Useful Nero

His prefect pressured him to sign the order that would execute some men, to stop deferring. “Would that I had not learned to write”, the emperor Nero cried.

Did Nero kill his stepbrother? His mother? Did he sing of the fall of Troy, dressed as an actor, as he watched fire consume Rome? Why did he fall? Was he bad, a blot on his great grandfather, the first Augustus?

He was popular with the mob, performers, the east which he feted and celebrated and the senate disliked that. They damned his memory. The first Flavians, the new dynasty, had been his generals, had none of Augustus’ blood. But orators thanked the gods for them. Their historians wrote that Nero, big-belied, bird-legged, thick necked Nero, had been a tyrant, indulgent and cruel. Hence the plots, including the last that took him. But was he dead? Pretenders appeared and had to be dealt with. Even when no more arose, many believed in Nero’s return.

Later Christians wrote that Nero had been the first to persecute them. Some said he was the Anti-Christ, the trickster who would lead men from God, that Paul, their great missionary and Peter, Jesus’ chosen successor both died in his Rome, Peter on a cross, upside down, Paul losing his head.

To be “Nero” was to be the worst of the worst, an insult that went on being of use.¬†

Constantine [the first Christian emperor] left Rome earlier than planned and quietly. Just before, someone had left verses on the palace gate that compared his reign to that of the butcher Nero. Both killed their families, they said. This age was not golden but Neroian.

Nero’s tale now combines these elements - the histories written under his successors with a Christian side story [1] [2] [3] [4]. His name is still a byword for a grandee’s excess [5]. Even tourists dislike him, marvelling at his house while condemning its owner [6]. Then as now, only the east is bright for him. The Greeks still like him [7].

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