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Nero and Literature

Nero’s Poetry

Nero was, seemingly, fond of reciting poetry or singing at dinner parties. This appears to have been unsual and to have drawn criticism, but it was perhaps not particularly eccentric. Probably slaves would normally have been delivered recitations, but at least some of the highly educated Roman elite may have performed on occasions. For instance, Thrasea Paetus, a paragon of conservative morality, had made a stage appearance in his hometown of Patavium, though perhaps in a semi-private or religious event (Dio, 62. 26; Tacitus, Annales 16. 21).

Nero also composed his own poetry. His aspirations were treated with contempt by Tacitus, as part of the moral failings of the regime. He adds that his verse was weak and was composed by committee  (Tacitus, Annales 14. 16). Suetonius (Nero, 52), who refers to Nero’s notebooks, suggests that Nero composed and amended the verse himself.

Whatever the quality of the poetry produced, Nero had a poetic circle and there were major literary talents around him.

The Literary Circle

The two most notable literary figures were Petronius and Lucan.

Petronius (Tacitus, Annales 16. 17–20) was, for a short time, at the centre of the court until he became a victim of the Pisonian conspiracy. His surviving work is an odd one, the Satyricon. It is a novel that tells of the escapades of a group of broke, hypocritical, corrupt, sexually adventurous, characters in Campania. The novel is pornographic in parts and distinctly voyeuristic, focusing not just on sexual perversity but also the conspicuous consumption of wealth in its most famous section, recounting Trimalchio’s dinner party. Reading it is an often uncomfortable experience.

What’s striking  is that many of the behaviours satirised in the novel are those which later traditions associated with Nero: rapacious and perverse sexual behaviour, cultural pretentiousness combined with a lack of cultural quality, and conspicuous consumption. If we didn’t know that Petronius was a central figure in the Neronian court, we would undoubtedly read the work as a stinging indictment of the regime and connect it to Petronius’ death.

Lucan is a similarly complicated figure. His great epic poem, Pharsalia sometimes called the Civil War, recounts the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. The book opens with a paean of praise for Nero and an assertion that all that is about to be recounted is justifiable since it leads to the present good fortune. Yet, the narrative is one of bloody madness and revolution. It gives us a lunatic Julius Caesar, bent on universal destruction, a Pompey weak and despairing, turning away eventually from public life in Rome, and a nihilistic Cato, seemingly welcoming the world’s end.

. The poem would again seem to comment on Nero, but Lucan was the nephew of Seneca and was thus himself likely at the heart of Nero’s court and we have to wonder how could it at the time have been read in such a way?

Lucan was also killed in the aftermath of the Pisonian conspiracy.

Three key points emerge.

  • Literary activity was in itself a perfectly proper career for a young aristocratic Roman male.
  • Nero’s court was likely a place of great cultural sophistication.
  • The reading of Nero’s court as a den of immorality, sexual perversion, and megalomania vice has to be nuanced by the contemporary literature produced at the court which critiques just such activities.



And then there was Seneca. Seneca was also at the centre of the court and probably responsible for drafting Nero’s speeches and establishing his political stance.

Alongside his political activities, he maintained an impressive output of  philosophical treatises. His work ranged between ethical and political philosophy. He was a stoic and the stoic were particularly concerned with issues of rationality. They were worried about emotion, which had the potential to cloud rational thought. The wise man was the one who could engage without being driven by emotion. Seneca wrote on the problem of emotions, notably in his treatise On Anger (de Ira). Rationality was what divided the human from the animal, but also provided criteria by which one can divide humans: women and barbarians were more prone to irrational passions (such as anger and grief) than proper men and the ideal philosopher/leader was someone who could regard problems without emotion.

Seneca’s  de Clementia [On Clemency] could be read as guidance for the very young emperor. The work places great emphasis on the moral behaviour of the emperor, giving the emperor a leadership position in Roman society in which the political tone is set from the imperial court. The exercise is controversial. Clemency seems a good thing, but it operates by using the extreme power of the emperor to negate the law. It is law that is traditionally seen as the mark of a free state. Seneca’s reading of political morality placed very little emphasis on issues of freedom and did not look to Rome’s Republic for political guidance. Virtue was imperial and depended on the wisdom and philosophical discipline of the emperor.

The contradiction between the emperor’s reputation and the moralism of his adviser was stark in antiquity. But once more, there is no reason to believe that Nero did not take his philosophical interests seriously. That Seneca ended as an oppositional figure and was forced to commit suicide does not obscure the fact that he was close to the regime throughout its early period. His last acts were to render himself a philosopher-martyr, standing out against the tyranny of a monstrous emperor. But for most of his career, he had been happily in imperial service. The problem even at the last was not the regime, but the emperor.

Philosophers and Opposition

We see in the reigns of Claudius and Nero the emergence of an oppositional group. This group was active throughout the Flavian period, causing Vespasian and Domitian significant problems. They are associated with philosophy.

In the Neronian period, they are connected to a group around Thrasea Paetus. The problem  for historians, however, is that it is not clear what part philosophy played in the oppositional group. Many Romans had some level of philosophical education and engagement, though the abstract elements of the philosophical sometimes caused Romans concern. Indeed, Suetonius (Nero, 52) suggests that Agrippina had tried to put him off philosophy and directed his literary interests towards poetry. Seneca and no doubt others who were philosophically inclined were able to co-operate with the regime when Thrasea Paetus found involvement difficult. There was nothing in the main philosophical doctrines which in themselves would have been republican. Indeed, the influence of stoicism would have suggested that an ideal government was that of the wise man, a view entirely compatible with monarchy.

What stoic philosophy did, however, provide was a discipline. It taught people not to think of themselves, but to say and act in the right way, rationally and free of emotion. This meant also freedom from fear. As a consequence, men and women could display their philosophical learning and status by not being afraid of the emperor and by being out-spoken in his presence.

Rome’s monarchy depended on adjustments and doublespeak. Honesty was not always politically wise and did not reduce tensions. In fact, it seems possible that the breech between the philosophers and the emperor was not so much ideological as behavioural.

There were prominent men and women surrounding Thrasea, such as Helvidius Priscus, L. Junius Arulenus Rusticus, Curtius Montanus, possibly Musonius Rufus, himself a noted philosopher,  and Barea Soranus. But they were not a political party, more of a group of families and friends.

Thrasea was an irritation for Nero. In 62, he led the senate in proposing exile rather than death for Antistius Sosianus, which provoked Nero into writing a note that confirmed the senate’s right to do as it pleased  (Tacitus, Annales 14. 48–9). Thrasea was excluded from the celebrations that surrounded the birth of Nero’s daughter in 63 (Tacitus, Annales 15. 23), a sure sign of lack of friendship. But even after 63, friends of Thrasea continued in their political careers and held office. It was in 66, as the reign began to disintegrate, that Thrasea was ordered to suicide. He died a martyr (Tacitus, Annales 16. 2135).


We need to take Nero’s literariness seriously. His cultural engagement appears to have been serious and sophisticated. He had leading talents in his court. One must suspect that his sponsorship of literature was part of an attempt to achieve cultural excellence for his regime.

We need also to rethink the relationship between culture and morality. If the poets satirised behaviours we regard as Neronian, and the philosophers looked to disciplined morality, then the distance between conventional Roman morals and the Neronian court may not have been so great.

If nothing else, Nero’s engagement with literature alerts us to a court that was intelligent and sophisticated and warns us away from attributing the disasters of Nero’s regime to imperial moral and intellectual failings.


Politics of Culture                                Death of Seneca               Pisonian Conspiracy

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