I recently visited the Nero exhibition at the British Museum. It includes some stunning objects and poses some intriguing questions.
The exhibition sets out to explore the "man behind the myth". The question visitors are asked to consider about Nero is "was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society, or the merciless, matricidal megalomaniac history has painted him to be?" Nero's reign saw some momentous events, including the Great Fire of Rome, the defeat of Boudicca's uprising in Britain and war and eventually peace with the Parthians in the east. His reign also saw the execution of his mother, Agrippina, great building projects and extravagant excesses.
I was left with a strong impression of the divided society Nero ruled over and of the challenges from Rome's political elite to his position while he lived and to his reputation after he died. The exhibition questions the traditional view of Nero as a ruthless tyrant and eccentric performer, revealing a ruler, who was popular with ordinary people. A couple of examples might help here. Far from "fiddling while Rome burned", it would appear Nero was out of Rome when the fire started and came back to direct the fire fighting and rebuilding efforts. Nero was eventually overthrown and forced to commit suicide at the age of thirty. After his death, Nero impersonators in the east attracted large popular followings. At the same time, steps were taken to blacken his reputation by the elite of the day; his statues were beheaded, destroyed or repurposed to show his eventual successor, Vespasian. Indeed, a striking and final image in the exhibition displays a marble head of Vespasian and a digital image behind it that reveals how this head was created by altering a head of Nero to create the likeness of the new emperor.
The Latin phrase used in this context is "damnatio memoriae" - the condemnation of memory. The aim was to remove all traces of a fallen ruler. The physical acts of destruction appear to have served as revenge, a way of showing disapproval and as a means of smoothing the path to power of the next ruler. This does, of course, bring to mind current debates about statues and raises questions about how we relate to the past.
It also reminded me of an earlier visit I made to the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. One of the key ideas at that exhibition was the Egyptian belief that "you do not truly die until no one speaks your name". Ironically, therefore, in spite of "damnatio memoriae", Nero has not "truly died" and his story offers us a way of reflecting on both his own society and our world today.