Lecture 21: Nero’s Iconosphere.

Lecture 21, Tuesday December 3rd 2019

Julio-Claudian Emperors

Augustus 27 BCE – 14 CE
Tiberius 14 – 37 CE
Gaius ‘Caligula’ 37 – 41 CE
Claudius 41 – 54 CE
Nero 54 – 68 CE

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 Capture of Troy 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.

Dio Cassius (62.18.1): While the whole population was in this state of mind and many, crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, Nero ascended to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the cithara player’s garb, he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself, though to the enemies of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome.

Elite woman with a gilded cithara from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor (c. 50–40 BCE). Image: Metropolitan Museum. The English word ‘guitar’ comes from this word ‘cithara.’


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.

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.

Shakespeare, Henry VI (I. iv. 94–5):
TALBOT: …and like thee, Nero,
Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn

Nero and the Christians

Tacitus (Ann. 15.44): But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus [= Jesus Christ c. 4 BCE – c. 26 CE], the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius [14 – 37 CE], by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast  numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

Siemiradski Fackeln.jpgHenryk Siemiradzki, “Nero’s Torches” (1876). Image: Wikimedia.

Christianity at Rome 

  • Roman state initially took little interest in Christianity
  • Jesus Christ, Hebrew preacher who founded the religion of Christianity, ultimately tried for sedition by the Sanhedrin, who handed him over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. Roman soldiers crucified Jesus at Golgotha.
  • After Jesus’ death, Paul the Apostle, a Roman citizen, sent letters to Christian communities living throughout the Roman Empire.
  • Nero’s reign is the first recorded time Christians are punished by the Roman state — Christians executed for allegedly starting the Great Fire of 64 CE, although Tacitus (see above) assumes it is because they are disliked at Rome.
  • from mid 2nd c. CE: Christian martyrs:
    • Polycarp (Martyrdom of Polycarp): letter which describes the trial and death by burning of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.
    • Perpetua (Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions): 1st person prison diary of the young mother and martyr, Perpetua. Roman order and identity is represented by Perpetua’s father, and the Christian identity by Perpetua’s behavior in prison, during her trial, and finally during her execution in Carthage’s amphitheatre for games in celebration of Emperor Septimius Severus’ birthday (7 March 203 CE).
  • 313 CE: so-called “Edict of Milan” under Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337 CE): freedom of worship for all, including Christians; restitution of property to lost by the Churches since the persecution of 303 CE.
  • By the end of the 4th c. CE Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Matthew 22:15-22: Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.  So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, *“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

*Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ = “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

Modern depictions of Matthew 22: 1) Titian, “The Tribute Money” (1516), 2) Peter Paul Rubens, “Caesar’s Coin” (1612-1614).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Martyrdom of Polycarp (9.2-3): “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: ‘Away with the Atheists.'” But Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathens in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said : ”Away with the Atheists.”  But when the proconsul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

An early depiction of “Roman” Jesus 

The Hinton St Mary Mosaic 01The Hinton St. Mary Mosaic (4th c. CE). Possibly one of the oldest surviving depictions of Jesus Christ, from a Roman villa in Dorset (UK). A figure is portrayed as a clean-shaven, young man wearing a tunic and cloak. Behind his head are the letters chi (X) and rho (P), the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ – Christos. Part of a larger mosaic, also containing traditional mythological elements. These include the Greek hero Bellerophon riding Pegasus and slaying the monstrous Chimera. Image: British Museum. More information on the mosaic from BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects. 

The Aftermath of the Fire (64 CE)

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.”

Modern depictions of the “Great Fire” of 64 CE. 1) Robert Hubert, “The Fire of Rome” (1785). 2) A painting by J.M.W. Turner which has been interpreted as depicting the Great Fire: “?The Burning of Rome” (c.1834–40). 3) Alfons Mucha, “Nero watching the burning of Rome” (1887).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 artificial lake.”

Plan of the Domus Aurea. Image: greatbuildings.com.


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 ingenious design that hid the light source from the viewer.”

Digital reconstruction of the Domus Aurea

Domus Aurea reopened and now using Virtual Reality 

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 ceilings 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

Nero’s “Colossus”

  • designed by Zenodorus, the Greek
  • erected in the vestibule of the Domus Aurea
  • after death of Nero (68 CE), modified by Emperor Vespasian into a statue of the Sun (Suet. Vesp. 18)
  • Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) moved the Colossus c. 128 CE next to the Flavian Amphitheatre (hence = “Colosseum”)
  • Emperor Commodus (r. 177-192 CE) converted the statue to himself as Hercules (Hist. Aug. Com. 17); after his death, converted back to Sun.

Modern reconstruction of Nero’s “Colossus” by National Geographic (Sept. 2014). Image: Wikimedia.

Domus Aurea and the Fourth Style

For a refresher on the Pompeian wall painting styles, go back to lecture 9.

Fourth Style Baroque

combines aspects of previous styles, 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) Rome
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

Example of Fourth Style painting, Ixion Room, House of the Vetii, Pompeii, 1st century C.E.House of the Vettii (Pompeii VI 15,1), after 62 CE. Ixion Room. Image: Kahn Academy.

Domus Aurea



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!