Emperor Nero, the nice guy who only wanted to entertain

Robert Mendick,Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 24 September 2000 00:00 BST

It is almost 2,000 years overdue, but the world, it seems, owes an apology to the Roman emperor Nero.

It is almost 2,000 years overdue, but the world, it seems, owes an apology to the Roman emperor Nero.

Far from being a sadistic killer who fiddled while Rome burned, Nero was in fact a misunderstood humanitarian, given a bad press by the spin doctors of Ancient Rome.

A book published next month will attempt to put the record straight. It will depict Nero as a relatively benign ruler who was happiest acting and singing before a crowd.

He never, says the book's author Richard Holland, tortured his victims although he was responsible for the murder of his mother Agrippina (herself a serial murderess) as well as his first wife Octavia.

"Nero is regarded as the most loathsome Roman of them all," said Mr Holland, "He certainly had his faults. Yes he murdered his mother; yes he was directly responsible for killing a number of people, including Christians whom he scapegoated for the great fire of Rome.

"But he killed far fewer people than any of his predecessors as emperor. He wasn't interested in the Roman traditions of military might, going out with the legions and conquering barbarians. He wanted to write poetry."

Mr Holland contends that it was Nero's artistic leanings which earned the hatred of the Roman military. They lost power and privilege as a result of his neglect of the army and his interest in acting, often in women's clothes, as well as his predilection for orgies.

"He was a transvestite but certainly not a sadist," said Mr Holland, a former journalist at The Times, who spent the past two years assembling the evidence for his book Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, published on 9 October.

Nero's subsequent portrayal as a heartless tyrant came only after his death at the hands of plotters who forced him to commit suicide by slitting his throat. "The reason the written record is so heavily stacked against Nero was he made two basic mistakes," Mr Holland said. "He alienated the Roman establishment and persecuted the Christians. The problem with the Roman establishment is that they wrote the history books."

The result was that Nero became renowned as the man who fiddled while Rome burned, the image reinforced in 20th-century minds by the sight of Peter Ustinov playing the lyre while the city blazes all around him, in the Hollywood movie Quo Vadis.

Although Nero was indeed an expert player of the kithara, an instrument similar to a lyre, he was not in Rome when the fire broke out, but 35 miles away in his holiday villa on the coast. When he heard the news he galloped back to the capital where he took charge of operations to bring the blaze under control. "The idea that he stood up in the way Peter Ustinov does in the film and plunked away on his kithara in the midst of the flames is just false," Mr Holland said.

In an act of political expediency, he made the Christians scapegoats for the fire, leading to mass executions. It was an inspired ploy for maintaining his popularity but backfired in later years when Christian historians began to assemble the myth, says Mr Holland.

Nero, the great-great-grandson of both the emperor Augustus and Mark Antony, was made emperor of Rome in AD54 at the tender age of 16. He was manoeuvred on to the throne by his mother, who dominated him until he turned on her. Fed up with the plotting behind his back, he had her killed - an understandable act, says Mr Holland, given the dynastic struggles that took place in Ancient Rome.

Nero ruled for 13 years, the same length of time as his predecessor Claudius, whose image, helped by Robert Graves' book I, Claudius, is almost saintly. The truth, says Mr Holland, is that Claudius used to torture his enemies to death, killing off 35 senators and 200 or so other distinguished citizens in his reign.

Nero, on the other hand, had no appetite for sadism (though he enjoyed masochistic sex games, perhaps the result of being dominated by his mother) and was far more likely to spare his enemies, sending them into exile or simply pardoning them.

"He was compassionate," says Mr Holland. "He didn't kill people for fun. I am not trying to whitewash Nero. I just want to put the record straight."

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