero's literary exercises, the Neronian principate became famous for its abundance of literary talent: Seneca, Lucan, Persius, Lucillius, Petronius. It is inevitable that some aspects of Nero's reign (and the emperor's personality) trickled through and found their way in contemporary literature. The remaining six contributions of the volume deal with various aspects of literature under Nero. Not all of them add to a better understanding of the person Nero. The issue is to show that writers contemporary with Nero played a vital part in shaping later biographies of the emperor (cf. Gowers, p. 131).
Gowers (pp. 131-150) draws attention to a particular aspect of Nero's reign that might go far in explaining the negative image-making of later historians: youth. Nero's youth carried with it notions of precocity and a quick process of burning out (p. 136). She takes as her point of departure the famous remark of the dying emperor: 'haec est' inquit 'Neronis decocta ('this is Nero's boiled-down water', Suet. Ner. 48.3), and discusses it in the context of contemporary literature, especially in the satires of Persius: si forte aliquid decoctius audis ('if you are willing to hear something more boiled-down', Sat. 1.125). What was this 'decoction' of Nero? Pliny the Elder can help us out here; he says (HN 31. 40) that Nero had invented concentrated water, heated to boiling point, the cooled with snow. As Goddard points out in his contribution, ' . . . it represents a waste of time, an elaborate process destined to achieve nothing, beginning with plain water and ending with plain water' (p. 72).
Persius' satyrical concoction, on the other hand, is the kind of biting concentrate that will leave a stinging after-taste. According to Gowers, the relationship between Nero and Persius was that of 'a tyrannical emperor ridiculed by a naughty boy behind his back' (p. 132). Decoquere means 'to boil down', and, together with its opposite praecoquere, praecox, perfectly symbolizes Nero's reign. The contrast here is with Augustus who seized power at the right time and secured a mature government. Nero's age, on the other hand, was 'a conflation of infantile precocity and premature decline' (p. 133). A particularly interesting passage is Gowers' all too brief reference to the final conversation between Seneca and Nero, which is cast by Tacitus (Ann. 14.55) as a debate of young versus old (p. 136). It is a bit unfortunate that Gowers has not worked out in more detail the circumstances of the Iuvenalia where old people are performing on stage and young men (the Augustiani) are in the audience.
Gareth Williams' contribution highlights the overturning of Neronian ideology in the pseudo-Senecan Octavia (pp. 178-195). First, the author of the play. Williams states that the play is not Senecan -- a fact which is now accepted by most scholars. This adds another dimension to the dramatic persona of Seneca: it allows the author to depict 'not just Nero's autocratic excesses, but also the weaknesses in Seneca's own doctrine' (p. 180). This is not the only instance where the official ideology of Nero's reign is found wanting. The return of the Golden Age at the beginning of the emperor's rule (Apoc. 4.1; Calp. Sic. 1.42) is echoed in the Octavia: saeculo premimur gravi ('a grievous age afflicts us', 430). Instead of being the return of Saturn to Latium, bringing with him justice and prosperity for all, Nero's reign is actually the final curtain-raiser before Stoic catastrophe will set in. Nero's major crime, the killing of his mother in 59, is dramatically linked to the antithesis of the Golden Age that is embodied by Nero's reign. In the Iron Age Mother Earth is plundered for precious metals; it is particularly fitting that Agrippina is killed with an (iron) sword. All the negative elements that characterize Nero's reign can be found in the play, which shows that the negative image-building had already started shortly after Nero's death. As a historical source its parameters are, however, conclusively invalid. For creative effect, the author of the Octavia is free to bring separate events together in one dramatic explosion of negativity: 'the poet is no slave to historical constraints, but a free agent who interprets recent history according to his own creative demands' (p. 191).
Altogether, this book deserves to be read by classicists and historians alike, whether their interest lies in Nero or in Neronian literature. The volume stimulates the rethinking of Neronian parameters and will form a solid basis for further research on the period in question. One of its great assets is that it takes the various strands of Nero's reign seriously, although the authors do not lose sight of the problems in evaluation. As the editors stress in their introduction: ' . . . in a world where the topsy-turvy is the normative mode of literary expression, we must beware of taking any text at face value' (p. 7). The message is clear and to the point, although it would have been salubrious to have had more contributions from ancient historians in the field as well; they might have been able to salvage some of Nero's historical features. Finally, the book deserves praise for the way in which it has been produced: attractive lay-out and cover, bibliography at the end of each chapter and few mistakes in reference (the reference [p. 116] to the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus is a minor blemish).
(1) Cf. K. Bradley, Suetonius' Life of Nero. An Historical Commentary (Brussels 1978) 294-5.
(2) Good examples are Tony Woodman's analysis of Tacitus' account of the Pisonian conspiracy, 'Amateur dramatics at the court of Nero: Tacitus, Annals, 15.48-74' in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman (edd.), Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton 1993) 104-28 and R. D. Scott's 'The Death of Nero's Mother (Tacitus Annals XIV, 1-13)', Latomus 33 (1974) 105-15.
(3) Cf. Werner Eck, 'Das s.c. de Cn. Pisone Patre und seine Publikation in der Baetica', Cahiers du Centre G. Glotz IV (1993) 189-208.
(4) Bradley  100.
(5) Cf. P. Veyne, 'Les droits de la conscience publique sur la conduite individuelle: un constat ethnologique' in idem, La société romaine (Paris 1991) 57-87, esp. 84-7.
(6) Cf. C. E. Manning, 'Acting and the Conception of Nero's Principate', G&R 22 (1975) 164-75, who argues for a deliberate bid on Nero's part for plebeian support through shows and his own acting.
(7) Cf. W. J. Slater, 'Pantomime Riots', Classical Antiquity 13 (1994) 120-44.
(8) Susan E. Alcock, Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece (Cambridge 1993) 179.