Few rulers in history were as intimately involved in the arts as the Roman Emperor Nero. According to Geoffrey Lehmann, Nero may be the “only absolute ruler in history who regarded himself primarily as an artist.” In many ways, Nero’s active pursuit of the arts contributed to his downfall. Roman upper classes despised professional actors and actresses. Additionally, false stories about Nero, such as his singing a dirge about the sack of Troy during the great fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64, damaged his reputation. It is fitting, in one sense, that as the Praetorian Guard was coming to execute him, Nero committed suicide, exclaiming, “What an artist dies with me!” (Qualis artifex perio!)
Nero the Emperor Artist
Nero’s artistic interests included pantomime or solo ballet, poetry, and playing the lyre. According to Edward Champion, playing the lyre while singing a story was the pastime “most identified with Nero.” Historian Lionel Casson writes that “No other Roman emperor was a man of the arts and letters in the way he was.” Scholars studying Nero’s poetry are in agreement that surviving examples demonstrate that his poetry was “not at all bad” (Casson). Champion refers to the later Roman historian Tacitus who was very sympathetic to Nero’s poems, commenting that long after his death, the people of Rome sang his songs and poems.
Nero took dancing and singing lessons. He preserved his voice and, as detailed in Michael Grant’s biography of Nero, followed a strict diet directly related to his performing capacities. Suetonius records that Nero sang “in tragedies, taking the parts of heroes and gods, sometimes even of heroines and goddesses…” (21) All historical accounts agree that Nero’s obsession with the arts, notably his own participation, was genuine.
Nero’s artistic proclivities drew him ever closer to the Greeks. Shortly before his untimely death, he undertook a tour of Greece where he was acclaimed and feted. Inevitably, this behavior encouraged the scorn and outright animosity of Roman elites. As Casson states, “These were not qualities one looked for in a Roman, least of all a Roman chief of state.” Grant comments that Nero “liked to sing and act tragic, desperate, shocking roles…he…enjoyed acting as a beggar, a runaway slave, and a lunatic.”
Neglect of Empire and Aristocratic Backlash
The revolt that brought Galba to power reflected a long standing hatred of Nero by certain members of Rome’s upper class. Their emperor was a man who sought to replace the blood-letting gladiatorial contests with wrestling matches. Nero seemed removed from the daily operations of the empire, never speaking directly to the legions but communicating through letters. As Casson relates, one of Nero’s strengths was appointing good men to deal with Imperial problems whether that be a Parthian threat or a revolt in Britain, yet he remained aloof.
Ultimately, as Champion states in his biography of Nero, “emperors simply should not be professional performers.” Roman educated upper classes despised performers and feared “their disruptive effect on society.” History must judge Nero on his own achievements, however. His poem “My Singing Career” demonstrates his artistic passion as well as his singular need to be applauded:
Rules must be observed.
Waiting my turn
Standing in the queue,
Popping my name in the urn,
Whose name is pulled out first?
Your emperor’s of course.
Then I sing for three hours flat.
I’m sweating. What a tour de force!
When my teacher signals
To rest my voice, I pause.
My Alexandrian sailors
Start their antiphonal applause.
Who wins first prize?
Whose face is reflected
in a thousand eyes?
No one else is allowed to sing.
Rules must be observed.
(Translated by Geoffrey Lehmann)
Lionel Casson, “Nero, Unmaligned,” Horizon Magazine, Autumn 1976.
Edward Champion, Nero (Harvard University Press, 2003) see chapter 3.
Michael Grant, Nero: Emperor in Revolt New York: American Heritage Press, 1970), see chapter 5.
Geoffrey Lehmann, Nero’s Poems (Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1981).
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Books, 1984) see “Nero,” 21.