[Paleopsych] TLS: (Nero) Read his lips

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Read his lips
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.6.25
    Greg Woolf

    NERO. Edward Champli.n 346pp. Harvard University Press. £19.95. (US
    $29.95). - 0 674 01192 9.

    Nero was just sixteen when he became Emperor. The bright hope of a
    generation that had suffered the tyrannies of vicious Claudius, mad
    Caligula and sullen Tiberius, he was meant to revive the fortunes and
    reputation of the Principate. At his side was the formidable Stoic
    philosopher Seneca, stern critic of luxury, and the sturdy but
    dependable soldier Burrus. Behind the throne was his beautiful mother,
    Agrippina, charming, brilliant and the daughter of the admired
    Germanicus, one of those many imperial princes who died young, leaving
    a sense of what might have been. Only Nero lived. At his accession he
    shone like a bright-eyed Blair or Zapatero, and in a speech
    ghost-written by Seneca promised reform, justice and good government.
    He was welcomed by Senate and people alike.

    All were to be disappointed. The murders of his mother and of his
    wife, and the forced suicides of his closest advisers, as well as
    those who plotted against him, were not his greatest crimes; few
    Emperors could avoid such purges, courtiers always fell from grace,
    and in Rome it was never safe to be the Emperor's relative. But Nero,
    it was claimed, had transgressed in other ways. There were rumours of
    incest with his mother; allegations that he had organized the burning
    of the city; unease at the splendour of his new palace, his Golden
    House, built amid the smouldering ruins of a bankrupt city.

    Most damaging, perhaps, were Nero's public performances, on the lyre,
    on the tragic stage, and as a charioteer. Nero's obsession with the
    stage began in private, then led him to perform to audiences, first in
    the Greek city of Naples and afterwards in Rome itself. Finally he
    crossed to Greece with his whole entourage and spent a year and a half
    there, competing in all the ancient pan-Hellenic festivals, which were
    synchronized for his benefit. His love for the Greeks led him to grant
    them immunity from taxation. "Other Emperors have freed cities, only
    Nero a province", he proclaimed to the crowds at the Isthmus of
    Corinth. Greek writers lined up to praise him. These gestures played
    less well in Rome.

    All Emperors were accused of unspeakable practices in the dark
    recesses of their palaces and remote villas. Only Nero put his on the
    stage. Edward Champlin in his Nero shows brilliantly how this
    deliberate theatricality extended beyond the stage into Nero's
    performance of the role of Emperor. Consider the stage-managed
    reception of the Armenian King Tiridates, compelled by Roman arms and
    diplomacy to receive his crown again from Nero. The ceremony took
    place on the spot in Armenia before a statue of Nero. (Nero himself
    visited no provinces except Greece and never saw a Roman army in his
    life.) Then Tiridates came to Rome, in a great procession, riding with
    his Queen through the Roman provinces of Asia, crossing the Bosporus
    and following the Via Egnatia through the northern Balkans to descend
    into Italy and meet Nero at Naples. The Neapolitan ceremony done, both
    went on to Rome. Tiridates received his crown again in the Forum
    before cheering crowds; then on to the Theatre of Pompey, gilded by
    Nero for the occasion. This last performance of the tour took place
    under a canopy depicting Nero as the charioteer of the sun god.

    The crowds screamed their approval.

    More controversial were Nero's performances in tragic costume. The
    roles he sought out were all too relevant to his own life: Orestes and
    Alcmaeon, matricides of myth; Oedipus, who slept with his mother. And
    no less controversial, his sex life.

    All Emperors were accused of sexual transgressions, if only adulteries
    and passions for low-born women. But Nero had been dressed as a
    bridesmaid and celebrated in public a marriage to a hunky freedman,
    and he went on to travel around accompanied by a boy who resembled his
    murdered wife, a boy whom he had had castrated and compelled to live
    in drag.

    Many Romans were horrified, especially the well-born and
    well-educated, those whom the moral order of Rome placed in the first
    rank. Many, as Champlin shows, privately shared some of Nero's
    histrionic and sexual tastes.

    But few dared to indulge them publicly, except when the Emperor's
    example gave them licence. Nero's reign brought no lasting liberation:
    it was just a Roman summer of love. The tragedy of Nero concluded in
    his clumsy suicide at the age of thirty; on the run from his own
    soldiers, the Senate, guard and the provincial armies all turned
    against him. It took a vicious civil war to find a new Emperor for
    Rome; then the work of un-Neroing Rome began in earnest. The new style
    was restrained and sober, with lots of Italian peasant virtue, and
    nothing too flashy.

    The mass of the Flavian Amphitheatre - our Colosseum - rose where
    Nero's palace had had its great ornamental lake, a monument to
    military victory and to less highbrow tastes in entertainment.

    Nero is an excellent read, an atmospheric retelling of the wonders and
    horrors of its fascinating subject. Champlin piles up contexts and
    material to fill out the shorter accounts offered by ancient authors
    in an attempt to find meaning in Nero's extraordinary actions. He
    draws on a mass of recent studies, of rituals like the Triumph and the
    Festival of Saturn, of the arena and the stage, most of all of the
    topography of the city of Rome, and the uses of Greek myth. Just as
    the Colosseum concealed beneath it a labyrinth of passages and cells,
    lifts and ramps, storerooms and concealed traps through which beasts,
    prisoners, gladiators and stagehands were deployed to engineer the
    pageants above, so Champlin conceals his scholarship in the endnotes.
    Exploring this underworld is a very different experience from watching
    the spectacles in the arena above. We are not exactly treated to
    darkness and cries of pain, to the stench and baying of caged animals
    and humans, to a world of shadows and fear. But some scholars will
    wince at Champlin's judgements on the quality of their translations,
    or at his sharp criticisms: ". . . an exceptionally imaginative
    scholar whose work was more often stimulating than convincing" or
    (targeting a particular article) "a rather haphazard selection of
    evidence". On two occasions he takes pains to note that a recently
    published idea had been anticipated by him or discovered
    independently. None of this detracts from the show above.

    Champlin's spectacle is founded solidly on the great encyclopedic
    endeavours of past and present classical scholars, on the arcane
    skills of Quellenforschung and prosopography, and on a wide reading in
    more than a century of Neroniana. For Nero has fascinated many.

    The weight of words is oppressive, and fine biographies have been
    written already.

    The archaeological investigation of Neronian Rome has made some rapid
    progress in recent years, but no account of Nero could rest on it
    alone. So spectators waiting for the show to begin are entitled to
    ask, What's new? What news of Nero?

    Nero has no introduction, but the blurb promises us "a brilliant
    reconception of a historical account that extends back to Tacitus,
    Suetonius and Cassius Dio" and invites readers to be engaged by its
    "effortless style and artful construction".

    It is difficult to believe the style took no effort. It is vivid and

    Nero's world appears in a series of brilliant tableaux and the central
    character entrances as he horrifies. But the construction of the book
    is certainly full of art. Indeed it ends with a sort of delayed
    introduction in the guise of an epilogue: "this is what the book was
    all about, dear reader, did you guess? were you right?". Here too are
    to be found the traditional apotropaic formulae employed to ward off
    demons and reviewers, the confession of what the book does not
    contain, the complimentary directions to books that include a
    chronologically ordered account of the reign, a full narrative with
    full bibliography, and so on.

    For Champlin offers instead a set of meditations on themes. One
    chapter ponders Nero's identification with the god Apollo, binding
    together music and chariot racing, the cult of the Sun, the colossal
    statue designed for the Golden House, coin images showing the Sun's
    rays coming from behind Nero's head, Christian women dressed as
    Danaids, and much else. Another chapter takes Triumph as its theme,
    making connections between military imagery, Tiridates' submission and
    Nero's return from Greece as victor in all the games of the
    traditional circuit. This presentational technique offers
    opportunities for intuitive leaps. Inevitably, some convince more than
    others. The chapter on myth makes sense of what seem at first sight
    suicidal efforts by Nero to advertise his matricide. Orestes never
    denied his matricide, and suffered for it, but it was justified and at
    last redeemed by divine command. The attempt to convict Nero of having
    started the Great Fire did not persuade me; but this is an old
    controversy that will never be settled.

    Exploring Nero theme by theme has its costs. Some anecdotes and
    quotations appear several times. Equally, some incidents that fall
    between themes do not figure. One recent discovery not discussed by
    Champlin is a great inscription from the port of Ephesus in modern
    Turkey detailing all the tariffs that might be legally charged on
    imports and exports. It is fascinating for all sorts of reasons, but
    especially for a connection with Tacitus' story that Nero proposed
    abolishing all indirect taxes, but was prevented from doing so by the
    Senate. Instead, it seems, a survey was made, listing legal taxes for
    the protection of merchants. Some have seen Nero's gesture as a
    populist stunt, a proposal designed only to show how the Senators were
    illegally implicated in tax-farming. But others find in it support for
    a rather more favourable story of Nero, that of the youth who
    sincerely meant to rule well but was frustrated by others, by
    disappointment at the failure of his first efforts, or by his own

    Finally, the thematic approach obscures chronological relationships,
    and impedes narrative. Champlin complains at one point of the
    complications caused by Nero's biographer Suetonius' "unchronological
    perspective". Yet his own method is Suetonian. Tacitus, by contrast,
    offered a gripping narrative of the collapse of Nero and the first
    Imperial dynasty. It is shaped, in fact, like a fugue, each variation
    marking another turn on the path to ruin. A series of forced suicides,
    unremarkable to begin with, progress through Seneca's Socratic death,
    through the cultivated frivolity with which Petronius - once Nero's
    "arbiter elegantiae" - ends his life, moving on to the (now lost)
    account of Nero's climactic self-destruction. Barthes called it
    "funerary baroque". It is exciting, compelling literature.

    Literature is what is lost when historians of antiquity set about
    their traditional labours of cutting and pasting from rival accounts,
    splicing narratives, reconciling what is not absolutely contradictory
    and, as a last resort, choosing between alternatives in their search
    for the truth. "The line between truth and slander is neither clear
    nor particularly important", proclaims Champlin, modishly. But he does
    not believe it. In a footnote he castigates a recent collection on
    Nero for having "little interest in historical reality". Edward
    Champlin wants to get to the real Nero, to find out who really did
    burn Rome, to work out what all these quasi- triumphs really meant. To
    do this he must butcher, cut and paste with the best of them. But,
    unlike Nero, he keeps his efforts offstage.

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