Nero was an inventive emperor. Some of this invention went into the cultural sphere. The politics of that cultural engagement are difficult to understand, but have been the focus of much attention. His cultural politics blend uncomfortable with his moral politics, in part because ancient commentators found a link between his cultural behaviours and his moral misdemeanours and that link is explored in the politics of immorality. This means that activities which Nero might have felt to have been to have been at worst morally neutral were blackened by association with other aspects of his behaviour.
In 57, he had built a large new amphitheatre on the Campus Martius (Tacitus, Annales 13.31). This was a large wooden structure and was temporary. Suetonius says that he ‘compelled’ 400 senators and 600 equestrians to take part. The numbers are probably for the whole reign and we cannot know whether he had already begun encouraging participation in the games from the aristocratic orders.
In 59, after the murder of Agrippina, Nero began experimenting (Tacitus, Annales 14.14-16). Some of that experimentation was literary and the Neronian age could be described as a second golden age of Latin literature. Interpreting the politics of that literature raises problems. But it was with architecture and theatrical events that Nero was most obviously controversial.
AD 59 saw him develop a hippodrome in the Vatican valley, so a little removed from Rome, where he could practise driving chariots hidden from public view. But soon he let the people in, a move which appears to have enhanced his popularity (Tacitus, Annales, 14. 14).
The next event was more radical. He instituted a set of game called the Iuvenalia, the Youth Games, to celebrate his shaving of his first beard. The games were a variegated spectacular, with theatrical shows, gladiatorial combats and chariot racing. Most attention focused on the theatrical event, but instead of having professional actors, Nero recruited members of the aristocracy (Tacitus, Annales 14.15). Towards the end of the event, he himself took the stage to sing. He was accompanied by soldiers and a claque of equestrians were recruited to cheer him on.
It is not clear what is happening here. Actors were not regarded as respectable people. They were not trusted. They were, nevertheless, very popular. It seems unlikely that Nero was setting out to humiliate the aristocracy. Instead, we are looking at a blurring of boundaries and traditional norms of behaviour. Aristocrats and the emperor were showing off their cultural sophistication. One of the stranger aspects was the recruitment of the elderly to participate, and an eighty-year-old matron danced in a pantomime (Dio, 61.19; Suetonius, Nero 11).
But if it was theatrical, it was also ceremonial. It was choreographed so that those present would acclaim their emperor. After Agrippina’s murder, the regime was shaken. But this was a public display of Nero’s adulthood: he no longer needed a mother. It was also a display of loyalty, both of Nero to the people and the people (including the aristocratic participants) to Nero. When emperor’s were in trouble, they staged spectacular events, reminding the powerful of their popularity and the weak of their power.
There is also a suggestion of illicit sexual activity, possibly orgiastic activity, linking cultural innovation and the politics of immorality.
The sources represent the Iuvenalia as a moment of shame for Rome. But in this, they must be retrojecting their moral views, because Nero clearly thought that the strategy had worked. The very next year, he did something very similar, he established the Neronia.
These were a new elaborate set of games on a Greek model established to celebrate Nero’s continuing power (Tacitus, Annales 14.20-21; Dio, 61.21). The event was to be restaged every four years. The event was held in a gymnasium established by Nero in the city.
All these events could be described as in some way private, but in 64 Nero took to the public stage in Naples (Suetonius, Nero 20; Tacitus, Annales 15. 33). Naples was a significant choice since it prided itself on its Greek origins and Greek culture. In 65, he restaged the Neronia. This appears to have been his first major theatrical recital. (Tacitus, Annales 16. 4–5; Suetonius, Nero 21). The following year, he probably entertained Tiridates of Parthia in 66 to a display of his singing and chariot-driving (Dio, 63. 1–6). before he crossed to Greece. In Greece, his performances were prize-winning, even when he fell from his chariot in one race. He completed his trip by freeing Greece from Roman sovereignty and granting Roman citizenship to the judges who had so generously awarded him first place. His return was celebratory. He entered Naples first, the scene of his debut, and then marched to Rome, the conquering artistic hero (Dio, 63. 8–10; 14, 20; Suetonius, Nero 22–5).
Some observers appear to have been confused by the exhibition. One soldier rushed to release him from the golden chains with which he was bound (Suetonius, Nero 21; Dio, 63. 10).
Such stories provide a clue to understand these events: the crowds observed their emperor, not the play. Nero remained Nero even when on stage. In case any failed to notice, Nero was sometimes accompanied onto stage by the praetorian prefects (Dio, 63. 9). Nero was connecting to his people. His people were showing their loyalty. Greece honoured the emperor. The theatre was the medium for this exchange.
Was such behaviour outrageous?