Everyone Liked the Baths
Alexander Bätz’s Nero: Madness & Truth,
Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
Nero: Wahnsinn und Wirklichkeit
Hamburg: Rowohlt Buchverlag, 2023
Among those able to name any Roman emperors, Nero is likely to be on their list. Although he was Roman Emperor for only 14 years, from 54 to 68 AD, he is widely viewed as one of the most famous or infamous of all of them, strongly associated with the persecution of the Christians and the murder of both his mother and wife, and he is widely seen as the embodiment of tyranny. He is perhaps most famously remembered as “the Emperor who fiddled while Rome burned.” He even has the doubtful honor of being one of the demons said to possess Annelise Michel, the model for Mary Rose in Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Mary Rose.
Alexander Bätz’s very readable biography, Nero: Wahnsinn und Wirklichkeit (Nero: Madness and Truth) places Nero’s life in the context of the rituals and traditions of his time, and reconsiders the plausibility and accuracy of the major claims made against him by the three historians of Antiquity from whom most subsequent accounts are taken: Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. But it would be wrong to consider this biography as a revisionist study in the sense that the term is commonly understood. Bätz does not try to transform Nero the monster into Nero the martyr. Wahnsinn und Wirklichkeit is a reassessment of the Nero legend, not the creation of a new one. Nonetheless, it may have been inspired by an exhibition in London a few years ago which indeed presented Nero to a large extent as “the victim of a bad press.”
The historical judgment of Nero has certainly been close to unanimously negative: the man comes down to us as a monster without redeeming qualities. He is the scheming, unscrupulous, murdering tyrant of Jean Racine’s Britannicus, the tyrannical lover of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the persecutor of the faith in Christian legend, the monster of Henry Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, and much more. In short, Nero is constantly depicted as the epitome of depravity, tyranny, cruelty, and vice. The popular image in no way comes from impartial historical analysis, however. Bätz reminds us in his Preface that contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of Nero’s life come from aristocrats and traditionalists who held deep grudges against Nero, and from hostile historians writing in favor of a succeeding imperial dynasty, one which sought to distance itself as far as possible from the Julio-Claudian dynasty of which Nero was to be the last representative. Thus, Bätz cautions the reader early in his account with these words:
As is so often the case in the evaluation of historical achievements and historical guilt, the image we have of Nero reflects the dominant spirit of the time in which it was written and says more about those who composed it than about the subject of their description. (p. 12)
Bätz goes on to say that
[a]complete picture can only be made when one is immersed in the life and behavior of emperors in Roman society, within the conditions of the court and the range of acceptance and communication available, when one is immersed in the entire imperial system. (p. 14)
Wahnsinn und Wirklichkeit stresses the odium which Nero incurred through reportedly flouting a slew of religious and social rites and traditions. It portrays him very much as a man acting both within the limits of, yet at the same time pushing against, the mores and customs of his day. Nero emerges from this biography not so much as exceptionally cruel but as an unscrupulous and vain man whose personal whims and tendencies led him to strain against the mores which even the all-powerful, semi-divine Emperor was expected to observe. He made many enemies both during his lifetime and in the years following his death, and it comes as no surprise to learn that those many enemies did all they could to stress the cruelties and crimes of which he was undoubtedly guilty — but also adding to them grave crimes which Nero may not in fact have committed at all.
Bätz makes no attempt to deny or justify what cannot be denied or justified. Nero’s certain cruelties are terrible indeed, but not untypical of a Roman potentate. His predecessor, Claudius, was no less cruel. Commodus and Caligula were by any standards at least as cruel and mentally deranged as Nero, and many would argue considerably more so. The persecutions, executions, and murders of which Nero was guilty were nothing new to the still-young Roman Empire. It was other characteristics of the man which made him singular.
Nero was the adopted son of the Emperor Claudius and succeeded him to the throne in 54 AD. His mother, Agrippina, was the great-granddaughter of Augustus, and Claudius’ second wife. It was not immediately certain that Nero would succeed Claudius as Emperor. The obvious first choice was Claudius’ son Britannicus, but there was no protocol which stipulated that a son should always succeed as Emperor. The young Empire had no fixed and agreed procedure of legitimacy so far as imperial succession was concerned. On the one hand, family relations improved the chances of being selected for succession, but the new Empire still maintained the republican process of approval by the Senate and the practical necessity of approval by the army.
The man considered as the first Emperor of Rome, Octavius, also known as Caesar Augustus (but simply called Augustus by Bätz), was the grand-nephew of the murdered Julius Caesar, who was assassinated because it was thought that he wanted to restore the hated monarchy. Called “the exalted one” (augustus), Caesar Augustus also called himself princeps civitatis, or “first citizen,” a name obviously looking back to the days of the Republic while also pushing forward to the new age in which Rome would be ruled by a “number one”: an Emperor. Power was officially vested in the Senate, that great institution of the Republic which continued after Augustus became Emperor. Significantly, Augustus compelled the Senate to appoint him Commander-in-Chief of the Roman army for life. This gave the Emperor enormous powers, but it also implied that Emperors were expected to demonstrate military competence and prowess. Emperors were protected from assassination and from angry mobs — both of which were very real threats — by an elite unit of the army called the cohortēs praetōriae. This was the famous Praetorian Guard, a group of veterans who formed a bodyguard to the Emperor, and whose protection was conditional upon their approbation and the belief that he enjoyed wide support.
As Bätz repeatedly notes, the Roman Empire’s institutions were not revolutionary devices introduced by Emperors, but rather those of a hastily transfigured Republic that were refashioned to meet the demands of a new dispensation. Bätz describes the new system of exclusive rule by an all-powerful princeps civitatis as ambiguous and unsure as to its own legitimacy, clinging to the facade of a republican way of government which had collapsed, wavering between the legitimacy of tradition and that of brute force. Because the army was the central force of imperial power and success, the Emperor as the supreme commander of the Empire became simultaneously the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces. Emperors who were not militarily skilled were thus at an immediate and potentially fatal disadvantage in terms of recognition and respect.
It was Augustus who had established
for the first time in 500 years . . . a unique and unchallenged supreme commander of the Roman army. . . . the army was to become the most important foundation of power for all the Roman Emperors. (p. 62)
Bätz stresses that Nero’s ignorance and lack of interest in all things military significantly weakened his position. The Latin word imperium stood originally for high administrative power, thus imperium proconsulare and, later, imperium consulare: the power that a Roman consul enjoyed during his period of office. The very expression imperium romanum follows in this tradition. The imperium romanum was not like a nation-state as understood today, with a universally applicable law or rights equally applicable everywhere within the confines of its borders. It was instead a military power administering a gallimaufry of cultures and peoples organized in provinces whose principal role was to feed the densely-populated center, pay for a massive communications network, provide the wherewithal for defense, and produce wealth and resources for the army and nobility.
Augustus’ new imperial order brought in its wake a ruthless series of executions of potential challengers to the new order, measures which cost the lives of 100 senators and 2,000 knights alone. Bätz claims that “from 42 BC a return to the old order was impossible, so dramatic was the bloodletting among the aristocrats of the Senate” (p. 42).
Bätz’s confident statement that a return to a republic was “impossible” is not something which he supports by detailed argument, however. Dismissive comments on the Roman Republic and the chances of restoring it appear several times in Bätz’s book. What might be described as an anti-republican and pro-imperial bias seems to affect Bätz’s otherwise impartial judgements. When it comes to judging the republican form of government which had immediately preceded the first imperial dynasty, Bätz strongly favors the latter. He even quotes Tacitus, a writer whose reliability he otherwise tends to doubt, to show that the Republic vis-à-vis the Empire was backwards in terms of female equality. Tacitus, writing of Agrippina, notes as a point to be held in favor of republicanism that the rise of such a woman in the days of the Republic would have been impossible. “Tacitus”, Bätz writes, “is angered by Agrippina’s transgression of custom as a woman” (p. 158). In short, Bätz”s view is that the Roman Republic could not be restored, however terrible Nero was, because to think so would be unrealistic and presumably reactionary:
Augustus, the first of his kind, died on August 19, 14 AD. The political situation was already so stable by that time that a return to the state of affairs which had existed in the Republic could no longer be seriously entertained. (p. 72)
Bätz’s failure to address the case for a return to republican government in Rome leaves him with no choice but to regard the imperial form of government as a “fact of life” within the confines of which Nero should be judged. This non-judgmental posture stating that “that is how things were, and were what Nero was born into” has the advantage of freeing Bätz from writing with a bias against Nero, but it also means that his highly descriptive account is singularly devoid of passion or emotional engagement. Although colorful, this biography is at the same time cold-bloodied, lacking in human feeling. Although easy to read and scrupulous about historical sources, Bätz ‘s biography singularly fails to stir, move, or even excite the reader.
Bätz writes that Augustus had expressly decided to eschew usurpation or revolution. Augustus apparently saw himself, and certainly wished to be seen, as a continuation of the glorious epic drama that was the history of Rome. He therefore recognized the sovereignty of the Senate and people to ensure continuity by acknowledging what constituted formal legitimacy of power as understood under republican rule. Emperors were all-powerful, yet they received their legitimacy from the people and from the Senate, and they were protected by the elite of the army. The Emperor, with his power over life and death, appears in this light all-powerful indeed as regards individuals, but not at all omnipotent as regards institutions and religions. Despite his sweeping powers, a Roman Emperor had to be careful not to blatantly offend against prevailing customs or create too many enemies in powerful institutions.
Bätz reminds the reader that while the Roman Empire was a dictatorship, it was one whose dictators were liable to be overthrown by a rebellious Senate, people, or army. Being a Roman Emperor was far from being a sinecure: to maintain legitimacy and respect, he needed to entertain and feed the free citizens of Rome, impress with his military prowess, ensure that those who guarded him were proud to do so, and finally, not forget to honor the gods. Outraging the opinion of any of these groups was not something any prudent Emperor could undertake with impunity.
According to Bätz, of the three groups which worked as power centers and whose support reinforced the Emperor’s legitimacy, Nero by far enjoyed his best relations with the citizenry. One has the impression that Bätz stops just short of calling Nero a “populist.” If his account is to be believed, Nero was much more concerned with being popular among the urban masses than in the ranks of the ferocious and victorious army, or among fabulously wealthy knights and senators.
Augustus established a significant principle in 8 BC (other authorities give alternative dates, seeing the law as having been originally laid down by Julius Caesar): julia maiestatis. It established a code of treason which merged the identity of Emperor and state, thus making the emperor a demigod. Julius Caesar had been declared divine after his death. An offense against the imperial majesty thereby became an offense against the Roman state, the uniqueness of Rome, and something akin to blasphemy. This law had obvious political and religious ramifications, and enforcement was made by possible by thousands of informants — the so-called dilatores.
Bätz makes it clear that there was strong motivation to denounce unfortunates for treason, a motivation clearly designed to reinforce the power of the principate (the name given to the hybrid form of government established by Augustus). Writing about Augustus’ successor, Tiberius (14-37 AD), he notes:
The picture we have of the later Tiberius is overcast above all by his frequent use of legal processes which could end in confiscation of estates, banishment, and death. As Roman law allowed for no official public prosecutor, trials involving offenses against the imperial office only took place thanks to informers, people who often carried out their work in a professional capacity. Already in Augustus’ time, the delatores might be rewarded with as much as a quarter of the confiscated fortune of a condemned person. (p. 85)
This was the society into the highest levels of which Nero was born, during the reign of the Emperor Caligula. Nero was brought up, so far as we know, with his every wish attended to and looking forward to the day when he himself would be like a god. Nero was the son of Julia Agrippina, who was the Caligula’s sister, and Domitius Ahenobarbus. What little contemporary accounts there are of Nero’s father put in him “in a very dark light,” notes Bätz, who adds that this is a running theme of accounts of Nero’s life. Roman historians aimed to produce evidence to explain what today would be called the intended narrative. Given the widely-admired ancestry of Nero’s mother (she was the daughter of the highly popular Germanicus, a man described by Tacitus as a “hero of republican principles” and a highly accomplished general), it was necessary to find in Nero’s father the inherent weakness and vices to explain those of the son. Nature and not nurture, Tacitus and Suetonius believed, created the man about whom they both wrote with disgust and contempt. Bätz writes that this accorded with the prevailing view that vice was genetic and not environmental. But if this was Roman belief, one wonders why wealthy parents wanted their sons to have the best possible education, including moral education.
Fate and omens were certainly considered important ways of judging how important and powerful persons would develop, an aspect of Roman religious belief which it shared with Judaism. Forthcoming events would be heralded by unusual events and omens. Cassius Dio writes that “ominous signs” and an unfavorable constellation of the stars pointed to the likelihood that the boy Nero was destined to be Emperor, but that he would murder his own mother. Tacitus reports that Agrippa responded to this prediction by stating that she was prepared to be murdered by her own son provided that other prophesies came to pass and that he did indeed become Emperor! (p. 92)
Although Bätz describes the scenery of the drama of the early Empire well, and is very instructive about the somewhat precarious balance of power which operated within it, he offers little to explain the driving force of its powerful actors’ ambitions. Was anyone inspired by any kind of religion, ideology, sense of right and wrong, or ambition whose fulfillment extended beyond personal death? Anyone hoping to learn what made Nero or any person living at that time “tick” may find that this book falls short of their expectations. Bätz refers to the “ideals” of Augustinian rule while describing the Emperor Caligula, but it is not clear if those “ideals” amounted to more than efficient and effective government and the maintenance of peace. Caligula had
moved away from the ideals of Augustinian imperial rule . . . Caligula disposed of supposed and real opponents of his rule rigorously and did not stop at his own family. (p. 95)
What were the ideals of Augustus’ time to which Bätz refers? Why should Caligula move away from them? Was this nature or nurture? Bätz does not say.
Under Caligula, Agrippina, Nero’s mother, had been suspected — possibly correctly — of involvement in a plot on the Emperor’s life. She could consider herself lucky that she was not murdered on the basis of such a suspicion alone. She was instead exiled, her son Nero taken from her, and her considerable fortune confiscated. No faded violet herself, Agrippina had been suspected of poisoning her second husband, Passienus Crispus, in 49 AD. She married her uncle [sic] and Tiberius’ nephew, the physically ill-favored and much older Claudius. Claudius became Emperor after Caligula was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard. Agrippina then immediately returned from exile.
After Caligula’s death, according to Suetonius, as here cited by Bätz, the Roman senators considered abandoning the recently-established principate and making Rome a republic again. Bätz expresses doubt about the accuracy of Suetonius’ account and points out that the Praetorian Guard (and what could the Senate do without at least the tacit consent of the military?) could not be expected to support a move which would presumably lead to its abolition. Be that as it may, the project to reestablish the Republic, if such a project indeed existed, came to nothing. The Praetorian Guard proposed their own candidate as Emperor: a man who had promised them 15,000 sesterces per soldier, or the equivalent of five years’ pay. By this simple and time-honored method, Claudius, Marc Anthony’s grandson, became Emperor.
Claudius subsequently ordered the death of his wife Messalina for plotting against him, after which, with the Senate’s approval, he married his niece, Agrippina. Claudius adopted Nero as his son and Nero soon became the most likely heir, favored by Claudius before his own biological son by Messalina, Britannicus. Nero grew up in luxury, but probably no human warmth. Bätz writes:
As was customary with sons of the upper classes, he was well cared for and protected by a large number of slaves and freed men, while Agrippina maintained the appropriate distance from her thriving son. (p. 107)
The boy Nero also had as private teacher the leading philosopher of the day, Seneca, although Bätz writes that Seneca’s efforts to create a Philosopher-Emperor out of the young Nero proved fruitless. According to Tacitus, Nero was clothed in the toga virlis at the age of 13 by the Senate’s decision, and was awarded an imperium proconsulare, an entitlement to authority in the Roman provinces. In modern English, we might say that Nero grew up a spoilt brat. Agrippina was supported in her intrigue to oust Britannicus as future Emperor in favor of her own son by all those who had been involved in denouncing and destroying Messalina, for such people had good reason to fear deadly retribution should Britannicus succeed his father as Emperor.
One thing which makes Nero highly unusual in the long line of ruthless and cruel Roman emperors, according to Bätz, is the inspiration he sought and found in the legacy of ancient Greece. This can be explained at least in part by his upbringing. As a boy, Nero was surrounded by tutors and educators with Greek roots, and he was strongly influenced by Greek history, religion, and culture. One of Nero’s greatest passions was drama, and Greece was its home. Both Tacitus and Suetonius stress that Nero was focused from a young age on painting, song, and poetry, and that while he was also passionate about chariot racing, gory gladiatorial combats and military campaigns seem to have aroused little interest in him.
Some people associate Rome’s decadence with the days of the Empire’s decline. Bätz’s book reminds us that the Roman Empire was extremely hedonistic, cruel, and without apparent regard for moderation or anything approaching compassion or morals from its very earliest days. The materialism, self-indulgence, and hedonism of the wealthy ruling class was limitless. Accounts of the glutinous Emperor Claudius’ death in the course of an opulent meal are similar in the accounts of Suetonius, Tacitus, and Casius Dio, and Bätz gives references for those who want to research and compare them (p. 499) while Bätz offers a translated compendium of the three versions:
The slave’s long hair shimmered with grease. A guest had just used the hair to wash his hands after he had gulped down an oyster served in a sauce of egg yolk, vinegar, wine, and oil. The oysters as the third course of the evening meal were the high point of the appetizers, which had begun with a lentil chestnut stew and dormice cooked in honey sauce, and which would conclude with a mushroom dish prepared with salt, oil, wine, and chopped cilantro. Halotos the eunuch knew exactly when the appetizers would finish. He was the preagustator at the imperial palace. Cena, the principal meal of the day, had begun at the tenth hour in the afternoon. Nobody could say how long the meal would last. . . . there was no special occasion for this meal. Around the massive rectangular dining table made of Mauritanian citrus wood were three elegantly-draped dining couches. They were adorned with silver and the shells of small tortoises, displaying the owner’s exclusive taste. The purple-covered covers, as well as the upholstery and the cushions, must have cost a fortune. The horseshoe opening was for the slaves, who now hurried in to clear the remnants of the oysters and who cleared the table with palm fronds. A group of ministratores hastened to serve the table with mushrooms, the last dish comprising the appetizers.
The Emperor Claudius had placed himself, as usual, at the left table, as the head of the household, which he shared with his wife Agrippina and Burrus, the Commander-in-Chief of the Praetorian Guard. On the opposite side of the table, in the right corner, lay Nero, Octavia, and Seneca. There were three other guests present; the vertical purple stripes on their tunics showed that they were Senators. One of them had just used the slave’s hair to clean his hands.
The mushrooms that were then brought in were greeted with evident relish by Claudius. He rapidly seized the best pieces on the platter . . . Shortly afterwards, the meal continued with the first main course. There were pork liver sausages; veal with leak, quince, and onions; and braised chicken. As usual, there would be little taste left of the original meats, since Claudius, like most wealthy Romans, loved the sweet and pungent sauces in which the meat dishes would be drowned. In addition, there was the almost obligatory use of garum, a special kind of dip consisting of minced whole fish mixed with salt and allowed to dry for weeks in the Sun for understandable reasons away in factory-like areas in Pompey and in the Leptis Magna in the province of Africa. The resulting fermented product was sieved out, filtered, and then distributed all over the Empire. Hardly a Roman dish was served without garum as condiment, and it was usually used instead of salt . . .
The meal continued for hours. Darkness had fallen over the imperial palace. Claudius had fallen noticeably silent. . . . His face was white and bathed in sweat. He convulsively clutched at his golden wine chalice (poculum). His eyes seemed to water, and a little spittle began to trickle out of the corners of his mouth. Nobody could fail to see that Claudius was in agony. Then the imperial hand could no longer hold the poculum . . . (pp. 141-143)
Claudius died the same night, and nearly all the commentators assumed he was poisoned. Most suspected the Empress. The three writers whose account of the events leading to the Emperor’s death agree with one another that Claudius was intentionally served poison in the dish (toadstools?), and Bätz accepts the verdict of murder. He also offers a reasonably convincing motive for murder, either by Nero or his mother or both of them: Claudius was reconsidering his choice of Nero as successor. But the question remains unanswered: How was Halotos, the food taster, left unharmed? And if toadstools had been in the dish, can we be sure that it was not by accident? Was Agrippina responsible, acting alone? Or Nero himself? Or was it not possible, given his lifestyle, that Claudius simply died of a heart attack?
Whether it was murder or a convenient death, Agrippina acted swiftly to ensure that all power would immediately fall into Nero’s hands. Within hours of his uncle’s death, Nero had followed Claudius’ example and promised every soldier in the Praetorian Guard a gift of 15,000 sestserces in return for their support. It worked, just as it had worked for Claudius. Nero was proclaimed Emperor and acknowledged as such by the Senate within just 24 hours of Claudius’ death:
Thanks to Agrippina’s meticulous preparations, Nero’s ascension to power took place swiftly and without friction. (p. 152)
* * *
Like all journals of dissident ideas, Counter-Currents depends on the support of readers like you. Help us compete with the censors of the Left and the violent accelerationists of the Right with a donation today. (The easiest way to help is with an e-check donation. All you need is your checkbook.)
For other ways to donate, click here.
Enjoyed this article?
Be the first to leave a tip in the jar!