Nero, Emperor and Tyrant, in the Medieval French Tradition
By Glynnis M. Cropp
Florilegium, vol. 24 (2007)
Abstract: The emperor Nero is represented in the Middle Ages as a famous example of the cruel tyrant who abused imperial power. In vernacular French literature, various episodes of his life are related, on the basis of classical sources. While some of these individual instances have already been closely studied, this essay focuses on overall assessments of Nero and on two particular episodes which became connected in medieval literature and art: the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul, and Nero’s own death. Suetonius’s Vita, Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae, John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, Brunetto Latini’s Tresor, and the Legenda aurea are significant sources of material on Nero for French writers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Introduction: Nero ruled the Roman Empire from 54 to 68 CE, bringing to an end the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Perversely attractive and also thoroughly abhorrent, he evoked both positive and negative images. According to a popular saying, Nero fiddled while Rome burned; as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio recorded, he is reputed to have watched the fire from a high tower, reciting, perhaps to a lyre accompaniment, his own composition about the fall of Troy. This diverting performance exemplifies his propensity for spectacle and theatricality, characteristic of his style of rule. The artistic achievements of the emperor, both as patron and promoter of the arts and as actor, musician, and charioteer — glorified in some of his last words, “Qualis artifex pereo!” (What an artist dies in me!) — are, however, overshadowed by the image of Nero as the cruel tyrant who displayed extraordinary munificence, sought and needed flattery, indulged all his instincts unrestrainedly, and was deluded by his own acting in the imperial role, abusing the freedom of power he claimed. He wished to excel and, as Miriam T. Griffin notes, “he pursued the image of [. . .] the magnificent monarch, rather than that of the civilis princeps.” At least during his first quinquennium, 54-58 CE, when his advisers, Seneca and Burrus, had effective control, political order prevailed. By the time of the great fire of Rome, in 64 CE, for which, as history has shown, Nero was not personally responsible, he had been involved in the death of the emperor Claudius, his step-father, whom he succeeded, had ordered the deaths of his step-brother Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, and Octavia, his wife and step-sister, and had had senators and patricians put to death for their wealth or their potential threat to his unbridled power. In 65 CE, possibly to divert attention from his own unpopularity, he instigated the persecution of Christians in Rome. This led to the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul.