Nero on TV: Some surprises
Last night the UK digital channel “Yesterday” aired one programme in a series, “Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire” (a BBC/Discovery Channel production), this one on Nero. The opening screens emphasized that the programme depicted real characters and events, that it drew on ancient sources, and that it had the benefit of advice from historians of the period. The use of well-known British actors and impressive CGI special effects made for a watchable programme. But, as an effort at a historical portrayal the programme also had some surprising features.
To cite one curious omission, in depicting the descent of Nero into tyrannical cruelty, much was made of his attack upon some of the leading figures in upper classes of Roman society, but nothing was said about Nero’s pogrom against Roman Christians. Per the ancient reports, this exceeded in cruelty anything meted out to Roman patricians, with Christians impaled alive, daubed with pitch and set afire, dressed in skins and set upon by savage animals in the arena for sport. I should think these things somewhat relevant in taking the measure of the man. But on this, silentio.
The programme also mentioned the growing unrest and tensions in parts of the Empire, including the unrest in Gaul. But, very curiously, there was no reference at all to what was surely the greatest test of Roman military power in the time: the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE. To cite a recent and readable account that draws judiciously on ancient sources, “The war demanded a massive concentration of forces and was the longest siege in the whole of the imperial period.” (Susan Sorek, The Jews Against Rome, London: Continuum, 2008, p. vii). Indeed, already by the time of Nero’s death in 68 CE, it was clear that the Jewish revolt was the most serious military situation facing the Empire. One would have thought this a sufficient basis to include it as illustrative of the troubles emerging during Nero’s reign. But apparently not.
I was also puzzled at the closing lines, in which the narrator intoned the claim that with Nero a blood-line dynastic approach to emperor-succession ended, and that the emperor who succeeded Nero was chosen on “merit”. Hmm. The immediately succeeding emperors (three in roughly one year), Galba, Otho and Vitellius, were all put into office by Roman legions in what amounted to successive coups d’état, as was Vespasian thereafter, hardly on the basis of “merit” I should think.
And with Vespasian we actually commence another blood-line dynastic succession of his sons, Titus and Domitian. So, you understand my puzzlement all around.
Of course, presenting “potted” history is dicey, and choices have to be made in boiling something like the reign of Nero down to a 1-hour programme. But, in the scale of things, I remain surprised (not to say downright puzzled) at these things.