It’s worth lingering on Carandini’s logic—Nero benefited from the fire, therefore he caused the fire—since the horrific blaze that damaged or destroyed 10 of Rome’s 14 regions is central to Neronian mythology. “Even Tacitus, the great accuser of Nero, writes that no one knows whether Rome burned from arson or by chance,” counters Ranieri Panetta. “Rome in Nero’s time had very narrow streets” and was full of tall buildings with wooden upper stories. “Fire was essential for lighting, cooking, and heating. Consequently almost all the emperors had big fires during their reigns.” It also happens that Nero was not in Rome when the Great Fire began, but instead in his birthplace of Antium, modern-day Anzio. At some point during the conflagration, he sped back to Rome, and while it seems the case that Nero did enjoy playing a stringed instrument known as the kithara, the first account alleging that he did so while watching flames consume the city was written by Cassius Dio a century and a half after the fact. Tacitus, who lived during the time of Nero, wrote that the emperor ordered the homeless to be sheltered, offered cash incentives to those who could expeditiously rebuild the city, and instituted and enforced fire safety codes...
...And rounded up, condemned, and crucified the then hated Christians. And seized the charred remains of the Eternal City as the future site of his Golden House. “He lent himself to the label of monster,” Ranieri Panetta concedes. “He was an easy target.”
“What worse than Nero?” wrote the poet Martial, a contemporary of the emperor. But then came his next line: “What better than Nero’s baths?”
In 2007, while conducting impact studies for a new subway line that would plow through the heart of the city, a Roman archaeologist with the Italian Ministry of Culture named Fedora Filippi was digging directly under the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II when she discovered the base of a column. Burrowing further, beneath a Mussolini-era building along Piazza Navona, Filippi encountered a portico—and nearby, the edge of a pool. It took more than a year of stratigraphic analysis and poring over historical texts before she concluded that she had discovered the enormous public gymnasium built by Nero a few years before the Great Fire of 64. Plans for the metro stop at the site were immediately abandoned, as were the excavations. Outside of academia, Filippi’s important discovery received little attention.
“The gymnasium was part of a big change Nero brought about in Rome,” Filippi says. “He introduced the concept of Greek culture—and with it, this idea of physical and intellectual education of youth, and soon it spread throughout the empire. Before, such baths were only for the aristocrats. This changed social relations, because it put everyone on the same level, from senators to the horsemen.”
Nero was a grenade hurled into an already untidy social order. Despite blood connections with Augustus on both his maternal and paternal sides, he seemed anything but Roman: blond, blue-eyed, and freckle-faced, with an aptitude for art rather than war. His sly and ambitious mother, Agrippina, was accused of plotting to kill her brother Caligula and later probably killed her third husband, Claudius, with poisonous mushrooms. Having already arranged for the stoic essayist Seneca to mentor her young son, Agrippina proclaimed Nero a worthy successor to the throne, and in A.D. 54, just shy of age 17, he assumed it. Anyone curious about the mother’s intentions could find the answer on coins from the era, depicting the teenage emperor’s face no larger than that of Agrippina.
Nero’s early reign was golden. He banished Claudius’s secret trials, issued pardons, and when asked for his signature on a death warrant, moaned, “How I wish I had never learned to write!” He held working dinners with poets—perhaps, it would be theorized, so that he could steal their lines—and rigorously practiced his lyre as well as singing, though his voice was not the best. “Above all, he was obsessed with a desire for popularity,” wrote his biographer Suetonius, but Princeton classics professor Edward Champlin views Nero’s persona with more nuance. In his revisionist book, Nero, Champlin describes his subject as “an indefatigable artist and performer who happened also to be emperor of Rome” and “a public relations man ahead of his time with a shrewd understanding of what the people wanted, often before they knew it themselves.” Nero introduced, for instance, the “Neronia”—Olympic-style poetry, music, and athletic contests. But what pleased the masses did not always please the Roman elites. When Nero insisted that senators compete along with commoners in other public games, his golden age began to crackle with tension.
“It was something new, like young people today with their social media, where suddenly everything personal is on exhibit,” says archaeologist Heinz-Jürgen Beste. “Nero was an artist, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, who embodied these changes. Like his baths—and what Martial said about them—this is the polarity of Nero. He’d created something no one had seen before: a light-flooded public place not just for hygiene but also where there were statues and paintings and books, where you could hang out and listen to someone read poetry aloud. It meant an entirely new social situation.”
In addition to the Gymnasium Neronis, the young emperor’s public building works included an amphitheater, a meat market, and a proposed canal that would connect Naples to Rome’s seaport at Ostia so as to bypass the unpredictable sea currents and ensure safe passage of the city’s food supply. Such undertakings cost money, which Roman emperors typically procured by raiding other countries. But Nero’s warless reign foreclosed this option. (Indeed, he had liberated Greece, declaring that the Greeks’ cultural contributions excused them from having to pay taxes to the empire.) Instead he elected to soak the rich with property taxes—and in the case of his great shipping canal, to seize their land altogether. The Senate refused to let him do so. Nero did what he could to circumvent the senators—“He would create these fake cases to bring some rich guy to trial and extract some heavy fine from him,” says Beste—but Nero was fast making enemies. One of them was his mother, Agrippina, who resented her loss of influence and therefore may have schemed to install her stepson, Britannicus, as the rightful heir to the throne. Another was his adviser Seneca, who was allegedly involved in a plot to kill Nero. By A.D. 65, mother, stepbrother, and consigliere had all been killed.
Nero was free to be Nero. Thus ended the so-called good years of his reign, followed by years in which, as Oxford historian Miriam Griffin writes, “Nero escaped more and more into a world of fantasy,” until reality crashed down upon him.
Spending time in the still great but recession-battered city of Rome and discussing the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors with scholars and political figures, one is tempted to compare the grandiosity of Nero to the showmanship of a more recent fallen Italian leader.
“Nero was a fool and a megalomaniac, but a fool can also be charming and interesting,” says Andrea Carandini. “The thing he invented, which all demagogues after him repeated, was that he cherished the masses. He made a gigantic thing of inviting the whole city inside his Domus Aurea, which was one-third of the city, and making a gigantic show. This is television! And Silvio Berlusconi did exactly the same thing, using the media to connect with the plebes.”
The former mayor of Rome and Italy’s former minister of culture and the environment, Walter Veltroni, rejects any comparison between Nero and the scandal-ridden former prime minister, on the grounds that the latter thoroughly lacked Nero’s cultural appetites. “Berlusconi had no interest in archaeology—the word was simply not in his head,” says Veltroni (who, it should be said, also ran for prime minister but was defeated by Berlusconi in 2008). By contrast, he says, “for me, Nero’s Domus Aurea is the most beautiful place in the city—the most mysterious, where different periods of history weave together. When I was minister of culture in the late 1990s, I took Martin Scorsese to see it, who was so impressed with the grotesques. And I also took Ian McEwan into it—he wrote about the Domus Aurea in his novel Saturday.”
The entire palace complex was laid out like a stage, with woodlands and lakes and promenades accessible to all. Still, acknowledges Nero revisionist Ranieri Panetta, “it was a scandal, because there was so much Rome for one person. It wasn’t only that it was luxurious—there had been palaces all over Rome for centuries. It was the sheer size of it. There was graffiti: ‘Romans, there’s no more room for you, you have to go to [the nearby village of] Veio.’” For all its openness, what the Domus ultimately expressed was one man’s limitless power, right down to the materials used to construct it. “The idea of using so much marble was not just a show of wealth,” says Irene Bragantini, an expert on Roman paintings. “All of this colored marble came from the rest of the empire—from Asia Minor and Africa and Greece. The idea is that you’re controlling not just the people but also their resources. In my reconstruction, what happened in Nero’s time is that for the first time, there’s a big gap between the middle and upper class, because only the emperor has the power to give you marble.”