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Nero Paperback – August 22, 2005
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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 Nero...is 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)
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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. Further research is warranted, but I suspect that Champlin, with his great intellect and energy, may have already exhausted all of the available evidence for advancing his thesis. He demonstrates the Augustus/Antony connections thoroughly. The discussion of the great fire of 64 is arrestingly well done: after convincingly presenting the defense for Nero's innocence, he suddenly shatters the deception in stating that despite this preceding evidence, Nero undoubtedly held direct responsibility for the coflagration. It hits you with dramatic effect almost equal to one of the primary sources comprising the centerpiece of his proof in this sudden reversal: Tacitus' Annales XV.67.
Champlin's organization is somewhat bothersome as it is in "Final Judgments," because he rejects chronological arrangement for thematic foci. This requires repetition of several facts, and I cannot understand his reasons for the chapter order. The post-mortem legacy of Nero, being most fascinating, he puts up front obviously to hook his reader. It serves as an interesting set piece for further discourse, because the inevitable wonder we feel about Nero's impression on the world ever after demands explanation: thus the rest of the book. But with Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus unfolding the bulk of their own histories so methodically, the rearrangement isn't always a neat fit. Still, Champlin's brilliant weaving together of hundreds of sources, as before, vindicates his literary decisions several times over.
Champlin, like any other historian, has his hypotheses and directs his evidence toward proving them. His presentation however, is replete with past scholarship and primary sources presented candidly and fairly. One of the most appreciable inclusions is the extensive collection of Latin graffiti, which add a critical dimension to our knowledge. This book has been for me an introduction into full-strength Neronian scholarship and I found it both accessible and empowering enough to read further with confidence.
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. The middle point does not even require an explanation. Omens were found for every major event in Roman history and could frequently be recalled only after the event. The cancelling of the trip is unusual but hardly cause for such a sweeping accusation. It is not proof. The member of the guard who accused Nero was venting his disgust at the emperor for his way of living and was not necessarily true. None of this is really strong evidence compared to the evidence against: it was just two days after a full moon and therefore a bad night for arson, fires were a constant threat in Rome, Tacitus himself (the most reliable source) was uncertain and seemed to favor an accident, the fires did not start in the areas where Nero wanted to build his Golden House, the fire (while dramatic) was a horribly impractical way of clearing the area and did much damage to his buildings as well, the rebuilding was expensive and drained Rome's treasury substantially, and the people did not blame Nero for it. He views the evidence as damning, but that is because he puts such a high value on his interpretation of Nero's character. Champlin views nothing that Nero does as an accident, so all the little details must be made to fit. Nero is always in control of the situation and is rarely portrayed as merely reacting to events. Since Nero demonstrated such eagerness building his Golden House he must have planned it in advance. In many ways this invalidates Champlin's thesis that Nero was not insane since only a madman would burn down his own capital for no good reason. Unless people fully subscribe to Champlin's interpretation of Nero's character they are unlikely to buy his explanation for the fire.
Most of the evidence is not in dispute, only his interpretation of it. For example, he holds that Nero's famous quote "What an artist perishes in me," (In Latin qualis artifex pereo) is entirely wrong. Artifex can mean craftsman as well as artist and since he was directing the digging of his own grave Champlin argues that he is referring to himself as a craftsman and not an artist. He is in fact saying "what an artist I am in my dying," presumably ironically. Thus he is not mourning his own death but how low he has fallen in his final hours. While the Latin can be taken in that sense it seems While this is rather a minor point to be going on at length about in such a brief paper Dr. Champlin makes a major deal of this in the first part of the book. He views this phrase as symptomatic of the way that Nero's actual words and deeds have been continuously misinterpreted over the centuries. In a way it is symptomatic of his work as a whole. It can be interpreted in that way, but you have to look at it from a very odd angle.
This book is brilliant at analyzing the reason behind Nero's public presentation and his choice of heroes to emulate. His actions do make much more sense when viewed in the context of the heroes of the ancient world. A Periander for example lived to extremes and was not very likeable, yet he was much admired. Nero's presentation of his actions offer wonderful parallels with ancient gods and heroes and it seems to be intentional. The manner in which he was loved by the common man suggests that he was successful in associating himself with these figures. The analysis of ancient mores, particularly where performing was concerned, showed that his desire to perform was not as extreme an act as it has been made out to appear in the sources. What enraged contemporaries was his attempt to do it on a professional level. These conclusions are well reasoned and pick out examples of contemporary attitudes with great skill. On the other hand Champlin's use of the sources for historical events is questionable. There is a fine line between trusting the sources too much and discarding too many as unreliable. The author trusts his sources far too much. When he is reporting on contemporary attitudes and opinions this works to his advantage since even a hopelessly inaccurate work reflects an opinion, but when he tries to argue events from character motivation he gets too carried away with himself. If one accepts that Nero did all the things attributed to him then this book will likely make a great deal of sense. If not then it offers some intriguing possibilities but goes too far in its conclusions.