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Nero | Seeing Spectacles

Nero

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Head of Nero (reign 54–68 CE), from an oversized statue, about 2.40 m height. Now in the Glyptothek, Munich

In 54 CE Nero (Full name: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) took to the imperial throne after his stepfather the emperor Claudius died. Our sources, which are all incredibly unsympathetic to Nero, mark him as a love of spectacle from an early age on:

 Even when Nero was very young he had a deep passion for horses and talked constantly about the games in the Circus, though he was forbidden to do so. Once when he was lamenting with his fellow pupils the fate of a charioteer of the Greens, who was dragged by his horses, and his teacher scolded him, he lied and pretended that he was talking about Hector. When he first became emperor he used to play every day with ivory chariots on a board, and he came from the country to all the games, even the most insignificant, at first secretly and then so openly that no one doubted that he would be in Rome on days when races where held. 2 He made no secret of his wish to have the number of prizes increased, and in consequence more races were added and the performance was continued to a late hour, while the managers of the factions no longer thought it worth while to produce their drivers at all except for a full day’s racing. He soon longed to drive a chariot himself and even to show himself frequently before the public. After a trial exhibition in his gardens before his slaves and the dregs of the people, he gave everyone an opportunity of seeing him in the Circus Maximus, one of his freedmen dropping the napkin from the place usually occupied by the magistrates.

Suetonius, Nero 21

It was not enough for Nero to watch chariot racing though – he actually competed at the Olympic Games in a 10 horse chariot: he was the only competitor and actually fell out of the chariot and had to be popped back in, but still couldn’t finish the race. He still won, however, as he did in all the competitions he entered:

In competition he observed the rules most scrupulously, never daring to clear his throat and even wiping the sweat from his brow with his arm. Once, indeed, during the performance of a tragedy, when he had dropped his sceptre but quickly recovered it, he was terribly afraid that he might be excluded from the competition because of his slip, and his confidence was restored only when his accompanist swore that it had passed unnoticed amid the delight and applause of the people. When he won he made the announcement himself; and for that reason he always took part in the contests of the heralds. To obliterate the memory of all other victors in the games and leave no trace of them, their statues and busts were all thrown down by his order, dragged off with hooks, and cast into toilets. He also drove a chariot in many places, and a ten-horse chariot team at Olympia, although in one of his own poems he had criticized Mithridates for just that thing. But after he had been thrown from the car and put back in it, he was unable to hold out and gave up before the end of the course; but he received the crown just the same. On his departure he presented the entire province with freedom and at the same time gave the judges Roman citizenship and a large sum of money. These favors he announced in person on the day of the Isthmian Games, standing in the middle of the stadium.

Suetonius, Life of Nero 24

He actually had all the crown games of Greece (games in which you were awarded a crown rather than a monetary prize: the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean games) moved from their regular schedules so he could compete in all of them in 65 CE, competing mainly in artistic events (these were a component of some games – and where they weren’t, he added them, as he did to the Olympics). Grateful for his success, he then awarded Greece with freedom. Then he returned to Rome in triumph. However, eventually he was forced to commit suicide. His last words were (apparently) “what an artist dies with me.”

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering whether Nero fiddled while Rome burned, you can look at one academic discussion of that issue here.

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