John F. Drinkwater

CUP (2019) h/b 449pp £32.99 (ISBN 9781108472647)

D. is Professor Emeritus of Roman Imperial History at the University of Nottingham. Most of his academic work has related to the Late Roman Empire, but in retirement he has switched his attention to the early emperors. In his youth he watched an early story line of Doctor Who, in which Nero was represented as seriously deranged, but felt instinctively that this must have been a distortion of the real facts. Here is his attempt to put the case more fairly.

He argues that Nero was, at least initially, intelligent and well intentioned, but with no desire to become a successful general and limited enthusiasm as an administrator. Instead his overriding ambition was to win ‘The Voice’ and to become a modern celebrity. He was therefore content for the Empire to be run on his behalf by an able team of advisers. 

There is an important chapter in the book which examines the role and make–up of this consilium. This body operated in much the same way as the Privy Council under Elizabeth 1 with a similar approach to the observance of the rule of law and a willingness to take decisions subject to the known enthusiasms of the Emperor. The consilium was, however, drawn from a considerably larger group of advisers, more fluid in its daily composition and probably more factional than its Tudor equivalent.

D. then examines in turn each of the accusations that are brought against Nero by his early biographers and finds most of them inaccurate, unfair or exaggerated. He is not the first historian to attempt this and he suffers from the same difficulty that each of them faces. Why did the early biographers paint the (? distorted) picture that they did and how, in the absence of an alternative literary source, can they be gainsaid other than subjectively?

D. uses indirect and circumstantial evidence to good effect. Apart from several examples of good administration, he can, for example, show that the participants in the Pisonian conspiracy were investigated bureaucratically and offered due process consistent with prevailing practice—an outcome more consistent with the consilium at work than a cruel and arbitrary Emperor. The demonising of the Christians after the fire can similarly be shown as likely to have been a device of the bureaucracy as of the Emperor. Even the death of Agrippina may have overtones of the death of Mary Queen of Scots.

This is not an entry book – the reader is expected to know the substance of the Pisonian conspiracy well before it is described in any detail. It is light on maps and other illustrations and has eleven pages of bibliography.

D. does not rehabilitate Nero as a serious leader—he remains at best a well-advised lightweight—but he does effectively challenge Nero’s reputation as a monster. He arguably does too little to explain why the early biographers wrote as they did and is therefore unlikely to overturn standard opinion overnight. Nonetheless he has provided a stimulating read and deserves to be taken seriously. 

Roger Barnes

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