Nero exhibition at British Museum

Dave Kellaway completes his cultural highlights of the week with a review of the Nero exhibition at the British Museum.

A lot of us remember one thing about the Roman emperor, Nero.  Yes, he was the one who fiddled while Rome burned.  Peter Ustinov recreated the scene in Quo Vadis a 1951 film. He was seen as debauched and violent. This exhibition, which continues until October 21, completely demolishes a lot of the inaccurate history of Nero and his reign. 

It is a good argument in favour of understanding history as a continual re-examination of the past in terms of new evidence and new theories. The rightwing defenders of national identity and culture,  including much of the Tory party, has a fixed lump vision of history that exists as sort of neutral, untouchable world that we just have to respect, recreate or repackage – its essential lessons being universal and unchangeable. Hence their obsession with defending slavers’ statues at all costs. 

Once Nero fell all his statues were actually torn down. His reputation as a mad, lecherous dictator is based on taking the classical writers  like Tacitus at face value.  It is the  equivalent to an historian in a hundred years time taking Piers Morgan’s tweets as an accurate portrayal of today’s  reality.

An exhibit shows how the social relations of a slave society worked in practice – if one member of a group of slaves in a household seriously broke the rules then all the slaves  were killed. Slavery was linked to a ruling class based on military might and conquest.  Slaves captured in battle were put to work on infrastructure projects like roads and one of Nero’s vanity projects, a canal across the Corinth peninsula. Like Johnson’s Thames bridge or airport island, it was abandoned.

Although politics and class struggles are fundamentally different in a slave mode of production there are some continuities with today.  Nero’s capacity to rule was based on his ability to get a consensus or neutralise any challenges from the three key social/political forces – the senate, the military and the plebs.  By definition  the slaves were different; you just controlled and repressed them apart from freeing a limited number to use their skills and to demonstrate some hope of social promotion. Even in a time with more routine violence, politics mattered and you could not maintain power without building alliances and wining support. Unlike the myths,  Nero was  quite good at gaining support from among the plebs. There is evidence shown of pro-Nero graffiti and documents showing there was some love for him.

One way he used to gained some support was his bread and circuses policies.  The empire’s expansion meant it was relatively easy for Rome to provide its citizens with a decent living standard, fuelled by wheat and other products from the Mediterranean fertile basin. Healso set up spectacular games involving chariot races, gladiators and wild, exotic animals and extravagant theatrical productions. Nero participated actively in some of these events – going to the games in Greece for example. 

Providing entertainment to distract and amuse the masses is nothing new. Violent clashes between rival fans happened then too. A fresco is reproduced (below) showing people from Nucera (today’s Nocera which I know well) fighting with gangs from Pompeii (look at the top right of the image):

Although the Senate had formal debates and government administration was complex, politics was violent and brutal. If you were exposed as plotting against the powers that be and you did not have the required support you were  expected to commit suicide. When the Senate turned on Nero and the military abandoned him. he had to kill himself at quite a young age. Today’s Tory ministers don’t even resign when they are utterly incompetent or corrupt, let alone fall on their swords!

There is no documentary evidence that he played the fiddle as Rome burnt or that he was indifferent to the fate of Rome’s people. His regime made great efforts to rebuild the city, including a magnificent new palace. Some fine decorations are displayed in the show.

We see how his Empire, like all empires, operated. Artefacts are shown from Britain which had been occupied by Roman troops but Boudicca, the tribal chief, mobilised an uprising that managed to destroy the Roman garrison town of Camulodunum, today’s Colchester. Just as with today’s American empire, extreme violence with superior technology was employed to finally repress the revolt.

This exhibition is well worth a visit if you are able to get to London or live near it.  The British Museum often does a good job allowing us to look at the past with new eyes.  A negative side is that is does that via sponsorship with BP, a fossil fuels corporation helping to destroy human history itself.

Two actors playing royalty

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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