Give Me Difficulty

by A.V. Marraccini

The new Nero exhibition at the British Museum makes its stakes clear at the entrance: this will be a reevaluation of the mostly negative ‘myths’ surrounding the history of the much-maligned last of the Julio-Claudians. But as Shusma Malik’s excellent review for the TLS makes clear, what the curators here dub myths are in fact the long reception and public appropriation of Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and other sources that we usually think of as historical rather than mythical per se. Tacitus’ upper class biases and anti-Neronian spin must be taken into account, of course, but it seems hard to do that when the exhibition doesn’t really distinguish throughout between the history — that is, the initial classical accounts — and the historiography (the history and context in which the history was written) of its subject. There is a paradox at heart here: British Museum blockbuster exhibitions must make money for the cash-strapped institution and also satisfy a broad range of knowledge in the viewing public. Difficulty usually isn’t in the cards.

The cards — or the lots as they are cast here — are definitely pro-Neronian in general. The use of lurid purple curtains, shadow paper, and what looks like a cheap spa chandelier might have been last minute interventions due to social distancing, but oddly, they work, giving the kind of sordid Neronian drama that is the gasp of dying power one scents on an equally lurid page of Gibbon. The use of animations and blown-up images next to coins, when numismatics is often neglected in an exhibition of this scale that usually relies on physical mass, is innovative and should be repeated. I found myself captivated as much by tiny images of gates of Janus, of the Parthian king Tiridates, and of various changing imperial personae, in small metal just as much as the impressive busts and marbles. Devaluation of Roman currency, a topic Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, in its own imperial self-modelling, goes on about for ages, is elegantly summarised for the casual viewer. Imported sections of wall painting from the Domus Aurea, at a time when few British viewers could go to Italy, are a welcome surprise.

The exhibition does not shy away from the ugly aegis of imperial slavery and provincial exploitation. The most moving object in the exhibition, to my eyes, was the set of slave gang chains, recovered from a British bog into which they may have been ultimately cast in a ritual to perhaps rid them of their power. The chains are staked up against a dirt ground in a central vitrine, huge and heavy in a room otherwise dominated by imperial finery. The caption on a sculpture of a sleeping child lantern-watcher — also an enslaved person — make clear the degree to which both Nero and his critics idealised and minimised slavery as commonplace. Although it doesn’t fit the happy Saturday afternoon romp idea of a blockbuster, an exhibition on slavery and provincial exploitation in the classical world, with artefacts like these, would both speak to the moment, and to the future of the British Museum as an institution that can provoke imperial questions as much as silence them.

When I was walking through the exhibition, I chortled aloud and reacted in shock to the children’s captions in particular. Simplified, they asked things like ‘What would you have done, fight or talk with the rebellious Iseni?’ when Nero’s own troops instead infamously raped Boudica and her daughters. Troubling too is asking children to automatically place themselves in position of Nero, to decide on good and bad emperors in millennia of moral grey, without reminding the viewer that the great majority of history’s subjects were never emperors, much less even rich Senatorial commentators, and that the idea of good itself is no simple category. A caption on the sculpture of the enslaved child, asking ‘How would you feel if you were not free in Nero’s Rome?’ would go a long way too. The exhibition’s text for the adult audience is light too, and often glosses over precisely what is historical fact, what is reception, and what is still contentious material in current scholarship. This is a missed opportunity to bring both current work and historiography to the public gaze.

I do appreciate that it’s also incredibly hard to explain historiography to a public audience, who may or may not want to read all the captions in the first place. I emerged from the exhibition into a gift shop immediately faced with a wall of copies of Mary Beard’s SPQR. Beard has done good work as a popularising historian for the 1990s and early 2000s, but now feels like the time for different voices, ones more focused on questioning the nature of reading history critically as opposed to re-telling it relatively conventionally. This means context about how history was written — who Tacitus or Philostratus were in relation to generations of readers and historians, say, and why they might have held the biases they had against Nero, that stand in for this exhibition’s ‘myth’.

A new generation of young classicists, contending with their discipline’s own imperialist roots and continuing political and racial mythologies, are eager to speak to these questions, and are also deeply underemployed by austerity-stripped universities. I ask the British Museum: give some of these new voices this prominent space. Ask them for captions. Pay them. Help them find publishers and put their challenging new titles in the gift shop next to the soap, scarves, and tote bags. Nuance could be the new blockbuster.

It’s time for a change in the old guard, and I don’t mean the Praetorian one. Historiography could be one important way in which we contend with our imperial histories, Neronian and otherwise, and I hope in the future to see a British Museum summer exhibition that takes this worthy risk. Give me bread, circuses, theatre masks, citharas, the burning Capitoline, and yes, more difficulty!