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Nero Paperback – October 30, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nero is infamous for his persecution of Christians, for fiddling while Rome burned and for matricide-among other acts of brutality. In a graceful and lively tale of Nero's short reign (A.D. 54-68)-he committed suicide at age 30-Champlin, a professor of classics at Princeton, invites us to reconsider the emperor's ways and work, drawing on the three major histories of the empire, by Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio. Although none of these writers was a contemporary of Nero, Champlin argues that each likely drew on eyewitness sources to paint their portraits of the emperor. Each indicts Nero for the excesses of his reign. However, Champlin persuasively demonstrates that these accounts can be questioned by focusing on Nero's disposition to think of himself as an actor on a stage. Champlin argues that Nero thought of his matricide, the murder of his wife (there is a question still about whether he intended to kill her) and his burning of Rome as elements in what was for him a great drama in which he was the star. He loved to play the roles of Orestes and Oedipus, two ancient matricides, performed pantomime, played the lyre and raced chariots in the Olympic games. He also cast himself as descended from the god Apollo and the hero Hercules. Champlin shows that although the Senate ran Nero off the throne because of their jealousy and fear of his eccentric behavior, the populace loved him and mourned his death. This is a first-rate study and a compelling re-evaluation of an oft-maligned ancient figure who created his own myth out of the fabric of his life. Illus., maps.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


A compelling reevaluation of an oft-maligned ancient figure who created his own myth out of the fabric of his life. (Publishers Weekly)

Champlin's a compelling reminder that historical 'truth' is usually a lot more complex and elusive than we realize and that history is rarely written without bias or hidden motives, conscious or otherwise. You will not love Nero any more after reading Champlin's account of him, but you will have a far keener understanding of him, and his context, than you likely had before. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post Book World 2003-11-30)

Champlin argues that Nero saw himself first and foremost as an artist, a sort of Oscar Wilde figure whose love of theatricality dominated his life...Champlin judges Nero to have been an artist, aesthete, showman and PR man of considerable talent, ingenuity and energy, who understood what the people wanted to see--and this, he concludes, accounts for Nero's remarkable afterlife. Whether one believes that conclusion or not, Champlin's brilliant interpretation of Nero's stage activities strikes me as an important advance in our understanding of what drove that dreadful man. (Peter Jones Sunday Telegraph 2003-12-14)

Nero is an excellent read, an atmospheric retelling of the wonders and horrors of its fascinating subject. Champlin piles up contexts and materials to fill out the shorter accounts offered by ancient authors in an attempt to find meaning in Nero's extraordinary actions...It is vivid and exciting. Nero's world appears in a series of brilliant tableaux and the central character entrances as he horrifies. (Greg Woolf Times Literary Supplement 2004-06-25)

Champlin has a keen eye for the parallels between Neronian history and the mythic inheritance of Greco-Roman culture...There is much else in the book that is the fruit of careful and astute analysis. (Mary Beard London Review of Books 2004-09-02)

Nero is fascinating because he epitomizes the decadence of Rome. This book--a rare combination of scholarship with elegance of expression and wit--explains why. It reveals him as the ultimate performance artist who plundered history and mythology for themes and props with which to give purpose and justification to his aberrant behaviour. His life was pure theatre, played out for his people and for posterity to marvel at. (Adam Zamoyski Good Book Guide 2004-11-01)

[Champlin's] Nero is as dazzling an achievement as the Sun King and his creations. (D. Wardle Classical Review)

Not the least of the many fine features of Edward Champlin's brilliant new book on Nero, however, is a refreshing discussion of the lost sources on which extant accounts drew...By far the most enjoyable and rewarding modern work on Nero I know...The book is imaginative, evocative, stylishly written, and a delight to read (and re-read). It is based on impeccable research and a fine sense of Roman topography. (Keith Bradley Scholia Reviews 2005-06-01)

This book is a tour de force...Champlin weaves a stunningly cohesive picture of a man of unlimited power confined only by the theatrical capacity of his imagination; but among the multiplicity of roles that Nero played, is there no room for contradiction or inconsistency? Nero and Champlin share the same dexterity in persuading their audience of the logic of their vision; their dual act will be very hard for the next biographer of Nero to follow. (Kathleen Coleman Journal of Roman Archaeology 2005-06-01)

A glittering achievement...Champlin represents Nero as a brilliant interpreter and exploiter of mythological exempla, an ironic Saturnalicus princeps whose inversions of societal norms and power-structures were embedded within an overarching program of populist public imagery that sought constantly to confirm and extend the connection between the emperor and his audience...It is hard to praise Champlin's achievement sufficiently...Anyone interested in the emperor or the early empire must consult this work. It is indispensable. (Paul Roche Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006-04-20)

[Champlin's] working method is efficient, his style is vivid, especially in description and narrative...Champlin's book, a real tour de force, will certainly appeal to a large audience. (Bertrand Goffaux Classical Bulletin 2006-01-01)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (September 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674018222
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674018228
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,789 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Champlin reveals much about Nero and his world.
Alvaro Lewis
It's perfectly well written meticulously researched and argued throughout; but just not near as interesting as it could be.
Abigail Waterman
The book is easy to read both for the scholar and the casual reader.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Octavius on April 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Edward Champlin's book provides a revolutionary approach to understanding the commonly misperceived Nero, who now is often portrayed as a demented fool who watched Rome burn while reciting the Iliad; who brutally executed Christians for entertainment; and, whose death was celebrated far and wide. Champlin dispels these misconceptions as products of bias and shows that Nero remained a positive mythological hero for over 400 years after his death even to some Christians and, that he was well loved by a great majority of the people: particularly in Greece and Asia Minor.

The book retraces the common sources on Nero as being Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch and Dio. Champlin demonstrates how the Latin and Christian sources tend to be severely negative while the Greek ones are either neutral or positive. Champlin then shows how Nero was really a Hellenic phillantropist who freed Greece from taxes and gave it its autonomy. He notes that, after his death, three impostors pretending to be Nero came out of Greece and Asia Minor with significant followings and explains that this could not have happened unless a significant group of people saw Nero as an enlightened folk hero. Champlin reveals also many other biases in Suetonius and Tacitus depicting Nero as tone-deaf and without talent. Champlin shows that other writers commented significantly well on his skills and that the impostors were tested as to their claimed identities by being asked to sing and/or play the lyre. He also demonstrates how members of all classes in Rome willingly participated in both his public and private spectacles and that this wasn't just flattery on their part.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Jon Torodash on October 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Champlin bravely asserts his own contribution to the great wealth of Neronian scholarship for the critics to pick apart. I find very little to quibble about.
It is difficult to write even-handedly about Nero for a Western audience. Who could forget the image of a man who "fiddled while Rome burned" or the terrible tyrant who had begun a nearly 170 year "persecution" of the early Christians, under whose reign both Peter and Paul were executed? As other reviewer comments reveal, you can easily earn the brand of a Nero "apologist" if you don't tow the party line, however inaccurate it might be.

Champlin's thesis can be stated simply as follows: many, if not most of Nero's grandstands and outrageous actions, were performed out of considerable political shrewdness and calculation - not the madness or puerile excess wrongly attributed to a "live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse" emperor. Nero's success, Champlin argues in the first chapter, is evinced by a shockingly prolonged "afterlife" manifested in pseudo-Neros, Judeo-Christian apocalyptic writings, and a disenfranchised populace openly lamenting his death. Nonetheless, I cannot help but wonder, (working on the same assumption,) whether he had truly orchestrated his public relations as well as Champlin suggests given his untimely demise at age 30.

Some reviewers disagree, but I reckon Champlin's original Nero-Periander link to be one of the most intriguing ideas in ancient biography I've ever seen. The ambivalent relationship with the mother, the Philhellenism, the artistic bent, and the numerous other links are too compelling to ignore outright, even if the conclusion a hard sell.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Alvaro Lewis on November 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Champlin has written a delightful book about a troubled Caesar. As the current tends, the author glides much of the discussion of Nero into a course that resembles the sentence: that actor is the emperor whose performances are his politics. Nero's recognition of the real necessity for memorable spectacles as politcally provident does not separate him from other Caesars, however his rare compulsion to be the spectacle in its entirety does. Champlin works hard to identify the tainted strands of Nero's story and succeeds at separating some of the thoroughly tendentious traditions from the popular but less evident cheers for the better buildings and bigger spectacles he sponsored. It was exciting to learn of Nero's afterlife and of all those who expected his return in the fashion of some sort of ur-Elvis.
The book is tastefully written and compelling, particularly in its informative appraisal of the historians whose works mold most of the early modern and modern perceptions of this prince. Until his death, Nero sought to create a world that would correspond to his desires; Rome became his Golden Home and primary stage. Champlin reveals much about Nero and his world. This book overflows the boundary of biography to spread into the fields of performance, politics, popular reception, Roman religion, art and historiography. I heartily recommend it.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Arch Stanton on September 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The thesis of this book is that Nero was entirely sane and all interpretations of Nero come from distortions of the way he presented himself. Dr. Champlin's argument compares Nero with various mythological figures. That these line up with specific features or events in Nero's life is, he argues, evidence that Nero promoted these similarities himself through his self-presentation and visual style. Much of this information is useful. His analysis of Nero's change from identifying himself with Apollo to associating with Helios is particularly interesting and most likely correct. This book will not serve as a conventional biography, as he admits himself in the introduction, but is intended to explain the proper way of viewing Nero's actions. The evidence used is almost entirely literary. Despite warning about the unreliability of the sources earlier in the book, even going so far as to call them Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and "Dio" for the epitome, Dr. Champlin uses these sources in great detail almost unquestioningly. This is a problem inherent in many historical works perhaps, but it is particularly obvious here given the way that he uses his sources. They are all treated as biased but essentially all the facts and events listed are presented as true.

The problem with the account is that he really does take most of what he reads as true. Even the obvious slanders are treated as perversions of Nero's own presentation. For example on entirely questionable and circumstantial evidence he asserts that Nero did indeed burn down the city of Rome. His evidence is: he twice cancelled a trip to the east for sudden and mysterious reasons, he experienced omens in advance of the disaster, and he was accused by a member of his own guard of setting the fire only nine months after it happened.
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