This review of a book about Pompeii has an intriguing remark (emphasis mine):
There is an emphasis within this book on weaving both Imperial and provincial figures, events and episodes into the narrative. We learn of Poppaea's family connections in Pompeii, the repercussions of Agrippina's murder and Nero's actions in the last years of his rule. There is mention of Nero's visit to Pompeii following the devastating earthquake or as the authors put it, 'to the Campanian backwater (which) was probably in large part a favour to (Poppaea)' (209). This was fascinating, but required patient reading on less relevant and digressive topics before small nuggets of interesting facts could be found.
Does anyone know what is the reviewer alluding to?
Agrippina the Younger would have exerted a powerful influence on Nero, as the woman who had secured him the throne and as the "tiger mother" who had raised and protected him amidst all the intrigues of the principate. Without her, there was no one who had any hope of checking Nero's behavior, which would eventually end in his murder, destroy his dynasty, and seriously damage his office. The authors argue that the behavior of the court would have influenced the behavior and attitudes of the public, as reflected in graffiti, artifacts, and writings found in Pompeii.
Because the figure of Nero is so hated and that of Agrippina at least controversial, the truth is hard to discern. I have not read the book being reviewed.
Agrippina Minor (or Agripinilla), Nero's mother, is one of the largest female figures of the Julio-Claudian era, not only because of her notorious son, but in her own right as a player in imperial politics.
Tacitus, Dio, and Suetonius are all rather unkind; she was a rather un-feminine (by ancient Roman standards) noblewoman close to the seat of power, and they depicted her as power-hungry, murderous, manipulative, and ruthless. But she had some support: she was, after all, the daughter of Germanicus; she was pitied for her persecution at the hands of Claudius' notorious third wife, Messalina, and she helped restore dignity as Claudius' fourth wife. Even Tacitus admits that she was upright- more or less- in describing the accession of 17-year old Nero, which really meant the state was in the hands of Agrippina:
Then came a revolution in the State, and everything was under the control of a woman, who did not, like Messalina, insult Rome by loose manners. It was a stringent, and, so to say, masculine despotism; there was sternness and generally arrogance in public, no sort of immodesty at home- unless it conduced to power. (Tac. Ann. XI.7)
But even among her defenders, it seems she was a domineering mother whom Nero came to resent. Guglielmo Ferrero, whose profile of Agrippina is so fawning it could be mistaken for satire, writes
Tacitus himself tells us that Agrippina was a most exacting mother; that is, a mother of the older Roman type-in his own words, trux et minax [fierce and threatening]. She did not follow the gentle methods of the newer education, which were gradually being introduced into the great families, and she had brought up her son in the ancient manner with the greatest simplicity.
He says of Nero's accession
There resulted in Rome a most extraordinary situation: a youth of seventeen, educated in the antique manner, and, though already married, still entirely under the tutelage of a strict mother, had been elevated to the highest position in the immense empire.… She was too intelligent not to foresee that a seventeen-year-old emperor could have no authority, and that his position would expose him to all sorts of envy and intrigue, and to open as well as secret opposition.
This, however, was a crisis which was sooner or later inevitable. Agrippina had certainly made the mistake of attempting to treat Nero the emperor too much as she had treated Nero the child… . Agrippina, though she enjoyed great prestige, had also many hidden enemies. Everybody knew that she represented in the government the old aristocratic, conservative, and economical tendency of the Claudii,-of Tiberius and of Drusus,-that she looked askance upon the development of luxurious habits, the relaxation of morals, and the increase of public and private expenditures.… Her virtues and her stand against Messalina had given her a great prestige, and the reverence which the emperor had shown for her had for a long time obliged her enemies to keep themselves hidden and to hold their peace. But this ceased to be the case after the incipient discord between her and Nero had allowed many to foresee the possibility of using Nero against her.
The expulsion of Agrippina from the palace, and then her assassination, would have thus removed the most important moderating influence on Nero, with perilous results.
The consequences that Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence write of in Pompeii: The Living City are of challenges to the traditional social order.
Since the murder of Agrippina, Nero had pursued, ever more assidously, his own taste for activities that offended the traditional Roman sense of decorum. What had begun as an exuberantly childish reaction to the sudden lifting of all the prohibitions imposed by a strict mother- the Emperor toying first with chariot-racing, then mild debauchery, before graduating to hardcore amateur dramatics- was already degenerating into something altogether more extreme and sinister.…
Traditional Roman values such as austerity, self-discipline, simplicity, and monogamy, as well as traditional gender roles, were challenged by Nero's indulgent, impetuous, and promiscuous personal behavior, and that of his court.
With the emperor setting the moral tone for his subjects, the latter part of Nero's reign would be one of those moments in the history of imperial Rome when society's ongoing struggle between the demands of duty and delight, would bubble uncontrollably to the surface.…
… The miasmic atmosphere into which the close associates of Nero were drawn in the years that followed the murder of Agrippina: a demi-monde of unmitigated luxury, other-worldly artifice and hopeless self-delusion, where money was spent with abandon yet where the most dangerous kind of inflation was at work in the realm of desire.…
They take as evidence luxury artifacts, graffiti and signs, paintings, and of other contemporary writers such as Columella, the agricultural writer, quoted with this lament after a visit to Pompeii:
I suppose that the old-fashioned and manly way of life is no longer agreeable in the face of today's glamorous luxury.… We watch in amazement the gestures of the effeminates who are abroad, as their womanly movements imitate what nature has denied to men, and so deceive all who gaze upon them.
Pompeii. The Living City
While the premise of this book is both interesting and intriguing, it ultimately fails for both the general and academic reader. Ray Laurence, well recognised for his excellent work on the archaeological remains of Pompeii, has teamed up with journalist Alex Butterworth for this latest book dealing with Pompeii but from a somewhat different perspective than usual. Combining a literary narrative with archaeological and historical evidence, the authors hope to draw in the general reader as well. The idea is good, but this technique actually becomes irritating and frustrating after the first chapter. Still, this is an excellent text to dip into for information, though it cannot be read as a straight-forward general narrative nor will a scholar of the period find much that is new.
The first chapter explains the combined approach that the authors have decided upon and it is effective in the beginning. The subsequent division of the following chapters into selected topics is quite useful. Any information about the individuals living in Pompeii is by necessity conjecture, but the authors succeed in inserting narrative about individuals into the general topic of each chapter — a book solely devoted to this approach would perhaps have great appeal for the general reader. The academic side of the book, however, is weak and wandering. There are no footnotes and no index, so the academic reader is left with questions about the evidence presented without any help other than the bibliography at the end of the book.
Subsequent chapters focus on slavery, Imperial and provincial government, political campaigns, the role of women and sexuality, with an extremely broad canvas. The chapter on slavery is particularly well written with the narrative sketches adding to the academic approach quite effectively. In most of the other chapters, the fusion between narrative and scholarship is weak, digressive and irritating. The authors give too much information or not enough and they tease the reader with an interesting paragraph or two, but ultimately, do not follow up. Instead, they revert to a narrative section or vice versa, break off the narrative just when it becomes interesting.
The chronological approach is helpful. We are led through some twenty-five years of Pompeii’s (and Rome’s) history. The earthquake of 62 CE is discussed at length in a lively and informative manner, whilst subsequent chapters show how the provincial government tried to rebuild and re-establish the prominence of the city. Unfortunately, the city by the end of 64 had not yet been fully rehabilitated and evidence of the slow progress has been seen in the excavations post-79 CE. When the archaeological aspects of Pompeii are discussed, Laurence’s knowledge is clearly evident in the text, but the focus in this book unfortunately is less on the remains and more on the dynamics of the ‘living city’.
There is an emphasis within this book on weaving both Imperial and provincial figures, events and episodes into the narrative. We learn of Poppaea’s family connections in Pompeii, the repercussions of Agrippina’s murder and Nero’s actions in the last years of his rule. There is mention of Nero’s visit to Pompeii following the devastating earthquake or as the authors put it, ‘to the Campanian backwater (which) was probably in large part a favour to (Poppaea)’ (209). This was fascinating, but required patient reading on less relevant and digressive topics before small nuggets of interesting facts could be found.
There are some historical errors, such as the discussion of the emperor in the first century BCE (see for example, p. 71 regarding the grain dole). Any scholar of the period viewing this book would have expected a better discussion of the grain dole in the later Republic, which would have included the tributes Marcus Porcius Cato (tr.pl. 62 BCE) and particularly, Clodius (tr.pl. 58 BCE, but the matter is ignored. The main criticism is of course that there was no ’emperor’ in the first century BCE! The general reader might not know the specifics, but academics reading this book will have many occasions in which a general statement causes problems.
The plates included by the authors are interesting, with frescos and painting of buildings discussed but now lost. There is however only one picture of the modern archaeological site of Pompeii itself, the remainder illustrate ordinary life in and around Pompeii. These plates do add to the book, but nevertheless further plates and photographs of Pompeii would have been beneficial.
The final sections of the book offer a graphic and engaging narrative on the events of August 79 CE, but the end lacks a full summation. This is really one of the fundamental problems with their approach. The information presented is interesting, but too detailed for a general narrative and not academic enough either. It needs to be read in small bits, but without an index, it is not very helpful to any reader unless they have the time and inclination to shift through the some three hundred pages with pen and post-it handy.
This book tries too hard to be too many things. For a novice unaware of the city and the period of history discussed, this book offers a convoluted perspective with too many digressions to keep the general reader interested in the narrative. For the academic, this book is unhelpful. The digressions that would alienate the general reader are not detailed enough to stand as good academic writing, and without an index or footnotes, the scholar is left wading through hundreds of pages with no end in sight. Still, the idea of presenting the provincial city of Pompeii as a ‘living city’ is laudatory. Trying to put the human face on the city, the narrative sections are interesting and work on their own. The best suggestion would be a more general approach with lots of photographs interspersed with the narrative sections. Mixing them into this book as a whole undermines their effectiveness and undercuts the whole idea behind this book. This is neither a book for the general reader nor the academic — it tries to combine the two approaches but ultimately fails. There are some interesting parts to this book, but overall, it is a great disappointment.
What repercussions did Agrippina's murder have for Pompeii? - History
After 2,000 years most people still recognise the name Nero, emperor of Rome between AD 54 and 68. He is remembered as a monster and sadist with a chilling list of crimes to his name, from burning down his own capital city to sleeping with his mother and murdering many of his close relatives.
But what was Nero really like?
That’s an almost impossible question to answer. Romans told very tall stories about their emperors in general (like the stories we tell about celebs and royals, usually without the murder), and the Roman rulers who came after Nero found it very useful to exaggerate his faults, to show how much better they were. And, of course, a bad emperor always makes for more exciting history than a good one. We can never see through all this to the real emperor. But we can bust some myths and confirm others.
So here are 10 questions and answers to shine a light on different sides of Nero, starting with the ‘Great Fire of Rome’ which destroyed large parts of the city in AD 65.
1. Did Nero really ‘fiddle while Rome burned’?
This is the most famous story about him: as Rome blazed, the emperor enjoyed the spectacle while he played his lyre (his ‘fiddle’ as later ages put it). It remains a favourite with modern cartoonists. When they want to show a politician not caring about some national disaster, they dress him up in a toga, put a laurel wreath on his head and a lyre in his hands, with flames behind. Everyone from Barack Obama to Gordon Brown and Donald Trump has had the Nero treatment. But is the original story true?
Opinions differ. But it’s not impossible. One writer, not long after the event, describes how Nero watched the blaze from the outskirts of the city, singing to his lyre (though another claims he was actually 60 kilometres away at the time). But the singing doesn’t mean that he didn’t care. It is clear that after the disaster, he organised efficient relief operations, opening his own palaces for shelter and paying for emergency food supplies. And he introduced new fire regulations, insisting on a maximum height for buildings and the use of non-flammable materials.
2. But what about the rumour that he actually started the fire?
That is almost certainly false. It goes back to the fact that he used some of the parts of the city destroyed in the blaze to build himself a vast new palace, called his ‘Golden House’ or Domus Aurea, complete with a revolving dining room (archaeologists may have found traces of this) and a pleasure lake where the Colosseum now stands. It was notorious at the time. One graffito ran ‘Romans escape, the whole city has become one man’s house’. But there is no evidence at all that he torched the city in order to build the palace. Nero himself actually blamed the Christians, as a radical new sect, and had many of them horribly put to death (some burnt alive, others torn to pieces by animals).
3. Did he really murder his mother Agrippina?
Almost certainly, yes. Agrippina, the fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, was one of those powerful women in Rome who were probably blamed for many more crimes than they actually committed. It is commonly believed that she schemed to get Nero onto the throne instead of Claudius’ own son, and that at first, she had a huge influence over the young emperor who was only 16 at the start of his rule. It is from this influence of mother over son that the lurid, and entirely unproven, tales of incest arose. Things changed as he grew up, and in his early twenties, Nero was determined to break free of his mother by any means – so he had her dispatched by a palace hit squad. But the whole story was wildly embellished, including a bizarre first attempt to stage an ‘accident’ in a specially constructed collapsible boat (which supposedly failed because, while the boat did collapse, Agrippina turned out to be a strong swimmer!).
4. What about all the other family murders?
There was his step-brother Britannicus who dropped down dead at dinner, said to have been poisoned by Nero. His first wife Octavia, the emperor Claudius’ daughter, was put to death so he could marry his second wife Poppaea (who was sent, so it was alleged, Octavia’s severed head almost as a wedding present). Poppaea herself did not survive long. Nero was rumoured to have kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant with their second child and she died shortly after.
There is no letting Nero off the hook for all of these crimes. It is not really a good defense to say that murder was a common weapon in the brutal world of Roman power politics, or that Octavia was not entirely the innocent victim she has been assumed to be (there are hints of factional struggles in the palace, with Octavia siding with Agrippina). But there has always been a tendency to pin on Nero any sudden death that took place close to the centre of power, whether there is any evidence or not. Britannicus may just have been a victim of illness rather than poisoning. Who knows?
5. So, was he popular with anyone?
Yes. Outside the city of Rome, he went down well with the people of Greece (he granted them their ‘freedom’, which amounted to an enormous tax break). Inside the city itself, he most likely had support among the ordinary people. The problem here is that most of our evidence comes from the writing of the upper class, who had their own (snobbish and self-interested) ideas of how an emperor should behave and tended to think of generosity to the poor as buying popularity from the ‘rabble’. We would now think differently.
Beyond the relief measures after the fire, Nero sponsored public works, entertainments and shows and gave cash handouts, as well as having ‘the common touch’ with ordinary people. For years after he died, his tomb was decorated with flowers. Some people wanted to remember him.
And now for a few more curious points to fill in the picture…
6. Was Nero really a ‘medal winner’ at the Olympic games?
Yes, he was – except back then you won wreaths not medals. In AD 67 he competed in the Olympic 10-horse chariot race (the ancient equivalent of Formula One). There were, unsurprisingly, plenty of cheating allegations. One account even says he fell out of the chariot during the race, got back in, but gave up before the end – and was still claimed the winner.
7. Why did Nero send an expedition into the continent of Africa?
This expedition is mentioned by several Roman writers who differ on the reasons for it. Some thought he was scouting for a possible invasion. Others imagined it was scientific exploration to discover the source of the river Nile. Nero’s tutor Seneca (later one of Nero’s victims) put it down to the emperor’s ‘love of truth’. It was probably a bit of both, but it started a European imperialist fascination with the river’s source that lasted into the 19th century.
8. Did Nero have any particular pastimes?
Mostly performing on stage, but he is also said to have enjoyed exploring the city’s night-life incognito – as later royals have done, right down to the present British royal family. It was, of course, turned against him, especially when he got involved in drunken brawls. After one nasty confrontation, he apparently decided that it was wiser to take an armed guard with him.
9. How did Nero die?
It was an almost poignant end in AD 68. The armies had turned against him and he was deserted by the senior palace officials. Only his slaves and ex-slaves stayed loyal, helping him to take his own life, and taking his body away for burial. By lucky chance the original tombstones of two of these people have been found – Epaphroditus who guided the hands of Nero with the dagger, and Ecloge, his old nurse who buried him. They are a precious link with the real people around the emperor, beyond myth and hype.
10. But did he really die in AD 68?
Some Romans thought not. Uncannily, like Elvis Presley, claims soon surfaced that he was still alive somewhere. In fact, over the next couple of decades, at least three ‘false Neros’ appeared to take back the throne. This is another hint at his popularity with some, for surely no-one would seek power by claiming to be an emperor that everyone detested.
Most of the stories and ‘facts’ referred to here come from Suetonius, Life of Nero and Tacitus, Annals (a history of Rome between AD 14 and 68), both written in the early second century AD. You can find translations of both online.
Chart the rise and fall of the emperor Nero and make up your own mind about him in Nero: the man behind the myth (27 May – 24 October 2021).
Agrippina the Younger: the first true empress of Ancient Rome
Through she is often defined by her male relatives, Agrippina the Younger – matriarch, wife and murderer – made her name in her own right. Emma Southon charts her rise to power for BBC History Revealed
This competition is now closed
Julia Agrippina is best remembered now as the tyrannical mother of mad emperor Nero, or as the overbearing and murderous wife of the emperor Claudius. Rarely, she is remembered as the sister of another emperor, Gaius (Caligula). She is almost never, however, remembered as a woman in her own right, free from the distorting lens of her male relatives.
But during her lifetime, Julia Agrippina, more commonly known as Agrippina the Younger, made unique and extraordinary inroads into the spaces of Roman political and social power, to the extent that she ruled for several years as her husband’s equal in power. She was the first true empress of Rome, although you’ll struggle to hear anyone refer to her as such.
Born into the Roman ruling family of the first century, the Julio-Claudians, Agrippina was destined to be at the centre of Roman power, but more likely, as a woman, just to the side.
Her mother, Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder) was the granddaughter of the deified first emperor Augustus, while her father Germanicus was both the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius and biological grandson of Mark Antony. They were for a time Rome’s most beloved couple. Before Agrippina was 20, though, both her parents were dead and it was widely believed that Tiberius had murdered them both.
Whim of the emperors
During this time, little is known about Agrippina the Younger, except that she was married at the age of about 13 to her much older cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Her situation changed when she was around 22 when Tiberius died and her brother Gaius, who would be known as Caligula, became emperor.
His first priority was to rehabilitate his family’s reputation after decades of being maligned by Tiberius, and so he pulled all three of his sisters into the centre of the Roman state.
He showered them with all the honours the state could give, including giving them the rights of Vestal Virgins. In return, and following the death of their middle sister, Agrippina and the youngest Livilla were caught in the early stages of a plot to murder him.
This is the first time that the sources show us an Agrippina who is an active agent in her own life, when she is around 24 years old, has already been married for a decade, and given birth to her only child. Until this point, she is all but invisible, but suddenly, in AD 39, we catch a glimpse of a woman doing something remarkably bold to change the world around her.
The details of the plot are unclear – and some historians dispute there was ever a plot at all – but the events after it was uncovered suggest that Agrippina, Livilla and Drusilla’s widower Lepidus planned a coup. Agrippina endured an embarrassing trial, during which her love letters were read aloud, and was sent into exile with her sister on an island in the Mediterranean.
As a final humiliation, she was made to carry the ashes of the executed Lepidus with her. Whatever had been planned, the consequences suggest it was big.
During her exile, Agrippina’s husband died of dropsy and her brother died of a sword to the throat. In early AD 41, a coup led by the Praetorian Guard brought in a new administration in the imperial palace, replacing Gaius, who was assassinated, with Agrippina’s paternal uncle, Claudius.
As a man in his 50s best known for his physical disabilities and academic interests, he was not a natural choice for the political and military leader of the empire. He was, however, fond of his nieces and one of his first acts was to allow Agrippina to return to Rome and be reunited with her son. He offered her a quiet, safe life as a minor royal.
This quiet life was not to be, primarily due to the presence of Agrippina’s son. He had been named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus after his father, but everyone in Rome knew him as the youngest descendant of the divine Augustus. By the time she was 26, Agrippina was the lone surviving member of her family and her son the only male left carrying the bloodline.
This had two effects: it made them deeply dangerous to Claudius’s rule, and it filled Agrippina with a righteous belief that her son deserved to take his great-great-grandfather’s throne.
Nonetheless, she stayed out of the public eye as far as possible. That was until Claudius’s notoriously promiscuous wife Messalina was executed in AD 48 after being caught in a bizarre bigamous marriage. Then Agrippina burst into public life in a manner that shocked and horrified Rome: she married Claudius, her own uncle.
Agrippina’s family: your guide to the Julio-Claudian dynasty
Agrippina the Elder (mother)
Seen as the sole biological descendent of the first emperor, Augustus, she was the only child born of the general Marcus Agrippa and Julia, Augustus’s daughter. She had six children and after her widowhood, tried to advance her eldest sons in Rome. She and they were exiled and executed in mysterious circumstances by the emperor Tiberius.
Germanicus was the grandchild of Mark Antony and Octavia. He was known as a great general for his successes in Germany – being granted a military triumph – and had a promising political career. He died suddenly while in Syria and it was widely believed that Tiberius had poisoned him. He maintained his immense popularity even after his death.
Gaius Caligula (brother)
The youngest son Gaius survived the executions that claimed his mother and brothers, so inherited the empire from Tiberius in AD 37, before he was 25. Although he only ruled for four years, he has become infamous for his capricious, sadistic and perverted nature. When the Praetorian Guard launched a coup, Gaius, his wife and daughter were assassinated.
Agrippina’s only child. After a tumultuous childhood, Nero became emperor in AD 54. The early years of his reign were seen as successful, but his behaviour deteriorated. His reign is associated with cruelty and numerous executions. He was overthrown in AD 68 after several generals revolted against him. Having fled Rome, he committed suicide.
As he suffered from a stammer, uncontrolled emotional responses and a propensity to drool, he had no political career until he became emperor in AD 41. His rule was initially tumultuous and authoritarian, but became more peaceful after his marriage to his fourth wife: Agrippina. She allegedly poisoned him with a mushroom.
This outraged later Roman commentators whose morals were offended by such an act and such a marriage. Claudius was forced to have the incest laws changed in order for the marriage to be allowed. Why he chose to marry his niece is forever a mystery.
One source claims Agrippina seduced him, using her familial access to him to manipulate his weakness for women. In this version, Agrippina is an aggressive temptress, willing to sell her body to her own uncle in exchange for power. In another source, though, one of Claudius’s freedmen offers Agrippina as a prize while others present their own women, touting their fecundity and their good families.
In this version, Agrippina is a passive bystander, little more than a walking bloodline. These are both narrative tropes, not real life. Instead, Agrippina was a mother in her 30s, hugely powerful on the basis of her name, money and connections. She was neither a passive womb, nor a young temptress.
It is Agrippina’s behaviour once she was Claudius’s wife that makes her quite so extraordinary. Unlike the wives of emperors before and after her, she was, in all ways, her husband’s partner in rule. Livia – Augustus’s wife and Tiberius’s mother – had previously been the model of a Roman women. But she had female power, amounting to influence over her male relatives who exerted the real, tangible power. And she only used it in private spaces, never trying to enter public life herself. But influence wasn’t enough for Agrippina. She wanted real power.
One of Agrippina’s first acts was to found a town at the place of her birth in Germany and name it after herself. Originally named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, its name was eventually shortened to its modern name: Cologne. She donned the colours gold and purple — colours only available to the emperor — and sat beside her husband in front of the Roman imperial standards. She caused outrage among the great and good by putting herself in public spaces and forcing men to acknowledge that a woman ruled over them. She became a visible partner in the emperor’s power that was both unique and highly disturbing to male Roman onlookers. She even wrote and published her own autobiography, the only Roman woman to have ever completed such an audacious public act.
For five years, Agrippina enjoyed life as Claudius’s empress. These years were notably more peaceful, stable and successful than the eight years of his reign prior to their marriage. Of the 35 named senators executed by Claudius during his reign, just four occurred during the years of Agrippina’s influence. There were no more coup attempts from the armies, or significant violence in Rome. All the while, Agrippina and Claudius both groomed Nero to be the next emperor, preparing him with political offices and honorary titles. It seemed that the two would have a long reign and a peaceful succession.
Power of her own
This illusion was shattered when, in October AD 54, Agrippina murdered her husband with a poisoned mushroom and declared her 16-year-old son, under the name Nero, as emperor in his place. Her motivation is entirely obscure.
The sources almost unanimously paint her as a tyrant, desperate to cling to power and terrified of her stepson Britannicus being promoted above Nero. This last fear may well have been true. Agrippina’s primary goal in life appears to have been that Nero would survive to rule that her mother’s family, not Claudius’s, would keep the imperial throne.
Her extreme act proved to be successful. Nero was acclaimed emperor peacefully and his reign would go on to last 13 years. Initially, Claudius’s death was nothing but good news for Agrippina. As wife of the emperor she acted as his partner, but was always the junior partner. With Nero ascending as a teenager, though, she was now effectively his regent, placing her as the senior partner.
That Agrippina was Nero’s equal in power is evident in the iconography on the coins and friezes from this time. Both their faces are depicted on coinage, and in several they face one another, their heads of equal size and equal importance. In one sculpture, Agrippina is depicted as the personification of fertile Rome, crowning her young son.
Yet within months, Nero began to attempt to enforce more traditional gender roles in the palace. He wanted his wife, the teenage Octavia, and his mother to remain private and silent. He did not want his mother to be present at political events and, in order to make his point clear, he publicly humiliated her multiple times in front of foreign delegations and Roman officials. He even had her removed from the palace to curb her power.
Agrippina, however, had a strong sense of her own abilities and five years of experience running an empire, so she made sure her voice was going to be heard.
In AD 59, Nero lost patience with hearing his mother’s voice. He had fallen in love with an unsuitable woman named Poppaea, and wanted to be free to marry her. He also knew that men who listened to women could only be vilified as weak and feminine. As Agrippina was still popular, he was desperate to maintain public support so decided the best way was to stage an accident. He had a trick boat built that would sink with Agrippina on board, drowning her in the bay off the town of Baiae.
But it appears Nero was unaware of her strength as a swimmer. She survived the sinking attempt, which included a lead ceiling almost falling on her, and made it to shore with an injured arm. Hearing the news, Nero panicked and sent three men to her villa to murder her.
Agrippina died looking her killers in the eye and holding her ground. Called a traitor, she was denied a state funeral and buried in an unmarked grave. She was 43. Nero lost his popularity, and his reign never recovered. Agrippina was a cold-blooded murderer, and an excellent ruler. She oversaw a decade of peaceful Roman rule and opened the doors to the end of a dynasty. She learned from her predecessors how to be successful, and taught her son how to be ruthless. Truly, she was the first empress of Rome.
What was the legal position of women in Rome?
Agrippina went far beyond what was allowed. Legally, women in late Republican and early imperial Rome were perpetual minors. They were not allowed to sign contracts or engage in any legal activities themselves. Although they could own property, they could not buy or sell it without permission from a male guardian. By default, this was their father, but it could be their husband, brother, family friend or even a magistrate.
Guardianships existed due to the belief that women had weak judgement (infirmitas consilii), which meant they were unable to make rational or good decisions by themselves. Certain women could be freed from guardianship as a reward for excellence. Under Augustus, women who bore three or more children were entitled to be emancipated.
The restrictions on women’s public activities loosened during the imperial period, and there are many examples of women running businesses without interference from men. However, the legal and cultural taboos against women in politics and the military never weakened. These were always considered exclusively male spheres.
Women were unable to vote during the Republic and legally unable to even enter the Senate house at any time. Women who tried to engage in political life were universally reviled throughout Roman history as monsters.
Emma Southon is author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore (Unbound, 2018)
The Jury of Ten said both the charges of the The Kingdom of God and MagnaBaptists were correct and valid. Therefore, Agrippina would be punished, but not as severely. This angered both sides, but neither could do much about it. Tyrone decided eventually to sentance Agrippina to a permant House-Arrest, unless accompanied by a Gaurdian (Jean Stone). She would be allowed to go to a small church school in Seattle, but would be shot on sight by The Kingdom of God or the Free Northwestern Army for breaching the peace.
Octavian, the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, had made himself a central military figure during the chaotic period following Caesar's assassination. In 43 BC at the age of twenty he became one of the three members of the Second Triumvirate, a political alliance with Marcus Lepidus and Mark Antony.  Octavian and Antony defeated the last of Caesar's assassins in 42 BC at the Battle of Philippi, although after this point, tensions began to rise between the two. The triumvirate ended in 32 BC, torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members: Lepidus was forced into exile and Antony, who had allied himself with his lover Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, committed suicide in 30 BC following his defeat at the Battle of Actium (31 BC) by the fleet of Octavian. Octavian subsequently annexed Egypt to the empire. 
Now sole ruler of Rome, Octavian began a full-scale reformation of military, fiscal and political matters. The Senate granted him power over appointing its membership and several successive consulships, allowing Augustus to operate within the existing constitutional machinery and thus reject titles that Romans associated with monarchy, such as rex ("king"). The dictatorship, a military office in the early Republic typically lasting only for the six-month military campaigning season, had been resurrected first by Sulla in the late 80s BC and then by Julius Caesar in the mid-40s the title dictator was never again used. As the adopted heir of Julius Caesar, Augustus had taken Caesar as a component of his name, and handed down the name to his heirs of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. With Vespasian, one of the first emperors outside the dynasty, Caesar evolved from a family name to the imperial title caesar.
Augustus created his novel and historically unique position by consolidating the constitutional powers of several Republican offices. He renounced his consulship in 23 BC, but retained his consular imperium, leading to a second compromise between Augustus and the Senate known as the Second Settlement. Augustus was granted the authority of a tribune (tribunicia potestas), though not the title, which allowed him to call together the Senate and people at will and lay business before it, veto the actions of either the Assembly or the Senate, preside over elections, and it gave him the right to speak first at any meeting. Also included in Augustus's tribunician authority were powers usually reserved for the Roman censor these included the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to ensure they were in the public interest, as well as the ability to hold a census and determine the membership of the Senate. No tribune of Rome ever had these powers, and there was no precedent within the Roman system for consolidating the powers of the tribune and the censor into a single position, nor was Augustus ever elected to the office of Censor. Whether censorial powers were granted to Augustus as part of his tribunician authority, or he simply assumed those, is a matter of debate.
In addition to those powers, Augustus was granted sole imperium within the city of Rome itself all armed forces in the city, formerly under the control of the prefects, were now under the sole authority of Augustus. Additionally, Augustus was granted imperium proconsulare maius (power over all proconsuls), the right to interfere in any province and override the decisions of any governor. With imperium maius, Augustus was the only individual able to grant a triumph to a successful general as he was ostensibly the leader of the entire Roman army.
The Senate re-classified the provinces at the frontiers (where the vast majority of the legions were stationed) as imperial provinces, and gave control of those to Augustus. The peaceful provinces were re-classified as senatorial provinces, governed as they had been during the Republic by members of the Senate sent out annually by the central government.  Senators were prohibited from so much as visiting Roman Egypt, given its great wealth and history as a base of power for opposition to the new emperor. Taxes from the Imperial provinces went into the fiscus, the fund administrated by persons chosen by and answerable to Augustus. The revenue from senatorial provinces continued to be sent to the state treasury (aerarium), under the supervision of the Senate.
The Roman legions, which had reached an unprecedented 50 in number because of the civil wars, were reduced to 28. Several legions, particularly those with members of doubtful loyalties, were simply disbanded. Other legions were united, a fact hinted by the title Gemina (Twin).  Augustus also created nine special cohorts to maintain peace in Italia, with three, the Praetorian Guard, kept in Rome. Control of the fiscus enabled Augustus to ensure the loyalty of the legions through their pay.
Augustus completed the conquest of Hispania, while subordinate generals expanded Roman possessions in Africa and Asia Minor. Augustus' final task was to ensure an orderly succession of his powers. His stepson Tiberius had conquered Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and temporarily Germania for the Empire, and was thus a prime candidate. In 6 BC, Augustus granted some of his powers to his stepson,  and soon after he recognized Tiberius as his heir. In AD 13, a law was passed which extended Augustus' powers over the provinces to Tiberius,  so that Tiberius' legal powers were equivalent to, and independent from, those of Augustus. 
Attempting to secure the borders of the empire upon the rivers Danube and Elbe, Augustus ordered the invasions of Illyria, Moesia, and Pannonia (south of the Danube), and Germania (west of the Elbe). At first everything went as planned, but then disaster struck. The Illyrian tribes revolted and had to be crushed, and three full legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were ambushed and destroyed at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 by Germanic tribes led by Arminius. Being cautious, Augustus secured all territories west of Rhine and contented himself with retaliatory raids. The rivers Rhine and Danube became the permanent borders of the Roman empire in the North.
In AD 14 Augustus died at the age of seventy-five, having ruled the empire for forty years, and was succeeded as emperor by Tiberius.
5. The Affair Of The Poisons
The mistress of all scandals.
In France in 1678, Louis XIV ran his court like one big popularity contest. Accordingly, his courtiers did anything to get a piece of power. That year, the Parisian police stumbled upon an underground world of so-called witches. They dabbled in commonplace witchy things like seances, fortune-telling, alchemy, and potions that were actually poisons.
In 1679, Louis XIV ordered an investigation into the witching activities.
The reports revealed that the lower, middle, and aristocratic classes all bought these poisons. Worst of all for Louis, his mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart, frequented the notorious “witch.” Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, aka La Voisin.
According to La Voisin, Madame de Montespan bought so-called love potions to ensure the King’s continued favor.
She slipped them into his food. However, the concoctions contained such grim substances as Spanish flies, bat blood, and iron filings. So they were closer to poisons than love draughts. Over the next three years, the King dumped his mistress and had some of the 400 people connected to the scandal banished, beheaded and imprisoned. La Voisin burned at the stake in 1680.
Impact and influence on her time
- Greatest influence evident in her relationship with highly prominent people in Roman history: Gaius, Claudius and Nero
- Relationship with freedmen
- She becomes arguably the 2nd most powerful individual in the empire despite holding no official political status.
- Overtime representations have altered from the negative portrayal of ancient sources, to the re-evaluations of modern sources which reveal a politically astute woman who undoubtedly used her considerable talents to fulfill her ambitions, and in so doing she contributed to the strength and stability of the regime.
- Dudley suggests Agrippina was guided by 3 main aims:
- To draw political power into her own hands
- To advance her son Nero to the Principate
- To remove those who stood in her way
Assessment of her life and career
- Ancient written sources, representing exclusively male perspectives, present her as a wicked, scheming mother, prepared to go to any lengths for her son as a seductress using her feminine wiles to have her way and as a violent and intimidating woman who eliminated anyone who got in that way. However, these sources often present Agrippina’s thoughts and motives which is a great limitation and it is impossible to know her desires, particularly one or more generations removed from the events.
- In comparison, modern critical studies use a range of historiographical tools and include a consideration of the writer’s context, their gender, political persuasion, literary styles and the sources available to them. The modern scholar, Anthony Barrett, suggest that it may be time for a more balanced assessment of Agrippina: “Agrippina’s presence seems to have transformed the regime of her husband, the emperor Claudius”
- Extremes of judgement range from the harsh portrayal of Tacitus compared to the noble portrait suggested by the modern scholar Ferrero. Of her role at the beginning of Claudius’ reign he says: “All hearts were therefore filled with hope when they saw this respectable, active and energetic woman take her place at the side of Claudius the weakling, for she brought back the memory of the most venerated personages of the family of Augustus”
- Definition ‘anything handed down by an ancestor or predecessor, a consequence’
- The physical/ tangible traces a person leaves behind – coins, cameos, statuary
- Non -physical/ intangible traces such as the traditional interpretation of the ancient written sources and their reflection in modern popular culture.
- Nero’s reign lasted only 10 more years after her death and ended in ignonimy.
- No woman in the dynasties that followed would ever again have the prominence and the power that Agrippina had known.
- Still prominent in modern society: opera, film and television. The opera, Agrippina, by Handel was first performed in Venice in 1709. The famous Hollywood actress, Gloria Swanson, played Agrippina in the 1956 film Nero’s Mistress and Ava Gardner played her in the epic mini-series AD Anno Domini produced in 1985. Perhaps the best known television production of recent times featuring the Julio-Claudians was the miniseries ‘I, Claudius’, based on the novel of the same name by the modern author, Robert Graves. They all depict Agrippina as the femme fatale of Tacitus’ Annals.
Ancient and modern images and interpretations of Agrippina the Younger
- 2 Strands:
- The public image in archaeology and what this reveals about her – how politics wanted to present her and how she wanted to present herself.
- How Ancient Historians project her
- Some modern scholars writing about Agrippina have followed the negative literary tradition – particularly that of Tacitus – and have produced a portrait little different from the ancient tradition. Scullard was writing in the 1960s, before the influence of feminism and gender studies began to be reflected in historiography “ambitious and unscrupulous, Agrippina struck down a series of victims: no man or woman was safe if she suspected rivalry or desired their wealth”.
- More recent modern studies have adopted a critical appraisal of Tacitus. The scholar Judith Ginsburg sums up the literary representations of Agrippina by Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius: “we need to acknowledge, in other words, that Tacitus’ Agrippina is largely a literary construct that serves the larger ends of the narrative of the principates of Claudius and Nero” Ginsburg.
- Other historians like Ginsburg concentrated on analysing the representations of Agrippina, and other Julio-Claudian women, in coins, statuary and cameos.
- For Example, Susan Wood’s study focuses on the problem of the succession in the Julio- Claudian period and thus the increasing importance of imperial women and their male relatives. Wood examines the increasingly bold representations of women of the family in public art. She shows how this is part of a propagandistic effort to justify the current emperor’s status, or his choice of heir. Their representation reflects the increasing need to emphasise bloodlines and distinguished decent.
New Pompeii: what did the Romans ever do to us?
Nick Houghton is running out of time. His father’s disgrace and a straitened economy look set to ruin his academic career. When a shadowy corporation make him an offer too good to refuse, he doesn’t. What classicist could say no to the chance to go to Pompeii?
New Pompeii is a big concept, and it’s reasonably well-executed. Novus Particles are a tech company who have spun money out of thin air, its Cambridge founders rolling in wealth and influence. Its well-guarded technology is a form of time travel – and its latest endeavour is to aggressively pursue new monetisation strategies (yes, there’s a press release of corpspeak).
Time travel is problematic, of course, so there are plenty of naysayers. Ripping someone out of their timeline may have unthought of consequences – although you’d never know, as history would change as soon as you did so. This is both a reasonable concern and a pretty big get of plot tangles free card…
However, Novus Part appear altruistic. They proved their technical credentials by saving the passengers of an aeroplane crash (it’s not their fault that some subsequently committed suicide) now they’ve move on to bigger game – they have snatched (most of) the population of Pompeii from right under Vesuvius’s nose.
How could I resist a pitch like this? It’s Jurassic Park-scale hubris combined with the Roman Empire of course I wanted to read it. Unfortunately, Godfrey is no Crichton (and given how many quibbles I have with Jurassic Park that didn’t have to be a bad thing) – while New Pompeii feels well-researched, there’s barely a character in sight and – if it’s less sexist than Jurassic Park, it’s only because it barely remembers women exist in the first place.
That said, it’s entertaining enough and it rockets along at a fine pace. I devoured most of it in a single sitting – the prose isn’t elegant, but it’s easy reading – as I was sucked in by the concept and then sufficiently intrigued to find out what would happen next.
It’s a shame that Nick has no character to speak of – he’s a vehicle for plot, but we never even discover what he teaches or what his (unsuccessful) research pitch is. Everybody in his life is a shit: his father is a condescending asshat (especially considering it’s his disgrace – and we’re teased by this for no good reason what did Professor Houghton do? When we finally find out it’s irrelevant and anticlimactic I’m not sure why it wasn’t made clear from the start) and his best friend is unreliable and self-absorbed.
…although so is pretty much every character except Kirsten (apparently the ghost of a murder victim haunting the Cambridge college the NovusPart founders attended). Harold McMahon is the archetypal self-involved CEO too used to having his every whim obeyed Mark Whelan is the ruthless COO with the military fetish (and pictures of Stalin on his wall). Robert Astridge, the architect, is presumably acting out an entire back story we never see, his fragile ego served by belittling everyone he sees his wife – or is she? – Maggie a snob with neither agency nor role to play in the narrative.
The Romans, thankfully, are far more interesting. Manius Calpurnius Barbatus is self-important and cut his teeth on the politics of Caligula (sorry, the Emperor Gaius) his daughter Calpurnia is intelligent and far too briefly seen – there’s a better version of this book where she does more than scare Nick with her perspicacity. Felix almost manages to be tragic in spite of his minimal page time. When the tensions begin to build, it’s not hard to root for the Romans rather than the unpleasant modern businessmen (and that’s before it becomes clear they really are time-napping people to protect their own interests, and have a trail of bodies that a deranged Roman Emperor might be proud of).
The question isn’t whether things will go wrong, but when and how – it was enough to keep me reading, and I enjoyed the building tensions and inevitable eruption of hostilities. I think Daniel Godfrey has some decent ideas I hope he’ll learn to make his characters more interesting. This is the first in a trilogy, which may explain the large number of loose ends although it stands alone and I’m not dying to read the next one.
All in all, New Pompeii feels more like a cheap B-movie than a blockbuster, but it has promise and is certainly an easy way to lose an evening.
Reassessing history’s most maligned ruler, notorious for fiddling while Rome burned
The Colosseum in Rome draws close to eight million tourists a year, making it one of the world’s most-visited archaeological attractions. I could see the crowds converging on the magnificent first-century amphitheater as I headed across the street to a small park on a hillock. There was almost no one here, aside from a few young mothers pushing strollers along the pathways. A cluster of nuns passed by, and one of them pointed me toward a poorly marked gate at the base of the hill—the entrance to the Domus Aurea, or what’s left of it, anyway.
I had an appointment to meet Alessandro D’Alessio, who oversees the excavation and restoration of what must surely have been, in its day, the world’s biggest royal palace. Even before Covid-19, when the site was open to the public on weekends, few people came.
The emperor Nero commandeered many of the neighborhoods razed by the Great Fire of A.D. 64 to build a palace complex of staggering dimensions. The Domus Aurea, or Golden House, as the entire site was known, spread over almost 200 acres, covering the Palatine, Caelian and Esquiline hills of Rome. It was one of the big reasons that the Roman public suspected Nero of setting the fire himself. No modern scholar, and few ancient ones, believe he did, but you have to admit, the Domus Aurea seemed to give Nero a fairly good motive for arson.
As the first-century Roman historian Suetonius describes it, the Domus Aurea was a home fit for a megalomaniac. “His wastefulness showed most of all in the architectural projects,” Suetonius writes. “Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother-of-pearl. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark, ‘Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!’”
The Domus Aurea is nearly all gone now. The emperors who followed Nero swept it away in a frenzy, attempting to efface him and his works from Roman memory. One section remains, buried beneath the footpaths of Oppian Hill. The emperor Trajan built his famous baths right on top of it, filling Nero’s vast galleries with soil to support the weight of the baths. Trajan’s memory-expunging project succeeded: The crowds who flock to the Colosseum across the street have no idea that the Domus Aurea is footsteps away. Sic transit.
For the past six years, D’Alessio has been supervising archaeological excavation of the sprawling Domus Aurea’s 150-odd rooms. Even before Covid-19, the dig had halted while D’Alessio and his crew constructed an alternative drainage system to stabilize conditions inside. Completion of the project lies many years in the future.
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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazineNero's banquet hall is mostly in ruins today, but one of its most spectacular features remains: the oculus. (Gaia Squarci)
D’Alessio guided me from one high-vaulted gallery to another. Splendid frescoes line some of the walls, in a style we recognize from the ruins at Pompeii—but the distinctive aesthetic, later expressed across the Roman Empire, originated here, at the Domus Aurea.
A little farther on, D’Alessio led me to a room, its walls surfaced with roughly textured pumice, recreating a natural grotto. The space was dedicated to the nymphs, or female nature deities, whose cult of worship had spread throughout the empire. A micro-mosaic adorns the ceiling: It depicts in astonishing detail a scene from the Odys-sey. The ceiling mosaic surely influenced the Byzantines, who later plastered ceiling mosaics almost everywhere.
But the Domus Aurea’s boldest artistic innovation was surely its architecture. We know little of the two men who designed it—Severus and Celer. D’Alessio thinks Nero himself must have stayed closely involved in this grand-scale project. After all, this is the kind of thing, not ruling Rome, that turned him on.
High overhead, an open hole, or oculus, invited the sky in. Rome’s Pantheon uses the same device to magnificent effect, but Nero’s Octagonal Room did it first. Alcoves radiated off the main space underneath, inviting the eye to wander in unexpected directions. Precisely angled windows channeled sunlight to hidden niches. Light and shadow danced around the room, following the course of the sun.
“Pure genius,” says D’Alessio. “The Sala Octagonale is very significant for Roman architecture, but also for the development of Byzantine and Islamic architecture. It is a very important place for Western civilization. Nero left us masterpieces. We have a certain image of Nero from the ancient sources who were against Nero, and also, in our time, from the movies. The Church chose Nero as the representation of evil, but if you see what he made here, you get a completely different idea.”
Among history’s most durable memes, one ranks particularly high: a fleshy fellow in a toga, laurel wreath encircling his temples, standing among the columns of an ancient portico, while all around him, fire consumes the great city of Rome. He is not alarmed. Quite the contrary. He calmly plucks the strings of a lyre and, yes, even appears to be singing!
The meme says everything we need to know about this egotistical monster, his wanton indifference to human suffering and his pathetic delusions of artistic grandeur. He is at once childish and murderous. The story has been told and retold for almost 2,000 years, but it is Hollywood, not surprisingly, that has supplied the pictures in our heads. Pride of place must surely go to Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 epic Quo Vadis, thanks to Peter Ustinov’s deliciously hammy Nero (the actor was nominated for an Oscar). “Look what I have painted!” shrieks Ustinov as he watches the Technicolor flames engulf his city.
Still visible remnants of wall paintings attest to the opulence of myriad works commissioned by Nero. More than 300,000 square feet of frescoes—an area equivalent to 30 Sistine Chapels—await conservation. (Gaia Squarci)
Ustinov calls for his lyre. He commences to pluck. “I am one with the gods immortal. I am Nero the artist who creates with fire,” he sings tunelessly. “Burn on, O ancient Rome. Burn on!” A panicky mob converges on the palace. “They want to survive,” explains Nero’s levelheaded counselor Petronius (portrayed by Leo Genn, also nominated for an Oscar). “Who asked them to survive?” shrugs Nero. Great cinema it isn’t, but it is terrific stuff all the same. And this is more or less the consensus Nero of history, set down first by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius and etched deeper by the New Testament Book of Revelation and later Christian writings.
The man most responsible for Nero’s modern incarnation is the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, appeared in 1895 and was the basis for the Mervyn LeRoy film and half a dozen other cinematic versions. The plot centers on the doomed love between a young Christian woman and a Roman patrician, but their pallid romance is not what turned the novel into a worldwide sensation. Sienkiewicz researched Roman history deeply his Nero and other historical characters hum with authenticity. It was they, more than the book’s fictional protagonists, who vaulted Quo Vadis to runaway best-seller status, translated into over 50 languages. Sienkiewicz ended up winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.
Sienkiewicz plucks two strings that resonated loudly with his audience, and have done so ever since: Nero’s role as the emblematic persecutor of early Christianity (Poland is a deeply Catholic country) and Nero’s political tyranny (to Sienkiewicz, an ardent nationalist, Nero’s Rome stood in for czarist Russia).
But what if Nero wasn’t such a monster? What if he didn’t invent the spectator sport of throwing Christians to the lions in the Colosseum? What if he wasn’t the tyrant who murdered upstanding Roman senators and debauched their wives? Indeed, what if the whole lurid rap sheet has been an elaborate set-up, with Nero as history’s patsy? After all, we have no eyewitness testimony from Nero’s reign. Any contemporaneous writings have been lost. The ancient Roman sources we do have date from considerably after Nero’s suicide in A.D. 68. The case against Nero, then, is largely hearsay, amplified and distorted over two millennia in history’s longest game of telephone. Besides, no one really wants to straighten out the record. Who wants another version of Nero? He’s the perfect evil tyrant just the way he is.
A few lonely voices have come to Nero’s defense. In 1562, the Milanese polymath Girolamo Cardano published a treatise, Neronis Encomium. He argued that Nero had been slandered by his principal accusers. But Cardano was having his own problems with the Inquisition at the time. Sticking up for a guy who, among other things, supposedly martyred the first Christians for fun was not likely to help his own cause. “You put your life at risk if you said something good about Nero,” says Angelo Paratico, a historian, who translated Cardano’s manifesto into English.
Archaeologist Alessandro D'Alessio has taken on the task of carefully removing tons of soil dumped on the Domus Aurea by a Nero successor, Emperor Trajan. (Gaia Squarci)
Paratico’s translation, Nero, An Exemplary Life, didn’t appear until 2012, by which time historians had started taking another look at the case against Nero. Out of all the modern scholars coming to the emperor’s rescue, the most comprehensive is John Drinkwater, an emeritus professor of Roman history at the University of Nottingham. Drinkwater has spent 12 years poring over the charges against Nero, and dismantling them one by one. Scourge of Christianity? Nope. Urban pyromaniac? No again. And on down through matricide, wife-killing and a string of other high crimes and misdemeanors.
The Nero who appears in Drinkwater’s revisionist new account, Nero: Emperor and Court, published last year, is no angel. But one comes away with some sympathy for this needy lightweight who probably never wanted to be emperor in the first place and should never have been allowed to wear the purple toga.
Drinkwater is in line with the emerging trend of modern scholarship here, but he goes much further. Nero allowed a ruling clique to administer the Roman Empire, and it did so effectively, argues Drinkwater. Most of what Nero is accused of doing, he probably didn’t do, with a few exceptions that fall well within the grisly standards of ancient Roman political machinations. Drinkwater’s Nero bears little personal responsibility, and not much guilt, for much of anything. In the end, says Drinkwater, the “men in suits” got rid of Nero not for what he did, but for what he failed to act on. (On the other hand, Drinkwater believes that Nero probably crooned a few stanzas during the Great Fire, but we’ll get to that later.)
Drinkwater says many modern scholars have been trying to explain why Nero was so awful—“that he was a young man put in the wrong job and therefore he went to the bad. He was tyrannical not because he was evil, but because he couldn’t do the job. That’s more or less what I expected too. I was surprised because my Nero was not coming out like this. My Nero was not the out-and-out evil tyrant, because he was never really in control. Nobody here is tyrannical.”
The blame for saddling Nero with his unwanted destiny falls squarely on his mother, Agrippina the Younger, great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus and a woman of boundless ambition. (Nero’s father, an odious aristocrat, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, died two years after Nero was born.) Nero became Agrippina’s instrument for conquering the man’s world of Rome.
She moved first to disrupt the planned nuptials of the emperor’s daughter Octavia, so that Nero could marry her. The emperor at the time was Claudius, easily swayed. Agrippina’s improbable little lie—that Octavia’s fiancé had committed incest with his sister—proved toxic enough to torpedo the wedding. Readers of Robert Graves’ picaresque and hugely popular Claudius novels are unlikely to forget the sexual gymnastics of Messalina, Claudius’ notorious wife. In the end, Messalina’s antics brought her down, leaving a vacancy in the marriage bed that Agrippina filled in A.D. 49. Shortly thereafter, Claudius adopted Nero as his own son, making Nero a legitimate claimant to the throne, alongside Claudius’ natural son Britannicus. And finally, in A.D. 53, Nero married Octavia. The stage was set. Agrippina had managed everything with steely efficiency.
A fragment of ceiling mosaic depicts a dramatic moment from the Odyssey: Ulysses offering a cup of wine to the monstrous one-eyed Cyclops. (Gaia Squarci)
The Roman historian Tacitus is not always reliable and he is certainly not unbiased, but his portrait of Agrippina in her hour of triumph feels right today: “From this moment the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman—and not a woman like Messalina who toyed with national affairs to satisfy her appetites. This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism.”
More power to her, says Drinkwater, who is a big fan. “I think the Roman Empire lost out by not having Empress Agrippina. Given half the chance, I think she could have been another Catherine the Great. I admire her intelligence, her perspicacity. She was one of the few people who knew how the system worked. For example, Claudius is often reproached for killing a lot of senators, and he did, but when Agrippina comes along, you get very little of that. The modern thinking is that she worked well with the senate. If she had been given more time, she might have been able to establish a precedent of an active executive woman in Roman politics.”
Claudius died in A.D. 54 after eating a mushroom that was either bad or poisoned—Tacitus and the ancients say poisoned on Agrippina’s orders, and while there’s no hard proof, nobody then or now would put it past her. In either case, Agrippina had greased the succession machine so that Nero, just 17, slid smoothly onto the throne following Claudius’ death, past the slightly younger Britannicus.
We know very little about the teenager who found himself absolute ruler of a sprawling, multiethnic empire. He had been educated by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca, but Nero was clearly no stoic. We do know, however, that the Roman people welcomed their new emperor enthusiastically and held high expectations for his reign.
Things started out well, mostly because Nero was more than happy to allow three highly capable people to steer the ship of state: Seneca, Burrus, the levelheaded commander of the Praetorian Guard, and, of course, Agrippina. Behind them stood Drinkwater’s “men in suits,” the senators, well-trained freedmen and ex-slaves who made up a kind of civil service. In Drinkwater’s account, the roster of Team Nero shifted around somewhat during the 14 years of his reign, but it oversaw the empire competently.
For his part, Nero gave himself over to the pursuits that mattered most to him—chariot-driving, singing, poetry and playing the cithara, a stringed instrument like a lyre but more complex and much harder to master. Nero was a thoroughgoing philhellene—a lover of Greece and its sophisticated culture. He had little of the Roman appetite for blood and conquest, which makes him look far more appealing to us than to the Romans.
Popular culture has reinforced our image of Nero as a monstrous, even psychotic dictator. From top left, a 19th-century engraving depicts the emperor as a bloodthirsty fan of gladiatorial combat from the 1951 film Quo Vadis, an effete Nero with his empress Poppaea scene from Nero, a 1905 London theater production the best-selling novel focused on the mad emperor. (From top left: Sarin Images / Granger Granger Hulton Archive / Getty Images The Artchives / Alamy Stock Photo)
The Nero meme leaves the impression of an effete dilettante, confident in his own genius only because nobody had the guts to tell him otherwise. This is wrong on several counts. Suetonius tells us that Nero worked very hard to get good at singing. “He. conscientiously undertook all the usual exercises for strengthening and developing his voice. He would also lie on his back with a slab of lead on his chest, use enemas and emetics to keep down his weight, and refrain from eating apples and every other food considered deleterious to the vocal cords,” Suetonius reports, adding cattily that Nero’s voice remained “feeble and husky.”
Even the poetry Nero wrote himself was apparently pretty good the Roman poet Martial tells us so. We have selections of it, and they don’t sound anything like the grandiloquent tripe that generally comes out of his mouth in the movies. Nero cannot be dismissed as a mere dabbler: He took his hobbies seriously—too seriously, in fact, for a Roman establishment that liked its emperors to make war, not art.
Nero was an accomplished athlete as well. Suetonius is impressed that Nero can pilot a four-camel rig around the racetrack. In other references, we find Nero at the reins of a ten-horse chariot. That was the ancient Roman equivalent of a Formula One car. Nero won races in it. “If Nero could do that, he is no fool. He is intelligent, he is fit. On his own terms, he is to be taken seriously and he’s not to be projected as a clown,” Drinkwater concludes.
Those qualities made the young Nero very popular with the common man. He had an exuberant personality and enjoyed being out in public. He was no snob and remembered the names and faces of people up and down the social ladder. All in all, he comes off as a fairly likable young fellow.
OK, sure, there were casualties. But let no one be overly troubled by the fact that Nero’s brother Britannicus turns up dead a year after Nero takes power. “He was doomed from the start,” Drinkwater writes. Political murder was an accepted tool of governance and made few waves in first-century Rome, provided it was not overused. Everybody did it, not just Nero.
“You get the impression that people are being murdered all the time,” Drinkwater told me. “But if you start adding up the Neronian murders, there are not that many of them.
“Even the thing that people point to later as the real blood bath, just after the Pisonian conspiracy of A.D. 65, if you tot up the numbers, they are still quite small or 30. In terms of 16th- or 17th-century English politics, that’s nothing. It’s a surgical strike! I go bananas about this supposed ‘reign of terror.’ For those involved it was dreadful, and it’s not a society that one would have liked to live in, but it’s also not that dangerous for politicians. If you overstepped the mark, you paid the penalty, but most people knew where the boundaries were.”
John Drinkwater, at home in Sheffield, England, is the author of a new biographical study of Nero, who he says has been unfairly "denigrated, vilified and demonized." (Gaia Squarci)
Nero’s problems with his mother started early on, when he fell in love for real. Not with Octavia, his wife, alas. Nero’s arranged marriage to her brought neither love nor children. Instead, Nero fell hard for a lowborn freedwoman named Acte. He even flirted with the idea of marrying her, a project Drinkwater calls “absolutely silly.” But it is Agrippina’s disapproval of her son’s comportment—not just with his mistress but a new gang of friends his own age—that plants the wedge between them. He’s coming into his own and his mother is no longer the partner she intended to be. She’s an impediment.
Before long, Nero strips Agrippina of her personal security detail and kicks her out of the palace. As in much ancient Roman history, the coinage tells the tale: first Agrippina and Nero stop appearing together on the heads side of Roman coins and she gets flipped to the tails side then she disappears from coins altogether.
Things go downhill. When Nero falls in love again, this time with his adored future wife Poppaea, Agrippina again tries to come between them. Are these the real reasons Nero has his mother killed in A.D. 59? It seems like a stretch, but none of the ancient sources can explain to anyone’s satisfaction why Nero commits this atrocity. Even by the grim standards of ancient Rome, you don’t kill your mother. Matricide will become a defining moment for the authors of the Nero meme, when he is first fitted for his role as history’s monster.
The story of the murder verges on the burlesque. Nero invites his mother to a kind of reconciliation party at his country villa in Baiae on the Bay of Naples. He graciously provides a galley to ferry Agrippina home after the party, but the boat is rigged to come apart at sea. Agrippina is meant to drown, but she is an unexpectedly strong swimmer and manages to make it safely back to shore. After some comical dithering, a henchman is sent to dispatch Agrippina the old-fashioned way, with a sword.
“When you look at the evidence here, you can play it any which way,” says Drinkwater. “The great joy of doing ancient history is taking the bits you’ve got and putting them together—let’s be honest—more or less the way you feel. I got to know Nero, and I always felt that he couldn’t have done this to his mother in cold blood. They stayed close even after the breakup over Acte and the squabble over Poppaea. Down to her death, Agrippina is not stripped of her imperial titles. And the actual story of her death is so confused, overdramatic and elaborated that you could take the whole lot together and suggest that he didn’t intend to kill her himself, but that after the shipwreck—or the accident—others seized the opportunity to get rid of her themselves.”
Here Drinkwater directs the jury’s attention to Seneca, designated by history as the virtuous foil to Nero, the frivolous killer. Seneca’s noble suicide six years later (at Nero’s not-so-polite invitation) became a favorite theme for European painters. Tacitus puts a parting dig at his executioner in Seneca’s mouth: “After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but the destruction of a guardian and tutor.”
After the Domus Aurea was rediscovered in the 1400s, artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo passed through shafts dug into the ruins to see the great frescoes. (Gaia Squarci)
Balderdash, says Drinkwater. Seneca was caught up in the bloody aftermath to Piso’s conspiracy, and it’s fair to say he knew about the conspiracy beforehand, even if he wasn’t a plotter himself. “If Seneca lived today, he would have been a TV guru, saying the right thing on his chat program. He had to survive in quite a difficult world, so he could write one thing and do another. One thing that recent biographers have made of him is that, when push comes to shove, he lacks moral courage. Good luck to him, but he doesn’t come out well at the end.”
OK, you might say, perhaps we can give Nero a pass on his brother and even his mother. (I haven’t mentioned his wife Octavia she went too.) But what of the fire and what of the fiddling? They are the building blocks of the Nero legend. They are also among the least solid historically.
On July 18, A.D. 64, in the tenth year of Nero’s largely successful reign, a fire broke out in the Circus Maximus. The fire burned for nine days, destroying the better part of the city as it spread.
Nero wasn’t at home when the fire ignited. He was vacationing at Antium, today’s Anzio and another of his favorite getaways. But when news of the fire reached him, he hurried straight back to Rome and took charge—effectively—of firefighting efforts. He moved quickly to aid the victims. And in the fire’s aftermath, he introduced legislation to make Rome less vulnerable in the future.
“For the relief of the homeless fugitive masses he threw open the field of Mars. and even his own gardens,” writes Tacitus. “Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to one-quarter sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.”
Perhaps the rumor wasn’t even true. The evidence is murky. Drinkwater believes that it was true, however, and that Nero sang his head off. But Drinkwater doesn’t see Nero’s singing the way history has depicted it—as proof of Nero’s cruel indifference to the plight of his people. “I think anyone with Nero’s artistic susceptibilities would have reacted the same way. He’s written an epic on the sack of Troy and we know the Greeks burned Troy. So it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes to the modern Farnese Gardens, looks down and lets loose. He’d already done all he could to fight the fire, so he just responded to the flames. But if we accept that he did that, he leaves himself open to the charge of arson.”
A more nuanced view of Nero’s response to the Great Fire receives strong support from a new book by Anthony Barrett, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. The historian’s Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty, draws on little-known Italian archaeological studies to reconstruct the tragedy and its consequences. While Barrett concedes that the extent of the devastation is almost impossible to pin down—there are no casualty figures, and we don’t know the name of one person who died in the fire—he finds it likely that the scale of human suffering was great. “The poor lived in high-rises that were notoriously dangerous—it is reasonable to surmise they were anywhere from five to eight stories high,” says Barrett. “The people who lived there would have been trapped.”
Barrett largely agrees with Drinkwater about the singing. “We have a contemporaneous account by a witness to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 who speaks of its ‘great beauty,’” says Barrett. “J. Robert Oppenheimer recited the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first explosion of the atom bomb. Scipio Africanus quoted Homer on seeing the destruction of Carthage. These are very human reactions to tragedy. Only in Nero is it seen as evil.” Like Drinkwater, Barrett takes a dim view of the charge that Nero set the fire: “The case against Nero is very flimsy.”
Still, Nero’s musical response to the conflagration was indisputably a mistake. A few years later, Nero’s “artistic susceptibilities” would get him in even deeper trouble. If a modern well-wisher could send one word of counsel back through time, it would be this: “Dear Nero, please stop singing.”
The Domus Aurea project was also a mistake, criticized in its day as a lot more house than any absolute monarch would ever need. But it may be that Nero never meant for this city-within-a-city to be his purely private playground. “The Emperor wanted to make its pleasures available to the people,” David Shotter, a historian, asserts in his 2008 biography of Nero. “Recent excavations near the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum have revealed a colonnaded pool, the stagnum Neronis, which imitated Nero’s lake at Baiae and the stagnum Agrippae on the Campus Martius. The implication of this appears to be that Nero intended that his new house and the rebuilt city of Rome should be one—the home of the people and of himself, their Emperor, Protector and Entertainer.” Shotter goes on, “those looking for signs of Nero’s supposed madness will not find it here his contribution to Roman construction should not be dismissed or underestimated in the shallow manner of many of his contemporaries. Here, writ large, is Nero the artist and popular provider—almost certainly the way in which he would have wished to be remembered.”
If Shotter is right, why did Tacitus and Suetonius write so disparagingly about the Domus Aurea? Why castigate Nero altogether? Who started this historical pile-on? How did it go viral? There are several culprits, but Drinkwater and others blame the Flavians first.