Nero’s cultural policy was a break from the achievements of his predecessors. Looking back at the Julio-Claudians, we can see that each one developed their own particular ways of representing their power. Nero was more inventive than most.
The use of culture as a means of asserting power may seem puzzling to moderns: for us being actors, painters, musicians, novelists, and poets does not establish a qualification to rule. But high culture worked differently for the Romans: it was a mark of status.
In part, this was because only the rich could afford a high level of education. If being cultured (fluent in Latin and Greek literature, appreciative of art, etc.) was a mark of the respectable individual, then in its absence individuals could be excluded from authority and power. Culture could act as a ‘gate-keeper’ for entry into the elite. Each of Suetonius’ lives of the emperors has at least a paragraph on the literary and culture quirks of his subjects: this was not just meaningless tittle-tattle, but a discussion of the cultural status of the individuals concerned.
High culture was not mass-produced nor available for the masses. Books were few and communicated not just in writing, but also through recitation and conversation: literary or philosophical groups listened to each other’s efforts. Sometimes those efforts might be translated into books, and thus potentially made available to a wider audience. But books were expensive and remained so until the arrival of cheap printing in the modern age.
When we read the writings of Seneca, Lucan, Pliny, Tacitus, and other major literary figures, we need to remember that we have now idea how many people read their works; it seems likely that they wrote for a tiny audience of friends and contemporaries.
For Nero to be a respectable poet and orator was to show his education, his elite status, and his suitability for rule, which is why any allegation that his poems were composed by committee or by Seneca (Suetonius, Nero 52; Tacitus, Annales 13.3). Nor is it a measure of his levity that Nero might engage in poetic rivalries with Lucan (Tacitus, Annales 15.49), and that his court was filled with literary and philosophical figures.
But as a means of asserting status, literature could only reach to the elite: architecture and the theatre could speak to a much larger audience.
Architecture had been used by previous emperors to mark their place in the Roman landscape and show the people that the whole of Rome might benefit form their imperial power: the most notably builders had been Augustus and Claudius. Vespasian, Domitian, and Nerva were to follow a similar path.
The theatre offered Nero a much larger audience. The theatre saw the largest gatherings of the Roman people and allowed Nero to show himself and his cultural value before his people. The emperor who appeared before his people and basked in their appreciation was clearly a person of power. Those who wished to replace him, or even just to threaten him, could see a man who could break the rules and invent new ways of displaying power. Those displays were certainly effective. Emerging from the crisis that followed the murder of Agrippina, the regime found a new way of displaying its power.
But Rome was only one part of his domain: if he was to represent his power on stage, then it made sense to travel.
Yet, there are obvious problems:
- After fascism we have that grandiosity in architecture smacks of tyranny and totalitarianism. Would the Romans have thought the same?
- Nero on stage was a political performance. Was Nero displaying cultural excellence of political power? Was the applause that greeted his performances sincere?
- The stage was a place of pretence: who could tell what was real?
- Cultural performance is slippery and not always answerable to power. Nero had no monopoly on culture. Could cultural excellence be used against him?
- Nero needed choreographed demonstrations of support. He thus required members of the elite to participate. Those reluctant to participate were coerced. Rather than being a source of support, Nero’s theatrics could become a source of resentment, even if rather less deeply held than that resulted from the forced participation in other immoralities.
Ultimately, there is a question as to whether any of this cultural policy mattered. There was a brute materiality to Neronian power based on military power, massive wealth, and the ability to have others killed. Nero could no more hide that fact than his audiences could be be in ignorance of it.
Nero’s domination of culture was also a dangerous policy. Culture was not as easily controlled as armies. Writers don’t need armies.
How to subvert?
- Lucan’s Pharsalia paints the formation of imperial rule in an epic of blood and madness.
- Petronius has wild immoralities and cultural pretensions
- On being told that he must die, Petronius, informed of his death-sentence, responded with a letter detailing and satirising Nero’s sexual acts.
- Seneca’s philosophy of self-control could be read against his pupil’s notable lack of self-control.
- Thrasea Paetus and his fellow philosopher could just behave in accord with old-fashioned moral values and somehow fail to notice the moral atmosphere of the court.
It almost does not matter whether the authors intended their work to be read as political satire, if it could be read in that way (see Nero and Literature). Lucan might write an epic which depicted the madness of absolute power and that might look fine to an emperor and an aristocracy when the emperor was not evidently mad, but once Lucan is killed, then the poetry comes to be read in a different light. Once Petronius is killed, we see Nero in his anti-heroes. Once Seneca is martyred, then he can claim that all along he knew the evil of Nero, but what else was the philosopher to do?
At the theatre, one might Suetonius, Nero 23:
If one was brave enough, opposition was easily expressed. And how could the emperor react to a sleepy senator?
If the emperor wants to make new rules , all opponents needed to do was adhere to traditional Roman values. Politics is fought not just with money and armies, but with ideas. An idea with an army behind it is powerful indeed. But an idea that relies only on force to persuade is vulnerable.
Nero’s cultural policy can be seen as a battle for the heart and minds of Rome. But if was, Nero lost.