Performance has always been a part of politics. From a reality TV star in the White House to a man who likes nothing better than clowning on a zipwire, that has been all too evident over the last eight years. To draw parallels between such contemporary figures and Roman emperors might seem a stretch, but the way in which Nero, for instance, approached the role of leader can shed a surprising light on our world today, consumed as we are by questions of authenticity.
One of Nero’s favourite hobbies was acting. This passion apparently started behind the palace walls with some elite amateur dramatics and operatic recitals in front of friends, but it soon developed into full-blown public performances. He would put on a medley of greatest hits from some of the best known plays and shows of the ancient world, accompanied only by a handful of extras to feed him his lines, or a small backing group. The emperor was never likely to be satisfied with playing even the lead part among a cast of regular actors. The spotlight had to be on him alone.
Nero’s first major show was staged in AD64 in Naples, a city he chose for his debut because it was known as an arty place, and well away from the censorious eyes of the senators. It didn’t go without a hitch, though – the theatre collapsed immediately after he had finished. Many took this as a sign that the gods were making known their disapproval of such antics. Nero saw it differently. The fact that there had been no casualties in the disaster, and that he had been able to finish his set, was proof that the gods were on his side. Within a few years he was often on the public stage in Rome itself – where archaeologists (with their usual dash of wishful thinking) have recently claimed to identify his purpose-built theatre, underneath the garden of a new Four Seasons hotel.
Finally in AD67, towards the end of his reign, he took his talents to Greece. There, as athlete, chariot racer and actor, he competed in all the Greek games, coming first in every competition he entered. Roman writers, from satirists to serious historians, were vocal in their opposition to all this. What had Rome come to, when its leader was prepared to sacrifice his dignity by taking to the boards? Other critics pointed to the unsuitable roles that Nero chose to take on. Was it really appropriate for the emperor to play the part of a destitute beggar, or – one of his particular favourites – Canace in Labour, a tragic heroine who gave birth to her brother’s child before stabbing herself when their incest was exposed?
Spectators were not allowed to leave the theatre while the emperor was performing – some people pretended to be dead in order to get carried out
They also objected to the agonies that Nero inflicted on his audiences. Spectators were apparently not allowed to leave the theatre while the emperor was performing, with the result that some pregnant women gave birth in their seats (an unsettling accompaniment to Canace in Labour, I would imagine), while other people pretended to be dead in order to get carried out. The future emperor Vespasian, when he was still just a regular courtier, was reputedly banished from the emperor’s circle because he had made the terrible mistake of nodding off during one of the performances.
It was perhaps even more awkward for the judges in those Greek competitions, both theatrical and sporting. What were they supposed to do when their ruler was one of the competitors? It was understandable that they decided simply to declare him the winner of every event he entered, but it was at the cost of making themselves look very foolish – especially when he was awarded the first prize in a chariot race that he did not even finish.
How many of these stories are true is hard to know. Some of them may be (it’s not worth trying to pretend that the emperor was entirely faultless). But if Vespasian really was banished from Nero’s circle thanks to his unfortunate doze, his exclusion didn’t last long. For the emperor very soon gave him a major military command in Judaea, from where he made his own successful bid for the throne. In any case, none of the hostile anecdotes were written during Nero’s lifetime. Surely some people who had flocked eagerly to see the emperor’s shows and offered rapturous applause afterwards claimed that they had only attended under compulsion. It has always been the skill of collaborators to change their tune when it becomes politically convenient – and most Romans were collaborators.
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There is however, a different – and more important – kind of truth embedded in these stories of Nero’s passion for acting, beyond the question of whether they are strictly accurate or not. Curious anecdotes such as these were common currency in Rome because they pointed to bigger debates and anxieties lurking just below their surface – about politics, imperial power and the role of the emperor himself. They raised the question of how much of a charade the whole political system was. And they hinted that the emperor might be little more than an actor anyway – while his long-suffering subjects were rather like an audience penned up and unable to escape.
We are not the first generation to wonder quite how genuine our leaders are. Was it the “real” Rishi Sunak we saw filling up a cheap car at a supermarket, or a not very convincing impersonation of a man of the people? Nor are we the first to wonder whether some of our leaders simply spout their lines from a script written by someone else – adding up to little more than convenient fiction, if not blatant lies. That’s perhaps why these ancient stories speak to us too.
The anecdotes circulated about Nero were particularly rich and nuanced. For a start, the boundary between the emperor and his acting parts was shown to be a significantly blurry one. Some of those roles, like that of the destitute beggar, did present an awkward clash with his own high status. But many, in different ways, were all too uncomfortably close to the emperor. That was certainly the case with another of his favourite cameo roles, The Blinding of Oedipus – the story of the mythical Greek king who murdered his father and married his mother, before blinding himself when he realised what he had done. It would have been hard to miss the similarity with Nero here – who in the Roman rumour machine was alleged to have been at least complicit in the murder of his adopted father, the emperor Claudius, and then to have had an affair with his mother, Agrippina. The real awkwardness was not that Nero was acting down. It was that he was playing himself – as if Boris Johnson took a TV role as a posh bounder with an unspecified number of children.
That point was underlined by the unusual masks that the emperor adopted for his shows. It was normal in the ancient world for actors to wear highly stylised creations with different expressions for tragedy and comedy. But these were not the masks that Nero wore. Sometimes he had masks made that aped his own recognisable features. In other words, he played the part of the most famous incestuous son in mythology, looking exactly like himself. So how could you ever tell the difference between the emperor and his stage character? Where did real politics end and play-acting start? It was a problem posed 150 years later by the Greek sophist Philostratus. What, he wondered, separated an actor who played a tyrant on stage and then wanted to become a tyrant in real life from a tyrant in real life, like Nero, who wanted to play a tyrant on stage? The awful black hole at the centre of Roman autocracy was that it was always as hard to tell an emperor from an actor, as it can sometimes be for us.
The most poignant version of these dilemmas is found earlier in Nero’s reign, on this occasion when the emperor was off stage, though still play-acting. Like many notorious monarchs since, another of his reported hobbies was to go out in disguise with his mates, carousing around the seedy bars of Rome, blind drunk and picking fights. On one occasion, he bumped into a senator, Julius Montanus, who was taking an evening stroll with his wife. Nero, wigged and camouflaged, made a rough pass at the wife, which prompted Montanus to belt him and leave the emperor with a black eye. All would probably have been well if Montanus, realising who his victim must have been, had not written to Nero to apologise. When he read the letter, the emperor simply said: “So he knew he was hitting Nero.” This reaction was conveyed to Montanus, who promptly killed himself rather than wait for the emperor’s hit squad. What was his crime? To have spotted the real emperor through the play-acting and to have upset the fragile balance between politics and charade.
In ancient Rome, performance on the stage was a repeated metaphor for imperial power itself, rightly or wrongly exercised. One classic case is the well-known story of Nero at the great fire of Rome in AD64, “fiddling while Rome burns”. Versions of this still appear regularly in cartoons across the world, to satirise a politician whose mind is not on the job in the middle of a crisis – from Jair Bolsonaro and Joe Biden to a toga-clad Barack Obama, heading off to the golf course while Washington DC “burns” under the mounting national debt. The ancient message of the story was different. Nero, it was said, watched the conflagration from a good vantage point, dressed in stage costume and singing a song about the destruction of Troy, while accompanying himself on the lyre. It was not a question of simply having fun while Rome went up in flames. Worse, he was treating the burning city as if it were a stage set for his show. A national crisis had become just part of the scenery (think of the photo opportunities with a tank that most politicians now seize when they visit a war zone).
But Nero was not the only focus of these stories. Over hundreds of years the character of emperor after emperor was debated in terms of theatre, pretence and play-acting. More than a century after Nero’s death, the supposedly monstrous emperor Elagabalus (whose vices, including human sacrifice, made Nero’s look fairly innocent) disrupted the boundary between reality and theatre in a different way. It was said that, as a member of the audience, he always insisted that when adultery was depicted on stage, it should be carried out for real. It would certainly have made for a raunchier show. But more than that, it was a reminder that the power of an autocrat was partly the power to confuse what was real (or true) with what was just an act. When you were close to the emperor, how could you tell the difference between truth and falsehood?
In fact, this preoccupation with acting and performance went right back to the beginning of one-man-rule in Rome, and to good emperors as well as bad. The logic was enshrined by Augustus, the first emperor and the founding father of the imperial system, on his deathbed in AD14. The last reported words of Roman rulers are often revealing. Nero shrieked “What an artist dies in me” just before he stabbed himself. Claudius bathetically cried “Blimey, I think I’ve shat myself”, as the poison administered by his wife did its work. Augustus instead had his hair combed and quoted a snatch of verse: “Since I’ve played my part well, clap your hands and dismiss me from the stage with applause.” It was the first formulation of emperor as actor.
Rulers and politicians may have to be good actors. Nero was perhaps right about that. But all those colourful ancient anecdotes expose one particular nightmare, which is as relevant to us as to the Romans: that citizens may discover that their rulers are nothing more than actors, and that you can’t believe a word they say.
• Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World by Mary Beard is published by Profile (£30). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. She will be discussing the emperors with Charlotte Higgins at a Guardian Live event in Manchester and online on 18 October. Tickets can be booked at: theguardian.com/guardianlive