That Nero, the infamous fifth Roman Emperor (37–68AD), has a bad reputation is undisputed. He has been portrayed as a tyrannical, mysogynistic, meglamaniac who fiddled while Rome burnt and was responsible for his own mother's death. The exhibition at the British Museum calls this out as 'fake news' and sets about debunking the 'myth' that has grown up around him. Sure enough, the show has little of the lurid detail of his excesses, debauchery and the cruelty for which he was notorious.
What this exhibition is, is a wonderful window on to wider Roman society and a narrative that illustrates how popular Nero was in his era, particularly with the underclass with whom he was keen to show his concern for their well-being. We learn that he distributed coins (money) to the people of Rome; he lowered taxes; built public baths; staged grand circuses at which he handed out bread and – far from fiddling while Rome burnt – he was an ambitious architect who was not even there when the flames took hold.
There are more that 200 artefacts on display— they range from an entire family tree translated into classical statues to a scrap of graffiti preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius. There are some fascinating objects: whether that be jewellery, real teeth, slave's chains or armour.
We think most younger children (or any one without previous knowledge!) will need a bit of prep to understand how and why history has portrayed Nero as evil (the evidence for this side of the argument is not on show here). Children will certainly need more information if they are to answer the final question on one of the purple boards (aimed at the younger audience) which asks, " Do you think he was a good emperor who served the Roman empire well? Or do you believe ancient writers' claims that he was a bad emperor?" But to be honest, we're not convinced the non-interactive boards are going to particularly engage any modern child we know anyway. Far better to bring some drawing things along and soak it all up. For the older child or one who is studying classics we think there will be much to get their teeth into and a great opportunity to witness this period of Roman history being brought to life.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth
British Museum, London WC1
27 May to 24 October
Book tickets at britishmuseum.org
Anya Waddington 26 May 2021