Who was Nero?

Nero (54-68) was one fascinating Roman ruler.  Can you imagine becoming the emperor when still a teenager, after your mother poisoned your stepfather!?!  It’s a predicament that I don’t think that they cover in such outrageous dramas as Gossip Girl and True Blood.  Though, never fear, parts of the rest of his adulthood were a mess and spiraled down to great depths. And even after his suicide in AD 68, he remained very popular, with many ‘sightings” of this dramatic ruler — think Elvis of the Ancient World.  Just take a look at his portraiture throughout his life. In his teenage years, he had his  hair combed to appear as a Juli0-Claudian successor (as Claudius’ stepson successor), while in adult-age, he flaunted an exuberant style- wavy hair and fuller face, long sideburns, dare I say lamb chops a la “70s” Elvis??

Historically, he’s blamed for the great fire of 64 even though he was out of town and his newly built palace on the Palatine, known as the Domus Transitoria, was one of the first things to be torched.  He’s also notorious for putting Christians on the map (and in the arena).  Notwithstanding these actions, Nero rebuilt Rome in a modern fashion after three-quarters of the city was destroyed.  He was in many ways an innovator and fair administrator, though his megalomania did grow over time , as did his appetite for excess, as he “matured”.

The Nero Exhibition

The Nero show  appears in all three venues of the Forum, Palatine, and Colosseum.  I just checked it out with many academic colleagues yesterday afternoon.  It’s a scary sight to have so many academics and superintendents walking through the forum; we’re all lost in catching up and looking around at the new exhibition.  I did catch up with German colleagues who are studying the Basilica Julia; casually met an Altemps (delightful!) I also caught an earful from a dear colleague at the Medieval museum in EUR because during her recent trip to Boston I had forgotten to introduce her to some colleagues there! (Pazienza!)

Here’s why I think the show will be a great success:

  • Antiquities:  the showcased pieces are quite good– from the variety of portraits of Nero in the darkened Curia w/ quotes and the ancient sources  (from Suetonius and Tacitus) projected on the inner wall to the modern paintings of scenes from Nero’s life line the walls.
  • Videos:  the round “Temple of Romulus”  features video scenes from a variety of movies about Nero– movies from international directors of the 1950s and 60s to present. It’s light, it’s fun, and I am willing to be it will engage a lot of visitors, as they to expect more and more visualizations of the past.
  • On the Palatine,  two structures attributed to Nero are highlighted.   The Domus Transitoria (most important – though inaccessible area is located under Domitian’s Coenatio Iovis dining room) has a famed cryptoporticus full of antiquities.  Sections from Domus Tiberiana are finally visible from the Farnese Gardens (though below lurk recent excavation with corridors where I had a chance to film in Ancients Behaving Badly – Caligula).
  • Colosseum: the grand finale has a pretty impressive collection and referral to the transformation of the space from Domus Aurea to Colosseum.
  • Bonus-  images of Nero will be projected every night on the back of the Curia from the Via Fori Imperiali street for the duration of the exhibition. (Hope the neighbors won’t mind the light show!)

Conservation of Nero’s legacy

Noticeably, the famed Domus Aurea is not part of the exhibit- but I think a bit a white elephant in the room.  The recent collapse of some walls is still fresh in the world’s memory.  The only way to fix the situation there is to excavate the entire site from the top (revealing the upper floors already documented).  Only in this way can the superintendency address the water infiltration issues that continue to lead to internal wall collapses.  With the recent surge in investment and sponsorship I have no doubts that such activities already are in the works.