- Gavin Whitehead
"What an Artist Dies in Me" : Nero, Pt II (S2E4)
Updated: 3 days ago
After the assassination of Agrippina, Nero threw himself into the performing arts like never before, training to become both a musician and a tragic actor. He even toured Greece to compete in its famed sports and arts festivals. As Nero’s megalomania and abuses of office grew more outrageous, however, a group of conspirators plotted his assassination. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Movie poster for a 1913 silent film adaption of Quo Vadis. Much like older visual media, cinema played an important role in cementing the posthumous image of Nero. Before Peter Ustinov chewed up the scenery as Nero in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 Technicolor extravaganza Quo Vadis, Italian director Enrico Guazzoni shot a silent version. The poster for Guazzoni's film foregrounded a singing Nero plucking his cithara while Rome burns. Both movies were adaptations of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895-96 novel of the same title.
In this 1876 oil painting, Nero's Torches, Polish artist Henryk Siemiardzki shows Nero reclining in a litter (next to the tiger) as a crowd gathers to watch him have a group of Christians publicly burned. While the earliest historians tend to focus on Nero’s other vices and transgressions, later writers and visual artists underscored his brutal repression of Christianity, which would become central to his reputation from the Middle Ages onward.
This mosaic depicts a group of theatrical performers, roughly contemporaneous with the life of Nero. It was preserved thanks to the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D.Compare the flamboyant gestures and attitudes of these figures to the far more stoic images of Roman politicians of the period. This comparison helps explain, in part, why Nero’s embrace of the acting profession proved explosively controversial.
The Death of Seneca by Flemish grandmaster Peter Paul Rubens. Held by the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
This triumphal arch, located to the southeast of the Roman Forum, commemorates Titus and Vespasian’s suppression of the Jewish Rebellion in Judea, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. The detail pictured above shows the triumphal procession that took place to celebrate this victory in Rome in 71 A.D. The typical procession featured symbols of the place that had been conquered by Roman power, including chained captives in their “exotic” native costumes, foreign animals, and culturally significant objects—in this case, a giant Menorah, representing the Jewish faith. This ritualized display of military heroism was trivialized by Nero, who staged a triumph to celebrate all of the prizes he won in acting competitions in his whirlwind tour of the empire.
---Barrett, Anthony. Agrippina: Mother of Nero. London: B.T. Batsford, 1996.
---Bartsch, Shadi. Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
---Beard, Mary. “How Stoical Was Seneca?” New York Review of Books. October 9, 2014.
---Champlin, Edward. Nero. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003.
---Edwards, Catherine. “‘Beware of Imitations’: Theater and the Subversion of Imperial Identity.” In Reflections of Nero, edited by J. Elsner and J. Masters, 83-97. 1994.
---Edwards, Catherine. “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by J.Pl. Hallett and M.B. Skinner, 66-98.
---Griffin, Miriam. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
---Leigh, Matthew. “Nero the Performer.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, 21-33. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
--Malitz, Jürgen. Nero. Translated by Allison Brown. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
---Romm, James. Dying Every Day: Seneca and the Court of Nero. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
The fire broke out near the Circus Maximus. This stone-wrought racecourse and entertainment venue stood in a valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills of Rome. Stocked with highly flammable wares, the wooden shops surrounding the Circus went up in minutes while heavy winds carried the blaze into neighboring districts. Before long, the inferno was besieging four of the city’s seven hills, and the vigiles, the corps tasked with firefighting and upholding public safety, were overwhelmed. Their primary means of combatting the flames—buckets of water—proved ineffective. Changing tactics, they tried to level buildings so the rubble could act as barricades to the fire, without success. In apocalyptic fashion, the extreme heat—measuring approximately 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit—sprang up and over the barriers and raced along its path of destruction. People fled their homes in droves while others looted in a frenzy. The narrow streets became clogged with a terror-stricken multitude, making it more difficult to escape the conflagration. It raged for nine days, uninterrupted but for a brief respite, leaving two-thirds of the city in ruins.
The year was 64 A.D., and this was the worst disaster Rome had witnessed in living memory. Soon, rumors spread around the refugee camps that had sprung up in the wake of the catastrophe as to what—or who—caused it. According to hearsay, torchbearers were seen setting the blaze, and when bystanders demanded they explain themselves, the arsonists claimed to be acting on orders issued from high up. Some rumormongers even claimed to know who had given the directive: the emperor himself. This was Nero, that fleshy decadent of twenty-seven years who had acceded to the throne just over a decade earlier. In truth, the princeps couldn’t have set the fire himself since he was out of town at the time of its eruption. Furthermore, many—probably most—modern historians doubt whether he in any way set the cataclysm in motion.
Nevertheless, one of the damning allegations that circulated among the Roman citizenry after the Great Fire has shaped the emperor’s reputation to the present day. It accuses Nero of a diabolical act that found expression in blazing Technicolor in the 1951 film, Quo Vadis, directed by Marvyn LeRoy, and starring Peter Ustinov as the much-abhorred despot. In its most famous sequence, Nero orders Rome razed to the ground so a new city, Neronopolis, named for and dedicated to him, can be built upon its ashes. Ustinov never stops chewing the scenery even for a second, and, boy, is he chomping away as Nero watches the firestorm at a safe distance outdoors. Inspired by the hellscape he created, he calls for his lyre and strikes up a tune. With Ustinov’s purposefully pitchy and shouty delivery, the emperor sings as flames engulf the city.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” So the saying goes, even though Nero was no fiddler, and his infernal aria is probably apocryphal. Strictly speaking, the expression is untrue. Nevertheless, it captures a certain truth. Nero was self-absorbed, and he did have a deplorably warped set of priorities. His art mattered far more to him than his subjects’ wellbeing.
Last episode, we heard about Nero’s rise to power, his burgeoning love of the performing arts, as well as the assassination of his mother, Agrippina. Today, we’ll hear about a sprawling conspiracy to assassinate him. As will become evident, both his megalomania and his pursuit of artistic excellence intensified in the wake of his matricide. Both proved pivotal in turning the Roman elite against him, and his murder-a-minute regime ultimately ended with his downfall. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 4 of Assassins . . .
"What an Artist Dies in Me" : Nero (Pt. 2)
Fun and Games
Following the death of Agrippina, Nero undertook a face-saving campaign, hoping to win favor with the lower and middle classes, the plebians and equites. To that end, he went all out on lavish festivities meant to brighten their lives. One of these even provided him with a platform on which to make his debut as an artist.
First came the Ludi Maximi, the Great Games. These unfolded over several days and across multiple theaters. Like other Roman festivals, the Ludi Maximi treated spectators to athletic competitions, artistic performances, and assorted sights unseen. According to one source, an elephant walked a tightrope with a rider astride its back. Likely under duress, noblemen took the unseemly step of singing and dancing onstage while others duked it out with ferocious beasts in gladiatorial games, all these activities long considered undignified and thus unsuited to the nobility. Meanwhile, Nero bombarded attendees with handouts. His troops tossed balls that acted as vouchers into the crowd, redeemable for prizes that included precious metals, horses, slaves, and even entire apartment buildings. Nero was digging deep into his coffers for this one.
Next was the Juvenalia, or “youth festival.” This celebration marked a momentous occasion in Nero’s maturation, the shaving of his whiskers for the first time. Technically, the Juvenalia was a private event held on imperial lands. Nevertheless, it still drew crowds. As at the Ludi Maximi, aristocrats performed in defiance of social customs. An eighty-year-old noblewoman danced a pantomime, the raciest form of popular theater, while other scions of ancient houses took part in choral dances. When they shuffled onstage wearing marks to conceal their identities from the audience at one point, Nero is said to have ordered them to remove them. He meant for his guests to know who was abasing themselves.
The host of the party emerged as the star. As discussed in the previous episode, Nero took up citharody, or singing while also playing the lyre, shortly after assuming control of the empire. From the beginning, this avocation rankled his advisers and top politicians. Musicians belonged to the lowest orders of Roman society, and many deemed it offensive for their most high and exalted princeps to stoop to their level. For a few years, they may have found solace in knowing that Nero only practiced in private, but that all changed with the Juvenalia, where for the first time, he would give a concert to an audience. He even presented an original composition, “Antis, or the Bacchants,” a febrile tale of madness and love.
Nero made sure his debut went over well. In accordance with his wishes, senior officials expressed their support of his performances, as if embracing the idea of a musical princeps. A man named Gallio, brother of Seneca, Nero’s tutor, adviser, and surrogate father, played master of ceremonies, introducing the emperor as he strode onstage. Meanwhile, according to ancient chronicler, Cassius Dio, Seneca himself along with Burrus, a Praetorian prefect and Nero’s other adviser, stationed themselves in prominent positions where the audience could see them and nodded and smiled in approbation. Furthermore, in the audience Nero had planted his freshly assembled phalanx of strongmen-cheerleaders known as the Augustiani (“Augustus’s men”). These were not groupies you wanted to mess with. Thuggish, brawny, and fiercely devoted to their employer, they could knock a tooth out if you did anything other than applaud the princeps. Their very presence discouraged dissent. Moreover, they clapped their hands in coordinated rhythms and chanted such adulation as “O Apollo!” likening the emperor to the patron god of music. By the end of Nero’s reign, the Augustiani had mushroomed to number 5,000. Plenty of artists crave validation, and I don’t blame them since it’s only natural to want your work praised. That said, I can’t think of many who have needed their ego stroked by an army of 5,000 professional fanboys. Without question, Nero was insecure and in desperate need of approval.
From Bad to Worse
At least he was onstage. He almost seemed indifferent to whether aristocrats, statesmen, and soldiers approved of his performance as emperor. In addition to citharody, Nero had taken up charioteering. Indeed, toward the end of his life, he would race chariots in competition, more on which later. Much like artists, however, athletes were frowned upon, and this pastime, too, was seen as beneath him. Yet this was far from his worst offense. Few may have admitted it out loud, but a general uneasiness increased as the princeps grew more brutal and brazen in his abuses of office. By the time of the Great Fire in 64, Nero had taken violent precautions to secure his grip on the throne. As we covered in the previous episode, it was widely taken for granted that only descendants of Rome’s inaugural emperor, Caesar Augusts, were eligible to reign. Based on this assumption, Nero commanded the assassination of virtually anyone with so much as a drop of Augustus’s blood in his veins to safeguard his position. In another act of cruelty, he banished his first wife, Octavia, to an island and ordered her execution on trumped-up charges of infidelity.
Added to Nero’s ruthlessness were delusions of grandeur. Nero placed these on spectacular display in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire. Much of the city needed rebuilding, and reconstruction yielded several improvements. For example, avenues were broadened to avoid the kind of congestion that imperiled residents during the disaster. However, the inferno had damaged Nero’s own residence, the Domus Transitoria, and the emperor took advantage of the calamity to build himself a dream palace right in the heart of Rome. It was called the Domus Aurea—the Golden House. Newly widened and reconstructed at a steeper gradient, the Sacra Via, Rome’s main thoroughfare, led straight to its entrance. Something of a rustic villa transplanted to the capital, the property encompassed between 125-200 acres, with a lake on its grounds. Nero’s ancient biographer Suetonius details the opulence of the estate, though perhaps embellishing his description. According to him, jewels and gold adorned the two-story compound, and devices showered perfume and flowers from the walls inside the dining rooms. At the center of the mansion stood an octagonal chamber with a domed ceiling, probably a sumptuous banquet hall. Overhead, a whirligig installation powered by slaves represented the heavens. Finally, Nero commissioned the construction of a bronze colossus standing more than 100 feet tall with the aim of erecting it outside his front door. You don’t need me to tell you whom the statue depicted—Rome’s most splendiferous emperor, of course, Nero himself. In a word, it was extra. Worse still, according to critics, the Golden House threatened to bankrupt the state.
Nero’s excesses almost certainly troubled Seneca. At the very least, they flew in the face of Stoic principles. Like others in his philosophical school, Seneca cared little for wealth and high living—or at least his writing would give that impression. As many modern-day scholars have noted, however, Seneca amassed a fortune throughout his career, and he lived more comfortably than many of his countrymen. Still, the exorbitant luxury of the Golden House may well have struck him as distasteful. Furthermore, the moral philosopher had written voluminously about the merits of virtue. Since Nero’s accession, Seneca had watched at close range as the emperor plowed deeper and deeper into depravity. In some cases, whether out of loyalty or fear of repercussions, Seneca joined him on this sordid course, dirtying his own moral character in the process. Most grave of all, Nero had sought his and Burrus’s counsel the night of his matricide in March of 59 A.D., panicking after the first assassination attempt failed. Seneca had done nothing to save Agrippina. Instead, he had quizzed Burrus whether he could order a Praetorian strike on her residence. Then, after the homicide, he ghost-wrote a letter defending the crime for Nero to deliver before the Senate.
Seneca sought retirement in the mid-to-late 60s. Maybe disappointment in failing to live up to his own avowed values motivated his decision. Maybe he felt complicit in Nero’s offenses. Maybe he worried that cleaving too close to the out-of-control princeps would endanger his own life. Or maybe he reckoned that his sun had simply set at court—Burrus passed away in 62 A.D., after which Seneca’s influence withered. Whatever the case, Seneca twice asked Nero’s permission to retire, once in 62 and again in 64. Both times the emperor declined his request. All the same, Seneca withdrew from public life, spending more and more time outside Rome at his country estates and occupying his time with contemplation and study. His was a life of peace and quiet.
The Pisonian Conspiracy
These were harder to come by in Rome. In the spring of 65, a group of conspirators prepared to rise up in arms against Nero—the single greatest threat to his ascendancy to date. The plotters—both men and women—spanned the whole social spectrum, from politicians to soldiers, highborn to low. Their grievances were many: some pledged allegiance out of personal grudges against the princeps; others were disgusted by his stage career; still others balked at his mismanagement of state funds. Many could not forgive him for the assassination of Agrippina. Seeking a princeps who could take control once the conspirators had booted Nero from the throne, they alighted on an affable aristocrat named Gaius Calpurnius Piso. This choice was a bold one because Piso bore no relation to Caesar Augustus. However, as alluded to already, the rules of succession were not hard and fast. Yes, Nero and his three imperial predecessors had descended from Augustus, but no law had mandated this. The conspirators decided it was worth the gamble to test this norm and install Piso.
The conspiracy revved its engine for a while without going anywhere. It had a future leader in Piso but at present the would-be assassins lacked solid leadership. Then, one of the confederates, Epicharis, a whip-smart freedwoman and a courtesan in service to Seneca’s brother, Annaeus Mela, took it upon herself to push the plot forward. She had traveled to Campania on business one day when she paid a visit to the naval squadron at Misenum. Members of this unit had aided Nero in the hit on Agrippina. One of them often grumbled that he had never received an adequate reward for his efforts. He chanced to vent his frustrations to Epicharis, who saw an opportunity to strengthen the conspiracy. If he could bring his fellow sailors onboard, Epichares promised, she would see to it that he was rewarded. The enticement backfired. The mariner betrayed Epicharis to Nero, who summoned her for questioning, whereupon she denied any involvement in a plot. She hadn’t named any of her accomplices, and nobody could furnish evidence of the conspiracy. Nevertheless, Nero sensed danger and held Epicharis in detention. Her misstep put the emperor on guard.
The Pisonians appear to have thought they could still bring off the plot if they acted fast. On April 19, Nero had plans to attend the closing ceremonies of an annual religious festival at the Circus Maximus, the fire damage from nine months prior already repaired. A consul-delegate called Lateranus would make the first move as the emperor neared the racetrack. Able to get close to him by virtue of his office, he would kneel before the princeps and take him by the knees, as if to make a personal appeal. Then, without warning, he would tighten his grip, restricting Nero’s movement. Next, a stick-in-the-mud senator, Flavius Scaevinus, would make political history by stabbing the emperor, prompting other knifemen to fall on their target. The same basic ploy had served the assassins of Julius Caesar well in 44 B.C.
Scaevinus had procured a sacred dagger for the slaying and kept it enshrined in a temple near his home. The night of April 18, he directed his freedman, Milichus, to sharpen and polish the blade as well as to assemble a first-aid kit of bandages and tourniquets, presumably to treat any injuries Scaevinus sustained. These instructions looked sketchy to Milichus’s wife, whose name the historians have not recorded. Something earthshaking was about to go down, she suspected, something other members of the household knew about. Hoping for a handsome reward, she persuaded Milichus to seek a private audience with Nero, and after he had done so, he produced the whetted dagger as evidence of what appeared to be a conspiracy.
Scaevinus found himself before Nero in short order, swearing up and down that he had no part in a plot against his life. He was soon joined by Natalis, another conspirator whom Milichus’s wife had seen in Scaevinius’s company. The two men were taken to separate rooms and interrogated. Their accounts of recent conversations between them differed markedly, arousing suspicion. Instruments of torture were laid out before them, and it was all over. Knowing their captors would flay them alive or scorch them with hot irons, both confessed, naming key allies.
So began the bloodbath. The first order of business was to round up the traitors. Disquiet crept across the capital as guards fanned out and surveilled the populace. Watchmen took up posts on the Servian wall, visible to anyone who looked that direction, as well as along the Tiber River, keeping an eye peeled for those who might try to escape by boat. Praetorians dragged conspirators out of their homes, restrained by manacles. A teeming mass of detainees accumulated outside the imperial palace, too many in number for the torture chambers to hold them all.
One by one, the rebels fell. It was Natalis who disclosed Piso’s involvement in the conspiracy. When Piso discovered the plot was done for, he shut himself up in his home and slashed his wrists just as soldiers were approaching his doorstep. Meanwhile, the Greek freedwoman Epicharis had remained in Nero’s custody, and he ordered her torture in hope of extracting more information. Her tormentors burned her with red-hot plates and stretched her body on the rack, certain the agony would loosen her lips. Stunningly, it didn’t. On April 20, the torturers brought her to a solitary cell, her body so broken that she had to be carried on a chair. After they left her unattended, however, she fought through the pain and managed to remove her breastband, knot it into a noose, and hang herself from the bars propping up the canopy of a chair. The body count skyrocketed. Nero’s purge left so many dead that Roman historian Tacitus refrains from listing all the victims for fear of revolting or even boring his readers.
One last casualty of Nero’s killing spree deserves our attention. In addition to exposing Piso, Natalis let fall the name of a man who had loomed large in Nero’s life even before he came to power and colluded with the emperor in perhaps his most heinous offense, the murder of Agrippina: Seneca. We’ll hear about the philosopher’s unhappy fate after a quick break.
Death of a Stoic
It had taken little to damn the philosopher in the eyes of the emperor. Earlier that year, as the conspirators were seeking to expand their numbers, Piso dispatched a messenger to Seneca, hoping to recruit him. Once the courier had divulged the plot, the silver-tongued Stoic replied in slyly equivocating fashion, managing to signal neither support nor opposition. Instead, he told Piso by way of his messenger, “My wellbeing depends on your safety.” No matter how carefully Seneca weighed these words, they screamed treason in Nero’s estimation, and he saw little reason to show their speaker mercy. Besides, Nero’s affection for his sometime tutor, surrogate father, and shrewd adviser had waned even before his retreat from politics, partly because he—and other Stoics like him with their schoolmasterly stuffiness—disapproved of the emperor’s forays into arts and athletics. Mulling things over, Nero commanded that Seneca commit suicide.
A short while later, the philosopher heard a knock at his door. Part of him probably expected what was coming. A centurion entered and made him aware of the emperor’s orders. Accepting his fate, Seneca inquired if he might first have a look at his will, apparently with an eye toward deeding his assets to two close friends who happened to be present. The soldier denied his request, at which point Seneca turned to his companions and according to Tacitus, explained that he could leave them nothing but the imago—the “image”—of his life.
Seneca prepared a cup of hemlock so that he could die in imitation of his hero, Socrates, the Greek philosopher who had swallowed the same poison and ended his own life about 450 years prior. For whatever reason, Seneca changed his mind and opted instead for a death more common in Rome. He would open his veins and bleed to death. His wife, Paulina, made ready to accompany him to the underworld. Ancient sources disagree as to whether she chose this voluntarily, unwilling to live life without her husband, or whether Seneca browbeat her into it. Whatever the case, they placed their arms side by side, and taking up a blade, Seneca pressed down and drew it over both limbs, slashing himself and Paulina with a single stroke. Death did not come swiftly for the philosopher. When after some time he hadn’t succumbed to blood loss, he cut himself behind the knees and around the ankles to quicken the process. Husband and wife withdrew to separate rooms, the crippled Seneca supported by slaves, freedmen, as well as his friends. Neither wished to witness the other’s dying agonies. Against all odds, Paulina survived the bloodletting, having wrapped her wounds with bandages, and carried on alone for several years. It’s uncertain why she abandoned the suicide pact, but she may have done so realizing that Nero cared little whether she lived or died.
Despite his sundry injuries, Seneca persisted. He finally called for the cup of hemlock, still on hand, and gulped it down. He waited for paralysis to overcome him as it had Socrates when he drank the poison, but it never happened. Foiled again, Seneca had himself brought to his bath, where he drew hot water and immersed himself in it. In the end, the steam suffocated him.
Scholars have long puzzled over Seneca’s demise as portrayed by Tacitus. The historian’s tone remains elusive. Is this a three-act tragedy or more of a parody of Socrates’ suicide? There are no clear answers to that one, but many agree that in his last moments, Seneca was mindful of his posthumous reputation. In Dying Every Day, James Romm ruminates on Tacitus’s wording when Seneca declares that he can only leave behind the imago of his life. Depending on context, Romm explains, imago can carry multiple meanings in Latin. Like its English derivative, it can denote “image” or “shape.” At the same time, it can also signify “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false-seeming,” a figment of the imagination. Based on these various definitions, Seneca was saying that he could bequeath nothing but an “image” of his life, perhaps an artificial one that he himself was molding as he perished. But what was that image? There’s one detail I haven’t mentioned yet that strikes me as telling. According to Tacitus, Seneca dictated one last work to his scribes as he awaited oblivion, presumably on morals. Stoics like him advocated reason, virtue, and forbearance, even in the face of insurmountable hardship. By philosophizing even as death bore down on him, perhaps Seneca was crafting an image of himself as the ultimate Stoic, meeting his doom with a level head and searching for truth until his dying breath. There’s a nobility to Seneca’s final exit in this regard. Then again, it’s possible that Tacitus means to cast it as affected and hollow, an imago in the “false-seeming” sense.
The more favorable interpretation of the great sage’s suicide has enjoyed a long afterlife. Take The Death of Seneca, a 1612 painting by Flemish grandmaster Peter Paul Rubens, held by the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Featured on the Art of Crime website, it depicts the haggard and bedraggled Seneca standing, nearly naked, in his bath. Rivulets of blood trickle down his left arm, staining towels held beneath the wound by a servant. At first glance, this is not the Seneca we read about in Tacitus, his legs gashed up and no longer able to support his own weight. This Seneca bears himself up despite the agony, immense though it is judging from the pained look on his face. Yet this Seneca, like Tacitus’s, has work to do and intends to do it even as he dies. His eyes are gazing into the distance, as if in thought. Beside him, a scribe kneels down with paper and quill in hand, attending to the philosopher’s every syllable as he meditates out loud. Even as the lifeforce flows from his veins, the picture implies, he will live on through his last words. In her New York Review of Books article, “How Stoical was Seneca?” Mary Beard describes this along with other idealized versions of Seneca’s final hour as “a triumph over death, not a defeat by it.” In the fullness of time, this episode would burnish Seneca’s reputation while tarnishing Nero’s.
After smothering Seneca and the Pisonians, Nero threw himself into art like never before. Indeed, the year 65 A.D. witnessed a landmark event. Five years earlier., the emperor had instituted the Neronia, a sports and arts festival modeled on age-old Greek precursors and named after Rome’s most recent princeps. The festivities would take place every five years, with artists and athletes competing for prizes. The princeps had neither sung songs nor strummed his lyre in the first Neronia—in fact, by 60 A.D., he hadn’t given a single public performance in Rome since the Juvinalia was technically a private event. In the intervening years, Nero had appeared as a citharode in Naples as well as on other regional stages, but he had yet to grace Rome with his Apollonian endowments. By 65 A.D., he felt his time had come.
Over the course of his reign, the princeps had expanded his array of talents. Now he wrote poetry. Citizens passed along the columned porticos of the Theater of Pompey and crowded together inside to hear him deliver an original miniepic about the Trojan War. Afterward, a lickspittle-courtier named Aulus Vitelius is said to have stood up and entreated the princeps to give them a song. Nero was all, “Oh my gosh, that is so flattering, but I shouldn’t. I’m just not up to it,” even as he reached for his lyre and warmed up his voice for an ode he had obviously practiced for the occasion. Before long at all, he was fronting the audience, dressed in a citharode’s billowing robe and a pair of high boots and singing his heart out about tragic Niobe, a mother in mourning for the sudden and violent death of her children. The tale of Niobe is one of mythology’s surefire tearjerkers. Surprisingly enough, at these competitions, the first among equals behaved like everyone else. Nero minded the rules like other competitors, never once clearing his throat or sitting down during the performance, lengthy though it was. After he finished, he went down on one knee in a show of humility. The audience exploded with applause, led by the Augustiani, while Praetorian toughs patrolled the crowds, roughing up those who failed to clap loudly enough. It’s as if spectators were putting on a show of their own, performing appreciation of Nero’s artistry lest they face punishment. Professor of classical languages and literature Shadi Bartsch has noted this dynamic. In Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian, Bartsch argues, “Nero’s rule is the occasion for a transformation of the theater into a site of a reversal of actor-audience relations, and as an emperor onstage, Nero literally constrained his audience to be actors.”
Greekin’ It Up
Having savored glory, Nero craved more. He turned his attention to his most ambitious artistic and athletic undertaking yet. He had long yearned to tour Greece, the birthplace of numerous traditions he adored. While he had made plans to take that trip some time ago, they had never come to fruition. Now, at last, they would. This was not a holiday. He would compete in Greece’s historic sports and art festivals, and he took this enterprise in deadly earnest. The emperor contacted the proper authorities and made it known that he wished to take part in four sets of games—those at Olympia, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and finally Nemea. This was a wish not so easily granted. Each of these took place on its own four-year cycle, and they never would have fallen within the same twelve months. Scrambling, the festival organizers reshuffled the schedule so that all four would occur during the princeps’s visit. As the date of his departure drew near, he would have felt excitement and nerves. For more than a decade, Nero had trained as an artist and athlete, and now he had a chance to show what he was made of. Yet he would come home crestfallen if he failed to perform to the best of his abilities. He couldn’t have held himself to a higher standard. It was his most fervent desire to earn the title of periodonikes, bestowed on those who placed first in all four of the Greek games.
As he had done in public already, Nero would race chariots and sing with his lyre. Yet he also extended his roster of skills to include tragic acting. Unlike citharodes with their trademark robes, tragic performers donned various costumes based on character, male or female, since they portrayed members of either sex as needed. Beggars wore rags while kings and queens arrayed themselves with regal finery. In further contrast to citharodes, actors covered their face with masks. In most cases, this costume piece would have represented the eyes, nose, and mouth of the appropriate character. Much like today, performers would have made use of props as well. The thespian portraying the central character often appeared with one or two supporting actors who helped tell the story. As in the case of citharody, however, tragic acting competitions were all about displays of individual talent on the part of the lead. As a result, these performances played more like self-contained monologues as opposed to complete tragedies with a full cast.
According to historians of Roman theater, Nero may have made several breaks with custom when giving performances. He likely wore a mask resembling his own facial features rather than those of his character, lest it be forgotten that audiences were watching an emperor in action. When he portrayed women, Nero’s mask may have evoked the visage of his second wife, Poppaea. Throughout his many turns in Greece, Nero brandished a scepter at one point and wore chains at another. Yet his were wrought from pure gold, as befitted an emperor.
Ancient sources list a number of characters in Nero’s repertoire, most if not all of them derived from Greek mythology. His preference for one role in particular has received more scholarly attention than others. This was Orestes, son of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. After Agamemnon serves in the Trojan War and sails back home, his wife, Clytemnestra, slaughters him in his bath like a sacrificial swine. Then she assumes tyrannical control of Mycenae, aided by her paramour, Aegisthus. The slain monarch’s son, Orestes, is spirited away from his childhood home and ostensibly robbed of his inheritance. Years later, however, he returns to avenge his father’s death. In the guise of a beggar, he infiltrates the royal palace and cuts down Clytemnestra along with her bedfellow. The ghost of Clytemnestra summons the Furies, earth-dwelling deities with snakes for hair, imploring them to terrorize her son as retribution. The vile divinities hound Orestes from isle to isle, nearly driving him out of his mind. After many wanderings, Orestes staggers into Athens, where he stands trial for murdering Clytemnestra and is ultimately acquitted.
Nero’s choice to play Orestes has made historians cringe. After all, both actor and character committed matricide. Every time Nero set foot onstage as the Mycenaean mother-slayer, he reminded spectators of the crime they had in common. In so doing, he potentially damaged his own reputation since many at home and abroad had condemned the murder of Agrippina as an egregious breech of filial piety as well as an abuse of imperial power.
Then again, Edward Champlin has interpreted Nero’s choice in a more becoming light. In his 2005 biography of the ruler, simply titled Nero, Champlin argues, “For Nero, the golden key to the story of Orestes was not that he was a matricide, but that he was a justified matricide.” In the myth, Champlin writes, Clytemnestra robs Orestes of his birthright, the Mycenaean throne, at least until he exacts revenge. As a ruler, moreover, she proves a tyrant, and not just that but a female tyrant, opening her up to intense resentment. By taking the role of Orestes, Nero perhaps implied that he was as much a victim of an overreaching mother as the mythical revenger. He may have also hinted at the suffering Romans would have endured if Agrippina had attained supreme power. As Champlin points out, these sentiments chime with the spin campaign Nero undertook in the wake of his mother’s assassination, especially his ghost-written speech to the Senate.
As the emperor sang and acted his way across Greece, he practiced good sportsmanship and appears not to have expected special treatment. Okay, he is said to have had a rival put to death and he did talk trash behind others’ backs, but he showed respect for his competitors in face-to-face interactions. Much as he had at the second Neronia, he obeyed the rules like the average contestant and lived in fear of the judges, visibly anxious as he awaited their verdicts.
Not that he had anything to fret about. No matter how much he may have desired a level playing field, nobody would criticize the emperor of Rome—or even acknowledge a simple mistake. For instance, in the middle of one dramatic contest, a scepter slipped from the princeps’s hand and clattered to the floor. After bending over to pick it back up, he resumed the scene. Later, he confided to a fellow thespian that he worried this blunder would disqualify him. The other actor assured him that nobody could possibly have noticed the slipup—he certainly hadn’t until Nero brought it up.
Nothing makes Nero’s preferential treatment more obvious, however, than the number of prizes he took home with him. Not only did he clinch the coveted title of periodomikes, but he is said to have garnered a whopping 1,800 awards in various athletic and artistic competitions. It’d be like somebody winning an EGOT, the French Open, and the Grand National 400 times in a single year.
Nero’s junket came to a spectacular climax when he returned home to Rome. He modeled his homecoming on the triumphal procession. In your typical triumphal procession, generals fresh from successful military campaigns entered Rome and rode through the streets on a chariot. Meanwhile, other parade marchers carried tablets inscribed with the names of conquered cities while battle-tested warriors trailed behind their commanding officer, reminding spectators of all who had risked life and limb for victory. After passing beneath the triumphal arch, the fighters proceeded to the temple of Jupiter, patron god of Rome, on the Capitoline hill.
Nero’s procession played more like a parody—or maybe self-parody, I don’t know—than an homage to the venerable custom. In this circus of self-aggrandizement, somebody bore tablets with the names of athletes and artists he had routed rather than military opponents. Instead of Nero’s foot-soldiers, the Augustiani brought up the rear, earning their paycheck by extolling the emperor’s awesome talents. In Cassius Dio’s account of the event, the Augustiani raved, “Hail to Nero, our Hercules! Hail to Nero, our Apollo! The only Victor of the Grand Tour, the only one from the beginning of time!” In a final departure from the triumphal procession, this most glorious Herculean Apollo rode his chariot through a breach in the walls and then skittered his way not to the temple of Jupiter but to that of Apollo, patron god of music and various other arts. In the words of Miriam Griffin, Nero’s biographer, “This was the triumph of an artist.” She also refers to it as his “last great show.” As the gods on Olympus already knew, his days were numbered.
Around March 20 in 68 A.D., the ninth anniversary of his mother’s killing, Nero received reports of a revolution in the provinces. He was in Naples and, deeming the threat negligible, elected to stay there. Before long, however, a new development ruffled his feathers. The Spanish governor, Galba, a general in his seventies who still knew how to throw down on a battlefield, had joined the insurrection.
Charging back to Rome, Nero tried—and miserably failed—to rally his troops and quash the rebellion. Many no longer wanted to fight for the princeps because they held him in contempt. Among other outrages, his artistic endeavors had grown even more at odds with the day-to-day work of, well, governing since he swept the Greek games. In preparation for future performances, he refused to speak publicly lest he harm his godlike pipes. He delegated speechmaking and issuing commands—even to the Praetorians—to other officials. In those situations where it was absolutely necessary for him to make remarks, he insisted on having his vocal coach present to rein him in to avoid overtaxing his voice. No less preposterous was an upcoming performance, in which Nero, dressed as Hercules, would tame a lion. . . an actual lion. For maximal effect, the beast had been trained not to resist when the emperor put it in a chokehold. The stunt probably would have killed him if he had lived long enough to give it a go.
As spring turned to summer, the rebels gained ground. Nero’s allies dwindled in number until hardly any remained. Panicking, he prepared to abdicate, hatching a number of conflicting plans. Maybe he would convince the Praetorians to accompany him out of Rome in a ship. He could seek asylum with the Parthians, or head for Alexandria and pursue a glamorous stage career. He entertained darker possibilities, too. What if doom was inevitable? If he had to die, would it be by his own hand, or an executioner’s? He inclined toward the former and turned to Locusta, the resident druggist who had cooked up the poisons that took down Claudius and Britannicus alike. From her mortar and pestle came another toxin, which Nero stashed in a golden box—just in case it came to that. However, as he slept in fits and starts one night, his bodyguard removed the container and defected from the palace. Finally, on June 9, the Senate voted and proclaimed the invading Galba the new princeps of Rome. At the same session, they called for Nero’s execution. Despair rushed over him. Determined to die, he searched the palace for a swordman who would take his life for him. To his horror, he found its halls virtually deserted. “Have I then neither friend nor foe?” he demanded of the silent, unpitying walls.
As it turns out, he did have a friend. Nero cried out again, and this time a freedman named Phaon appeared, proposing that he leave the palace and seek refuge at his country villa. Nero accepted and, saddling up, traveled to Phaon’s estate in disguise. Three or so years earlier, the princeps had envisioned a 100-foot statue of himself, as if were a god. Now, he was an outlaw, and he would die like any other mortal if the authorities caught up with him.
Lying on a thin mattress at Phaon’s dwelling, however, Nero realized that running was futile. His pursuers would hunt him until they had his head on a stake. He informed his entourage that he would take his own life. They dug a shallow grave while Nero wailed and wallowed in self-pity. He had brought two daggers with him yet lacked the resolve to unsheathe either and put them to use. He vacillated, losing the will to kill himself one moment and regaining it the next, especially when his companions reminded him of the punishment that lay in store for him. The Senate would have him executed in “the ancient fashion,” which entailed executioners forcing his neck into the fork of a tree and bludgeoning him to death with heavy rods. Then, his mangled corpse would be cast from the Tarpian rock, a fate reserved for the most infamous criminals.
Still, Nero hesitated. Only when he heard the hoofbeats of an approaching cavalry unit intent on his capture did he overcome his fear. He drew one of his daggers and stuck it in his neck. Though painful and messy, the wound hadn’t killed him. It seemed as if the squadron would detain him alive. One of Nero’s freedmen stepped forward and put the wretch out of his misery, taking hold of the blade and driving it deeper to ensure it would sever his carotid artery. “This is loyalty!” Nero sputtered as the life oozed out of him. Moments later, a guardsman arrived on the scene as Nero lay dying. The soldier attempted to tend to the injury, but aware that he was done for, the fugitive gasped simply, “Too late!”
These were to be the odious emperor’s last words. They’re far from famous, but others he uttered before heading off to Hades certainly are. As he watched his subordinates dig his final resting place, he grieved for the future of the Roman stage. Between anguished sobs, Nero lamented, “What an artist dies in me.”
Next episode, we leap forward to Nazi Germany and talk about a painter who was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler.