Monthly Archives: September 2016
If asked to think of a single individual who epitomises the decadence, destruction and debauchery of Ancient Rome, the name Nero would surely be on many people’s lips.
Attaining power in A.D. 54 at the tender age of 16, over the next 14 years Nero allegedly murdered his two wives, his mother, and his aunt while also marrying two different men and sleeping with his mother and a Vestal Virgin.
As if these sexcapades and murders weren’t enough to keep the youthful emperor busy, he is also supposed to have set fire to Rome, played (or fiddled) while the city burned, and then blamed the Christians in order to deflect attention from himself. The image of the capricious and crazed Nero is immortalised in films and TV series such as Quo Vadis and I, Claudius, not to mention in the computer software Nero Burning ROM.
But are any of these stories that feed our popular conception of the emperor Nero actually true? We’d like to tackle two of the most pervasive misunderstandings about Nero’s reign – that he was responsible for setting fire to Rome and that he had a sexual relationship with his mother, Agrippina the Younger.
These tales can be found in our ancient historical sources (all of which were written at least a generation after Nero’s death) but should not be taken at face value. This is because they are reported by sources as rumours, rather than facts.
Did Nero set fire to Rome?
Nero had a reputation as an arsonist even in antiquity, with rumours that he started the Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 appearing in the histories of Tacitus and Cassius Dio and the biography of Nero by Suetonius. While most scholars now agree that Nero was not responsible for the fire, the modern-day rumour mill (as represented by the Internet) is loath to exonerate the emperor.
There are two reasons usually given for why Nero set fire to Rome. The first is that he was a mad megalomaniac who burned down the city simply because he could. There is a story told by Suetonius that when a man said to Nero, ‘When I am dead, let the earth be consumed by fire’, the emperor replied, ‘No, while I live!’
The second reason often proffered is that Nero wanted to rebuild Rome according to his own plans, which included a sumptuous new residence for himself, the “Golden House” (Domus Aurea). There is a modern myth that the new palace was built solely for parties and orgies.
If we examine our historical accounts closely, the only evidence for Nero the arsonist comes from rumour and hearsay. This is freely admitted by the historian Tacitus: even though Nero was out of Rome when the fire started, a rumour spread that the emperor had sung of the destruction of Troy from his palace stage.
Cassius Dio describes chaos in the streets as the fire took hold, as people ran about asking each other how the blaze started. In such a desperate situation, without reliable channels of information, it is easy to see how rumours could start.
Did Nero commit incest with his mother?
Nero has not only earned an undeserved reputation as an arsonist, but also as an incestuous deviant. His alleged sexual antics with his mother Agrippina have earned him a place on a list of the “most sexually depraved things Romans ever did” and in news stories about his “pleasure palace”. As with the story of the Fire of Rome, this image of Nero derives solely from ancient rumours, not from facts.
The Roman people loved to speculate about the emperors and their sex lives. One story involves Nero and his mother being carried through Rome in a litter (a portable couch concealed by curtains), only for the emperor to emerge with suspicious stains on his clothes. People started to whisper that the pair had been doing more than reviewing imperial legislation behind the curtains.
Even more scandalous was the fact that the emperor took a mistress who turned out to be the spitting image of his mother – a situation which got tongues wagging throughout Rome.
These rumours can be explained as responses to an unusual political situation. Nero was only 16 when he was acclaimed emperor, and his mother Agrippina asserted herself as the emperor’s guardian by appointing men loyal to her in key positions. Her extraordinary influence is demonstrated by contemporary coins with busts of both the emperor and his mother on the “heads” side. This coin made Agrippina look like she was Nero’s equal.
Agrippina’s unprecedented position was the subject of continual speculation throughout the city of Rome, according to Cassius Dio, because the people could not obtain accurate information about affairs inside the palace. Without reliable information, rumours spread based on cultural preconceptions: in the Roman world, it was believed that a woman could not exert political power unless it was gained by underhanded or immoral means.
One particularly pervasive rumour developed after Agrippina began to lose influence over Nero, as he began to pay more attention to his comely courtier Poppaea Sabina. Agrippina allegedly dressed herself up to the nines and propositioned her son as he lay in a drunken stupor after a long liquid lunch.
Cassius Dio remarked:
Whether this actually occurred, now, or whether it was invented to fit their character, I am not sure.
The fact that our ancient historians do not believe such tales should give us pause.
The purpose of rumour
Sociological studies of rumours have shown that they develop in situations when people do not have good information to explain current events. The rumour that Nero started the fire of Rome can be explained as an attempt by people to make sense of a confused, traumatic situation during which little or no official information about what actually happened was available.
The sight of the Domus Aurea being built so soon after the fire undoubtedly fanned the flames of rumour, pointing the finger at the emperor himself. The same point can be made about Nero’s alleged incestuous relationship with his mother. The stories about the sexual relationship developed as a way of explaining both Agrippina’s extraordinary power and prominence as well as her fall from favour.
Our ancient sources are clear about the fact that they are reporting rumours and innuendo. Suetonius, the biographer of Nero, reports that the emperor was merely thought to have desired his mother, but was persuaded not to act on his feelings. Similarly Tacitus reveals that, while some believed in the rumour that Nero started the fire, there were also those who did not.
If our ancient authors knew these stories were just rumours, why did they record them? There are various reasons for this. There was certainly a tradition in ancient historiography of reporting different versions of events and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. The stories are also very entertaining: we should never forget that these histories and biographies were designed to bring pleasure to their readers.
Finally, the salacious rumours served a political purpose. An emperor’s sex life was not simply juicy gossip for the masses: his private peccadilloes were believed to reflect the character of his government. Rumours, even if ultimately untrue, helped to define the expectations of a good emperor in the minds of the readers.
Slightly different motivations underlie the circulation of these rumours about Nero as facts in the modern world. They are enjoyable and entertaining to read, appealing to our cultural preconceptions of ancient Rome and its emperors as corrupt and morally bankrupt.
But perhaps most significantly, they enable us to impose a moral distance between ourselves and our ancient forebears. Making the past seem strange and unfamiliar helps to forget that the same problems still exist in the present.
Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, The University of Queensland
It is September 27, 1956. At a dusty site called One Tree, in the northern reaches of the 3,200-square-kilometre Maralinga atomic weapons test range in outback South Australia, the winds have finally died down and the countdown begins.
The site has been on alert for more than two weeks, but the weather has constantly interfered with the plans. Finally, Professor Sir William Penney, head of the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, can wait no longer. He gives the final, definitive go-ahead.
The military personnel, scientists, technicians and media – as well as the “indoctrinee force” of officers positioned close to the blast zone and required to report back on the effects of an atomic bomb up close – tense in readiness.
And so, at 5pm, Operation Buffalo begins. The 15-kilotonne atomic device, the same explosive strength as the weapon dropped on Hiroshima 11 years earlier (although totally different in design), is bolted to a 30-metre steel tower. The device is a plutonium warhead that will test Britain’s “Red Beard” tactical nuclear weapon.
The count reaches its finale – three… two… one… FLASH! – and all present turn their backs. When given the order to turn back again, they see an awesome, rising fireball. Then Maralinga’s first mushroom cloud begins to bloom over the plain – by October the following year, there will have been six more.
RAF and RAAF aircraft prepare to fly through the billowing cloud to gather samples. The cloud rises much higher than predicted and, despite the delay, the winds are still unsuitable for atmospheric nuclear testing. The radioactive cloud heads due east, towards populated areas on Australia’s east coast.
So began the most damaging chapter in the history of British nuclear weapons testing in Australia. The UK had carried out atomic tests in 1952 and 1956 at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia, and in 1953 at Emu Field north of Maralinga.
The British had requested and were granted a huge chunk of South Australia to create a “permanent” atomic weapons test site, after finding the conditions at Monte Bello and Emu Field too remote and unworkable. Australia’s then prime minister, Robert Menzies, was all too happy to oblige. Back in September 1950 in a phone call with his British counterpart, Clement Attlee, he had said yes to nuclear testing without even referring the issue to his cabinet.
Menzies was not entirely blinded by his well-known anglophilia; he also saw advantages for Australia in granting Britain’s request. He was seeking assurances of security in a post-Hiroshima, nuclear-armed world and he believed that working with the UK would provide guarantees of at least British protection, and probably US protection as well.
He was also exploring ways to power civilian Australia with atomic energy and – whisper it – even to buy an atomic bomb with an Australian flag on it (for more background, see here). While Australia had not been involved in developing either atomic weaponry or nuclear energy, she wanted in now. Menzies’ ambitions were such that he authorised offering more to the British than they requested.
While Australia was preparing to sign the Maralinga agreement, the supply minister, Howard Beale, wrote in a top-secret 1954 cabinet document:
Although [the] UK had intimated that she was prepared to meet the full costs, Australia proposed that the principles of apportioning the expenses of the trial should be agreed whereby the cost of Australian personnel engaged on the preparation of the site, and of materials and equipment which could be recovered after the tests, should fall to Australia’s account.
Beale said that he did not want Australia to be a mere “hewer of wood and drawer of water” for the British, but a respected partner of high (though maybe not equal) standing with access to the knowledge generated from the atomic tests.
That hope was forlorn and unrealised. Australia duly hewed the wood and drew the water at Maralinga, and stood by while Britain’s nuclear and military elite trashed a swathe of Australia’s landscape and then, in the mid-1960s, promptly left. Britain carried out a total of 12 major weapons tests in Australia: three at Monte Bello, two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga. The British also conducted hundreds of so-called “minor trials”, including the highly damaging Vixen B radiological experiments, which scattered long-lived plutonium over a large area at Maralinga.
The British carried out two clean-up operations – Operation Hercules in 1964 and Operation Brumby in 1967 – both of which made the contamination problems worse.
Legacy of damage
The damage done to Indigenous people in the vicinity of all three test sites is immeasurable and included displacement, injury and death. Service personnel from several countries, but particularly Britain and Australia, also suffered – not least because of their continuing fight for the slightest recognition of the dangers they faced. Many of the injuries and deaths allegedly caused by the British tests have not been formally linked to the operation, a source of ongoing distress for those involved.
The cost of the clean-up exceeded A$100 million in the late 1990s. Britain paid less than half, and only after protracted pressure and negotiations.
Decades later, we still don’t know the full extent of the effects suffered by service personnel and local communities. Despite years of legal wrangling, those communities’ suffering has never been properly recognised or compensated.
Why did Australia allow it to happen? The answer is that Britain asserted its nuclear colonialism just as an anglophile prime minister took power in Australia, and after the United States made nuclear weapons research collaboration with other nations illegal, barring further joint weapons development with the UK.
Menzies’ political agenda emphasised national security and tapped into Cold War fears. While acting in what he thought were Australia’s interests (as well as allegiance to the mother country), he displayed a reckless disregard for the risks of letting loose huge quantities of radioactive material without adequate safeguards.
Six decades later, those atomic weapons tests still cast their shadow across Australia’s landscape. They stand as testament to the dangers of government decisions made without close scrutiny, and as a reminder – at a time when leaders are once again preoccupied with international security – not to let it happen again.
Liz Tynan will launch her book, Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, on September 27. A travelling art exhibition, Black Mist Burnt Country, featuring art from the Maralinga lands, will open on the same day.