Jump to content
UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums
Sign in to follow this  

Nero: Victim of Propaganda? Reevaluation of the Great Fire of 64 AD

Recommended Posts

is it time to reassess Nero and his legacy?



Roman chroniclers, trying to curry favour with his anti-Nero political successors, claimed that around two-thirds of Rome had been utterly destroyed or badly damaged by the conflagration – and that line was faithfully reported by subsequent historians across the millennia.

But now, the new investigation – conducted by British archaeologist and historian Professor Anthony Barrett  – has revealed for the first time that only 15-20 percent of the city was actually destroyed. Much of the crucial information, that he has drawn on, is ancient fire-damage evidence, unearthed over recent years by Italian and French archaeologists.

Professor Barrett's research - due to be published in book form later this month -  has, for the first time, reconstructed the extraordinary political story of how and why the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD was exaggerated and then exploited for politically revolutionary purposes.


Very Stable Genius GIF | Gfycat



His complete disregard for upper-class behavioural norms scandalised the elites – but did not damage his standing among the poor.




Summary: Much of the history of ancient Rome we accept comes to us through sources that were trying to curry favor with the senatorial elite. It would be appropriate to reassess accepted historical narratives with this distorted perspective in mind.


guy also known as gaius 

Edited by guy

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

The problem exists less because of deliberate bias but because most of the pro-Nero accounts have been lost to us. There are clues that point to a somewhat different situation. Trajan for instance recorded that the first five years of Nero's reign were the best managed government of all. This was of course the time when his mother held him in check and advisors were still able to guide him. But we know that Nero threw off these restraints and to be honest, Trajan's appraisal doesn't exclude the tale we know from Suetonius. 

This post made me pull Nero by Richard Holland off the shelf again. I haven't read it in years. I'm reminded of how later Caesars identified with Nero, casting him as something admirable and emulatable. How his works were progressed after Nero's death. How Nero's legend made him alive when he was known to be gone (Shades of Elvis Presley and Adolf Hitler). 

I don't think we can ignore the worst of Nero. This is the problem. He was so larger than life, one of the few that emerge from history as A+ List celebs, that deep down, many of us feel a strange reluctance to blame him and instead indulge in a spot of adoration for someone for whom rules were of no hindrance. 

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Here is an interesting review of Edward Champlin's "Nero." According to this review (I believe written by Professor Mary Beard), Champlin reassess Nero's legacy and possibly rehabilitates his reputation.


Champlin has done an excellent job in pulling together other, less familiar examples of the emperor’s posthumous popularity. He cites the more than life-size statue put up in Tralles, an important city in Asia Minor, a century after his death, and some second-century mirrors decorated with Neronian coins. This isn’t the treatment usually accorded to a monster. Even more striking is the story from the Babylonian Talmud which has Nero converting to Judaism, marrying, and becoming the ancestor of one of the greatest second-century rabbis, Rabbi Meir. Christians too, on occasion, could imagine Nero in a very different mode from the Antichrist. The sixth-century historian-cum-fantasist John Malalas gives him the honour of executing Pontius Pilate: ‘Why did he hand the Lord Christ over to the Jews,’ his Nero asks, ‘for he was an innocent man and worked miracles?’




Another revisionist history of Nero is John Drinkwater's "Nero: Emperor and Court." The book was described as an attempt to show Nero as a reluctant and insecure ruler who preferred to show his real or imagined skills in art and sport.



 Suetonius tells us that Nero worked very hard to get good at singing. “He...conscientiously undertook all the usual exercises for strengthening and developing his voice. He would also lie on his back with a slab of lead on his chest, use enemas and emetics to keep down his weight, and refrain from eating apples and every other food considered deleterious to the vocal cords,” Suetonius reports, adding cattily that Nero’s voice remained “feeble and husky.”

Even the poetry Nero wrote himself was apparently pretty good; the Roman poet Martial tells us so


Nero was an accomplished athlete as well. Suetonius is impressed that Nero can pilot a four-camel rig around the racetrack. In other references, we find Nero at the reins of a ten-horse chariot. That was the ancient Roman equivalent of a Formula One car. Nero won races in it. “If Nero could do that, he is no fool. He is intelligent, he is fit. On his own terms, he is to be taken seriously and he’s not to be projected as a clown,” Drinkwater concludes.

Those qualities made the young Nero very popular with the common man. He had an exuberant personality and enjoyed being out in public. He was no snob and remembered the names and faces of people up and down the social ladder. All in all, he comes off as a fairly likable young fellow.


Then, of course, Nero's supposed treatment of the Christians has to be explained by Drinkwater:



Never mind that Nero has an alibi for Peter’s death: There’s no evidence Peter was ever in Rome. Paul was there, from A.D. 60 to 62, and he may even have been killed there, but that was well before the so-called “Neronian persecution.” But none of that matters much anymore. Early Christians and the Flavians set their stamp on the written record early, and they held a grudge.



The Christians whom Nero did kill were never thrown to the lions before a crowd of baying spectators in the Colosseum, as the story goes. For one thing, the Colosseum wasn’t even built yet. More to the point, from what we know, Nero had little taste for the kind of blood sport we associate with popular Roman entertainment. As a philhellene, he would much rather watch a good chariot race than see two armed men slice each other up. 

The Christians Nero executed for setting the Great Fire were mostly burned in his own gardens, which conforms to the standard Roman legal practice of fitting the punishment to the crime. And that appears to have been the end of it, at least at the time.



These are two more interesting books to add to the historical revisionism of Nero.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Map of the Roman Empire