Book Review: The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources


by Anthony A. Barrett, Elain Fantham, and John C. Yardley

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 202. Notes, biblio., index. $35.00 paper. ISBN: 0691156514

A Handbook on the Iconic Evil Emperor

Probably the most well known Roman Emperor to the general public, Nero (r. A.D. 54-68), was hardly the best wearers of the purple, and the point of this book is to take a closer look at the man and his reign.

The editors open with an introduction that offers background on Nero’s reign and the role of the emperor in Roman government. They then use selected passages from Classical literature, as well as coins and monumental inscriptions, to produce an account of the emperor’s life and times as seen by ancient scholars, in a series of thematic chapters

  • Early life
  • Rise to the purple
  • Domestic politics during his reign
  • The great Parthian War of 58-63
  • Wars and rebellion in Britain and Germany
  • The “Great Fire” of 64
  • Nero’s wives
  • Conspiracies against Nero
  • Nero’s attainments as an artist and showman
  • The last years of Nero’s reign, leading to his fall and death, with a commentary on Nero’s image, which has rarely been favorable.

Though a map or two would have been useful, the book is well populated with footnotes, some reaching to half a page(!), in which the editors point out demonstrable errors and biases in the documents, provide details on persons, events, and such mentioned in the accounts, and offer alternative interpretations of the texts in question.

This is a very good, well-balanced work, and some passages will surprise some readers. For example, the revolt in Britain led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni (60-61), gets far less ink than customary in English language accounts, which is appropriate given the available evidence (most accounts of the rising are very creative).

Despite its seemingly pasted-up nature, The Emperor Nero is quite readable, and both experienced scholars and laymen will likely find it interesting.


Note: The Emperor Nero also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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