Thursday, September 18, 2014


Christine Walde, Neros Wirklichkeiten: zur Rezeption einer umstrittenen Gestalt. Litora classica, 7. Rahden/Westf: VML Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2013. Pp. vi, 354. ISBN 9783867574778. €49.80 (pb).

Reviewed by John F. Drinkwater, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The Julio-Claudian emperors have recently been receiving significant attention. Walde's volume will be compared with Buckley and Dinter's Companion to the Neronian Age [BMCR 2014.02.29], also published in 2013. They are, however, complements not rivals, with Walde's being wider in scope and more unbuttoned in approach. As she outlines in her Introduction, the 'reality' (Wirklichkeit) of Nero was quickly obscured, being outshone by that of a dominant source-tradition, shared by Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio, that reviled him as a 'monster'. The 'reality' of 'the monster' was seized on by Jewish and Christian writers, and passed through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages into modern times where it has been exploited in print and film. This produced the 'Nero-myth', which found probably still its most powerful manifestation in Mervyn LeRoy's film version of Sienkiewicz's novel, Quo Vadis, released in 1951. Yet almost as soon as the scientific study of the Ancient World began in the sixteenth century, scholars recognised the negative tradition and sought to correct its distortions in order to reconstruct the authentic 'reality': what Nero 'really' did, and why. A relatively recent example of this is Champlin's Nero (2003). As a result, Nero' 'realities' are now pursued in two broadly different ways.

The first is the 'scholarly', which in this volume is represented by five papers, dealt with here in chronological order of the events concerned. (I consider papers in a slightly different order from the one in which they appear in the book. All are in German, except Esposito's (Italian), and those of Maes, Rostropowicz and Schumate (English). I summarise all because neither Walde's initial survey nor the separate English précis is wholly satisfactory.) Renate Bol reconstructs a group of statues placed in the Metroon at Olympia. Proposing that it showed Claudius flanked by Octavia and Nero, and Agrippina and Livia, she argues that it advertised the renewed strength of the dynasty after the marriage of Claudius and Agrippina and, particularly, after that of Nero and Octavia in 53. Depicted as a heroic young bridegroom, in full armour, Nero projected the 'reality' of undisputed heir and guarantor of future greatness. His pairing with Agrippina resembles the 'coronation' relief at Aphrosidias, which may have been contemporary.

Sven Günther investigates three, generally misjudged, 'realities' of Nero's early fiscal policy: reform of the aerarium in 56; reform of the tax on the dealing in slaves in 57; and the proposed abolition of indirect taxation in 58. The first two were practical and successful, not popularist measures. The third, heavily criticised by ancients and moderns alike, was a failure in the sense that Nero's proposal was not ratified, but a success in that it led to major improvements in the collection of indirect taxes throughout the Empire. Paolo Esposito examines the 'reality' of the relationship between Nero and Lucan, based on a study of the gushing praise of Nero that prefaces the Bellum civile. Some have sought to explain and justify this as hidden satire, finding references to Nero's squint, obesity, baldness etc. Better is a more recent approach, based on taking the poem as it comes. There was a catastrophic breakdown between Lucan and Nero as the Bellum civile took shape, but it was not there at the start. In lauding the incumbent princeps Lucan was simply acting comme il faut. Alongside Esposito on Lucan belongs Yanick Maes on 'Neronian literature'. Though Maes dislikes the term, after an odd excursion into comparative literature (relating to the 1992-96 siege of Sarajevo), he deploys it to assess everything that it might cover. He argues for continuity, not 'renaissance', in the writing of the period, but observes and even seems to accept that a spike in quality has resulted in its distinct treatment. Its stimulation was the political climate: the culmination of the false 'reality' of the 'Restored Republic', which drove aristocrats to parade in a grotesque carnival of fear around the real 'reality' of the autocratic ruler. Their fears found expression in literature that presented a world turned upside-down.

Dennis Pausch explores two opposing 'realities' of Nero, as 'emperor' and as 'artist' – specifically, as citharode. The context is a society in which artistic activities had to a degree replaced politics as an arena of competition for young aristocrats. A certain level of involvement in these was acceptable, even praiseworthy; and it may have been that Nero, a non-military emperor, sought to use art as a new means of establishing himself as first among equals. His mistake was to confuse the roles of performer and ruler, obsessively acting the professional musician while tyrannically compelling people to applaud his performances.

The second approach to the 'reality' of Nero is artistic reception. This takes 'the monster' of the source-tradition and manipulates him for a wide range of purposes — intellectual, political, for entertainment etc. The divide between scholarly and artistic is bridged by the editor, Christine Walde, in a study of the Alma Johanna Koenig's novel, The Young God. Published in Austria in 1942, just before Koenig's death in the Holocaust, it covers Nero's life to the death of Agrippina. Walde sees Koenig as much more than 'anti-Nazi' or 'proto-feminist'. Rejecting Nero 'the monster', she sought his 'reality' through the psychology that she had learned in fin-de siècle Vienna. Through this, and a fine writing-style, she presented a man whose character was (de-)formed by family conflict, and who was even 'groomed' to accept sexual abuse.

The other fictional 'realities' of Nero found in this volume are, however, much closer to the source tradition. I deal with them in chronological order of the writer studied. Joanna Rostropowicz considers J. I. Kraszewski's novel Rome in the Reign of Nero, published in 1866. Kraszewski was a celebrated Polish author, and was the first to bring Roman persecution of Christianity into popular literature. The 'reality' of his Nero is very much that of 'the monster', whose end, and that of decadent Rome, could be accomplished only through the triumph of Christianity. Kraszewski conceded that his tale was a nationalist allegory: Rome is imperial Russia, Nero is Tsar Alexander II, and the Christians are Poles. Though the work was eclipsed by Quo Vadis, its influence was acknowledged by Sienkiewicz. Lisa Sannicadro examines a tragedy by Arrigo Boito, an Italian librettist who died in 1918. His Nerone presents Nero's attempts to escape the guilt generated by the murder of Agrippina. Its 'reality' is, again, that of Nero 'the monster', the tyrant who confuses life and art. Its approach is, however, like Koenig's, 'psychological'. Its Nero is paralysingly dependent on others and on his own artistic self-identification as Orestes, the mother-killer par excellence. However, sensing his imminent doom while acting Orestes on stage, he finally yields to reality — 'Io sono Nerone!' – only to find himself heartbreakingly alone.

Patrick Schollmeyer deals with the Munich intellectual, Alfred Schuler. In a series of lectures after World War I, Schuler denied the 'reality' of Nero 'the monster', and proposed an alternative based not on psychology but on mysticism. Rejecting the 'subjectivity' of the sources, Schuler favoured his own, unique, approach that glimpsed underlying reality – of what just had to be — through a union of 'science' and intuition. His Nero is superhuman, brimming with a primeval life-force that made him the perfect unity of male and female, the embodiment of the Gnostic saviour, and the supreme symbol of a freer, happier, pre-Christian age. Finally, Achim Lenz, a stage-director, ponders Martin Walser's dramatic piece of the 1980s, Compliments of Nero. Here, every night, an actor returns home from work to perform the (Suetonian) death of Nero. Lenz attacks current productions that focus on the actor satirising Nero 'the monster'. The piece is a 'monodrama', not a monologue, and should include the artist's wife – as audience and helper — and the musical commentary provided by an unseen guitarist. There is in fact another play outside the artist's performance, about the relationship between husband and wife, and between art and today's corrupt 'cultural industry'.

Two contributions are 'scholarly', but do not address the question of the 'historical' Nero. Helmut Seng looks at Tacitus on Nero, but is more interested in the 'reality' of the Annales than that of the princeps. Perceiving symmetry around a strong theme as characteristic of the 'Neronian' books, his identification of the same in the extant 'Tiberian' books allows him to reconstruct fragmentary Book 5. Proposing a fundamental similarity between the Tiberian and Neronian books as a whole, he argues that the 'Annals' originally comprised three hexads: 1: Tiberius [1-6]; 2: Gaius and Claudius [7-12]; 3: Nero [13-18]. Book 18 went to the end of 68, where it was continued by the two hexads of the 'Histories'. Detlev Kreikenborn illustrates the power of tradition on scholarship in a study of the identification of statue-heads and busts of Nero. In the eighteenth century, there was an eagerness to identify the 'reality' of Nero in portraits that apparently depicted 'fearful tyranny'. In the nineteenth century, the development of the science of archaeology and dispassionate artistic criteria, and the acceptance that Nero's character could not be read into or out of portraiture, produced more sober analysis. In the early twentieth century, however, the art-historical world again seemed inclined to return to the notion that Nero's portraiture allowed a glimpse into his soul. At the end, the continuing fluidity between the scholarly 'reality' and the traditional/imaginative 'reality' is demonstrated by Nancy Shumate, who reveals that she has been forced to reject her earlier, reasoned, denial of Nero 'the monster' by her perception of the presidency of George W. Bush. This taught her that it is entirely possible for a ruler to confuse reality and fiction, especially when much of the fiction is self-inflicted. Shumate, like Maes, observes that the sources present Neronian society as a world turned upside-down. Thanks to Bush – 'it really happened, and it was bad' – we can see that the Neronian tradition is correct: 'all of a sudden the narrative [sc. of Tacitus] rang completely true'.

Neros Wirklichkeiten is a challenging but fruitful read. The thought of Schuler experiencing visions of Nero, in a halo of violet rings, while indulging in his regular morning masturbation is unforgettable. Walde (p. 8) asks if one needs to have had similar experiences as Nero in order to understand him, and how one might be affected personally by disturbing interpretations of him; but since both questions are impossible to answer here, I offer three observations. The first is that while Nero continues to be a source of inspiration in every creative field, this Nero is 'the monster' whose image, like that of 'Jack the Ripper', can never be reshaped by scholarly research. In Maes's terminology, 'NERO' has become larger than 'Nero', possessing, as Walde says, a 'reality' as authentic as any other. The second is that every 'reality' is based on assumptions about Nero. In the case of 'NERO', these are self-evident: he was 'mad' and 'bad'. With 'Nero', however, such assumptions are more implicit than explicit. Maes notes (p. 290) how commentators interpret Neronian literature in the light of their particular view of Nero, and admits (p. 301) that his own reading of the 'fiddling while Rome burned' story is 'of necessity connected to a particular conception of Nero and his regime'. Since, as Günther shows, alternative interpretations are possible, everyone should be as honest as Maes before pontificating on 'Nero': all should declare how mad or bad they believe Nero was. Finally, in dealing with Nero the barrier between reasoned speculation and inspired fiction is wafer-thin. The novelist's recourse to psychology is not very far from the modern historian's (e.g. Champlin's). Koenig's conceit that Nero never consummated his marriage with Octavia is not impossible. However, there is no evidence. The difference between novelist and historian is that the latter must always respect the sources, and never indulge in such poetic licence. Not that poetic licence is to be despised: growing interest in virtual reality has, apparently, made Schuler a cult figure in 'multi-media' studies.

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