Tacitus’ Nero-narrative: Rocky-Horror-Picture Show and Broadway on the Tiber

Tacitus’ portrayal of Nero is in some respects more restrained than those of other contemporary sources. Examples from the set text include his selective Taci-turn-ity in reporting Nero’s alleged sex crimes and his judiciously aporetic stance on whether the emperor was responsible for setting Rome afire. But his Nero, too, is a murderous pervert with disgusting inclinations (such as a penchant for Greek culture...) and a prolific contributor to imperial Grand Guignol (as the French call theatre that specializes in naturalistic horror shows) – to begin with, unwittingly so. Here is the first sentence of the Nero-narrative (Annals 13.1.1–2):

Prima novo principatu mors Iunii Silani proconsulis Asiae ignaro Nerone per dolum Agrippinae paratur, non quia ingenii violentia exitium inritaverat, segnis et dominationibus aliis fastiditus, adeo ut C. Caesar pecudem auream eum appellare solitus sit: verum Agrippina fratri eius L. Silano necem molita ultorem metuebat, crebra vulgi fama anteponendum esse vixdum pueritiam egresso Neroni et imperium per scelus adepto virum aetate composita insontem, nobilem et, quod tunc spectaretur, e Caesarum posteris: quippe et Silanus divi Augusti abnepos erat. haec causa necis.

[The first death under the new principate, that of Junius Silanus, proconsul of Asia, was brought to pass, without Nero’s knowledge, by treachery on the part of Agrippina. It was not that he had provoked his doom by violence of temper, lethargic as he was, and so completely disdained by former despotisms that Gaius Caesar [sc. Caligula] usually styled him ‘the golden sheep’; but Agrippina, who had procured the death of his brother Lucius Silanus, feared him as a possible avenger, since it was a generally expressed opinion of the multitude that Nero, barely emerged from boyhood and holding the empire in consequence of a crime, should take second place to a man of settled years, innocent character, and noble family, who – a point to be regarded in those days – was counted among the descendents of the Caesars: for Silanus, like Nero, was the son of a great-grandchild of Augustus. This was the cause of death...]

The imperial principle is evidently in play here: the book doesn’t start with the new year and the new consuls, but with a new series of imperial murders. As such it looks back to the beginning of the Tiberius narrative – and forward to the set text:50 later on in his reign, the grown-up Nero takes care of business himself and kills off another Junius Silanus without the help of his mother (by then herself a murder victim) because he was a potential pretender to the throne, having similar dynastic credentials. The incident is part of the set text: see 15.37. More generally, Tacitus makes it abundantly clear that all of Nero’s reign lives up to its ominous beginnings, as the youthful emperor starts to ring the changes on murder. A (very) selective survey may include reference to his ‘fratricide’, insofar as Nero does away with his stepbrother Britannicus, the son of his predecessor Claudius and third wife Messalina (Agrippina, the mother of Nero, was Claudius’ fourth spouse).51 Matricide follows, the gruesome slaughter of Agrippina.52 Nero’s two wives Octavia and Poppaea Sabina (implicated in the murder of her predecessor) fall victim to, respectively, deliberate and accidental ‘uxoricide’, the latter combined with ‘foeticide’: Poppaea was pregnant at the time when Nero, in a fit of anger, kicked her to death.53 The set text concludes with the unsuccessful attempt at the ‘senicide’ of Seneca, a failure made up for in the wake of the Pisonian conspiracy.54 The surviving portion of the Annals ends with a killing spree (or wave of suicides) that includes the death of Thrasea Paetus.55 In addition, ancient sources – though not necessarily Tacitus – charge Nero with ‘urbicide’, that is, the killing of the city of Rome in the great fire (Ann. 15.38–4, part of the set text).

But Subrius Flavus, one of the conspirators around Piso, singles out not only matricide and arson as his reason for treason, but a third factor of a rather different nature: Nero’s attempt to turn Rome into an ancient variant of Broadway, with the emperor himself getting top billing.56 This was part of a more general embrace of public spectacle moralists like Tacitus considered frivolous and Greek: Nero’s reign is marked by a heavy investment in festivals (including his own, the Neronia); games, not least chariot-races; the whole culture of mousike (including poetry competitions and singing to the lyre); and the building of Greek cultural institutions such as gymnasia. Towards the end of his life, he even took his talents abroad, first to Southern Italy (a step covered in the set text: see 15.33), then with a trip to Greece (AD 66–67, i.e. not covered in the surviving portion of the Annals). Relying on Tacitus and other sources, Ted Champlin argues that ‘Nero’s progression from private to public performance, and from amateur to professional, develops in three distinct stages’ both for music and charioteering:57

Stage 1: AD 54–58

Rigorous programme of training in music; attention to circus entertainment and religious attendance at the games

Stage 2: AD 59–63

Singing before the people on stage at his private Juvenalia; racing before a private audience in a specially built circus

Stage 3: AD 64–68

Performance of music and racing in public

The theme runs throughout Tacitus’ Nero-narrative, from 13.3 (where we catch the youthful Nero exercising his singing and charioteering) to, presumably, his death in the lost portion of the Annals. Suetonius reports that Nero’s final words were ‘qualis artifex pereo’ (‘What an artist dies in me!’).58 In Tacitus, an avowed Hellenophobe, Nero’s artistic inclinations receive an exceedingly bad press.59 But once placed in context, matters are not that simple. Ted Champlin has recently challenged the once orthodox view that Nero’s sponsorship of, and participation in, these activities was a total turn-off:60

Despite the moral strictures of the authors who report Nero’s actions, the social context must be seen as an ambiguous one, and public attitudes as deeply ambivalent. Many of his people surely disapproved of their emperor’s games and the damage done to his imperial dignity, but many more just as surely applauded him. His actions sprang from patterns of behavior familiar in contemporary noblemen and approved by ancient precedent, and his people encouraged him. Killing relatives and rivals, real or imaginary, was cold political reality; performing in public may have been a fantasy, but it was one shared by a large part of Roman society. Whether it could be seen as part of the supreme imperial virtue, civilitas, is a matter for debate.

From this point of view, Nero’s cultivation of his showbiz talents and his desire to turn himself into the biggest star of the imperial entertainment industry were not meant to offend, but to act out one version of the ideal princeps. In part, as Champlin goes on to show, Nero succeeded – which accounts for his enormous popularity with certain segments of the population long after his death. One group he did not manage to win over were certain authors of the Trajanic age (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius), who are largely responsible for fixing Nero’s image in historiography – and thus for posterity (including us...). They are all scathing about Nero’s stage-performances and investment in spectacles as a way of defining his public image. In his Panegyricus, a speech of praise composed for the emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger notes the contrast between Nero’s and Trajan’s style of imperial leadership as follows (46.4–5):

Idem ergo populus ille, aliquando scaenici imperatoris spectator et plausor, nunc in pantomimis quoque aversatur et damnat effeminatas artes, et indecora saeculo studia. ex quo manifestum est principum disciplinam capere etiam vulgus, cum rem si ab uno fiat severissimam fecerint omnes.

[And so the same populace which once watched and applauded the performances of an actor-emperor (sc. Nero) has now even turned against the pantomimes and damns their effeminate art as a pursuit unworthy of our age. This shows that even the vulgar crowd can take a lesson from its rulers, since a reform so sweeping, if once started by an individual, can spread to all.]


50 See Annals 1.6.1 (on the beginning of Tiberius’ reign as princeps): primum facinus novi principatus fuit Postumi Agrippae caedes (‘The opening crime of the new principate was the murder of Agrippa Postumus’).

51 Ann. 13.15–17.

52 Ann. 14.1–9.

53 Ann. 14.60–64; 16.6.

54 Ann. 15.45; 15.60–64.

55 Ann. 16.14–35.

56 Ann. 15.67.

57 Champlin (2003) 76.

58 Suetonius, Nero 49.

59 See Syme (1958) 515–16, in a chapter on ‘Tacitus and the Greeks’.

60 Champlin (2003) 68, with page 286 n. 38 where he defines civilitas, civility, as ‘the ability of the emperor to act as an ordinary citizen, or at least as an ordinary Roman nobleman.’ See also page 291 n. 85: ‘From the beginning of the reign he had allowed the people to watch him exercise in the Campus Martius; he often declaimed in public; and he had read his own poems not only at home but in the theatre “to such universal joy” that a supplication to the gods was decreed and the poems themselves were inscribed in letters of gold and dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus: Suetonius ii. 2. These were the actions of an affable emperor, the civilis princeps.’