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The Madness of Nero (Penguin Epics) by…
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The Madness of Nero (Penguin Epics)

by Tacitus

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An Emperor's crimes provoke the wrath of the gods. Nero has seized control of Rome and the crown. He is willing to destroy anyone that gets in his way. No one is safe not even his scheming mother. As its new Emperor sinks to insane levels of brutality, Rome becomes a hell of corruption, depravity and vice. But dark omens hang over the city. Has the power-crazed Nero gone too far?
  Paul_Brunning | Apr 26, 2016 |
The Penguin Epics edition of The Madness of Nero comprises much of the final existing sections of Annals by Tacitus translated by Michael Grant. The Epics edition covers the period from the assassination of Claudius through to the end of Annals around 66AD in the reign of Nero. There are occasional editorial jumps from the original text so this is not merely a recreation of Annals. However, in the main The Madness of Nero translates Tacitus faithfully even if it is hard to work out exactly what is meant by a Roman Knight as Grant has the translation read. Perhaps the only unfaithful element of the work is the title. At no point during The Madness of Nero is there even an allusion to insanity. Tacitus criticises Nero repeatedly but that critique is not an indictment of Nero's mental state. The content is fine, the title is not.

The work starts with a map of Rome which is nice but adds limited value to the narrative. A brief note is a useful editorial insertion explaining the context in which Tacitus wrote. It also describes the sections that were removed for editorial reasons - all of which refer to major conflicts on the periphery of the Empire. The Madness of Nero is about Rome during Nero's time and is all about the political intrigue and the extraordinarily high price many Romans of rank paid for living during the time of a savagely brutal Emperor.

The opening chapter is the murder of Claudius. The starting point is a little confusing as it does not scan very well. This is probably due to the way in which Tacitus chose to write. His Annals are noted for being somewhat concise and terse. It is clear right from the start of the narrative in this work that Tacitus is describing facts that he has read. Apparently, Tacitus based much of his writings on the files from the Senate. This perhaps explains why so much activity appears to refer to litigation and senatorial process. That Tacitus has collated such information is fantastic for an historian. It does not make for an especially compelling narrative at times though. There are also a multitude of names for which academic study would be more appropriate. Manty of these names are simply not worth knowing of in the context of Nero's rule. Many minor Romans seem to have become embroiled in personal or legal disputes resulting in some penalty or other - mostly death or exile it seems. In a work dedicated to Nero's life, the significance of most of those who were exiled is at best limited.

What is fascinating is the massive power struggle clearly being engaged during Nero's time. There is obvious reason for this. Nero is outrageously brutal and his favour appears to be lost easily. The clearest such example of lost favour is Nero's teacher Seneca. Tacitus grants Seneca all manner of positive adjective to describe his oratorial accomplishment, describing at times the way in which Seneca put grand words into Nero's inelegant mouth. Great leaders are masters of spin and it would have been entirely right for Nero to have used a man who could voice Nero's intentions in the most appealing manner possible. After all, the accomplishments of Augustus were mostly public relations yet he was one of the most revered of all Rome's Emperors. Seneca is seemingly a key player early on in Nero's life but towards the end of The Madness of Nero, he has lost Nero's favour and eventually pays the ultimate price for that loss.

The enemies of Nero include his own mother Agrippina. Tacitus devotes quite some time to Agrippina and it is a chapter in this work as Nero plots to have her killed off seemingly by accident. That the accident does not succeed is highly comical despite the gravity of the situation. What is somewhat less comical is the lascivious description accorded to Agrippina. She is seemingly incestous and manipulative. The various scenes that Tacitus describes seem overly exaggerated for effect especially when Agrippina is involved. Tacitus is reporting the views of others in his work but the description of actual events do not often seem credible. Equally, Tacitus does not have convincing narratives when describing personal motives, especially when women are involved.

Tacitus is particularly keen to emphasise some allegedly humiliating behaviour that Nero displays - his love for music. The idea that Nero's great fault was his affinity for entertainment seems farcical yet it has stuck. Even the back cover of The Madness of Nero repeats this received wisdom that just does not seem to stand up to any form of objectivity. The back cover states that the Emperor's crimes provoke the wrath of the Gods. The crimes in question include his depravity and vice. There are two descriptions of Nero's vice - his dressing as a woman on one occasion and the list of sexual partners that one opponent allegedly composes. By pre-Christian Rome's standards, it does not appear that Nero is a purveyor of vice beyond what might conceivably be expected.

Nero's depravity is also questionable. Nero is famous for fiddling while Rome burned. Tacitus describes Nero's prediliction for music as being obscene. It is unconscionable that a high-born man would debase himself by performing in front of an audience. Quite why Tacitus goes to such lengths to use Nero's performing arts to discredit him is hard to discern. The idea that Nero might have been fiddling while Rome burnt implies that Nero was too busy with his own amusement to worry about the safety of his people. This does not fit the record that Tacitus portrays at all. Indeed, Tacitus ascribes a serious amount of concern and anxiety in Nero's response.

Nero's response includes one of the most famous elements of the work of Tacitus - that Nero blames the followers of Christ. In the context of this work it is an easily overlooked phrase as frankly it seems somewhat unremarkable in the more interesting machinations of Nero's rule. It is however a non-Christian reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. It would be entirely unremarkable were it not for the subsequent takeover of Rome by Christianity.

What is by far the most interesting aspect of The Madness of Nero is the brutality against the nobles and worthies of Rome by Nero, and the plotting in turn to overthrow him by those of status. Nero operates often within the law and his response to those he dislikes is rarely outright murder. Sometimes the response is murder but Tacitus describes numerous legal trials where Nero appears to not be the final arbiter. Reading between the lines secures an atmosphere of poisonous suspicion where no-one can be trusted and all are at high risk of death. Such a climate seems very much like that of the Soviet Union under Stalin where the power of the State could be turned on an individual seemingly at the whim of the ruler. In Nero's case he has the Senate to contend with and he does seem to contend quite well with them. Nero manages to get rid of many of his Senatorial opponents and he successfully eliminates a massive conspiracy to assassinate him.

That conspiracy is fascinating. It touches so many of those in various offices of the Roman State and speaks ably to any paranoia that Nero might have felt. Indeed, they were out to get him. Nero probably deserved to be assassinated given the high death toll his reign imposed upon Rome but it is not madness to have taken down a vast conspiracy.

Tacitus does not delve too deeply into the cruelties of the time. Some of the harder elements to take include the butchery of 200 or so household slaves as a form of collective punishment for the crime of one of them. The treatment of Seneca by Tacitus is sympathetic so when he reaches his end there is pathos. Generally though, Tacitus does not offer much in the way of humanity to those in his tale. Some are extraordinarily upright citizens of impeccable integrity while others are villains debased in varying degrees of criminality. There appear to be few people caught in the middle of the extremes of morality through which Tacitus appears to view the world.

The world of Tacitus is black and white. It is not populated by shades of grey and it does not offer nuance of insight. Tacitus certainly does not attempt to make the case for Nero's madness nor does he make a case for frivolous idleness. Instead, The Madness of Nero is filled with the politicking and butchery of a cruel and bad ruler. Without the external contexts from Germania, Armenia, and Britain there may be something missing in the translation. However, it is an excellent historical source to aid understanding of the times in which Nero lived. It is not a huge amount more than that but for its worth as a source, it is a valuable addition to the Penguin Epics collection. ( )
  Malarchy | Dec 27, 2011 |
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