We’ve had more than a year without major exhibitions to visit. But the British Museum has returned with one of its blockbusters: a treasure-filled and challenging exploration of the Emperor Nero. Best-selling author Simon (SJA) Turney, who knows a thing or two about the Roman Empire, reviews it for Historia and finds it one of the BM’s best special exhibitions he’s seen.
The British Museum are past masters at archaeological special exhibitions and their current one, running until 24 October, 2021, is Nero: the man behind the myth. The purpose of the exhibition is to challenge the image of the indolent, dangerous and cruel tyrant history has given us, using a variety of exhibits to detail aspects of the world and the man’s life.
Their aim is not to defy the traditional image per se, but to open the question up to scrutiny, allowing the visitor to make up their own mind as they move around. As a regular visitor to the BM’s special exhibitions, I would say that this exhibition is among the best to date.
Drawing upon statuary, epigraphy and many other exhibits drawn from museums around the world, the exhibition is organised chronologically, taking us from the beginnings of empire through the dangerous days of Tiberian and Caligulan Rome, Nero’s youth and his relationship with his mother and stepfather, to his accession to the throne.
We are then led through the events of his life, disasters and glory, art and butchery, and towards his fall and the chaos surrounding it.
As an author who has made something of a career out of challenging the reputation of damned emperors I was fascinated.
I have tackled the troublesome Commodus, the doomed Maxentius and the hated Caligula, and in each case I have found that when one takes the contemporary accounts of those men’s detractors out of the equation, the actual evidence, scant as it might be, often tells a very different story, or at least hints that things may not have been what they seem. I managed to form a new picture of these men which was a great deal more realistic.
I have been asked more than once whether I might attempt to do the same with Nero. My response has always been a staunch ‘no’, partially because Nero is so well covered in fiction, but also because Nero is much more detailed in surviving history than others, and his reputation to me has always seemed irretrievable.
My surprise, then, to find myself questioning that position as I moved around what is a truly magnificent collection of some of the best treasures of the Roman world, was palpable. I found myself taking a whole new angle on this pitiable creature.
A man thrown into the dangerous waters of imperial power while still at a tender age, who was subject to vicious influences, and who might actually be more maligned than malignant, who perhaps was more misunderstood than miscreant.
Highlights of the exhibit include busts and statues of the imperial family drawn from England, Rome, Denmark, provincial Italy and Paris, the Mainz Tiberius Sword, grand wall paintings painstakingly brought from Pompeii, the astounding Louvre Praetorian relief (one of very few surviving portraits of the Guard), beautiful gladiator armour, and some of the best preserved coins I have encountered.
Again, the collection is designed to make the viewer consider the question and draw their own conclusion rather than to present the visitor with an answer and ask them to accept it, but it really did make me think. That, in itself, makes this exhibition valuable, and raises it far above the level of other exhibits that are merely designed to introduce and educate.
It was hard not to be emotional following Nero’s journey, and I heartily recommend a visit to the exhibition for anyone, from the die-hard Roman historian to the layman with little more than a passing interest. The exhibit was well worth the admission fee, and is a must visit.
Simon (SJA) Turney is the author of a number of novels, many set during the Roman era. Those mentioned in this review are the Damned Emperors series: Caligula and Commodus, and the Rise of Emperors series: Sons of Rome and Masters of Rome, co-written with Gordon Doherty. The third book in the trilogy, Gods of Rome, will be published on 4 November, 2021.
Blood Feud, the first in Simon’s new Wolves of Odin series, will be published on 22 July, 2021.
Simon has written several features for Historia, including:
A game of gods: religion in a changing Roman world (with Gordon Doherty)
The Templars and the reconquest of Spain
The Women of the Knights Templar
If you’re interested in Nero, you might enjoy The Wedding, our serialisation of LJ Trafford’s short story about the emperor. It’s taken from Rubicon, the collection of ten stories (plus ten author interviews) set in Ancient Rome.
Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s notorious mother, is one of the Five infamous female poisoners Elizabeth Fremantle has profiled for us.
And if you’ve ever wondered Why the Roman Empire grew so big, Harry Sidebottom has some answers.
Or have a browse through Historia’s range of books, features and interviews with a connection to Roman history.
Bust of Nero: photograph by Simon Turney
Praetorian Guards, relief, lent by the Louvre: photograph by Simon Turney
Gladiator armour: photograph by Simon Turney
The Mainz Tiberius Sword: photograph by Simon Turney