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  • Nero
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4.1 out of 5 stars
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Nero
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on July 26, 2013
There is not a lot of information on Nero, other than the rumors that he was a terrible tyrannical ruler, this book doesn't go into the rumors it focuses more on the facts and history that is known about this ruler. He doesn't call him a flat out tyrant, he takes a very critical look into Nero's life. I would recommend this book.
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on May 2, 2012
If you've read any relatively recent works on ancient Rome, you'll know that the contemporary sources were infamously unreliable. The principate, established by Augustus, disenfranchised the large aristocracy known as the senatorial class who were, unfortunately for posterity, also responsible for documenting the era. It's therefore accepted that, from them, a historian is only able to gain piecemeal understanding of any Roman figure, especially when it comes to emperors.

That they would be hostile is a given but, in "Nero," Edward Champlin doesn't merely accept this at its face, instead deciding to devote to it an inordinate amount of time. He compares one source to another and points out the inconsistencies and, in most cases, reconciles them. Easily, he could have simply given one example and then asked us to take his word for it but, instead, continues his discussion of nuanced minutiae throughout.

When Champlin finally decides to relate his theory it is, in effect, that "Nero the emperor" can only be understood through "Nero the performer." Because of the notorious difficulties a historian faces in writing an adequate biography of any ancient person, Champlin's interpretation is an interesting way to suss out his life but, by using the games of Nero's reign to evaluate his career as princeps, he forces all knowledge of Nero through a constricted window. While in some instances this works, as with Nero's marriage to Pythagoras and his debauchery of Roman youth, his theory ultimately limits any conclusions he can draw.

From the skewed history we do have, we know that Nero was undoubtedly an interesting character. He burned Christians and castrated a youth and made him his bride! While he may or may not have practiced incest, Champlin argues that he almost certainly killed his mother. The evidence for this? Champlin points to his interest in Oedipus. For Champlin's Nero, life was literally a stage and he the central character. While it's probably true that Nero both killed his mother and enjoyed artistic works, Champlin is grasping at straws to establish a connection between the two.

Unlike other reviewers here, I entered this foray without much preexisting knowledge of Nero. Also unlike the revisionist works of Caligula by Aloys Winterling or Socrates by Robin Waterfield, I felt that Champlin's "Nero" requires a rather extensive knowledge of the historicity of the emperor with an overriding interest in the intricacies of Roman entertainment and Senatorial misinformation to be enjoyable to any layperson or amateur historian.

But the biggest disappointment is the limitations established by Champlin himself. In order to link the fictions (myths, tragedies, etc) and the facts (as we are able to know them) of Nero's life, Champlin relates an extensive history of Roman beliefs. In and of themselves both these fictions and facts are appealing, but his attempts to tie them together are regrettably not.
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on February 16, 2015
I occasionally find difficult to agree with his argumentation but the book is lots of fun. Be aware that it contains a lot of details and sometimes is a little hard to follow it up.
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on March 19, 2015
Great book that takes a different perspective about Nero and his actions.
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on July 19, 2014
This book was published around the time the National Geographic special came out which cleared Nero of starting the Great Fire of Rome. The writer examines Nero as a good Pagan Imperator and Pontifex Maximus, the last of his line, not as a freak who just rolled out of bed every morning (or afternoon, or evening) planning what evil he could do with his free time. Anyone with an open mind should ignore the bizarre scribble on the cover, and get this book. Since the inside illustrations are in black and white, they show up better in this "print on demand" copy than most.

Page Davis
July 2014
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on October 11, 2014
Professional transaction. Well written.
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on July 17, 2013
That's what you get when you read a book written by a college professor sometimes. Such a debauched image deserves a juicier tale. I read a lot of ancient history, so am able to navigate this book, but anyone looking for a fun read on any level should look elsewhere. It's perfectly well written meticulously researched and argued throughout; but just not near as interesting as it could be.
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on September 28, 2011
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. 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.
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on August 24, 2011
I am not sure why so many reviewers here think that Edward Champlin is going easy on Nero or recasting him in a positive light. Champlin certainly dispenses with the caricatures that history has handed down to us, including the image of Nero fiddling as Rome burns. He shows us convincingly and I think definitively that Nero was not the buffoon of Roman tabloid authors like Cassius Dio.

The picture Champlin gives us of the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian line is far more intriguing. The Nero we find here is, in fact, far more devious and far more cruel in that his crimes were not the result of foolery but were premeditated far in advance of being carried out. Each act of brutality, be it the murder of his mother or the burning of Rome, Nero carefully staged and crafted in order to present himself to the world as a living hero of myth.

That's right, I think Champlin convincingly shows us that Nero not only burnt Rome, but planned its burning far in advance. In fact, he telegraphed Rome's burning in actions that are recorded by contemporary authors who did not realize the import of those very actions. Most notably, the blindness episode in the temple of Vesta. Most take the story to be just another example of Nero's craziness. Champlin shows us that it was in fact a carefully scripted part of Nero's show.

In the end, I think that those who find Champlin's Nero to be a revisionist and more favorable account of the emperor are missing the point. No, Champlin's Nero is not the Nero of popular myth. He is actually far worse.
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on October 13, 2005
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. 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.
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