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Nero on TV: Some surprises

August 7, 2013

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.

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  1. Zlatan permalink

    Hello professor Hurtado
    I recently saw a documentary on the History Channel Called How Nero Saved Rome. It claimed that Nero saved Rome by improving the layout and quality of buildings whilst also decreasing squalor. It said that we have no proof that Neo burned rome and that his palace which he later built was open to general public and was not just for his own enjoyment. It suggested the Christians burnt Rome to trigger the end of the world as Sirius was in alignment according to a prophecy . I am not sure maybe they are talking about perhaps something in Revelation . It said if the Christians burnt Rome to trigger the end of the world then Nero was right to execute them as he is simply fulfilling the mandate of the law. This is all it said on the persecution of Christians. The program also claimed that we cannot trust the damning accounts from Tacitus as he was member of the middle class who hated Nero so is prejudiced against him .So all the accounts of him killing patricians to get their land are not true Is any of this the point of view of most scholars? Also out of interest have you ever read Candida Moss’ book The Myth of Persecution? If so what did you think?

    • Yes, the “documentary” you mention reflects the peculiar/pet view of a given writer, but to my knowledge is not taken up as persuasive by ancient historians of Rome more broadly. Ironically, although this guy challenges the reliability of Tacitus, etc., about Nero, he accepts the same accounts when it notes that Nero tried to blame the fire on Christians, taking Nero’s reported charge as true! (There are no other bases for hypothesizing Christians as responsible.) It just shows the ideologically slanted nature of the pseudo-scholarship reflected in this view.
      Candida Moss, on the other hand, is a very promising young(er) scholar. Her more popular book, with the deliberately catchy title you mention is a reasonable attempt to raise critical questions about the ancient cult of martyrs in particular. She challenges how early the martyr-reports are, how many martyrs there actually were, etc. All fine and good in principle. But we’ll have to wait now to see what other scholars make of her case. Things are never settled simply by one scholar making a case, but only in the ensuing consideration of it by other scholars.

      • Civitate_Dei permalink

        Hello Again
        I recently saw an interview with Candida where she outlined her view that at the time of Christians, Christians did not go by the name “christians” so Nero was not aware of them and could not have persecuted them and said it was an invention of Tacitus just like that documentary I mentioned . When did the name Christian arise? She discounted Decius’ persecutions because they came from a Christian source and claimed there were similarities in christian martyrdom tales to common pagan martyrdom tales of the time. She also cites the circumcellions to show christians were not being persecuted but were just obsessed with martyrdom. If I want to read a scholarly review of her book or the other side of the debate where should I go?

      • I presume that you’re referring to her “Myth of Christian Martyrdom” book. Moss has written a couple of well-received scholarly books, and I respect these works and her for them. It appears that this “Myth” book is very much prompted by and addressed to the current American scene, esp. political currents from the “Christian right”.
        On the one hand, it’s perfectly true that only a minority of people ever were executed for being Christians. But it doesn’t take that many deaths to make everyone else in a given group edgy. (I noted an advert in a recent THES which read: “You only have to kill one scholar to silence hundreds,” asking for a donation to an agency that tries to address the persecution of scholars.)
        So, there’s a sense in which Moss’s book achieves any traction only with those who assume that there were hordes of Christians sent to the lions straight across the pre-Constantinian centuries. But there were certainly early Christians executed, and executed for their religious stance, which meant, particularly, that they couldn’t/wouldn’t accede to demands to worship “the gods”.
        Granted, it’s likely that the final form of the martyrdom accounts went through some redactions. Indeed, the Martyrdom of Polycarp explicitly says so in the final sentences. So, yes, it is wise to be cautious about taking the dialogue and details of these accounts as if they were CCTV of the events.
        But that’s nothing new to scholars in the field, who by and large remain persuaded that there were the sort of martyrdoms that are referred to in these accounts.

        I did quickly find a few early reviews by people with some knowledge of the subject online:

  2. S Walch permalink

    Let’s see them try to bypass Hadrian’s (if indeed they do do a show on Hadrian) expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba revolt. If they do, then there’s something definitely going on

  3. M Gould permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    I gather episode 3 in the series (available on youtube) deals solely with the Jewish rebellion. I gather from this wikipedia entry:
    that Professor Mary Beard was the historical consultant on the Nero episode. Perhaps Professor Beard, to her credit, tries to look for the best in people, even Nero and Caligula? By not mentioning the persecution episode though, the programme also failed to note that according to Tacitus, the motivation for the persecution was to divert suspicion among the Romans that Nero was the originator of the fire. In the reconstruction there is no hint of this?

    • I don’t recall any reference in the programme to the suggestion that Nero had anything to do with the fire.

      • M. Gould permalink

        No, indeed.
        I did find these comments by Professor Beard on a BBC website about Nero:
        “It’s harder to think about the nuances of tyranny. And it’s particularly hard to face the uncomfortable fact that very few of these loathed tyrants are as wholly bad as it suits us to assume.
        Nero may have been a murderous persecutor, but even his fiercest critics conceded that he mounted admirable and unprecedented relief measures for the people after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. And, as we know, even the most vicious murderer may love his family deeply, be kind and generous to them, and be loved in return. “Badness” comes in inconveniently complicated ways.”

        Though one cannot help thinking that Nero, a chap who signed the death warrant of his (divorced and exiled) first wife, and kicked to death his second pregnant wife, was on the whole, probably not very nice?

      • Well, yes, we must try to reflect the complexity of human beings in so far as possible, and it’s entirely appropriate what Prof Beard says about Nero. He may well have liked his pets.
        But this cuts both ways: To show the complexity means not to “choke” about showing the extent of a person’s depravity, esp. in the case of a reeeealy dude like Nero. And his handling of Christians is, by all accounts, both widely accepted as authentic and rather clear in showing what he was capable of. Likewise, the war in Judea surely indicates rather graphically the dangers the Empire faced during his reign.

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