Emperor Nero Chariot Racing. Credit: History Collection
Acting Onstage and Off
An Analysis of the Role Theatrical Performances Played in Nero’s Popularity
By Lily Nesvold
Tyrant, murderer, debauchee, monster, rapist—just a small selection of the dreadful words that have been used for thousands of years to characterize Nero and his controversial reign. There is no doubt that Nero committed some truly horrific acts, of which perhaps the most unconscionable was the assassination of his mother, Agrippina. But has Nero been unfairly deemed a bad emperor, detested by all in his time? Modern scholarship suggests that Nero’s actions as princeps have been misconstrued—and that ancient historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio may have exaggerated Nero’s vices in an attempt to disgrace his reputation.
Nero’s tainted legacy was promoted by educators for years, until the impression of his rule was reexamined in academia. In particular, two journal articles—Edward Champlin’s “Nero Reconsidered” and C.E. Manning’s “Acting and Nero’s Conception of the Principate”—advanced the idea that Nero was indeed well-esteemed by the Roman people and that his stage appearances played a key role in the public’s respect for him notwithstanding his high profile crimes. By examining these articles in tandem, I have concluded that there are many justifiable interpretations of Nero’s actions, and more broadly, that the writings of ancient historians simultaneously enhance and complicate our understanding of history. For this reason, we would do well to approach these attempts at piecing together Nero’s history as plausible interpretations but not absolute fact, as we will see that there is no singular way to decipher the meaning of these events, using interpretations of Nero’s theatrical involvement as an example.
II. Champlin: Nero’s Media Manipulation
In 1998, Edward Champlin’s “Nero Reconsidered” was featured in the New England Review, a quarterly literary journal published by Middlebury College that encompasses a broad range of subject matter. Champlin is well-known in the field of Classics, author of countless papers and several books (including one solely dedicated to Nero) and is emeritus professor at Princeton University. Targeted towards an audience beyond academia, “Nero Reconsidered” employs unassuming prose that requires little, if any, preexisting knowledge of the subject matter, making it an accessible resource for the lay reader.
Champlin paints Nero as the original master of mass media: a consummate orator who raised his political currency by creating at least the appearance of connectivity between himself and ancient Greek gods. First, Champlin argues that Nero employed the “power of myth” to project the image of himself as a hero, and that his efforts were successful because of a “phenomenon of Roman public life” called “theatrical license”. According to Champlin, “the Roman people were accustomed to seeing their rulers everywhere represented as well-known figures of myth, and they were accustomed to dramatic performances on stage and off which commented directly on their own contemporary concerns”. Likewise, Champlin described Nero as one “who went further than anybody in erasing the boundary between stage and life”. Essentially, Nero understood that art imitates life, which was then reincarnated as art. Indeed, one might understand Champlin’s interpretation to be characterizing Nero as the very first method actor—a dramatic technique not coined until the twentieth century, in which an actor becomes so intrinsically interwoven with the subject matter of a particular performance that the character’s conscious thoughts and actions will overcome those of the actor itself. The actor is convinced that he or she is, in reality, the character portrayed. Nero performed the stories of Greek mythological characters as a means not only to convey political messages, but also to rationalize his terrible deeds in a way that his audience would accept. In effect, Nero used the theater to communicate directly with the Roman people, who revered Ancient Greece, in terms that they would embrace. For example, Champlin maintains that Nero exploited the tale of Orestes as justification for murdering Agrippina. In addition, there were many other figures with which Nero wanted the public to associate himself, such as Oedipus and Hercules. In the latter half of the essay, Champlin asserts that Nero presented himself as the Sun King after the Great Fire occurred in 64 C.E. Sol was a “charioteer,” who “[drove] the horses of the sun”. Unsurprisingly, Nero began his career of racing chariots in 64. Moreover, the Domus Aurea was “meant to be perceived . . . as the Palace of the Sun”. The most striking element of Champlin’s article is his discussion on how the Golden House might have actually been open to the public, and therefore boosted Nero’s popularity among the lower classes, in contradiction with the traditional view that this mansion was his private property. According to Champlin, the masses adored Nero despite his misgivings because although he might have been imperfect, his actions were consistent with those of revered Greek figures—a view promoted by his theatrical performances—and therefore acceptable.
III. Manning: Nero’s Passion Meets Politics
“Acting and Nero’s Conception of the Principate” was C.E. Manning’s second of three pieces published in Greece & Rome, a scholarly journal that delivers research specifically about the ancient world and thus serves a fairly targeted audience. Other than these papers, there is little information available about Manning’s background, education, and other research. Despite Manning’s seemingly less established presence in the field compared to Champlin, we should not automatically discredit his ideas, especially as his work was published in an accredited Classics journal. Compared to Champlin’s piece, Manning employs a more formal prose, assuming an audience with some level of expertise, considering his mention of Mithraism without further context and similar references to Roman figures such as Otho, Vitellius, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus.
Manning’s central argument is that Nero, fervent for acting, viewed his hobby as a way to gain popularity with the people of Rome—in effect, a strategy to win favor with the public, considering that Nero was not directly involved in government. Manning comes to this conclusion almost through process of elimination; he disproves a religious motivation for his stage performances because Nero was “highly skeptical in [those] matters,” and then he proceeds to disclose evidence in support of his theory. First, the author discusses the fact that Nero changed his entire lifestyle for a performing career, therefore proving his extreme passion for the arts—“artists who have no more than a dilettante interest do not, like Nero, lie on their backs while lead weights press upon their chests, not endure purges, nor institute a strict diet”—and then proceeds to examine the implications of such measures. Manning subsequently asserts that “Nero’s stage performances were [not] entirely devoid of political meaning”—Nero’s ability to gain approval of the masses was his own form of politics. Thus, Nero ultimately discovered that he could pursue such a recreation while procuring the admiration of the Roman people, and therefore acquire the immortality for which he longed.
IV. Analysis and Conclusion
The introduction of both sources includes a reference to the popular conception that Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.” This infamous phrase is perhaps the most memorable idea public perception associates with Nero, despite the fact that, as both Manning and Champlin point out, it may not be factually accurate. Even still, this misconception is so widespread that it is of little surprise that many writers chose to begin essays with this event—a notion that is seemingly universally recognized. Furthermore, the authors propose specific, thought-provoking questions that prepare the reader for the main argument of the article. Champlin considers that we may have previously studied Nero in the wrong context: “What if our hostile tradition has simply misunderstood him? What if his people applauded these “crimes” as the good deeds of a good emperor?”. Manning employs a similar tactic, developing the following inquiry: “If then, as it seems, Nero regarded art, and in particular the stage, as areas of vital importance, what questions does this raise for the historian?”. This methodology is effective because the audience’s interest is piqued by such inquisitive remarks—the reader desires to know the answer, especially if it stands contradictory to centuries’ worth of beliefs. As we see, both sources attempt to contend with the popular image of Nero as a despised tyrant.
When presenting an argument, it is essential that a variety of sources are used as evidence. Both sources utilize a mix of primary and secondary sources as justification—an approach that proves to be effective in persuading the audience of the authors’ respective assertions. Importantly, and even with his esteemed academic credentials, Champlin does not directly quote from the primary sources. Rather, he summarizes them in plain English. For example, he discusses how Nero plotted his mother’s murder: “the calm starlit night . . . the booby-trapped ship . . . the murderers closing in on the empress . . . her last stunning command to them: “strike my belly”. This technique, while it might hinder one’s understanding in some instances if liberties are taken in the translation, benefits the reader here because his description maintains the tenor of Tactius’ writing without the confusion of a direct translation. In contrast, Manning—despite his more limited academic background—incorporates a more rigorous mix of direct translations and original Latin as his evidence. Based on Manning’s scholarly audience, this method was the logical choice because the reader has presumably looked directly at primary sources before, whereas readers of Champlin’s paper might be less familiar with the field of Classics. Another difference arises between how the two sources approach proving their argument. While Manning looks more generally at the function of Nero’s acting, Champlin explores the specific characters that Nero portrayed on the stage—Orestes, Alcmaeon, Oedipus, and Canace. The latter is perhaps more compelling, because the use of distinct examples both engages the audience and convinces them of his argument.
Ultimately, it is difficult to proclaim one article as superior to the other; instead, both sources have their relative merits in providing a novel perspective on Nero’s reign. Champlin’s article is arguably the more entertaining read with a compelling thesis, whereas Manning’s is better-rooted in primary sources. In any event, both articles underscore the importance of Nero’s onstage and offstage acting as being intrinsically intertwined with his popularity. Perusing these two pieces leads to countless unanswered questions. If we are to accept Edward Champlin’s proposition that Nero used acting to manipulate and promote his image, would Nero have been overthrown sooner had he not successfully convinced the Roman people that he was justified in all his assassinations? If we champion C.E. Manning’s claims that Nero perceived that the only way to garner the approval of the Roman people was through theater, save politics, would Nero have still performed onstage if he had taken a more active role as emperor? In other words, would Nero have felt the need to hold spectacula if he won the affection of the public through his decisions in government? Scholars can learn from the example Champlin and Manning have put forth in their essays—while there are no definitive answers to such questions, nevertheless, we can attempt to piece together the story.
 Champlin, Edward. “Nero Reconsidered.” New England Review (1990-) 19, no. 2 (1998): 98. Accessed April 24, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40243335.
 Ibid. 99.
 Ibid. 99.
 Ibid. 105.
 Ibid. 106.
 Manning, C. E. “Acting and Nero’s Conception of the Principate.” Greece & Rome 22, no. 2 (1975): 165. Accessed April 24, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/642717.
 Champlin, “Nero Reconsidered,” 98.
 Manning, “Acting and Nero’s Conception of the Principate,” 165.
 Champlin, “Nero Reconsidered,” 99-100.
Champlin, Edward. “Nero Reconsidered.” New England Review (1990-) 19, no. 2 (1998): 97-108. Accessed April 24, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40243335.
Manning, C. E. “Acting and Nero’s Conception of the Principate.” Greece & Rome 22, no. 2 (1975): 164-75. Accessed April 24, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/642717.
Lily Nesvold is a sophomore double-majoring in Economics and Classical Studies.