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New Nero Exhibition Opens at the British Museum

Marble bust of Nero. Italy, around AD 55. Photo by Francesco Piras. With permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari.

Hot on the heels of last week‘s spectacular Thomas Becket exhibition, the British Museum has travelled over 1,000 years further back in time to the first century AD to feature the controversial and much-maligned emperor Nero in, Nero: The Man Behind the Myth.

The aim of the exhibition is to challenge the bad press Nero has received over the past two millennia and to see if the stories about him hold true. He was loved by the plebs and hated by many of the elites, and at the end of the day, it is from the latter's ranks that we have the stories of infamy that haunt his troubled reign.

Nero: The Man Behind the Myth features over 200 objects that span the course of his 14-year rule and beyond. There are, of course, plenty of stunning statues, manuscripts, remnants from the battle against the Iceni and Boudicca, beautiful frescoes depicting ancient Roman theatre (which Nero loved), and objects from spectacles, such as Gladiatorial armour and figurines, as well as chariot racing paraphernalia depicting the Circus Maximus. Nero was known to have raced himself and to have been an ardent supporter of the Greens.

The exhibition starts chronologically with Nero‘s family history, tracing his roots and right to rule back to Augustus, who was emperor some 80 years earlier. For those unfamiliar with Nero’s background or the complexities of Roman politics at the time, there is a large, handy family tree displayed right on the wall behind the statues of the Judo-Claudian members of Nero‘s family. The exhibition proceeds to move through his early years and highlights objects that reflected the climate of his reign, which was during a turbulent time in the Empire. The items on display reflect how he changed over the course of his leadership, which began at the tender age of sixteen in AD 54.

The Fenwick Hoard, England, AD 60–61. © Colchester Museums.

While it is difficult to select just a few, some of my favourite pieces include: an incredibly detailed marble relief of Praetorian soldiers dated to the first century AD on loan from the Louvre, busts of Nero’s two wives, Poppaea and Statilia Melassina both adorned with intricate Roman hairstyles (both women met their demise at his hands), a beautiful, yet imposing, basanite statue of Nero’s mother Agrippina (who he had killed), and a tiny bronze figure of Nero, one of the few fully intact figures to feature him as an adult. There are many other fascinating, unmissable artifacts, such as the never-before-seen-in-an-exhibition Fenwick Hoard (discovered in 2014), enormous slave chains from Wales, and the famous bronze head that was once wrongly attributed to Claudius.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy, AD 30–40. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Due to COVID restrictions, there is not much in the way of interactive engagement, except for the video accompanying the story behind the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. You can watch the fire slowly take over the city and learn about Nero’s role in rebuilding afterwards, especially pertaining to his lavish palace, the Domus Aurea. There is also a brief audio recording playing on a loop in the theatre section of the exhibition mimicking the clapping and chanting of the Augustiani. They were a group of supporters created by Nero, (the first Roman emperor to act on stage!) who followed his performances with choreographed, rhythmic clapping and chanting to try and induce positive reactions from the audience. They chant: ‘Beautiful Caesar! Apollo! Augustus! Winner! By your name we swear. No one will defeat you!’.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England, AD 54– 61. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Does Nero: The Man Behind the Myth do a good job of challenging the popular narrative that surrounds Nero's reign? It at least makes you pause and reflect on who wrote his history after his death, and forces you to ask questions about who Nero really was. Was he a truly terrible emperor? Was he a murderer? Was he a megalomaniac and narcissist? Or were many of these aspersions and accusations cast upon him by the elites he disdained in order to tarnish his reputation? That’s for you to decide after visiting this monumental and must-see exhibition that showcases his life and legacy.

Plan your visit
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth
Date: May 27 – October 24
Tickets:
Adults £20, 16–18 £18, under 18s FREE
Important tips:
Face masks are mandatory in the museum at all times.
Entry to the exhibition is timed so you must book in advance.
Do not arrive before the time stated on your ticket.
Click here to book your tickets

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