The Culture of Neronian Rome

Paul Roche discussed the culture of Neronian Rome through significant pieces of art, literature and architecture at the annual J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and Classical Tradition.

PROVO, Utah (Apr. 13, 2017)—According to Dr. Paul Roche, Senior Lecturer of Latin at the University of Sydney, “If you talked to someone who’s had no study of antiquity they could probably still tell you that Nero was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burnt, or was the emperor who persecuted the Christians, or perhaps was the emperor who murdered his mother.”

During his presentation at the annual J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and Classical Tradition, Roche acknowledged that Nero was one of the most famous, tyrannical rulers of Rome but added that he also “presided over, encouraged, and to a certain extent helped end a distinct cultural moment which is one of the most significant in antiquity.” Roche listed aspects of art, literature, and archaeology that he felt best represented Neronian culture.

In general, Roche said, Neronian culture was marked by “an accent on artificiality.” In a lot of Neronian art and literature, realism isn’t the goal. There’s an emphasis on the spectator, on watching, and, in literature, observing people watching. The aesthetic of the grotesque became popular along with themes of the colossal, disruption and death. 

Roche summed up the overall feeling of the period when he said, “Paradox was the fundamental mode of expression, particularly in literature. There’s a style of narrative and representation that draws the reader insistently to the surface of an object. You’re insistently reminded that you’re being told a story, or that you are watching a wall, you’re not looking through [it] to an object.”

An example of this is the roman fourth-style wall painting. Roche explained, “To understand what four-style wall painting is we have to go back to second- and third-style wall painting.” The second style focused on creating the illusion that there was no wall at all, paying attention to space and proportion. The third style embraced the existence of the wall, keeping architectural elements but not painting them to look proportionately real. The fourth style, Roche said, “[was] a combination of second style recession of space and third style delicacy of ornament.”

He cited a room from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii as an example. “It alludes to the space behind the walls. It creates the idea that the wall is a flimsy partition.” 

In addition to wall paintings, Roche discussed the changes in portrait paintings during the Neronian period. “In the first five years of his reign, he stayed with Julio-Claudian classicism. The legitimacy of [his] reign needs to be reinforced by a kind of visual vocabulary that recalls Claudius and the other Julio-Claudian emperors.”

In contrast, later portraits feature a different hairstyle, different textures and the addition of “radiant crowns – the crown of Apollo, for example – with which Nero associated himself.” These changes are evidence of a ruler who no longer needed to claim his predecessors’ tradition as legitimacy.

Along with changing portraiture, literature changed as well during Nero’s reign. The Pharsalia, or The Civil War, by the poet Lucan is what Roche called, “the jewel in the crown of Neronian literature.” Featuring three different heroes, the themes of the story are ruination, madness, suicide and what Roche called, “the spectacle of death.”

Roche described a scene from Book IX in which Cado leads his troops across a desert in Africa where they fall prey to different kinds of snakes and suffer gruesome deaths. Roche called the “catalog of bizarre, spectacular deaths” described in this scene as “very much Lucanian.” Although Lucan was once a friend of Nero, he later committed suicide after an uncovered conspiracy. Nero, who participated in the arts himself, eventually ended up being the ruin of more than one “star of Neronian culture,” as Roche called the artists and writers of the time.
One of the greatest scandals of Nero’s reign was the murder of his mother, Agrippina, which took place in the now sunken city of Baiae, Italy. The city is now an underwater archaeological U.N.E.S.C.O. world heritage site, but in Nero’s time, it was a popular resort where many aristocrats had villas, one of which was the site of Agrippina’s murder. Not only is the story famous now, but, Roche said, Agrippina’s murder was the turning point of Nero’s reign in the minds of many Romans from “bad” to “good.” Many who sought to depose Nero would cite the matricide as their motivation.

Another archaeological site, the Domus Aurea, was an enormous palace and garden complex that Nero built on land that had been leveled by the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. Covering multiple hills and estimated to be hundreds of acres, the palace complex was graced with an enormous statue of Nero, commissioned by the emperor himself. Besides its size and luxury, it is historically significant due to its innovative use of concrete to build octagonal rooms. The construction of the palace is another reminder of the Neronian obsession with the colossal.

Roche was careful to remind students that although Nero had an influence on the art and architecture of the time, “[He] isn’t driving this. It grows up around him.” He stressed that rather than an abrupt beginning and ending, the period had strong ties to the older Augustin culture and didn’t end abruptly at Nero’s death.

Nero’s reign, however, met a more sudden end. When his governors revolted and declared him a public enemy, Nero committed suicide and was in some respect erased form the Roman memory with a damnatio memoriae – a damning, or erasing, of his name from record. His name is hard to find, but the “wonderful flowering of culture” that existed during his reign is still very much preserved.

Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the Comparative Arts and Letters Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.

The J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and the Classical Tradition was established in honor of J. Reuben Clark III, a professor of classical languages and French and the founder of classics as a formal field of study at BYU. Clark passed away in 1992. 

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