The ‘artist’ whose vanity and profligacy wasted public resources, the traces of which the following generation spent years trying to destroy and forget about.
The Emperor Nero is well known for being the man who ‘fiddled whilst Rome burnt’. Although fiddled would technically not be an accurate phrase, it adds a touch of poetic license to the ode to the sack of Troy which he performed (according to Tacitus) on a private stage at Antium, whilst the city of Rome was enveloped in flames and all but four districts were raised to the ground. However whilst the story of Nero’s absence and supposed rejoice at the burning of his great city is well known, the story which in my opinion is all the more shocking is the aftermath in which Nero’s licentiousness transcends all known boundaries and he exploits viciously the fire which left so many of his people homeless.
Tacitus’ Annals XV.42 is given over to documenting various building projects undertaken by the Emperor Nero, the aim being to expose him as being exploitative and selfish. Before I turn to the main focus of this article I want to move briefly to another of Nero’s projects. He attempted to build a canal from Lake Avernus in Campania to the River Tibur at Ostia. Tacitus leaves us in no doubt as to what he thought of this effort: an absolute waste of time and money. However is it not the concept of the project itself which Tacitus takes offence at – the shores of the western coast of the Italian peninsula were dangerous, so to secure the grain supply by providing an alternative passage of transport was a sensible suggestion – but it was the manner of such a huge project and the ambition associated with it which troubled him. Tacitus does everything from placing the two ends of the canal at opposing ends of the sentence to outright declaring that ‘even if the desired results were possible the project would not be worth the effort’. However he describes Nero as a ‘lover for all things impossible’ – this unbridled ambition meant Nero would not accept that the natural world presented challenges which realistically could not be overcome. Such an idealist was he that he squandered huge amounts of public money trying to undertake this project even though it would (and did) inevitably fail.
However Nero’s lavishness and wastefulness did not end there. The main focus of Tacitus’ work is on the infamous ‘Golden Palace’. Nero seized the land of the inhabitants and built himself a huge palace on the Palatine hill. Tacitus marvels at this palace: it was the epitome of self-serving ambition. Gilded with gold and precious jewels and containing open fields, forests, a huge lake and sporting ‘unrivalled views’, one does not need to read far into Tacitus’ description to get the idea – the place was huge. In terms of realising one’s ambition, to Nero his palace served as a symbol of his rule. But it also served as a symbol of his family and the corruption of the Imperial system. It is maybe unsurprising then that when Nero was finally driven to suicide by his increasing unpopularity, his successors found the Golden Palace a severe embarrassment.
The following 30 years saw a huge program of ‘de-Nerofication’. In the same way the Allies at the end of World War Two had to rid Germany of all traces of the Nazi regime, a period of history for which the German’s felt a huge amount of collective guilt and discomfort, the Flavian Emperors strove to rid the city of traces of Nero’s grandeur. Not at least because it symbolised the corruption of the very system they were now the leaders of. Whether to appease the Roman masses or simply out of guilt, the Flavian Emperors filled in the grounds of Nero’s palace and having stripped the palace of all its gold and precious stones the whole site was built over. Many public buildings were built on the site: The Baths of Titus, The Coliseum, The Baths of Trajan and The Temple of Venus and Rome. These projects saw a complete reversal in which the land reverted from symbolising the greed and ambition of one man, to being an icon for civic development, which the entire populus could benefit from.
There is no doubt from Tacitus’ tone that Nero’s actions were self-interested and selfish, but despite this it is hard to argue that the ensuing guilt in the political system did not see the land regenerated into something much better. In abusing his office and setting such a negative precedent, his successors if only to restore faith in the political system had to increase the provision of civic facilities. So even if at the time Nero’s own interests saw the ordinary people oppressed and their taxes wasted on his daft schemes; at the end of the day in the subsequent years they did get a better deal. But to finish, focusing on Nero himself, I hope that if the only impression you had of him was that he ‘fiddled whilst Rome burnt’, this short article has helped you to get a more realistic image of the sort of man Nero was. If you are an academic who knows Tacitus inside out already, then hopefully I may have helped you re-evaluate the long term impacts of Nero’s schemes. He was undoubtedly a man of corrupt, licentiousness who valued his own lifestyle and personal advancement over the Empire – but in being so shameless he did at least partially soften the treatment of the people of Rome by the future Emperors.
References from Tacitus XV.42 and Suetonius’ biographies of Nero, Vespasian and Titus.