Was the fiddler framed? How Nero may have been a good guy after allMay 25, 2021
He was a demonic emperor who stabbed citizens at random and let Rome burn. Or was he? We go behind the scenes at a new show exploding myths about the ancient world’s favourite baddie
Nero comes with a lurid reputation. “The main thing we know about him is his infamy,” says Thorsten Opper, curator of the first British exhibition devoted to the Roman emperor. “The glutton, the profligate, the matricide, the megalomaniac.” Also, the pyromaniac: famously, Nero “fiddled while Rome burned”, or at least strummed his kithara to one of his own compositions, The Fall of Troy, while a fire, supposedly begun by him, destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts and seriously damaged seven.
His afterlife on the page and screen is certainly arresting. Nero inspired some of the greatest Renaissance and baroque operas, notably Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina, which chart the emperor’s adulterous love for Poppaea, who became his second wife. In the epic 1951 movie Quo Vadis, Peter Ustinov played Nero as entirely unhinged: a mincing, purple-swathed toddler in a man’s body. Christopher Biggins took him on in I, Claudius, the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel, and made him power-hungry, baby-faced and quite, quite mad.