Arts & Entertainment

British Museum challenging myth of Roman Emperor Nero

By Pilar Tomas

London, May 25 (EFE).- Nero, one of the most notorious emperors of Ancient Rome, has gone down in history as a tyrant who ruled with an iron hand and unparalleled cruelty, committing savage atrocities, a legacy that now the British Museum is calling into question with an exhibit that aspires to deconstruct the myth.

From the imperial palace in Rome to the streets of Pompeii, the exposition includes more than 200 objects – some of them never displayed before in the United Kingdom – to delve into the rise and fall of the last male descendent of the legendary Emperor Augustus.

Nero, the key figure of one of the most tumultuous periods of Roman society, came to the throne in 54 A.D. at age 16, presiding over a convulsive reign that lasted until his violent death at age 30.

The exposition – “Nero: the man behind the myth” – will run from May 27 through Oct. 24 and examines his relatively brief 14-year span in power to see, in light of new research and archaeological investigation, what truth lies in the traditional narrative that shows Nero to be a heartless, matricidal megalomaniac.

During his reign, the emperor ordered the execution of his own mother, his first wife and, allegedly, his second wife as well, crimes that may be added to the accusation that he caused the huge fire that devastated Rome in the year 64, according to some historians.

Amid a military uprising, Nero found himself forced to step down from the throne and cede power to a new elite governor who built up his legitimacy on the basis of vilifying the fallen emperor, who shortly thereafter committed suicide and whose memory was eliminated from the official register by the Roman Senate.

The image of the tyrant, created half a century after Nero’s death, has evolved in the history books into an account that contrasts with the “other” Nero presented in the exposition: a populist and inexpert leader awash on a great wave of social transformation that reverberated throughout continental Europe.

To deconstruct the myth and shed light on Nero’s true legacy, the exhibit goes beyond the traditional written sources, very slanted by the political elite of the period, who were motivated “to praise or revile according to what benefited them,” Thorsten Opper, the curator of the exposition, told EFE.

Documenting with only literary sources is like trying to describe the US elections by reading only the tweets of one candidate, it’s very extreme and very slanted, he said.

Thus, the exhibit is founded on objects from the society of the times, including grafitti from the streets of Rome, theater masks on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum and gladiators’ weapons unearthed from the volcanic-ash-buried ruins of Pompeii and held by the Louvre in Paris.

One of the most outstanding pieces is a bronze head of Nero, found in 1907 in the River Alde in Suffolk, England, which shares the spotlight with other items such as coins from the Roman Republic and Empire, military bracelets, several jewels and even slave chains recovered from the bed of a lake in Wales centuries later.

With the many artifacts, the exposition offers the public the chance to forge a new idea of Nero, who was acclaimed for his popular policies, his extravagant games and competitions and his big construction projects, a legacy that now is coming to light after centuries in the obscurity of disrepute.


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