Nero, after the murder of mother (painting by John William Waterhouse)

June 2, 2021   7 mins

Since the British Museum seems reluctant to do so, let’s talk about Sporus. You won’t find much on the Roman emperor’s companion who went by that name in its new exhibition, Nero: the man behind the myth. This coyness may tell us something about the impulse behind a show that aims — in the words of the museum’s director Hartwig Fischer — to replace the “distorted histories” that have traditionally vilified the last of Rome’s Julio-Claudian rulers as a vain, crazed tyrant with “a more nuanced understanding” of his personality and reign. Historical nuance is good, right? Better, for sure, than one-dimensional tales of pantomime villainy — or even solemnly evasive apologias that blame Nero’s bad rap solely on so-called “elite authors” whom we can discount as patrician snobs. And Sporus gives us Roman nuance in all its fabulous oddity.

In 65AD, 11 years into his 14-year rule, Nero’s beautiful and beloved second wife, Poppaea Sabina, died. According to the often hostile historians who transmit most of the ancient written record about Nero — Tacitus and Suetonius in Latin; Dio Cassius in Greek — he fatally kicked his pregnant spouse in the stomach. Reasonably, the British Museum fingers this plot device as a corny literary trope, and instead blames Poppaea’s death on “complications from a miscarriage”. According to two of the “elite” detractors, though, the heartbroken emperor then sought out, and found, a lookalike replacement for his lost wife. Sporus (which coarsely translates as “Spunk”) boasted all the original’s grace and beauty, but had one troublesome drawback. He was male.

Undeterred (“Nobody’s perfect”, as we know from Some Like It Hot), Nero — so the hostiles report — had Sporus castrated. He married his new love, “with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil,” says Suetonius. The pair toured Greece as a royal couple on a triumphal tour that took in stage performances (starring — the one and only Nero!) and a first prize for the emperor in an Olympic chariot race he failed to finish.

How much of this really happened? Certainly, the relationship with Sporus — which this exhibition largely glosses over — has as much or little grounding in the sources as other Neronian yarns that the exhibition takes pains to debunk or revise: from fiddling while Rome burned (he was out of town for the Great Fire of 64) to the execution of scapegoated Christians by public burning in its aftermath. Tacitus writes (according to the translation Edward Gibbon uses in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) that they were “smeared over with combustible materials” and “used as torches to illuminate the darkness of the night”. The British Museum’s guide doesn’t quite rebut that legend but drily comments that “their punishment seems to have followed standard practice in that it mirrored the nature of the crime”. So that’s alright, then?

With Sporus, historians have recently suggested that the scandalous liaison stemmed not from nostalgic attachment to the dead Poppaea, still less the conventional lust of an upper-class Roman male for a puer delicatus (“boy toy”), but the need to control a potential rival whom Nero believed to be of imperial descent. Hence, in the succession-obsessed Roman governing class, the insistence on castration. Given that Suetonius mentions that Sporus stuck by Nero to the bitter end during his overthrow in 68, might the couple have actually grown fond of each other? Now there’s a truly heretical idea. And, sadly, an unlikely one: Sporus declined to commit suicide alongside Nero and quickly partnered — whether by choice or force — with two of the warlords who succeeded him.

As with much to do with Nero, legend, fiction and historical memory have fused into an inextricably tangled mass — like the warped iron window-grating you can see in the BM, striking proof of the Great Fire’s ferocity. But the Sporus story hints at a layered complexity to Nero and his narratives that goes beyond the binary model currently on offer in Bloomsbury. Nero: the man behind the myth seems to belong to a class of revisionist historical argument you might dub “reverse cancellation”. Emperor X, King Y or President Z — from Genghis Khan to Joseph Stalin — has suffered too long from the lies and libels of partisan chroniclers with skewed agendas. Now, we will unmask the fake news and reveal (as the British Museum puts it here) a “much less clear-cut” story. Occasionally, the rescue of a tarnished reputation can surpass scholarly score-settling and touch the heights of art. Consider all that Hilary Mantel has done for Thomas Cromwell, once a byword for state thuggery.

For sure, the Great Man theory of history that Thomas Carlyle propounded has always required, on the other side of its mirror, a Bad Man theory. To the extent that it replaces such cartoon thinking with an open and sceptical scrutiny of Nero’s reign, curator Thorsten Opper’s exhibition does an admirable job — and does it against a splendid backdrop. The show throngs with evocative examples of first-century statuary, reliefs, frescos, artefacts, coinage and even luxury tableware, drawn not only from the museum’s collections but European lenders ranging from the Louvre in Paris to collections in Rome and Naples.

We experience Rome and its empire high and low, splendid and squalid — from the fine bronze head of Nero recovered from the River Alde in Suffolk to the terrifying iron chains that shackled slave work-gangs in Anglesey. Whoever wore the robes of the princeps, the poor and powerless languished. To its credit, the show never forgets that. The text that accompanies a cute little statue of a lantern-carrying slave-boy reminds us that in 61 AD Nero endorsed the reprisal execution of 400 slaves from a single household after one of them killed his master, a leading senator. Whoever stood at its apex — be they saint, sage or ogre — the empire rested permanently on its bloodstained base of slavery, cruelty and conquest.

Against this brutal backdrop, Nero: the man behind the myth doesn’t exactly whitewash the showbiz-mad emperor, but it does extenuate. It tends to claim either that Nero did not commit many misdeeds on his charge-sheet; or, if he did, then so did many of his peers. Few of them, however, eliminated their own mothers, as Nero did with the forceful and scheming Agrippina. True, he may not have sabotaged a fancy yacht with Mater on board and then — when she pluckily swam ashore — sent swordsmen to finish the job. But the exhibition’s bland acknowledgement that the emperor merely “made a decision to remove” Agrippina sounds more than a trifle mealy-mouthed. Besides, he almost certainly had his first wife Claudia Octavia liquidated in order to wed Poppaea. On the British Museum’s own website, Mary Beard discusses the family mayhem he unleashed and accepts that “There is no letting Nero off the hook for all of these crimes.”

When waves of righteous fury can suddenly topple not just contemporary celebrities but grandees from the distant past, you can see why this exhibition wants to make us think again about Nero the beast of fable (indeed, the Number of the Beast — 666 — supposedly encodes his name). The problems arise when the reverse-cancellation process goes beyond a scrupulous reckoning with biased sources, and starts to make a polemical defence of the target of these antique slurs. So the swipes at Tacitus et al as a “senatorial elite” of character-assassins resonates with the anti-authority clamour of our time; you half-expect the BM to brand the anti-Nero authors as agents of the Mainstream Media. The British Museum’s presentation insists on the anti-Nero malice of the “elite” historians. But it won’t tell you, for instance, that Suetonius carefully enumerates all the good deeds Nero performed. “During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down,” we learn, while court reforms meant that clients only paid “a fixed and reasonable fee”. Perhaps those snooty senatorial backbiters were not quite so manipulative as this show’s headline argument suggests.

Along with this downgrading of traditional historiography goes a familiar elevation of the people’s will — or rather, one interpretation of it. Beyond doubt, Nero cannily appealed to the masses; Tom Holland’s Dynasty emphasises his “command of fantasy and spectacle”. The exhibition showcases the games, pageants, gladiatorial jamborees and dramatic extravaganzas that marked his reign, from the amphitheatre built on the Campus Martius to his own taboo-busting performances in roles such as Oedipus and Orestes. When, in 59, a gladiator derby between Pompeii and Nuceria triggered a riot among fans, he shortened a ten-year ban handed out to the Pompeii squad after a Senate-led enquiry.

The curators never deny that Nero pioneered a sort of theatrical populism. Questionably, they then take his power-boosting stunts as evidence of profound popularity. The show makes much of pro-Nero graffiti scrawled on Roman walls. On that basis, historians should be investigating the ubiquity of Kilroy in the London of my youth. And do mirror-compacts that bear his image really prove that Nero “was adored by the people”, or just that he enjoyed, and cultivated, a personal fan-base? Above all, the exhibition’s refusal to treat the anti-Nero case as more than the elite spin of hindsight means that when serious challenges to his rule come along — first the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 AD, then the spiral of insurrections that toppled him in 68 AD — they appear only as selfish mischief perpetrated by “groups of disaffected individuals”. So we learn little (say) about the post-Fire economic downturn, popular resentment at the confiscation of public land for the emperor’s grandiose Golden House estate, or taxation policies that spared his adored Greece but stirred unrest in more onerously levied regions such as Gaul, Africa or Judaea.

None of which quite justifies the damnatio memoriae, the cursing of his name, that followed Nero’s enforced suicide and prepared the ground for the dark picture painted later by those “senatorial authors”. In any case, the best answer to a historical hatchet-job may not be a snow-job. Especially at the British Museum, there should be no need to frame ancient history as a moralistic cabaret in which the only alternative to a bloody, hiss-able butcher is a public-spirited Keynesian in a toga, musing over fire regulations and infrastructure projects. Whatever their apocryphal elements, the tales of Nero’s marriage to Sporus, with their weird amalgam of mourning, eroticism, realpolitik and pure showbiz, open a window onto the sheer otherness of Rome. So don’t be distracted, or deterred, by the revisionist acrobatics intermittently on show in the British Museum’s commentaries. Nero: the man behind the myth lets visitors pass through that window and enter the material world that hosted all that strangeness — from exquisite sets of silverware found near Pompeii, to those dismal chains that bound the slaves of Wales.

‘Nero: the man behind the myth’ continues in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum until 24 October.

Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.