Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Nero: the man behind the myth at the British Museum from 27 May to 24 October 2021

Exhibition Review – Nero: the man behind the myth at the British Museum from 27 May to 24 October 2021

The British Museum presents the first major exhibition in the UK on Nero, one of the most notorious ancient Roman emperors. The exhibition entitled Nero: the man behind the myth explores the true story of Rome’s fifth emperor informed by new research and archaeological evidence from the time, challenging the often biased historical accounts written after Nero’s death that have shaped his legacy.

This major exhibition features over 200 objects, charting the young emperor’s rise to power and examining his actions during a period of profound social change in regions from Armenia in the Near East, to Britain, and across mainland Europe.

The objects in the exhibition are drawn from the British Museum’s collection alongside rare loans from Europe, most never seen in the UK before, the exhibition includes graffiti next to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales, providing context to understand Nero’s reign.

Nero (r. AD 54–68), the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, succeeded to the throne aged only sixteen. During his reign of nearly fourteen years, he had his own mother killed, his first wife, and allegedly his second wife. Written accounts even claimed that Nero himself started the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64.

In June AD 68, when confronted with rebellions by insubordinate military officials, Nero was forced to commit suicide. The Roman senate immediately excised his memory from official records, and in many ways his name was vilified to legitimise the new ruling elite.

The image of Nero as a tyrant has passed into history relying on the works of historians Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. This exhibition challenges traditional preconceptions and explores Nero’s relationship with the Roman populace.

Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. Chariot racing, gladiatorial combats and theatre were incredibly popular in the Roman world, and the exhibition features fascinating objects such as gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre, stunning frescoes depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion. A small bronze figure of Nero, lent by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia and seen in the UK for the first time, gives a rare sense of a complete sculpture.

The Fenwick Hoard is shown as part of a major exhibition for the first time since it was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester’s High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewellery very similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. A warped iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, will be displayed in the UK for the first time.

Nero, who was in the nearby city of Antium rather than in his palace watching the inferno, led the relief and reconstruction efforts. A new palace, the Domus Aurea, rose from the ashes. Stunning frescoes and wall decorations give visitors a taste of Nero’s opulent residence.

This fascinating exhibition gives context to Nero’s reign and provides some insight into a Roman world which was enjoying the spoils of empire. Nero was its figurehead and he enjoyed his imperial status, however even if his tyranny was exaggerated by a ruling elite, there was little doubt that power corrupted the young ruler that led to his early demise.

For more information and tickets, visit the British Museum website here

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