by John F. Drinkwater
Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 450.
Illus., maps, tables, notes, biblio., index. $44.99. ISBN: 1108472648
Was Nero Really that Bad?
Prof. Drinkwater (Emeritus Nottingham) gives us a very different take on the proverbially evil Nero. He argues that not only was the empire well governed during Nero’s nearly 14 year reign (AD 54-68), but that the emperor was by no means as maniacal as his reputation would have it. Drinkwater’s case is that Nero’s reputation was largely fabricated, in part by hostile supporters of the senatorial class, the Flavian dynasty, and the Christians.
Drinkwater’s case that the empire was well managed during Nero’s reign, is nicely done. He discusses and role of the generally capable people in the emperor’s inner circle, and the governing apparatus developed under the Julio-Claudians, which ran rather smoothly. But that has never been a major issue with regard to Nero’s reputation. In fact, even governing mechanism of the empire functioned well even during the reigns of a Caligula or a Commodus.
Drinkwater’s argument that Nero was a relatively nice guy maligned by his enemies is less well made. He correctly exonerates Nero for the Great Fire of Rome. Rome several times suffered from great fires. And there is ample evidence that Nero was away from the city when it began, and was personally involved in organizing efforts to fight the fires and provide relief to the people. But Drinkwater works rather too hard in trying to get the emperor off the hook for various murders. While we can agree that the earlier ones can be attributed to his mother Agrippina the Younger, her death and the various killings that came later are harder to explain away, such as those of Poppaea or Domitius Corbulo. Drinkwater also can’t get around Nero’s persecution of the Christians, which can be found in more or less contemporary non-Christian texts, such as Suetonius. And while Nero certainly remained popular among the common people, it’s worth keeping in mind that his crimes had little impact on them
While most certainly an important read, Drinkwater’s case for Nero is intriguing, but not wholly convincing, but Nero: Emperor and Court is a worthwhile read for those seriously interested in the early Roman Empire.
Note: Nero: Emperor and Court is also available in several e-editions.
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