Sometimes people can go down in history with such a legacy that it’s hard to remember they were once a real person. Hero or tyrant, they take on such mythic proportions that you don’t know what’s real or not – and it doesn’t help that most powerful people throughout history had very good PR machines (ahem, Alfred the Great) and some very flattering artists on the payroll (yes, Henry VIII, we're looking at you).
The Spanish art project Césares de Roma has been creating lifelike sculptures of Rome’s most famous emperors to make them feel more real, and now it’s Nero’s turn, though this new rendering may surprise you.
Rome’s cruelest tyrant, mass murderer, and all-round bad guy or much-misunderstood leader? Well, there are no actual contemporary records of Nero (possibly because he had Rome’s two greatest thinkers at the time, his advisors Seneca the Younger and Burrus murdered), so most of what we know is based on Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio, writing 50 years after his reign. Charges against him include – though are not limited to – murdering his mother, his aunt, his step-brother, his wife, the pregnant mistress he left her for, burning down most of Rome and blaming Christians for it, resulting in more murder.
Does this look like the face of a guy who could do all that?
(If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking isn’t that Ori, the dwarf with the worst haircut in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit?)
So, is it accurate?
It’s difficult to know. The Spanish artist used contemporary busts and coins of Nero, though few sculptures survived after he was declared an enemy of the Senate after his downfall, and many were recut to resemble later rulers. Descriptions of what he looked like from the biography of Nero written by Roman historian Suetonius were also used, though he was only born in 69 CE, a year after Nero’s death.
There are classic sculptures that do indeed show a rather jowly jawline and questionable neckbeard. Suetonius also described him as gray/blue-eyed, though he also called him subflavo, blond-haired.
The red hair possible comes from Nero’s name before he was adopted by his uncle, then-emperor Claudius, and made heir to the throne: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Ahenobarbus in Latin means “red-bearded”.
Young Lucius became the fifth Roman emperor, under the name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, in 54 CE at the age of 17.
What followed was 14 years of decadence, destruction, and debauchery – and lots of murder. Nero was vain, seeing himself as an artist and an athlete, entering the Olympic Games, and even "winning" the chariot race, despite falling out of the chariot. He has been blamed for starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE that destroyed most of the city, and "fiddling" while Rome burned (although fiddles weren't invented yet), though historians now refute he started the fire. When Rome turned on him, he purportedly blamed the Christians for the fire and slaughtered many in a series of grotesque executions (he also loved theatre). He may have tried to innovate the economy for the better, but in the end he made too many enemies, and after an army revolt and learning the Senate planned to execute him, attempted suicide, though had to get someone else to do the deed, and died in 68 AD, forever going down in history as one of Rome's most hated rulers.
According to the Césares de Roma website, they are tackling Caligula next, so we have that to look forward to.