REVIEW: Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, British Museum

This fascinating and detailed exhibition asks visitors to rethink what they thought they new about the Emperor.


When you think of the Roman Emperor Nero, you are most likely to think about him as a tyrant and madman who just sat back as Rome was destroyed in a fire, who persecuted his people and of course had his mother murdered. But this new exhibition aims to transform this view and argues that a lot of was said about Nero was perhaps not true.

This new British Museum is as you would expect, is meticulously filled with detail and fascinating facts that really immerse the visitor into Nero’s 14 year reign as Emperor – including the plenty of family drama that can actually be slightly overwhelming to keep up with. But equally, it is a display that feels very cynical about the reliability of the ancient writers who did what they could to discredit him as a leader, hinting at what they said was our equivalent to ‘fake news’ who preferred to focus on his political enemies (all of whom were jostling for power) and what they thought of his policies.

The story of Nero is filled with so much drama and extraordinary events that it is impossible not to be swept away by it all, particularly when it is all highlighted through so many dazzling objects, statues and other works that have clearly been selected with great care.

But it is also the way in which it has all been presented that also enhances the epic scale of this exhibition. In particular The Great Fire of Romes comes with dramatic sound effects and projections to highlight the devastation that the tragedy caused as well as a piece of fire-warped grating to capture the disaster. Elsewhere, Nero’s enjoyment of theatricality and performance is presented with great elegance with numerous figurines and objects to highlight his passion.

Just as intriguing are the numerous coins that are on display, with each of them also a powerful way of showcasing Nero’s story and his rise and fall. In particular, the early coins that were created during his rise also show the changing relationship with his mother Agrippina – and given her ending it feels extremely chilling to study these. There are plenty of other moments dotted throughout that show the contrasting sides of Nero’s reign – including a statue of a chubby little lamp-bearer asleep – but with the story alongside it of how a Senator was murdered by one of his household staff and that led to to all the enslaved members of his household were then executed – with Nero opting to uphold the law despite the protests of his people. But in contrast to this, the Parthian war moments show his diplomacy.

It is an exhibition that is certainly filled with plenty of drama and dazzling research and it does open up the question as to what Nero really was like as a leader. But in places, the way in which it has been laid out structurally feels a little muddled, particularly during the middle section of the display which seems to revert back to his relationship with the females in his life which deserved a bigger and more detailed section. However, it is still worth a visit as it really gets to the heart of this fascinating leader.

By Emma Clarendon

Nero: The Man Behind the Myth is on display at the British Museum until the 24th October.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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