Marble bust of Nero, Italy, around 55 CE (Photo by Francesco Piras. With permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari)

LONDON — Have you ever been bothered by a Roman emperor? This question has been plaguing me for centuries. It turns up after a bad night on the town. It turns up after a good day on the links. It is like the future — or indeed the present: it never stops coming. Fortunately, I have found a solution. And solutions are for the sharing …

That august, heavily pedimented institution in the heart of old Bloomsbury called the British Museum has just opened a new exhibition that, speaking for myself alone, addresses one of life’s most burning questions, and it is this: 

Did that tyrannical, matricidal blackguard Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Or not? 

There are various ancillary questions with which I will scarcely trouble you. No, I shall trouble you with one. After all, a torment shared is a torment halved. That single ancillary question is: was Nero a fiddler by trade or not?

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (40–70 CE) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Today I addressed Nero in person (that is to say, the exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth), and there I found the truth at last (though somewhat nuanced — as truth, maddeningly, so often proves to be). 

From one little corner, tucked somewhat away from the great and glamorous, flood-lit parade of oversized, toga’ed and armored Roman heroes and heroines of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, all aggrandized and idealized in gleaming marble, with which this exhibition greets you, there comes the sound of roaring flames and helpless voices crying out … 

Yes, the exhibition has restaged the burning of Rome in 64 CE, albeit in a pared back sort of way. Stare into a long display case, and you can even see a great meshing of ancient twisted metal — genuine evidence of what happened. This is incontrovertible stuff. Twisted metal and smashed heads always are. 

But what of the emperor himself? Where was he to be found when the flames were greedily consuming everything and everyone in sight? And, more to my point, what exactly was he up to? 

Miniature portrait of Agrippina the Younger (37–39 CE), Chalcedony (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

In fact, he was not necessarily in Rome at all, comes the answer from the dust-laden experts in the back rooms. What is more, he did not even play the fiddle. But he was a performer — and the exhibition digs into his performing habits rather well. If it was not to be a fiddle, what was it then? The lyre! Of course! Who would not want to match Apollo, the greatest lyrist of them all? Yes, Nero did a great deal of very accomplished lyring in his time. 

He was an actor too. He relished performing in public. The bloodier and more tragic the role, the better. Orestes. Oedipus. Those sorts of people. In fact, he loved all kinds of public display, and he created magnificent buildings — the Circus Maximus, for example — to wow all those plebs whose loyalty he so desperately needed to buy, and especially given that the Senate was so undependable — as were most of the intellectuals of his day. They hated him. And hatred tends to feed willful misrepresentation, of course.

After Rome burned, he built himself a great palace, one much more opulent than the last. The exhibition tries to make as much as possible of the few sad (though beautiful) remnants that remain of it — bits of painted wall in plaster, for example — assembling them in an illuminated rotunda that almost possesses the visual allure of your local shopping mall. 

The Fenwick Hoard, England (60–61 CE) (© Colchester Museums)

What are the most humanly affecting objects in this show? Not these many images of idealized Romans. They are as cold and as humanly improbable as they are magnificent — with the exception perhaps of a small portrait head of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. She is ravishing — and so touchingly realized by her sculptor. Women play quite a large part in the Nero story. Agrippina, his wily and overbearing mother, who was his chief advisor for a while, for example, at the beginning of his reign. Nero needed someone to hold his hand. He was only 16 years old when he became emperor, after all. Upon entering the exhibition you see a life-sized marble statue of this rather helpless, vulnerable looking, smallish boy-man who was being dragged into a terrifying future of factionalism and wars without end on various different frontiers. You surely cannot help but feel a modicum of pity for that child. Here was a boy who needed his mother. Unfortunately, she proved less useful, and less companionable, later. He had her murdered.

The other object that demands much sober inspection is a long length of metal shackling, each link fatter than a sausage. Its presentation, in a long display case within a section devoted to Nero’s endless military campaigns, is haunting. Not that he himself ever fought, of course, though images of him displayed on coins, on horseback in full armor, might suggest otherwise. No, he sent others to perish on his behalf, as mighty delegators so often do. This length of shackling — which is displayed on thinnish, columnar supports where it looks like a fat, malign snake on the slither — would have been attached to a human leg. And it bespeaks what underpinned the “greatness” of this empire: slavery. 

It all ended rather badly for Nero, of course. He faced too much opposition from the Senate and elsewhere, too much adversarial scheming, in the end. Having dispatched so many, he had to be dispatched too. He decided to do it himself, aided by his ever-faithful imperial freedman, Epaphroditus. Nero was 30 when he committed suicide in June 68 CE, still almost as young and as vigorous — and what a cute hairstyle he had! — as his many absurdly idealized images suggest. 

Head from a bronze statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England (54– 61 CE) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Chaos ensued in the immediate aftermath of his death. There were four claimants for the title of emperor, and they all fought each other bloodily. Vespasian won out in the end, and one of the final objects in the show is a portrait bust of the new emperor in marble, which, at one time — oh, not so long ago at all — had been a portrait of the head of Nero. With a little deft work it has been transformed into a bust of the new emperor. What skillful and cunning craftsmen these Romans were. No wonder the empire kept chugging along (if you discount the later, eastern bit) for another 400 years. 

Nero: the man behind the myth continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London, England) through October 24.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...