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How important is theatricality and spectacle to Nero

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The earliest mentions of spectacle in the book are of Nero’s ancestors. The incident of the gain of their bronze beard gave his family a distinctive appearance, and also associated them with the gods, a spectacle like no other. However, despite this benefit, the detriments held against his family are far worse, appearing more to be making a spectacle of you than creating something that people want to see for positive reasons. Chapter 2 gives us the first of the negative images we receive of Nero’s ancestors.

One of his ancestors having paraded on an elephant, as though celebrating a triumph without deserving one, was a poor infliction, but showed similarity to Nero’s character, as Nero later wears triumphal dress in chapter 12 when the Armenian king prostrates in front of him. This would have been beneficial to Suetonius’ presentation of Nero’s life because it develops Nero’s character in a way which shows his vice of pride and his need to feel important above all others; but mostly being willing to humiliate others of high rank to fell this. Continuing to chapter 5; the main focus is the vices of his father.

Having killed a boy whilst driving through a village and gouging out the eye of someone who challenged him in the court, the chapter outlines the vices which Nero shares with his ancestors, this would have been speculated about in Roman times because it appears to this point that the vices of Nero’s family get progressively worse as the generations continue. This would have been more beneficial to Suetonius’ development of Nero’s character because it shows a negative light and associates Nero with cruelty. Furthermore, it is also stated that he altered the prize money, and rules surrounding, of the chariot races.

This however, would not have been such an important part of Nero’s life as it is to Suetonius’ telling of it, because Nero was adopted into a well off family. The main sign of theatricality in the earliest pages of the book are in chapter 6 at Nero’s birth. This seems almost like a parallel to Nero’s death. In chapter 6, Nero’s birth is described in a glorified way, as if a scene was being set by an orator at the beginning of a play, but at the end of the book in chapter 49, Nero uses many phrases theatrically, despite it being simpler to speak in normal speech.

Examples of these are, ‘Hark to the sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses. ‘ And at his death, it is said that his final words were, ‘Oh what an artist dies with me. ‘ This being somewhat curious as many would consider the role of emperor as their most prestigious achievement, and it could easily be expected that whilst dying alone, with only servants around him, Nero would choose this as his last reference to his life. This statement shows how important and how passionately he enjoyed his theatre during his lifetime.

Suetonius then goes on, in chapter 7 to put a positive light on Nero’s life by describing the gifts he gave after his maiden speech at the forum. Although it was not unusual to give large gifts after an event like this, Nero also led a ceremonial march of the guards, which people would have gone to see as it wasn’t an everyday occurrence. This chapter we see the first reference to the lavish games Nero held, both in his own name and others, when he holds a games in celebration of his marriage to Octavia and to wish Claudius good health.

When Claudius died, Nero gave him a lavish funeral, but only after he had received every honour the senate could possibly place on him other than one, this would have been a spectacle as the emperor would have been expected to be modest about his greatness and it also shows his selfishness. However, it says that he ‘gave Claudius a lavish funeral, at which he delivered the oration in person. ‘ This would have seemed the correct thing to do, but, it is said that Nero mocked his dead adoptive father, which makes this seem like it was merely a spectacle to gain him popularity among the people of Rome.

In chapter 10, we hear that Nero presents the commons with forty gold pieces each and settled the salaries of some senators to 5,000 gold pieces each, and granted the guards cohorts a free monthly issue of grain. All of these gifts are on a lavish scale and Suetonius makes them seem even more of a spectacle by placing them all next to each other in the same paragraph. This chapter also gives an insight to Nero’s theatricality as it tells of Nero’s giving of poems both at home and in the Theatre, which would also be a spectacle as emperors would not typically have been involved in performance.

Chapter eleven tell of Nero’s generosity, which was at such a grand and lavish scale that it would have been a spectacle. Just a few of these entertainments were, ‘coming of age parties, chariot races, stage plays, a gladiatorial show’ these were made even more unusual by his persuading elderly ladies and members of the senate to attend coming of age parties, and four camel chariots were raced at the circus.

Gifts were showered upon those attending the festivals, including birds, food parcels, and vouchers for grain, cloth, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, transport animals, and trained wild beasts. These gifts were all incredibly lavish and at a time when great expense had been made to pay for the entertainment, making Nero all the more popular. Also, he not only held games and festivals, but also created his own festival called the Neronia, where there were competitions in music, gymnastics and horsemanship.

This shows Nero’s theatricality also, because of the involvement of arts. All of these things show theatricality and spectacle in Nero’s life, of which all were important to Nero’s life as it made him the centre of attention a lot of the time. Also, these things were important to Suetonius’ portrayal of Nero because it also shows how unusual he was. What would have been a huge spectacle was Nero’s standing on the alteration to the consulship procedures.

Although Nero openly opposed Caninus Rebilus’ one day consulship, he altered the times of the consulships to six months from a year, in order to allow less competition between praetors. This would have been frowned upon because it made it much easier to become consul and therefore, made more families noble, faster. It seems that Nero worked incredibly hard to develop his theatrical skills, chapter 20 onwards describing his training processes for singing.

However, it seems that despite this training Nero was only confident enough to perform on Greek stages and it took him a long time to move on to performing in Roman theatres. Possibly the biggest spectacle in relation to his theatricality was the roles which Suetonius lists. All of the examples describe some parallel between the role and Nero’s own life. For example, Canace in Childbirth is parallel because of the difficult birth he had, as he was breach; Orestes the Matricide, as Nero had his own mother killed.

This probably would have been speculated on, and it would give more insight to Nero’s life had Suetonius told us whether he played these roles before or after the parallel event in his life. The final thing I wish to comment on in relation to Nero’s theatricality is the huge spectacle that he would have caused by his wearing of masks modelled on his own face, or on women who he cared about. This would have caused a huge shock because the only time people wore masks modelled on other people’s faces was at their funeral, as death masks.

In wearing these masks he almost tempted fate by giving himself a death mask. This ultimately describes Nero’s ability to shock people both through the simple fact that he participated in theatre and through the thing he did which were even more extraordinary when he performed. I think that the theatrical side of Nero’s life almost defined him as this is where he caused the most spectacle. I think that both of these were incredibly important to both Nero in his own lifetime, and Suetonius’ portrayal of him.

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