Like the Emperor Nero, the British Museum knows how to put on a show. That hangar of a space bearing the Sainsbury name can sometimes overwhelm the contents. Not on this occasion. The much-maligned emperor is ready to assert himself, assisted by some open-minded curators.
It’s not a whitewash of the man whose very name suggests darkness. Nero: The Man Behind the Myth is more of a blank slate, trying to rehabilitate an individual whose reputation is unknown to younger visitors. Unlike Troy, the last swords-and-sandals blockbuster at the British Museum, Nero has been away from the big screen for 70 years. Peter Ustinov was the last major star to play the emperor, back in 1951, in Quo Vadis. Since then the music-loving bad boy has been silent. It’s time for a new generation to understand a figure they might have confused with a caffè proprietor.
The British Museum starts in appropriate fashion. Guiding us into a dramatically empty antechamber is Nero, the youth, who glows in white marble surrounded by gloom. There is a huge amount of marble on view throughout the exhibition. Again, unlike the city of Troy, of which almost nothing has survived, those Julio-Claudians were massive self-promoters in solid materials. Nero reigns supreme in this area.
We will never hear his singing or lyre playing or the cheers for his chariot racing, but we can see plenty of statues and the remnants of a few buildings. St Peter’s Basilica was erected, perhaps out of retribution, on the site of the Circus of Nero. There is also evidence of the impression that the young emperor made on the people of Rome. Apparently, his supporters created more and better graffiti than anyone else. There were even admiring caricatures of Nero scratched on city walls.
His hair, in particular, received a huge amount of attention everywhere from Roman Britain to Upper Egypt two millennia ago. It continues to do so in post-lockdown London WC1. Rightly so, as his artistic fringe was a marketing ploy that a modern audience can easily understand. Where would cartoonists be now without the distinctive locks of Johnson, Starmer and above all Trump? Nero seems to have pioneered new approaches to his coiffure that matched his novel approach to showmanship. He appeared on stage, something that the ancien régime likened to prostitution. He was a celebrity all-rounder with a fanatical team of chariot-racing supporters. No wonder the plebs loved him. The nouveau riche and freedmen were also right behind his Rome’s Got Talent antics.
Ostentation and debauchery were the order of the day, but probably not the Freudian fulfilment with his mother that Nero has been accused of. The Roman elite seems to have been much more buttoned-up than we were led to believe in shows about his predecessors such as the very serious I, Claudius or the less historical Hot Nights of Caligula.
This exhibition puts on a convincing display of the performing arts of the era without trying to replicate the feel of the Circus Maximus. With a seating capacity of 150,000, there can’t have been much social distancing. The displays are a joy to behold and the explanations well written. There’s no BCE or CE, and AD is quite correctly put before the date in question.
Sharp-eyed readers of the Catholic Herald might, however, spot what isn’t there. Of Nero’s many possible crimes, the least attention goes to his legendary persecution of early Christians. This is dealt with in one line that mentions the blame for Rome’s devastating fire of AD 64 being shifted from the emperor to “a new sect of Jewish origin. Its members later became known as Christians.”
Considering that Hollywood epics such as Quo Vadis and Sign of theCross were all about Nero’s hatred of Christians, perhaps a mention of the two chief successors to Christ would have been appropriate. Saints Peter and Paul seem to have been executed in Rome during Nero’s reign and are still closely associated with that city. Their cult has lasted a lot longer than adulation of the imperial lyre-playing charioteer.
Nor is much attention given to the poor old animals in the arena. The exhibition prefers the derring-do of the charioteers or the thespians who enthralled audiences. Gladiators are given their due, thankfully without any videos of Russell Crowe, but there is no mention of the intermission fodder. This is likely to have been the time that Christian victims were brought out for some torture or as snacks for ravening beasts during the warm-up for serious gladiatorial competition.
Nero’s true enemies, it seems, were not members of a new religion that preached peace and refused to accept emperors as gods. The forces that pushed him to commit suicide at 31 years of age were mostly oldsters. The final section of the exhibition is about the ambitious generals who created a new misery for Rome. Four emperors in one year came after Nero’s death. The first of them was 70-plus when he took over.
I entered the exhibition expecting it to be hair-raising in a Mel Gibson Passion sort of way; instead it’s more hair-flattening. The final exhibit on the way out is an example of the revenge these Romans took on their predecessors. Instead of massacring ex-emperors’ relatives and supporters, they tinkered with statuary.
We say farewell to Nero in the form of a sculpture remodelled as the Emperor Vespasian, with a modified hairline. There is no further mention of those crazy old Christians who eventually took over the Julio-Claudian capital. This the closest we get to the lunatic fringe of ancient Rome.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth runs until 24 October 2021 at the British Museum
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald.Subscribe now.