Lecture 23: Envoi.

Lecture 23, Thursday April 26th 2018

Nero’s Iconosphere

Nero the actor

Suetonius (Life of Nero 20): Having gained some knowledge of music in addition to the rest of his early education, as soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest master of the cithara [= stringed concert instrument] in those days, and after listening to him sing after dinner for many successive days until late at night, he little by little began to practise himself, neglecting none of the exercises which artists of that kind are in the habit of following, to preserve or strengthen their voices. For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice. Finally encouraged by his progress, although his voice was weak and husky, he began to long to appear on the stage, and every now and then in the presence of his intimate friends he would quote a Greek proverb meaning “Hidden music counts for nothing.” And he made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock.

60 CE: the Neronia

Suetonius (Life of Nero 12): Nero was the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial [= every 4 years] contest in three parts, after the Greek way, i.e. music, gymnastics, and riding. He called these games the Neronia.

🔥 The Fire of 64 CE 🔥

Suetonius (Life of Nero 38): On the pretence of the annoyance at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, Nero openly set fire to the city… For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of regular houses, the houses of ancient leaders were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and  whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in “the beauty of the flames,” he sang the whole of the Sack of Ilium, in his regular stage costume. To gain from this calamity all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.

Tacitus (Ann. 15.38): There followed a disaster, whether due to chance or to the malice of the Nero is uncertain — different writers give different versions — but graver and more terrible than any other which has befallen this city by the ravages of fire.

Mary Beard (TLS, “A don’s life” Sept. 19th 2006): “Professional classicists have a habit of pouring cold water on popular facts about the ancient world.  Take something that everyone thinks they know about Greece and Rome, and the finger-wagging scholar loves nothing better than saying it’s wrong. My own curmudgeonly assault a few posts ago on ‘Et tu Brute‘ was a case in point. It must rank as one of the most famous phrases in the Latin language – and guess what, smirks the don, it was written by Shakespeare. Well, for a change, the good news is that Nero did fiddle while Rome burned. It just depends what you mean by fiddle. Most people, I fear, take ‘fiddling’ in the wrong sense.”

Octavia attributed to Seneca (831-836): [Nero] Next the city’s buildings must fall to flames set by me. Fire, ruined homes, sordid poverty, cruel starvation along with grief must crush this criminal populace.The masses have grown unruly, spoiled by the blessings of my reign. They cannot appreciate my policy of mercy (CLEMENTIA) or feel grateful or endure peace.

Juvenal (Satire 8.211-230): If the people were given a free vote, who would be so depraved as to hesitate about choosing Seneca over Nero? For his punishment more than a single monkey and a single snake and a single sack needed to be provided. His crime was that of Agamemnon’s son [killed his mother, Clytemnestra], but motive makes his case different. The fact is, Orestes, on the authority of the gods, was avenging his father, who’d been slaughtered at a banquet. But he did not pollute himself with Electra’s jugular or his Spartan wife’s blood, he didn’t prepare poison for any relations, he never went on stage to sing the part of Orestes, he never wrote an epic Troy… These were the achievements and these the skills of our highborn emperor, who enjoyed prostituting himself on foreign stages with his horrid singing, and winning Greek parsley crowns. Let your ancestors’ statues have the prizes won by your voice. Go on, put your long gown of Thyestes in front of Domitius’ feet, or your mask of Antigone or Melanippe, and hang your lyre on your colossus made of marble.

The Golden House (Domus Aurea)

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 163-164: “After the disastrous fire, a huge building program was set in motion to replace the burned-out sections of the city…To house the many people who had lost their homes, many new high-rise tenements were built following safer standards, and urbanization was widespread. The overcrowding was satirized by the Roman poet Juvenal (Satire 3), who deplored the noisy, dirty streets and uncouth people. While the poor endured such conditions, Nero himself immediately seized upon the opportunity to build a sumptuous country house for himself in the center of Rome, in a large area that had been cleared by the fire. As it was extraordinarly lavish, and in part gilded, it is called the Golden House of Nero, or the Domus Aurea. [p164] The emperor hired the best architects of the day, Severus and Celer, to construct the palace, the surrounding gardens, and the artifical lake.”


Photograph of the octagonal room in Nero’s Domus Aurea. When Trajan (reigned 98-117 CE) built his Baths over it, it was no longer seen in Rome. Image: stuff.mit.edu.

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 164: “A dome with a central opening, known as an oculus, covered the center of the octagonal room…In addition to the light that came through the hole in the roof, there were slits that let light into the radiating rooms. This was an unprecedented and ingenius design that hid the light source from the viewer.”

Suetonius (Life of Nero 31): Nero made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage [=Domus Transitoria], but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals.  In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of‑pearl. There were dining-rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved night and day, in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies”.  He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water. When the building was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being

Domus Aurea and the Fourth Style

For a refresher on the Pompeian wall painting styles, go back to lecture 10.

Fourth Style Baroque
reaction against 3rd style, panoramic vistas, architectural details; eclectic, variety. The appearance of framed pictures.
c. 20 – end of 1st c. CE [many examples from 79 CE] Nero’s Golden House, Domus Aurea (between 64 and 68 CE)




House of the Vettii (after 62 CE) Pompeii VI 15, 1
House of D. Octavius Quartio (later 1st c. CE) Pompeii II 2, 2-5




Photographs of what remains of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Top: high vaulted ceilings with delicate painted patterns. Bottom: the effect of time on the extant parts of the Domus Aurea. Images: romewise.com. 

grottesque-closeup-thumb.jpgFourth Style: Birds, animals, and marine creatures in the Domus Aurea c. 64-68 CE. Ceiling paint. Image: romewise.com.

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 167: “The paintings of the Golden House of Nero were discovered in the late 15th century. A number of famous Renaissance painters, such as Raphael and Giovanni da Udine, crawled in under the ceiling, which was then well underground, and were inspired to paint similar decorative motifs in some of their own works. Because the cave-like excavations in the Golden House were called grottoes, the figures on the wall were name grotteschi from which comes our word “grotesque“.

Image of the graffito of Giovanni da Udine (signed as “ZVAN DA VDENE FIRLANO”) from the cryptoporticus in the Domus Aurea. Image: albertis-window.com.

 Nero as Sun god?

  • 66 CE: Tiridates arrives in Rome, where he is crowned king of Armenia, and hails Nero as Mithras.

Dio Cassius (63.4): At daybreak Nero, wearing the triumphal garb and accompanied by the senate and the praetorians, entered the Forum. He ascended the rostra and seated himself upon a chair of state. Next Tiridates [of Armenia] and his suite passed between lines of heavy-armed troops drawn up on either side, took their stand close to the rostra, and bowed to the emperor as they had done before.  These were his words: “Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and your slave. And I have come to you, my god, to worship you as I do Mithras. The destiny you spin for me shall be mine; for you are my Fortune and my Fate.”

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero (2017: 202): “For those who followed the religion of Zoroaster, the sun was the eye of Mithras, and Mithras was associated with, if not identified as, the sun…And that must have been how Romans interpreted the ceremony as well, especially since the second part of the spectacle took place in the Theater of Pompey, which had been gilded for the occasion. The theater was overhung by an awning of purple on which was depicted a gigantic figure of Nero as the sun riding his chariot in the sky surrounded by stars resplendent with gold.”

Death of Nero and accession of Galba

Galba: The governor of Hispania Tarraconensis at the time of the rebellion of Julius Vindex in Gaul (67/68 CE), he seized the throne following Nero’s suicide (June 9, 68 CE).

Suetonius (Life of Nero 49): At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him, he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: “What an artist the world is losing!” Qualis artifex pereo!

Suetonius (Life of Galba 1, 2): The race of the Caesars ended with Nero. Nero was succeeded by Galba, who was related in no degree to the house of the Caesars, although unquestionably of noble origin and of an old and powerful family; for he always added to the inscriptions on his statues that he was the great-grandson of Quintus Catulus Capitolinus, and when he became emperor he even displayed a family tree in his hall in which he carried back his ancestry on his father’s side to Jupiter and on his mother’s to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

Back to the beginning…

Rome’s traditional foundation date 21st April 753 BCE
Regal period at  Rome 753 – 509 BCE
Roman Republic 509 BCE – 27 BCE
Roman Empire 27 BCE – 476 CE
“fall” of Rome 330 CE: capital moved Rome to Constantinople (Nova Roma)
395 CE: split into West + East
476 CE: Western portion falls
1453 CE: East falls to Ottoman Turks
Rome’s 1st king: Romulus, 753 – c. 717 BCE
Rome’s 1st emperor: Augustus (considered calling self Romulus), 27 BCE – 14 CE
Rome’s last emperor = Romulus Augustulus (‘Romulus little Augustus’),  460 CE – after 476 CE

Quotations of the ancient visual

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotation and Originality (1875): “By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs.”

1280px-Pantheon_panorama,_Rome_-_4.jpgPhotograph of the outside of the Pantheon, a large temple dedicated to all of the gods. One of the best preserved and influential of all Roman buildings. It has been well preserved because it was converted into a church by the early 7th c. CE. Although Agrippa, whose name appears in the inscription over the porch (M AGIRPPA L F COS TERTIUM FECIT = “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time”), had constructed an original structure here in 27 BCE, the building which we now see was largely constructed under late in the reign of Trajan (r. 98-117 CE). A prior dating to the reign of Hadrian (117-138 CE) was previously standard in scholarship based on the discovery of Roman brick stamps dated to 125 CE. But examination of the rotunda shows that much of the building was already standing when Hadrian’s transitional block and porch were built. Image: “Maros” (CC BY 2.5) via Wikimedia.

1280px-Dome_of_Pantheon_Rome.JPGThe Dome inside the Pantheon with its oculus, 27 feet across.  Public domain via Wikimedia.

Monticello, Virginia, primary home of Thomas Jefferson, who began designing the complex at the age of 26. 1769-1809. Image: americanheritage.com.

UVA_RotundaUniversity of Virginia Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason.” Heavily inspired by the Pantheon. 1822-1826. Image: “Patrickneil” (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia.

jefferson_20memorial.jpgThe Jefferson Memorial designed by John Russell Pepe. 1939-1943. Statue of Jefferson added in 1947. Image: curbed.com.

On leaving antiquity

decline and fall.jpg
Spines of English historian Edward Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), which shows the steady crumbling of a column over time. Spans period of reign of Trajan (98 CE) to Constantinople (1453). Image: @TheHiddenWorId.

Are We Romans?

Sarah Bond: “The trend of comparing the US to Rome is nothing new. What is clear is that the ‘Fall of Rome’ and the fall of the Roman Republic are most often used as a device to tease out perceived flaws in American society.”

+ her ongoing list of articles that compare various things about American society to the quote unquote “fall of Rome”:

Phiroze Vasunia (2013: 239): “The ‘Indian’ Homer and the ‘British’ Virgil are complementary approaches to the ancient epic tradition but present different perspectives on empire. Homer was part of the discussion of the theory of Indo-European origins, where Virgil was not, and thus the Homeric poems, along with the Sanskrit epics, became enmeshed in debates about the early sources of language, religion, and culture; these debates were not just restricted to European thinkers and joined by Indian scholars and intellectuals. In Britain, while Homer’s reputation did not quite decline, Virgil’s appeal increased over the nineteenth century and he came to be seen as the most accomplished of Roman authors; more than any other classical poet, he encouraged Britons to think about their own empire and the conception of a national epic. In India and Britain, responses to epic were explorations of literary history, national identity, and of the distance between antiquity and the present. But the contrast in national situations meant that, in India, the treatment of epic was often assimilated to national recovery and the prestige of a subject people, while, in Britain, epic verse was associated with imperial status as well as national pride.”

Robert Needham Cust (1899: 17): “…and when gradually, though not yet thirty years of age, I found myself helping to rule Millions in their hundreds of towns and thousands of villages, the lines of Virgil came back to me:
‘Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;
Hae tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos.’ [=Aeneid 6.851-853]

Sarah Ruden’s translation of 6.851-853 (p141):

“But Romans, don’t forget that world dominion
Is your great craft: peace, and then peaceful customs;
Sparing the conquered, striking down the haughty.

Phiroze Vasunia (2013: 240):Robert Needham Cust wrote in his autobiography that he was reminded of lines from Book Six of the Aeneid when he was sent to India as a young man and entrusted with the task of governing millions. And one finds references to Virgil and his works in articles written by Europeans (and some by Indians) for the learned journals of the Asiatic societies, in the official reports of colonial administrators, and in memoirs of army officers, civil servants, and the like.

Edith Hall, “How Enoch Powell got Vergil Wrong” (20 April 2013): “45 Years ago today, classical literature was put to its most shameful use in the history of British oratory, when Enoch Powell MP quoted  lines from the Aeneid to incite racial hatred. At a Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, he emotively described the alleged plight of the white working-class in the face of immigration, and said that it was bound to end in violence: ‘like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’” bella, horrida bella / et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’ (6.86-7). [The words are in fact spoken by the Apollo via Sibyl to Aeneas — she predicts that there will be a second Trojan War in Italy]

9/11 monument — New York City

Caroline Alexander, New York Times April 6th 2011: “But one feature of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum seems above reproach: a quotation from Virgil’s “Aeneid” that will be inscribed on a wall in front of the victims’ remains. The memorial inscription, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” is an eloquent translation of the original Latin of “The Aeneid” — Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo (9.447). The impulse to turn to time-hallowed texts, like the classics or the Bible, is itself time-hallowed. In the face of powerful emotions, our own words may seem hollow and inadequate, while the confirmation that people in the past felt as we now feel holds solace. And the language of poets and great thinkers can be in itself ennobling. But not in this case. Anyone troubling to take even a cursory glance at the quotation’s context will find the choice offers neither instruction nor solace…The immediate context of the quotation is a night ambush of the Rutulian enemy camp by two Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euryalus, whose mutual love is described in terms of classical homoerotic convention and whose deaths represent one of the epic’s famously sentimental set pieces. Falling on the sleeping enemy, the two hack away with their swords, until the ground reeks with “warm black gore.” Stripping the murdered soldiers of their armor, the two are in turn ambushed by a returning Rutulian cavalry troop. As each Trojan tries to save his companion, both are killed, brutally and graphically…”

Further Reading: 

  • Sarah Bond’s many excellent pieces at Forbes and now Hyperallergic
  • Phiroze Vasunia (2013) The Classics and Colonial India. Available online via BU library.
  • Peter Onuf and Nicholas Cole (2011) Thomas Jefferson, the classical world, and early America. Available online via BU library.
  • Carl Richard (1994) The founders and the classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. [Mugar JA84.U5 R48 1994]