Let’s consider one of the most famous Roman Emperors. You’re the type of guy to order your mother to be killed, and you also poison your step brother and the previous Roman Emperor. You set a fire, destroying most of Rome, so that you can commission new buildings. You order your first wife and personal adviser to death and you kick your second wife to death while pregnant. You also force people to watch you on stage singing and playing the lyre. Of course you lock the door and permit no one to leave! Furthermore, your reputation is so bad that a new religion called Christianity proclaims you as the greatest evil in the world, the “Beast”.
But let’s say you also negotiate peace with the Parthian Empire, and end the series of wars which were weakening Rome in the years preceding your rule. You also curb rebellions in Britain, Germania and in Judaea, an action which contributes to the safety and tranquility of your Empire. You make moves to eliminate corruption in government, and restructure tax laws to make tax collection fairer and less of a burden to the lower classes. You put down a possible civil war quickly, and preserve the Empire. You combat deflation by creating a series of public works projects, enhancing the cultural status of your city by building modern temples, stadiums, public areas, and theaters. You also sponsor scientific projects, including an expedition to find the source of the Nile.
You became an Emperor at age 17 and died at 30. You were known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but after you became Emperor, you were known as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Better known as Nero today, and also known as the “Anti-Christ” by the numerology of his name, which results in the letters 666.
How can we arrive at such different Neros?
We are victims of our sources. For modern leaders, we have many sources to consider, but when we reconstruct Nero, we have few. The historian Tacitus and the historian Suetonius offer our most comprehensive negative information, along with Cassius Dio, who writes about a hundred years later. The historian Dio Chrysostom, and poet Lucan loved Nero, and while the Jewish historian Josephus didn’t adore Nero, he did write that many spread false reports about Nero. The philosopher Seneca praised Nero…but Nero would force him to commit suicide just a year before Nero’s own suicide. Both the Talmud and the Christian historians will mention Nero, too. In the Talmud he is a sympathetic figure. For Christian writers such as Tertullian and Eusebuis, he was the first Emperor to persecute Christians, hence the “anti-Christ” reputation.
What comes down to us from Roman antiquity is often a miniscule puzzle piece, a rotting bit of vellum handled by tweezers in a lab. Bless the monks who had access to the texts and copied them throughout the Middle Ages. Bless the commentators who write about works, because their comments are sometimes all that survive. Cassius wrote a 70 volume history of Rome, and only fragments survive. Plutarch and Pliny also wrote on Nero, and not a scrap made it to the modern world. Where are Nero’s decrees? Who else offered opinions about the Emperor?
We may never fully understand Nero. We have images of him, a young man considered handsome by many. We have a few biographical texts. In history, we reevaluate questionable leaders regularly, basing our understanding on primary sources such as the historians whose work survives. But the key word is survives. And what will we offer two thousand years into our future – will our descendants know Obama, Hitler, Nixon, Kennedy, or the Romanovs? Have we left enough behind, or will digitized information on the internet disappear in the future, just as the books of the ancients have disappeared for us?
Note: Thanks to Peter, one of my students who, after I called Nero “utterly crazy,” pointed out that there may be another side this poor Emperor.