Nero, British Museum, review: a provocative, revisionist take on Rome’s viper-in-chief
While other institutions cower in fear of being “cancelled”, what does the British Museum do? It makes a notorious Roman emperor – the matricidal megalomaniac Nero, who died, aged 30, in AD 68, having reigned for nearly 14 years – the star of its latest show. Then, like a spokesman from the Ministry of Information, it tries to change the narrative. Apparently, this appalling tyrant, a debauched monster guilty of a thousand egregious crimes, wasn’t as bad as all that. Whatever next: Henry VIII: The Good Husband? With more than 200 objects, including jewellery and ivory figurines, as well as monumental marbles and bronzes, the show is a provocative, brilliant polemic, synthesising recent scholarship that has, if not cleared Nero’s name, then washed away many of the more lurid stains upon it. Its argument is ingenious and forensic, calling into question those well-thumbed ancient sources which every generation, until now, has accepted as gospel. After Nero’s death, the exhibition suggests, hostile Roman historians (chiefly Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio) propagated his infamy, because they were writing for imperial regimes that sought to shore up their own legitimacy by denigrating what had come before. In other words, Nero, poor dear, the last of his line, was the victim of a hatchet job – just as his predecessor, Claudius, who’d married his widowed mother, was posthumously mocked by his tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, for uttering these spurious last words: “Oh dear, I think I s–t myself.” In the foyer, a much-reproduced marble bust of Nero, from the Capitoline Museums in Rome, demonstrates how problematic the historical record can be. Only a tiny fragment is ancient: the rest is a suave 17th-century restoration. Behind, a still from the 1951 Hollywood epic Quo Vadis presents Peter Ustinov, as Nero, “fiddling while Rome burns”. Is our perception of Nero based on reality – or fantasy? So, what about that legend: did Nero, the first emperor to appear on stage (he’d have relished the limelight here), prance about playing a lyre while Rome went up in smoke? There were rumours he started the Great Fire of AD 64, represented in the show by a warped iron window grating, to make room for his “Golden House”, an opulent new palace decorated with gemstones and gold. Yet, hang on, say the curators, like Keir Starmer trying to build a case at PMQs: Nero wasn’t in the city when the conflagration broke out. Probably, then, fake news.