Was Nero cruel? British Museum offers hidden depths to Roman emperor (www.theguardian.com)

Nero: the man behind the myth brings together more than 200 artefacts from across Europe

Nero, one of the most notorious Roman emperors of them all, murdered his mother and two wives, ruthlessly persecuted early Christians, including Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and even set fire to Rome itself – famously fiddling amid the flames – to make room to build himself a vast, luxurious palace.

Or did he? That is the question posed by an exhibition opening at the British Museum next month which seeks, if not to rehabilitate Nero’s reputation, at least to challenge some of history’s assumptions about him.

Assembled in “nail-biting” fashion during Europe’s latest lockdown, and launching just days after the museum itself is expected to reopen its doors, Nero: the man behind the myth will bring together more than 200 artefacts that, say its curators, present a more complex picture of a figure long reviled in popular culture.

These include a statue of the young Nero aged about 12, already with his distinctive close-cropped fringe and prominent ears, who just four years later would become ruler of the vast Roman world, and the famous bronze head found in a Suffolk river and probably torn from a statue toppled during Boudicca’s destruction of Colchester in AD61.

The Fenwick hoard, hastily buried by fleeing Romans during that raid and discovered only in 2014, will be displayed as part of the exhibition for the first time, an example of the turbulence of the emperor’s 14-year reign.

Nero’s empire was certainly cruel – a slave chain found in Anglesey is witness to a culture of ruthless exploitation which, the British Museum’s curator Thorsten Opper said, is “a red thread that goes through the exhibition”.

But contrary to the “brutally biased and partisan” accounts of his reign, written by the ruling elites in the decades after his death in AD68, the evidence shows Nero was popular among the masses. The eruption of Vesuvius more than a decade after his death preserved a lot of graffiti in praise of the late emperor, said Opper, an example of which from Pompeii will be on display.

“Nero’s memory was contested after his death, and that really was divided along class divisions. You have a very hostile elite, but we also know that the common people in Rome, the plebs urbana, honored his memory for decades after his death. Already, you have an intriguing story with accounts that don’t quite match up. And this is really what we want to investigate in the story.” [ … ]

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