[In Our Time] Nero


25/04/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=69076277
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p077dlyc.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life of Nero (37-68 AD) who became Emperor at the age of 16. At first he was largely praised for his generosity yet became known for his debauched lifestyle, with allegations he started the Fire of Rome, watching the flames as he played the lyre. Christians saw him as their persecutor, an anti-Christ, and the number of the Beast in the Book of Revelation was thought to indicate Nero. He had confidence in his own artistry, took up acting (which then had a very low status) and, as revolts in the empire grew, killed himself after the Senate condemned him to die as a slave, on a cross.


Maria Wyke
Professor of Latin at University College London

Matthew Nicholls
Fellow and Senior Tutor at St John’s College, University of Oxford


Shushma Malik
Lecturer in Classics at the University of Roehampton

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2019-05-23


  • Doesn’t all the background sound familiar? Oh right, In Our Time had done an episode on Nero’s mother too some years ago.
  • I had been expecting more on the Christian treatment of Nero as the antichrist, but I missed out on it. Though there was some fascinating stuff on a Polish novel about Nero that would be gifted to Catholic kids for their confirmation.
  • The biggest learning: Nero probably did not order the fire of Rome to be started, but once it was over, used it as an opportunity to completely redevelop Rome into a stone and brick city with palaces and wide roads instead of wooden hovels. Something something disaster capitalism. And once it was done, he blamed the Christians for starting the fire; which is why they were punished by being used as human torches. Okay then.
  • As a side learning: this makes the portrayal of Christians being martyred in the Colosseum impossible, because the Colosseum hadn’t even been built then. So much for Asterix the Gladiator.
  • So the Summer of 69 was the year with four emperors.
  • So apparently Nero only ordered his mother to be executed, but kicked his wife Poppaea to death personally. So it goes.
  • And incidentally, there’s a nice link up to recent Doctor Who watching – Nero’s mother-in-law (and first cousin) from his first wife was Messalina, and the planet in The Doctor’s Daughter was Messaline.
  • Nero also married eunuchs twice, once as a husband and once as a wife, to the general horror of everybody.
  • The general horror was already there because the man used to keep acting, and demeaning the dignity of the position of emperor by doing so.
  • There was an interesting bit of how Nero gets fatter and fatter on the coins as his reign goes on; and how, as with Henry VIII, this may have been a deliberate decision to convey solidity.


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