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Nero: The Two Versions

Michael Grant offers the tale of Rome's most infamous emperor from both his fans and detractors.

A marble bust of Nero, Antiquarium of the Palatine.
A marble bust of Nero, Antiquarium of the Palatine.

Every epoch has had its say about Nero. But perhaps the crescendo of denunciation was reached in the 19th century. De Quincey saw in Nero “the first in that long line of monsters who ... under the title of Caesars dishonoured humanity.” To Merivale he was “the despot released from all fear of God and overwhelmed at the same time with the fear of man ... who has no equal in history, to whom no analogy may be found save in the pathological annals of the scaffold.” Coming down to details, Merivale saw Nero as vulgar, timid and sanguinary—a good description, for whatever his artistic and imaginative qualities may have been, rarely has any ruler so thoroughly combined criminality with fatuousness.

These qualities are profusely illustrated in the surviving ancient accounts of his reign, by Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius. Though they wrote quite a long time after his death, all three were strongly influenced by the hatred felt for Nero, during his lifetime, by highly placed Romans. These writers do not suffer from any lack of abusive material. When Tacitus had denigrated Tiberius, the intractability of his subject-matter—for Tiberius was glum but not unspeakable—had caused him to adopt, for greater conviction, a lurid, hinting, smearing style. His account of Nero, whose deplorable actions speak for themselves, can afford to be more straightforward.

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