Unholy Roman Emperor (Nero by Mary Beard)

The murder of his mother Agrippina was one of the most notorious of the emperor Nero’s crimes. By 59 AD, impatient with her power and, so the story went, with her opposition to his new girlfriend, the young ruler decided on matricide. According to several Roman writers, his first plan was to send her out to sea in a specially designed collapsible boat, but she managed to swim to shore. So he finally resorted to a more conventional strategy and sent a hit man round to her villa to finish her off. For ancient observers the whole incident, true or not, was a telling combination of the faintly ridiculous amateur dramatics of imperial power and sheer terror.
The scene has appealed to artists ever since: not so much the bungled boat trick, but the aftermath of the murder, and in particular its effect on Nero himself. A tall story grew up in the Middle Ages about how Nero became obsessed with seeing the very place in which he had been formed, and several medieval manuscripts picture the emperor-turned-dissector looking on, as his mother’s abdomen is cut open and her uterus revealed. Later images, less bloody but no less chilling, focus on the psychology and the desires of the killer. One memorable late nineteenth-century painting by J. W. Waterhouse pictures Nero as a moody teenager (in fact he was in his early twenties) lying on his bed, head in hands, overcome with remorse at what he has just done. Others recreate the moment when he comes to gaze at his mother’s dead and naked body.
Just such a canvas features in Lust and Crime: Nero – the myth in art, an eye-opening exhibition on show at the Simeonstift in Trier. By a pupil of Ingres, Eugène Appert (1814–67), it plainly points to the ancient gossip that Nero and Agrippina had once been lovers, and that what he eliminated was an inconvenient “ex” as well as an inconvenient mother. The emperor is shown pulling back a sheet to reveal her dead body tumbling off a bed, almost as if in ecstasy. His eyes, and ours, are not on her uterus, but on her breasts. It is a painting that turns murder into incestuous necrophilia, and makes even the innocent passing viewer feel complicit in the uncomfortable erotics of the scene.
Lust and Crime (a cheesier title than it deserves, in both German and English) is one of a trio of current shows in Trier, all focusing on different aspects of Nero, and on his ancient and modern reputation, from godlike golden boy to matricide. The smallest of the three is devoted to the emperor’s persecutions of the Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. It was on this occasion that Nero is said to have sung and played his lyre from a safe vantage point (“fiddling while Rome burned”), before rounding up a marginal religious group as scapegoats, in the absence of anyone more plausible to blame for what was generally held to be arson, and in order to deflect the charge from himself. Displayed appropriately enough in the museum attached to the cathedral, Nero and the Christians includes one or two stunning pieces (the sixteenth-century silver cross, loaned for the exhibition by the cathedral at Minden, with an exquisite first-century cameo of Nero set at its very centre, is a classic and extraordinarily beautiful case of emasculating the pagan enemy by appropriation). But overall it is a rather worthy affair that ends with an ill-fitting piece of evangelical agitprop. “Nero for Kids”, as it is misleadingly called, turns out to be less concerned with the question “Wer war Kaiser Nero?” than with “Wer ist Jesus?” (past and present tenses distinguished, I presume, on purpose).
Much larger and more impressive is Nero – Emperor, Artist and Tyrant at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum close by, which lays the groundwork of the emperor’s biography, showing what can be reconstructed of his world and of his contemporary and conflicted Roman image (villain, victim of a hostile propaganda campaign, or a bit of both?). Biographical exhibitions of this kind have a tendency to be flooded with lookalike portrait busts, over-confidently, and in some cases wrongly, identified as the emperor, his wives or close relatives. Nero is not entirely immune from this. I have never understood, for example, why on earth a small, fragmentary head from Fishbourne Roman “Palace” in Sussex should be considered a head of the young Nero rather than of some Romano-British grandee, possibly aping imperial style; I was no more convinced by seeing it in Trier than I have ever been before. And not all of the designers’ attempts to enliven the story work in the way they must have hoped. I rather liked a roll-call of Nero’s alleged victims being projected, one by one, above a headless Roman statue (with the hints of decapitation that implies). But the revolving ceiling with signs of the zodiac in a room that is meant to evoke the revolving dining room in the imperial “Golden House” is far too stagey even for the theatrical Nero; and it captures the elegant luxury of palatial living much less powerfully than some of the tiny inlaid figures, also on display in the exhibition, that once really did decorate the palace walls.
That said, generic difficulties apart, some very well chosen loans and the imaginative choice of themes beyond straight biography (from financial crises and Nero’s relations with Greece to his role as artist and artistic patron) make this a striking and absorbing show. Sometimes it is a question of simply being able to see the objects far better here than in their home locations. Anyone who wants a chance to get up close to the famous fresco from Pompeii depicting the deadly riot that broke out in the amphitheatre in the middle of Nero’s reign would do better to go to see it in Trier than in the National Museum in Naples. And on display, too, is a nice fragment – showing one of Nero’s new buildings – of the vast, detailed plan of the city of Rome that was inscribed on marble in the early third century AD; one of the most intriguing survivals from the ancient world, this is usually locked up in storage, well away from public view.
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