Nero Matricide, music, and murder in imperial Rome

Anthony Everitt

Book - 2022

"The Roman emperor Nero has long been the very image of a bad ruler--cruel, vain, and incompetent. He committed incest with his mother, who had schemed and killed to place him on the throne, and later murdered her. He supposedly set fire to Rome and thrummed his lyre as it burned. Afterward he cleared the charred ruins of the city center and, in their place, built a vast palace. Historians of his day despised him, and it's their recollections that have been passed down through the ages. But, in all of the horror, there is a mystery. For a long time after his deposition and suicide, anonymous hands laid flowers on his grave. The monster was loved. In this nuanced biography, Anthony Everitt, the celebrated biographer of classical Gr...eece and Rome, reveals the contradictions inherent in the reign of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus and offers a reappraisal of his life. Everitt also brings ancient Rome to life, showing the crowded streets that made the city prone to fires, political intrigues that could turn deadly in an instant, and vast building projects that continuously remade the Roman landscape. In this teeming and politically unstable world, Nero did terrible things, but the larger empire was also well managed under his rule. He presided over a diplomatic triumph with the rival Parthian empire, and Everitt teams up with investigative journalist Roddy Ashworth to tell the epic story of Rome's conquest of Britain and British queen Boudica's doomed revolt against Nero's legions. Nero was also a champion of arts and culture whose own great love was music, and he won the loyalty of the lower classes with great spectacles. In many ways he was ahead of his time, particularly in the way he looked to Greece and the eastern half of the empire as crucial to Rome's future. Nero had a vision for Rome, but, wracked by insecurity and guilt-ridden over assassinations he ordered, perhaps he never really had the stomach to rule it"--

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New York : Random House [2022]
Main Author
Anthony Everitt (author)
Other Authors
Roddy Ashworth (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xxi, 415 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps, genealogical table, ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Maps
  • Julio-Claudian Family Tree
  • Preface
  • 1. The New Order
  • 2. A Family at War
  • 3. The Improbable Emperor
  • 4. Young Hopeful Gentleman
  • 5. A Dish of Mushrooms
  • 6. Best of Mothers
  • 7. "My Foolish Love"
  • 8. Free at Last!
  • 9. The Turning Point
  • 10. The Queen is Dead
  • 11. Fire! Fire!
  • 12. All the Conspirators
  • 13. The Armenian Question
  • 14. "I Dream'd That Greece Might Still Be Free"
  • 15. Downfall
  • 16. Loose Ends
  • Acknowledgments
  • Timeline
  • Glossary
  • A Note on Sources
  • Bibliography
  • Notes
  • Photograph Credits
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Everitt (Alexander the Great) and journalist Ashworth deliver a nuanced biography of Roman emperor Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 BCE. Spotlighting the "contradiction" that Nero was loved by the Roman people but despised by the elite, the authors explain that the nature of the Roman Principate, which had no clear principle of succession, helped foster Nero's suspicions about members of his court. Everitt and Ashworth also detail how Nero's mother, Agrippina, helped put her son on the throne, but sought to control his private life and policy decisions. Even after Nero murdered her, Agrippina "linger as a presence throughout her son's restless, guilt-ridden life." Though Nero's advisers, especially Burrus and Seneca, helped him keep the Roman empire "well managed," he eventually tired of their control, abandoned all pretense of shared governance with the Senate, and embraced autocracy. The authors also explain how Nero's love of Greek culture and his public performances as a charioteer and singer crossed a line with Roman elite, solidifying their belief that he wasn't fit to rule. Though Everitt and Ashworth don't break much new ground, they evoke the period with wit and precision. Ancient history buffs will be pleased. (Nov.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Historian Everitt (Cicero; Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome) and investigative journalist Ashworth present a deep dive into the life and times of Roman emperor Nero, who reigned from C.E. 54 until he died in C.E. 68. With painstaking detail, the authors investigate surviving ancient original texts written mainly by Nero's enemies, and unconfirmed rumors passed down through the ages. They reveal surprising evidence that ordinary Romans loved Nero and that his rule wasn't much worse than the other Caesars. This refreshing work offers a balanced view of Nero as an insecure young man who probably never should have been vested with power and authority. The background information about the life and times of Romans during his reign helps clarify the contradiction between Nero's sordid reputation and his connection with the middle and lower classes. Award-winning narrator Greg Patmore's baritone voice steadily guides listeners through this intriguing, full-on story of the great-great-grandson of Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. VERDICT A commendable study of the disinformation, gossip, and faulty scholarship that has clouded this infamous Roman Caesar, who just wanted to be a musician and poet. Highly recommended for large public and academic library collections.--Dale Farris

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A new biography of the notorious emperor who, though hardly a saint, "was a more effective ruler than he has been given credit for." Everitt, prolific British historian of the ancient world, and journalist Ashworth write that few Romans regretted the collapse of the republic, a ramshackle system that dissolved in civil war. Almost everyone, the authors included, agrees that the winner, Octavian, later Augustus, began the empire on a high note. His rule, from 31 B.C.E. to 14 C.E., was absolute but largely peaceful and not terribly corrupt. His successors did not live up to his standards, and his bloodline ended with the widely reviled Nero and another civil war. The authors admit that none of the half-dozen Roman historians on whom modern scholars rely were contemporaries, and most portray Nero as an incompetent despot with an "exotic" sex life. However, Everitt and Ashworth add that not all of this is false and that he never wanted to be emperor. "Given the choice," they write, "he would much rather have been a poet and professional musician." He became emperor because of his fiercely ambitious mother, Agrippina, wife of his predecessor, Claudius, who also (according to contemporaries) poisoned her husband. Aside from the usual debauchery, Nero seems to have begun as a tolerable ruler, cultivating the Senate and army and allowing administrators to run the empire. Five years into his reign, he murdered Agrippina, a threat to his growing power. This seemed to mark the beginning of his decline, after which his behavior became more erratic, cruel, and extravagant. A revolt in the provinces spread to Rome, from which Nero fled and later committed suicide. The authors present a portrait that is decidedly less skeptical of the ancient historians than many other similar histories, and it makes for page-turning, informative reading for students of the era. A nice addition to the literature about ancient Rome. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 The New Order The youth was seventeen years old. His face had the temporary good looks of the teenager, but an observant eye could detect the unappealing lineaments of the man-to-be. He was of average height, with light blond hair and blue eyes. He was somewhat shortsighted. His neck was too thick, his body spotty and, apparently, malodorous. His legs were spindly and his stomach protruded. This was Nero--or, to give him his full name and titles, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. It was the autumn of a.d. 54 and he had just become emperor of Rome. Surrounded by senior politicians, all wearing the dark togas of mourning, he was leading the funeral rites of his predecessor and adoptive father, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, whom we know more succinctly as Claudius. The ceremony unfolded on the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars, a five-hundred-acre grassland that stretched away north of Rome's city walls. It was a lung for the world's first megalopolis, which was home to an estimated one million inhabitants. The Campus was a park, dotted with temples and other public buildings, and people of every class escaped there from the city's noise, crowds, and smells and engaged in leisure pursuits. The wealthy raced around in chariots or exercised their horses, while those of lesser means amused themselves with playing ball games, trundling hoops, or wrestling. When necessary, there was plenty of space for military maneuvers, as the field's name in honor of Mars, the god of war, indicates. Some of the ground was marshy and there were frequent inundations. A central swamp was organized into a small lake. In the west, the river Tiber rolled along on its way to the sea, and to the east and southeast, hills closed off the scene. A commentator of the day observed that these distant features "present to the eye the appearance of a painted backdrop." Indeed, the overall impression was of a very large stage set, with a fine panorama from the vantage point of Rome's citadel, the Capitol. Today the mood was melancholy and given over to state solemnities. A long procession wound its way through the city to the music of a funeral march. The late emperor had lain in state for five days and now was conveyed on a flower-festooned bier, made from ivory and decorated with golden fittings and purple cloth. The body lay in a concealed coffin and a life-sized wax image of Claudius was visible above. Senators carried another gold statue of him, and a third represented him on a chariot. Behind the bier walked his relatives, led by Nero, their heads veiled. Women of the family expressed, or pretended, their uncontrollable grief by wailing at full throttle, ripping their clothes and tearing at their cheeks. In shocking contrast, a group of specially hired comedians clowned around; in a long-standing tradition of extracting farce from tragedy, one of them mercilessly caricatured the late emperor. Next in the cortege came, one might say, the resurrected dead. Down the generations leading aristocratic clans commissioned realistic death masks, or imagines, made from wax, of their most distinguished members. These were worn at funerals by men who resembled the originals in body shape and size. They rode in chariots and were preceded by functionaries carrying the insignia of the public offices they had held in life. The long line of mourners paused in the Forum, the city's main square, and Nero, as his heir and next of kin, delivered a eulogy. Claudius's "ancestors" sat in a row on ivory chairs and listened to the youthful emperor deliver a polished speech in praise of his adoptive father's achievements. An impressed Greek historian asked who would not be inspired by the sight of these personalities from the past "all together and as if alive and breathing?" Eulogy over, the cavalcade left the city and entered the green plain. It came to a halt beside an open-air crematorium, or ustrinum, reserved for the imperial family. Between a circular iron fence and a white marble inner wall, black poplars shaded an enclosure where Claudius's pyre, an assemblage of wooden logs arranged in the shape of an altar and papered with dark leaves, was waiting. The corpse and the couch were placed on the top of the pyre, and Nero put a torch to the whole elaborate ensemble. Perfumes were thrown on the flames, also cups of oil, trinkets, well-used clothes, dishes of food that the deceased had especially liked, and other items of sentimental value. When the pyre had burned down, the embers were soaked in wine. The bones were gathered up, placed in an urn, and carried to the place of burial. This was the vast Mausoleum of Augustus, founder of the ruling dynasty. Erected about seventy-five years previously near the river Tiber, it was a short walk from the ustrinum. One of the largest tombs in the ancient world, the monument stood about 150 feet high and 300 feet in diameter. Above a high drum, built solidly of concentric rings of concrete faced with marble, rose an earthen mound covered with low-spreading evergreen junipers. On its apex stood a statue of Augustus that overlooked the city of which he was once the absolute ruler. A tunnel led from the entrance to an internal corridor that encircled a hall with wall niches that housed the burned detritus of the imperial dead in golden urns. In the center of the Mausoleum a final chamber had been set aside for Augustus himself. Years had passed and his descendants were numerous. There were few spaces left, but room was found for a new occupant. Nero watched as leading businessmen, barefoot and wearing unbelted tunics as tokens of grief, deposited what was left of Claudius in its niche. Nero's reign had well and truly begun. The teenaged ruler would be forgiven if he felt nervous and ill-equipped for the task ahead. He had no experience of politics and governance. However, at the Mausoleum he had at his disposal an invaluable learning tool. Just outside the entrance he could see two pillars with bronze plaques on which Augustus had had his memoirs inscribed, proudly on public display. Copies had been widely distributed throughout the Roman empire, which stretched from Spain in the west to the river Euphrates in the east. The memoirs (called Res Gestae, or Things Done) are concise and exemplify propaganda at its finest. They must have featured in Nero's educational syllabus. Augustus's rules still ran the empire, and his descendant needed to master them if he was to make a success of his reign. Res Gestae was not simply a self-serving account of a life, for it set out an agenda for future emperors to consider and offered some attractive policy solutions. Nero would be wise to pay attention, and his career suggests that that was exactly what he did. He admired his great-great-grandfather and felt a special link to him. Little in the document is obviously untrue, for knowledgeable contemporaries would have cried foul; but there are slippery omissions and elisions. The author conceals as much as he reveals, as when he writes: At the age of nineteen [in 44 b.c.] on my own responsibility and at my own expense I raised an army, with which I successfully championed the liberty of the Republic when it was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction. . . . ​I drove into exile the murderers of my father, avenging their crime. . . . ​I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy. . . . ​The whole of Italy swore allegiance to me of its own free will and demanded me as the leader in the war in which I was victorious at Actium. In these few deceptively simple sentences Augustus encapsulates the brutal civil war that followed the assassination of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March in 44 b.c. It is remarkable that he came to prominence while still in his teens; we may guess that this boosted his juvenile successor's self-confidence, for it showed that so far as Romans were concerned, youth was no bar to supreme power. When discussing his victories over other Romans, Augustus tactfully names no names and makes a point of stressing his clemency. This is because when peace came, he knew he would need the active support of the political class, or what was left of it after long years of bloodletting, if he was to govern successfully his vast and sprawling inheritance. Also, he had learned from Caesar's violent death and meant to avoid the assassins' knives. Safety lay in forgiving his enemies. The gods rewarded this commitment to reconciliation with a long life--a lesson that Nero took to heart and that was to be the keynote of the early years of his reign. There was much he would be wise to learn from his forebear's style of government--a mix of innovation with convention, openness with discreet despotism. Excerpted from Nero: Matricide, Music, and Murder in Imperial Rome by Anthony Everitt, Roddy Ashworth All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.