Emperor Nero: Born 200 Years Too Late?

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

25 Jul 2019

The right man in the wrong time. Could this be the perfect description of Nero’s life as Roman Emperor?

When you hear the name Nero, you would be easily forgiven for thinking of outrageous luxury, horrific crimes and other actions associated with a crazed madman. Indeed, that has been his portrayal in all our surviving sources and reflected in the media of today.

Yet what if instead of being Roman Emperor, this man had been a Hellenistic King?

If we consider him in this context, then it is fascinating to wonder how different his portrayal would have been.

The Hellenistic Kingdoms were the Hellenic-cultured domains that dominated the Eastern Mediterranean following the death of Alexander the Great: from the kingdoms of Epirus and Macedonia in the west to the Greco-Asian Kingdom of Bactria in Afghanistan.

Each kingdom was ruled by a monarch, ambitious to make his mark on the world. To define oneself as a good Hellenistic king, he needed to show certain qualities. Nero shared some of the most important qualities of such a monarch.

Busts of Seleucus I ‘Nicator’ and Lysimachus, two of the most powerful Hellenistic kings.

Benefaction

Nothing more so defined a good Hellenistic king than giving benefaction. Benefaction could be classified as any act that either supported, improved or protected a city or region under a person’s control.

You could easily compare it to a company donor today. Although not the face of the company, his/her generous financial support of that group would significantly help support the business. Simultaneously it would also give the donor much influence over making key decisions and affairs.

Similarly, the generous benefactions to cities and regions by Hellenistic kings gave them great influence and power in that area. In one place more than most did these rulers use this policy. None other than at the heart of civilisation itself.

Greece

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The history of Greece is one encapsulated by fighting monarchical powers and preserving their respective cities from tyrannical rule. The expulsion of Hippias, the Persian Wars and the Battle of Chaeronea – all key examples where Greek city states had actively tried to prevent any sort of despotic influence on their homelands.

To the rest of the Hellenistic World, monarchy was an accepted part of life – the royal house of Alexander and Philip II for example, had ruled Macedonia for nearly 500 years. To the mainland Greek city-states however, it was a disease that had to be stopped from spreading to its own cities.

You can see the problem therefore that Hellenistic kings faced if they wanted to impose their authority over Greek city states. Benefaction was the answer.

So long as this king provided special guarantees to their cities, especially regarding their freedom, then having an influential monarch was acceptable to the Greek city states. Benefaction removed the idea of servitude.

What about Nero?

Nero’s treatment of Greece followed a very similar path. Suetonius, our best source for Nero’s character, highlights this man’s benefaction in the Greek province of Achaea.

Although Suetonius tries to blacken the tour by highlighting Nero’s crazed desire for consistently hosting musical contests, there was one key thing this emperor did to define him as a great Hellenistic King.

His gifting of freedom to the entirety of the Greek province was an amazing act of generosity. This freedom, alongside an exemption from taxes, established Achaea as one of the most prestigious provinces in the Empire.

For a Hellenistic King, granting a Greek city freedom from direct rule was one of the greatest acts of benefaction possible. Nero did this for a whole region.

Not only would Nero’s actions here have matched that of many remarkable Hellenistic Kings (men such as Seleucus and Pyrrhus), it outdid them. Nero was quite clearly showing that it was he who was the best benefactor Greece had ever witnessed.

A bust of King Pyrrhus.

A love for all things Greek

Not just in Greece however, did Nero showed signs of being a good Hellenistic king. His love of Greek culture resulted in its reflection in many of his actions back in Rome.

Regarding his building projects, Nero ordered the construction of permanent theatres and gymnasia in the capital: two of the most identifiable buildings used by Hellenistic Kings to promote their power to the world.

In his art, he portrayed himself in the youthful Hellenistic style whilst he also introduced a new Greek-style festival to Rome, the Neronia. He gave gifts of oil to his senators and equestrians – a tradition very much stemming from the Greek world.

All this benefaction to Rome was due to Nero’s personal love of Greek culture. A rumour even circulated that Nero planned to rename Rome to the Greek Neropolis! Such ‘Greekcentric’ actions helped define a good Hellenistic King.

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The Roman problem

Yet Rome was not a Greek city. In fact, it prided itself and its culture for being unique and completely different to the Hellenic World.

High-standing Romans did not view the construction of gymnasia and theatres as virtuous deeds for the people. Instead, they viewed them as places from which vice and decadence would take hold of the youth. Such a view would be unheard of if Nero had constructed these buildings in the Hellenistic World.

Imagine, therefore, what if Rome had been a Greek city? If so, it is fascinating to consider how differently history would regard these actions. Rather than being the acts of a villain, they would be the gifts of a great leader.

Conclusion

Considering Nero’s other extreme vices (murder, corruption etc), many things would define him as a universally bad ruler. Yet this small piece has hopefully shown that there was potential in Nero to be a great leader. Unfortunately, he was simply born a couple of hundred years too late.