The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources by Barrett, Fantham and Yardley

Book Review by Alex Johnston

There’s nothing like ancient Roman literature to help put things into perspective. Here in the United States, our attention is riveted on the capricious and outrageous proclamations and actions of our prospective leaders. “He’s going to build a WALL! She sent illegal EMAILS! He’s friends with Putin! She will undermine the very fabric of our republic, and destroy society as we know it! He won’t even show us his tax returns!!! Canada’s too close – I’m moving to Neptune! We want Bernie!”

Yawn. Americans. Bunch of pansies. Lightweights. You want to talk about depravity and conspiracy from your leaders? How about our boy Nero? His mom marries the local mover and shaker. She cuts his natural born son out of the family business and maneuvers her son into position. To express his gratitude, Nero kills her, and the previous heir to boot. He kills a couple of his wives, and then decides that maybe a boy would me more to his liking, after certain, uh, modifications are made. He plays at being an actor and musician instead of doing his job, and makes all of his rich and powerful associates do likewise – under threat of death. He kills a bunch more people. Torture. Incest. Matricide. Murder.

And if you get a summons to the palace that reads “re: The Human Torch” be warned – he ain’t inviting you to no damn superhero movie!

The Donald and Hillary – threats to mankind? Please. Hell, they even get along with their kids! What kind of legitimate ruler doesn’t worry about a family member slipping poison into his dinner? And we’re going to entrust the Republic to one of these lightweights? No wonder people quit voting!

Of course, we all know the general story. Bad boys Nero and Caligula are likely the two most famous of the Roman emperors. This is understandable. Our fascination with depraved and unworthy leaders is insatiable – we can work ourselves into a hot lather over even their slightest peccadilloes. But how much of what we think we know about Nero is true? Was he really that bad?

One way to find out is to read The Emperor Nero, by Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley. They could have called it Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Nero, But Were REALLY Afraid to Ask! It’s all here in this amazing book. The subtitle is “A Guide to the Ancient Sources,” and that’s exactly what it is – a sourcebook. The book is divided into topical sections, covering the major events and relationships in Nero’s lifetime. The sourcing is exhaustive, with material from Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and many others.

The authors recognized that there would likely be different audiences for the book, and they offered a helpful guide to reading it in the preface. The material is very heavily annotated – it’s not uncommon to have multiple footnotes in the same sentence. That can be challenging for the general reader who is used to a more narrative format. I am such a reader, and I found myself getting bogged down by the continual leaping from sentence to footnote and back again. The authors understood this, and suggested that the serious general reader might read only the section introductions and translations, and generally ignore the commentary. The more serious advanced students would want to grapple with all of the details. Once I gave myself permission to take the authors’ advice, and stuck to the introductions and those footnotes that I thought I would find interesting, I got into a flow, and found myself really enjoying the book. The authors are able storytellers, and the material is fascinating. But I also write historical fiction, and not all of my reading is strictly for pleasure. If my literary wanderings lead me to Nero, I’ll be grabbing this book first thing for research!

So back to the question – was Nero really as bad as all of that – like in the stories and movies and everything? Well, this is ancient history; a lot is uncertain, there are two sides to every story, and he might not have burned Rome for the real estate – in fact, he might have played an active role in preventing the fire’s spread. And what mother wouldn’t love a son who praises her beauty? Okay, so he was referring to her corpse, which he lovingly created, but still. Touching. Wait – did he actually do that? Even Tacitus says maybe yes, maybe no. So maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

No. The authors are scrupulous in presenting both sides of all of the stories from the various sources, but we are nonetheless led to one inescapable conclusion – this guy really was an asshole. He was fated to be such. His own father even proclaimed, according to Dio, that “It is impossible for any good man to be born from me and this woman (Nero’s mother).” He nailed it.

In fact, there are a lot of bad actors in this story (the pun is intentional). Turncoats, murderers, cowards, and a repugnant torturer named Tigellinus. Not many heroes, but a couple of heroines, in the persons of the servant, Pythias, and the conspirator, Epicharis. Both underwent severe torture without breaking, unlike their male counterparts, who couldn’t turn on each other fast enough. Epicharis had to be carried to her second day of punishment in a chair, because her limbs were all dislocated. Her tormenters had been particularly vicious with her, because how would it look if they were defeated by a girl? But she did exactly that, in a way, using the chair. And, Pythias – oh, man! As the loathsome Tigellinus was subjecting her to the most severe torture to get her to turn on her mistress, she spat on him and said: “My mistress’s private parts are cleaner than your mouth, Tigellinus.” Touché!

So yeah, there were some pearls among the swine. The authors (and their sources) portray the good and the bad, and it’s all great reading, for the general reader and scholar alike. If you’re into Nero, you will want to get this book, if it’s not already in your library.

As I was finishing reading this book last week, I saw in an online article that one of the authors, Elaine Fantham, had just died, on July 11. The article, appearing in the Globe and Mail, referred to her in its title as a “’rock star’ of the classics world.” She was 83 years old, and the article clearly illustrates a life well-lived. My condolences to her family and friends.

Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.

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