Everyone Liked the Baths
Alexander Bätz’s Nero: Madness & Truth,
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
Nero was only 16 when he became Emperor. His coming to power had nevertheless been enabled by several murders and/or suspiciously timely deaths. Claudius may or may not have died accidentally, but Narcissus, who favored Britannicus and the Senator Silanus, were poisoned almost certainly on the orders of Nero’s mother. Tacitus expressly states that Nero knew nothing of Silanus’ murder and argued against Nero’s guilt in the death of Narcissus, but all in all it is hard to doubt that the new Emperor was well aware that these deaths had helped him to become the unchallenged Emperor of Rome.
By all accounts, however, the early days of Nero’s rule were marked by clemency, and even modesty. He rejected proposals to make December 1 the beginning of the year in honor of his birthday, as well as commissions to erect statues of gold in his honor. He also returned the power of judicial decision in large part to the magistrates. Charges against Senators would be judged by Senators.
A military threat could have been posed by Rome’s perennial enemies, the Parthians, who, Bätz writes, were keen to take advantage of such a young and inexperienced man becoming Emperor. Nero was fortunate in having as commander of the legions a highly successful military leader, Corbulo. The Parthian King Volgaeses sought to test the caliber of the young Emperor. He tried to use Rome’s allied province of Armenia as a spearhead against Rome. The plan backfired badly and Rome gained new allies in the East, ones which could be called upon to act as allies against the Parthians if the need arose. Nero bathed in a popularity for Rome’s success in the East in which he played no part:
[Nero] enjoyed a level of acceptance and willingness to cooperate which no Emperor before him had enjoyed. . . . [c]ontemporary writers greeted the young Emperor with praise. (pp. 157, 168)
But the honeymoon period did not last long. In 55 AD the hapless Britannicus, Nero’s half-brother and son of the late Emperor, died during a meal shortly before his 14th birthday in circumstances strikingly similar to his father’s. According to Bätz, the praegustator was tricked: Britannicus was served water that was too hot and then a poison was administered in the cold water used to cool it down, thereby bypassing the testing of food and wine. Other accounts allege that the preagestatur was bribed. Bätz has no doubt that Britannicus died of poisoning, noting rather callously that poisoning was a “popular form of assassination.” While Britannicus writhed in agony, Nero is reported to have said dismissively that “it was one more epileptic fit, not his first and not his last” (p. 178). The death of Britannicus is the subject of Jean Racine’s eponymous play, presenting Nero as a scheming, even pathological, killer who was the very portrait of a tyrant, reaffirming Nero in the role of the arch-villain of history. The death of Britannicus likewise created a rift between Nero and his mother, although it is unclear why. Bätz simply notes, “After the death of Britannicus, Nero and Agrippina had little to say to each other” (p. 181).
It is likely — although Bätz does not specifically say so — that Nero’s popularity, and certainly his image as a just man, began to slip from this time onwards. The sudden deaths of Claudius and Britannicus looked suspicious, and the suspicion associated with family members tarnished Nero’s reputation more than any other kind of murder. According to Bätz, murdering one’s own relatives broke a taboo in a society not easily distressed by sudden death or murder. The slaying of family members was a crime with a symbolic, and even religious dimension. Did not Rome suffer under the curse of fratricide carried out by its very founder? Romulus was Rome’s Cain. Bätz even tells the reader that there was a cruel and bizarre form of capital sentence reserved for anyone who murdered a member of his own family. The condemned party would be tied up in a leather sack together with a venomous snake, a duck, a rooster, and a monkey; the sack would then be thrown into running water (p. 178). Presumably this strange sentence symbolized an act of self-purification, of washing Rome clean of a sacrilegious act. Bätz comments with cynical humor: “Nero escaped the fate of the sack, but not that of a sullied reputation” (p. 179).
Seneca’s teaching had not rubbed off on his pupil. The former doubtless wrote his De clementia, a work urging responsibility and virtue on rulers, with his former pupil strongly in mind. In it he argued that the Emperor is not so much responsible to the Senate as to the gods. Nero, however, clearly felt responsible to no one but himself. A remarkable and striking feature of his character was a reluctance to be confined by protocol or established practice. Bätz describes Nero’s nocturnal sorties into popular quarters where he would join up with a gang of rowdies who would harass people, beat them up for sport, and then throw them into sewage canals. For these frays Nero would disguise himself with a wig and the clothes of a slave. One victim was a Senator who defended himself vigorously and struck Nero full in the face, having no idea who his assailant was. For this offence he was compelled to commit suicide. The Emperors Caligula and Otho are also reported to have terrorized neighborhoods in similar fashion, and Commodus enjoyed drinking bouts in popular quarters — although crucially, they all sowed such wild and cruel oats before they became Emperors. That Nero enjoyed street fights after he had become Emperor was without precedent. There seemed to be no limits to Nero’s power or what he thought he had a right to do if he felt like it (p. 192).
In the light of accounts of bawdy and cruel behavior towards individuals, it comes as a surprise to read that when it came to the great games, Nero was reluctant to see men and animals die, in stark contrast to his predecessor Claudius. He had, if Bätz is to be believed, no taste for massacres at all. In 57 AD the new, great wooden amphitheater on Campus Martius (Mars Field) was opened with an impressive display of exotic animals from all quarter of the Empire, from a snow hare to a hippopotamus. There were gladiatorial games and displays of skill, but remarkably, not one animal died nor was a single gladiator killed on opening day. What does the reader make of this? In terms of character — and actions throughout his life tend to confirm this — Nero was callous and indifferent about murdering individuals if it amused him or he thought it necessary, yet he showed no taste for mass executions, massacres, war, or blood for the sake of blood. It would be fair to conclude that he was murderous and treacherous, yet not bloodthirsty.
Hostile historians writing about Nero insist that he repeatedly showed indifference, even contempt, towards tradition and religion, as well as to military affairs, except when he garnered praise for distant victories. He also demonstrated a lack of respect for the Senate. Aristocrats and Senators — “more or less at the behest of the Emperor,” Bätz writes cryptically — had to take part in gladiatorial fights. Tacitus writes that members of the aristocracy in financial difficulties would be bailed out financially by the Emperor on condition that they fought in the arena for the entertainment of the spectators. It is easy to imagine how many wealthy contemporaries would have found such public humiliation of aristocrats before the masses not only demeaning and distasteful, but also a breach of social protocol and socially subversive, since it might give the citizenry the idea that aristocrats were “just people like ourselves.” Nero himself enjoyed participating in chariot races and was a skilled charioteer. Bätz writes that he demeaned not only himself but his office by competing in races in the eyes of some. Was a man who expected to be venerated as a god to be seen racing in competition with lowly folk?
In 58 AD Nero was officially proclaimed Imperator, which was the title that had been used by the Republic’s soldiers to address their leader. Had Nero done anything in a military capacity to merit this honor? According to Bätz, nothing whatsoever. He was simply lucky enough to be served by accomplished generals and disciplined and efficient soldiers. The Roman Empire had managed to stay the power of the Parthians and set a puppet King, Tigranes V, on the throne of Armenia, but Bätz finds no evidence that Nero was involved in the decisions and diplomacy which led to a favorable peace for Rome in the East. Nevertheless, Nero claimed glory for “his” successful victories. One can imagine how the Roman armies might have felt about Nero’s vicarious military victories, and how they might have compared him to Caesar or even Augustus.
If either Rome or Nero was expecting an heir, they had been so far been disappointed. Nero’s wife Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina, had borne him no children and was apparently barren. Nero became infatuated with an ambitious woman, Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his close friend and fellow town rowdy, Otho. Nero, his reputation undoubtedly scarred by the widespread belief that he had murdered his half-brother, was wary of adding adultery or another high-profile murder to his misdeeds, but his genuinely strong attraction to his friend’s wife and his desire to perpetuate a line led him to break taboos again.
Bätz thinks that what Nero did next was a step too far. Marrying Poppaea necessitated disposing both of his own wife and of Poppaea’s husband. Poppaea divorced her husband, who was promptly banished to the Iberian Peninsula – and once freed of Nero’s corrupting influence, Otho proved to be a competent and honest ruler there. To make the matter more delicate for Nero, according to Bätz, who is quoting Josephus, Octavia was very popular among the citizenry, much more so than Nero’s mother. Nevertheless, Bätz writes coldly, the only solution to Nero’s marriage and heir problem was to murder his wife. This was all the more true since Nero’s wife and mother had become friends since the death of Britannicus, and could easily become a focal point of opposition to the Emperor.
Octavia and Agrippina were murdered in 62 and 69, respectively. “Agrippina saw her end approaching,” notes Bätz in a manner more commonly associated with the elderly than someone expecting to be murdered (p. 181). But for Agrippina, Seneca (who was compelled to take his own life), and many others, their approaching murder or suicide were facts to be calmly accepted as any other manner of dying; stoically, in fact. Bätz’s conclusion is that Nero’s responsibility for Claudius’ death is possible, for his half-brother Britannicus’ very likely, and for that of his first wife and his mother it is certain.
Bätz is more skeptical about other crimes for which Nero is famously blamed. Tacitus and Suetonius, writes Bätz, could not control their fury against the matricidal Emperor. If he was capable of murdering his own mother, there was nothing he could not be accused of. Nero had outraged the Senate, and he must have known that the army’s loyalty was precarious, given his lack of military prowess. There remained the Roman masses, and for a time Nero remained popular with them. Bätz suggests that much of their dismay following Octavia’s murder was directed at Poppaea rather than the Emperor. Perhaps this was an early example of the crimes of tyrants being excused by the “undue influence” and “evil counsel” of flatterers, spouses, or lovers.
At least up to the time of the great fire, the masses, as opposed to the upper classes, had no obvious reason to dislike Nero. Nobody suffered from hunger in Rome. Nero ensured that deliveries of corn reached the people and were not hoarded by speculators. Bätz also points out that Nero energetically fought against malfeasance in the collection of excise duties. He even wanted to abolish the duties altogether, and had to be persuaded not to do this on the grounds that it would lead to a collapse in imperial revenue (p. 238). Nero also made himself popular among the common people through gifts of money, opulent games, and showing his populist streak in the aforementioned games and theatrical shows involving aristocrats. When nobles fought in the arena, they were deprived of their aristocratic rights according to a special contract called the auctoramentum, and were treated as any other gladiator. They were thus just as liable to be injured and killed as anyone else: “The voluntary or not-so-voluntary inclusion of aristocrats in Nero’s shows proved very popular among the wider population” (p. 253). Although Bätz does not say whether Nero was specially predisposed to spare the lives of upper-class gladiators or not.
All accounts agree that Nero was a devotee and sponsor of theater. He considered himself an accomplished poet and cithara performer. He was also interested in philosophical debate. The names of most of those who were members of the Emperor’s circle of philosophers are lost, although one exception is Seneca. Bätz notes of Seneca that his philosophical works “were not penned in a quiet study, but resulted from dialogues with philosophers and poets, and for a long period with Nero in person. Tito Petronius (the author of the Satyricon) also frequented Nero’s circle” (p. 255).
Nero’s admiration for all things Greek, which seems to have approached monomania, inspired him to set up his own version of the Olympic Games, called the Neronia, with an added feature: a musical competition. Nero broke with religious protocol in his scheme: Six women had to attend, and all of them had to be vestal virgins. Bätz amusingly describes how Nero, misunderstanding the significance of the six women dedicated to Demeter who attended the Greek games, compelled vestal virgins to watch the games. As the competitors were naked — the Greek word gymnos means naked — Bätz acknowledges that this novelty would have been very offensive to religious purists and traditionalists. At the same time, however, all this was highly entertaining for the masses and was a way for Nero to leave his personal stamp on all public events. Here and elsewhere in his account of Nero’s life, Bätz fulfills his pledge in his Preface to depict and judge Nero from within the codex of his time rather than our own.
Quid Nerone peius. Quid thermis melius Neronianis? (“What is worse than Nero, or better than his baths?”) Martial’s famous and witty epigram sums up the feelings many have of a man who appears to many as half a visionary and half an ogre, and that view is not in the least diminished by this biography. Quite the reverse, in fact, even though Bätz calls Nero neither visionary nor ogre. Nero’s architectural ambitions were remarkable and extravagant, but not senseless or hideous white elephants, as many grandiose works commissioned by other tyrants have been. Different factors came into play so far as Nero’s immense architectural ambitions were concerned: his desire to awe and impress, and to stamp his personality on public life, especially visually; his love of the grandiose and the theatrical; his admiration for Greece; his love of recreation and sport; and a persistent desire to be remembered and to challenge oblivion.
The Thermae Neronis, the thermal baths built on the Campus Martius, were begun in 57 AD and completed after five years. The baths were in fact part of a huge complex including theaters and amphitheaters. Altogether the building project covered an area of 20,000 square meters (about 215,000 square feet). Tacitus and Pliny wrote disparagingly of the baths as places where weakness and feebleness rather than manliness was encouraged. One gains the impression from reading this biography that Nero’s vision was of a Greek Oriental type of despotism much dedicated to pleasure and entertainment, and it is no surprise that such a vision was anathema to anyone who drew their inspiration from the manliness and militarism of the Roman Republic. It was “Nero’s ideal to reshape his Rome and the living conditions of Rome using Greek influences” (p. 266). But such detractors were probably in a small minority. According to Martial, among others, Nero’s thermal baths, which were open to the public and not only select aristocrats, were hugely popular.
Bätz describes — albeit very briefly — the religious order as it existed in Nero’s time quite simply, in terms of which social relations came into play: what was considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior for an Emperor, what was pious behavior, and what was scandalous. It can be said that the early Roman Empire was religious, but not dogmatically so, nor dogmatic in matters of theology or doctrine. Religion was profoundly associated with the destiny and superiority of Rome and the incorporation by the principes of Roman preeminence. Augustus had revived religious observance in Rome, and during his reign no less than 82 new temples had been built.
Nero is alleged to have ignored religious tradition and is described, for example, as plunging into the Aqua Marcia, one of the major aqueducts supplying Rome with water. It had been built in the heyday of the Republic and was regarded as a holy place. Graver by far is the charge that Nero raped one of the vestal virgins, a crime punishable by death. But since the charge and the sentence was carried out by the Pontifex Maximus himself, and the Pontifex Maximus and Emperor were one and the same person, Nero escaped punishment. But the rape allegation only comes to us from Suetonius, and Bätz doubts that it is true. As for Nero’s lack of piety, Bätz notes that in accounts given by the Fratres Arvales, those Senators responsible for the cult of the Goddess of Agriculture, Dea Dia, Nero is said to be punctilious regarding the religious rites associated with her cult.
While Bätz accepts and conveys to the reader with conviction Nero’s likely culpability in domestic murders, including that of his own mother, he is much more skeptical about the two major crimes with which Nero is traditionally associated and which are indeed related to each other: the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and the persecution of the Christians.
The Incendium magnum Romae, or the Great Fire of Rome, started near the circus maximus, which it completely destroyed, and lasted for six days, died down, then was rekindled for another three days. A fact often ignored but which Bätz correctly stresses is that at the time of the Great Fire, the lower part of the city was built of wood, not stone or tuff. From Bätz’s description, the outbreak of a massive fire consuming a great part of the city does not sound surprising. The lower city was a tightly-packed confusion of wooden edifices, some quite large and lit by torches. The streets abounded with food traders selling the Roman equivalent of fast food cooked on small braziers. The streets included cramped taverns, flats, and brothels, all lit by oil lamps on tables or in brackets attached to walls that were themselves built of wood. Large fires had in fact previously broken out in the city in the reign of Augustus, who had set up Rome’s first fire service in response to them. It was that fire service which saved some of Rome from destruction in the Incendium magnum. The key point made by Bätz is that there was nothing unlikely about a fire burning down a large part of Rome. Quite the contrary: It was a disaster waiting to happen and needed no mad Emperor to get it started.
Nero was in fact not in Rome when the fire broke out. When news of the fire was brought to him, he immediately returned to supervise firefighting operations. Hostile writers, especially Christian ones, allege that the great fire was an act of arson committed by the Emperor. For what reason? A possible motive offered itself in the immediate aftermath, as with what for many seemed unseemly and suspicious haste, Nero seized much of the burned real estate and launched upon a stupendous building project on the suddenly available land.
Christian writers allege both that Nero was responsible for the fire — Tacitus alleges this as well — and that he used the Christians as a scapegoat for a crime he had himself committed. Bätz is not impressed by either allegation. It cannot be definitely proved that Nero did not order the burning down of the city, but the only “evidence” for this consists of anecdotal accounts of mysterious figures who were reported to have been running through the streets setting alight to buildings. Thus, Nero the arsonist is what would be called today a “conspiracy theory” that is unprovable one way or the other. Bätz is also very skeptical of the allegation that Nero used the Christians as a scapegoat and that widespread persecutions took place against them after the fire. Firstly, this allegation was made by writers deeply hostile to Nero and made years after the event. Secondly, Bätz writes that the christiani at the time of the fire were a very small group in Rome known, if they were known at all, as an insignificant sect within Judaism.
Bätz makes no mention of the Christian legend that Peter and Paul were executed in Rome under Nero, nor of the legend that Saint Peter, “First Bishop of Rome,” was crucified upside down on Nero’s orders. The account is given in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and not even mentioned in the standard Christian Bible. The story was written decades after Nero’s death and drew on no source or witness. Nevertheless, it is puzzling that Bätz chooses not to mention it at all.
The fire destroyed much of republican Rome, including the Vestal Temple, where the statues of the Penates were burned, and which according to legend via Tacitus had been salvaged from burning Troy. One account has a demented Nero “fiddling” (in actuality he would have been playing the cithara, since fiddles had of course not yet been invented) while Rome burned and declaiming upon the destruction of Troy, presumably drawing a poetic analogy between the two cities’ destruction. This is unlikely, but it does have a sort of poetic plausibility insofar as the story of Troy is linked to the legend of Rome’s foundation. It forms the basis of Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, in which Aeneas the Trojan escapes from Troy and founds the Roman race.
Among other colorful portrayals of Nero as not only cruel but as raving mad, there is the theater play Octavia, which was once attributed to Nero but is now said to have been written at least a hundred years after the fire. It features Nero exulting in the destruction of Rome. Whether Nero really made an impromptu dramatic speech on the burning of the city or not, his subsequent actions do point to a radical and dramatic break with republican architecture and republican tradition, one that drew considerable inspiration from Greece or even Troy. The new Rome would be built in marble and stone, and major public buildings would include places of entertainment and pleasure.
Nero was practical, too. He set up over 300 assistance centers for those who had lost their homes in the fire. He also introduced a new and sensible construction protocol: No building would be constructed over 20 meters (about 60 feet) high. Every property owner was obliged by law to have fire-extinguishing materials on each property, although Bätz does not elaborate. Were these jars of water or sand containers? Nor does he tell the reader how strictly these rules were observed. Most important of all, no more wooden structures were to be built in the city; all new buildings were henceforth to be built in stone, marble, or tuff.
Immediately after the fire Nero embarked on a gigantic construction project called the domus aurea, or the Golden House. The palace complex was monumental and was nearly complete at the time of his death. Bätz describes the project with obvious admiration and at great length. An idea of its size, which corresponded to that of a small city of the time and which covered a substantial part of Rome, can be given when we consider that the Colosseum in Rome was built on what had been an artificial lake on the grounds of the domus aurea. What strikes this reader from reading Bätz’s account is that the Golden House represented a true break with the Roman Republic’s modesty and asceticism. Rome was set on a course of opulence and extravagance as manifested in great stone constructions, many of them reflecting not religious aspirations but rather the achievements of individual Emperors.
Burrus died in 62 from what may have been throat cancer, judging by accounts, although needless to say it was alleged without evidence that Nero had ordered his death. Burrus was replaced by a freed slave named Tigellinus, who had the supreme quality in Nero’s eyes of being a horse- and chariot-racing aficionado. According to the writers of antiquity, Tigellinus was the driving force behind many of Nero’s shameful deeds (p. 284) and the further loosening of moral and sexual restraint in the imperial court. Tigellinus came to be feared and hated.
Soon after Burrus’ death, Poppaea bore Nero a daughter, although she died four months later. By all accounts Nero was distraught and the dead girl was acclaimed a goddess. Poppaea herself died two years later, in 65 AD, possibly in childbirth, although we cannot be certain. Accounts predictably relate that Nero was responsible, some claiming that he kicked Poppaea to death when she was pregnant. This sounds highly implausible given his affection for his wife and his wish for an heir. Nero mourned her death, something he had not done either for Octavia nor Agrippina. Bätz writes:
In any case, Nero mourned intensively and openly over the loss of Poppaea, who seemed to really have been the love of his life. The description given by Tacitus of the mourning ceremony sounds authentic and as if the Emperor were striving to come to terms with a blow of fate. (p. 388)
In another break with Roman tradition, Nero would not have the corpse burned, and she was instead buried in Oriental fashion. By a decree of the Senate, Poppaea was declared divine.
Nero survived a conspiracy against him organized by Senators and high aristocrats. The plot had been betrayed, and in terror the conspirators had fallen over each other denouncing their fellow conspirators in the hope of a pardon. The second major attempt to overthrow him originated not in Rome but in Gaul, three years after Poppaea’s death, and was not a conspiracy but an open revolt led by an aristocrat named Vindex, whose father had been a Senator under Claudius. The taxes imposed upon the provinces for excesses in terms of architecture and entertainment in Rome had been enormous. Bätz suggests that is likely to have been the source of Vindex’s strong appeal in the province. Nero probably underestimated the extent or danger of the revolt and reacted too slowly. Vindex was crushed in a great battle at Vesontio (Besancon), however, and then took his own life. Although what should have been the welcome news of a victory for Nero proved to be no such thing. The genie of revolt and disobedience was now out of the bottle. Would the self-indulgent Emperor again take credit for the achievement of an army on battlefields hundreds of miles away while he himself had never stood on one? The victorious army acclaimed their General, Verginius, as Emperor, and according to Cassius Dio the soldiers destroyed images of Nero after the battle (p. 451).
A long and complex series of battles, conspiracies, maneuvers, and campaigns followed. Much of the army was in open revolt, the Senate was uncertain, and even the loyalty of the Roman populace was unclear. Up until then Nero had reliably and crucially supplied Rome with food, but this was no longer the case. Hunger broke out in Rome after supplies from North Africa were cut; whether intentionally, as a result of the chaotic situation, or both is unclear. According to one account, a large shipment of what was expected to be grain arrived in Rome but in fact contained sand for the arena. When they discovered this, the crowd erupted into a frenzy of rage. Bätz thinks “the story is too good to be true” (p. 455), but the point is clear: Support for Nero was shrinking everywhere that the Emperor needed it.
Nero’s end was pitiful. His people turned against him with increasing speed. The Praetorian Guard itself left the Imperial Palace in the night. The only people who stayed with Nero to the end were freed slaves, since they knew that their fate and his were one and the same. Among them was a eunuch named Sporus who had been castrated and became a kind of wife to Nero “owing to his striking resemblance to the late Poppaea,” according to Bätz (p. 458). News came that the Senate had condemned the once-mighty Emperor to death by having him tied to a wooden stake and then whipped to death.
Nero, who was by then hiding in a villa, heard the Praetorian Guard approaching and tried to kill himself with a dagger, but was unable to strike hard enough. In Bätz’s words, he was “a bundle of nerves” (p. 459). Nero showed none of the dignity and courage of many of his victims, such as Seneca and Agrippina. A freed slave, Epaphroditus, had to do the final service for Nero and spare him a far worse death. He succeeded.
Bätz’s biography invites us to consider the events of distant history with more compassion and with an understanding of the dynamics of human action and how politics worked at the time. Judging events with political or religious prejudice gives a distorted picture. But Bätz’s account will still not tell the reader whether there was any deep ideological motivation or idealism among the main actors in the story of Nero’s rise and fall. Nevertheless, we are given a genuinely balanced account — one that neither relentlessly blames Nero for everything, nor exculpates him in an attempt to create a revisonist-style shock effect.
Perhaps Nero’s story is a morality tale of a man who had great potential for good as an architect, an actor, and as a musician, but who should never have become Emperor. Nero was not the first Roman Emperor unsuited for the role of head of state, and would certainly not be the last. Perhaps Martial summed him up best, when describing how the Emperor Severus had had the Thermae Neronis restored and rebuilt in the third century: “What is worse than Nero, or better than his baths?” Nero was awful, but everyone liked the baths.
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