Nero – a Life in Coins

I’ve posted this image on Instagram with a short blurb, but thought the subject warrants more expansion.

The coins feature the emperor Nero throughout his reign. Born in 37 CE, proclaimed emperor at 54 (aged just shy of seventeen) and overthrown in 68 at the age of thirty one, he’s probably one of the more misunderstood Roman figures.

Despite what later writers told (like Suetonius, whose works were the main basis of I, Claudius), he was popular with the Roman people at the start. By “people” I mean the huddled masses, those whose voices hardly counted — very specifically not the senatorial elite, who are responsible for our surviving written sources.

One can almost chart his decline based on his girth: the first decade of his rule, trying to follow in Seneca’s Stoic teachings, but progressively butting against Agrippina, his overbearing mother. In 59 CE Agrippina died (quite possibly executed by him — at least according to the above-mentioned Suetonius and other sources written by senators with antagonistic bias), Boudicca revolted in Britain and the Jews in Judea (and there was, like ever, an on-going war with Parthia at the time). He married Poppaea Sabina in 62 which (according to the same highly opinionated and chauvinistic senators writing later) had an adverse and unhealthy control over him.

At the latest, the death of Seneca and an (ultimately failed) conspiracy against him in 65 seem to kick off the obvious down-hill rush. It is interesting to note that despite all after-the-fact voices writing under dynasties who wanted to distance themselves from the Julio-Claudians, there were no real opposition to his rule during that first decade, and even the Pisonian conspiracy at 65 was half-hearted and largely unsupported. The people as well, judging by graffiti and similar sources, didn’t mind his excesses and appreciated his lavish entertainment and throwing-money-at-the-problem attitude to the Great Fire of 64. (And him playing the lyre while Rome burned was a much, much later addition; Tacitus, writing closest to the events, has him rushing back from Antium to help the city).

Whatever the reason to his decline, one can see where eating became a emotional compensation, and wonder about the stresses of leadership — especially on someone who wasn’t prepared nor particularly interested in the role.

Now, even if half (or a third…) of what later historians attributed to him is true, he certainly had many of the trappings of absolute autocrats and came up with creatively gruesome ways of dealing with those he found undesirable. Power corrupts and all that, which is true for pretty much every autocrat ever in human history. That doesn’t necessarily make him the devil later writers, particularly Christian ones, made him out to be.

We can go over events in his lifetime one by one and try to establish how much was real, how much was later writers wanting to vilify the previous dynasty to curry favour with the current powers, what were the internal political realities of the Julio-Claudians house vs public works, what could be ideologically and religiously motivated exaggeration, or whatever. We could look at the influence of Seneca, or the poems of Martial, or just graffiti people left during his times.

We could even draw parallels between all those documents and the current climate of political correctness, what one is allowed to say and what they aren’t, and the dichotomies between the corridors of the ruling elite to the daily realities of the other 99%. (Like parliamentary Xmas parties during covid lockdowns; speaking about partying while the world burns).

But that draws away from what I wanted to say.

Someone commented on social media that “the coin makers didn’t try to flatter him via his portrait in the later years”. Considering that these were done in his lifetime, were officially sanctioned, and no one wants to invoke the imperial wrath — they probably did try to flatter him. Think about it.

We have a sixteen year old boy given ultimate power. As with all that dynasty, coming to the throne wasn’t a sure thing, and there much have been an element of surprise there, amidst the grief and loss of family members (we don’t know how he personally felt towards his cousin Britannicus. For all we know, they could have been close like other cousins — until Claudius’ son became a political risk that Agrippina summarily dealt with).

Did he have the personality for it? He tried to do right, follow Seneca — his Stoic teacher — advice and philosophy. He suddenly grew from a sensitive teen to a powerful man, tried to use his power judiciously but by many accounts interested in more in art that politics.

In 64 Rome burns. Did he play a lute and sing while it burned? More likely he was elsewhere, and rushed back to be with the people, organise the recovery. He built back houses for the citizens, with wide avenues of poticos — but did also use the opportunity to claim some of the cleared areas and build his ostentatious Golden House, which rubbed the noses of many rich senators. The people may have appreciated his efforts, but there was dissent in the senate (and casting his character in the worst light is a time-honoured tradition, then as now). Judging by how half-hearted and largely unsupported the failed attempt of the Pisonian conspiracy was, the only real attempt to remove Nero in over 10 years it couldn’t have been all that serious. He was trying to be a good emperor to the people, but continually subjected to criticism and manipulations from those closest to him.

What is clear from such objective representations of his profile on coins, is that by his late 20s he was in deep emotional, as well as political, turmoil.

I’m not claiming this interpretation has more merit, but if anyone wants to tell the story of a sensitive boy who loved to sing, who was subject to an overbearing mother and skewed moralities, who did his best to follow his teacher (one of the greatest Stoic writers ever), but never seem to have satisfied those close to him — now that, I believe, is a story worth telling and reading.

That’s it for now. Hope you found it thought provoking at least, and cause for reflection on public image, on what we think is true, and on how others manifest their internal world.

Enjoying the articles, but wondering why I chase these odd bits of history? Glad you asked! Meet Felix, the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome.

Come meet Felix and his world — still in Republican days — on the free short stories and novels!

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