Thursday 14 October 2021

Nero: The man behind the Myth Exhibition

Yesterday I had an opportunity to visit the British Museum's latest special exhibition with my daughter. She is studying history at A level and had a chance to pick a subject of her own choosing as a special side project. She has chosen to look at the first emperors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, collectively known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. This exhibition focuses on the last of these, Nero, but understandably there was a lot of information about the emperors that came before them, so my daughter was very happy and came away with a tome of photos and ideas for her project. I enjoyed it too but I also got the chance to spend an afternoon nerding out with my youngest daughter, so win-win. 

I took a lot of pictures as usual but thought a few were more military than others and therefore worth sharing here. 

Sword and Scabbard AD 14-16 - The scenes on this scabbard celebrate julio-Claudian military successes in Germany and stress harmony and order. Germanicus hands the enthroned Tiberius a figure of victory. In reality, the troops had mutinied at Tiberius' accession, preferring Germanicus as princeps.

Soldiers of the Pretorian Guard AD51-2 - Augustus established the Pretorians as his personal guard. They were an elite unit and the most powerful military force in Italy, where no regular troops were stationed. They enjoyed considerable privileges and their support was crucial for the emperor. The relief depicts six Praetorians in parade armour and was taken from a triumphal arch in Rome that commemorated Claudis' conquest of Britain in AD43.

Copper Alloy Helmet found in England, c AD50-100 - Following the conquest of Britain, Roman and local tastes influenced one another. This led to the emergence of a new distinctive artistic identity that is evident in decorated military objects. This helmet combines a Roman Shape with Celtic style decoration. Its owner was perhaps a local warrior fighting for Rome, or a Roman soldier who commissioned armour decorated in a local style. 

Copper Alloy Cavalry Helmet AD 1-100 - The Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was campaigning in Wales when local discontent erupted into rebellion. Boudica attacked Camulodunum (Colchester), defeating the Ninth Legion when it attempted to rescue the town. This decorated cavalry helmet was possibly war booty ritually deposited in a marsh by a Briton. Alternatively, it may represent a votive offering made by a Roman soldier adopting practices similar to those of the native population. 

Roman Horse Trapping c AD50 - Rome's frontiers along the Danube and Rhine were under constant pressure from neighboring tribes. The author Pliny the Elder served as an officer in Germania during the reigns of Claudius and Nero. While stationed here he write on military topics, followed later by his famous Natural History. These horse trappings are marked 'Pliny prefect of cavalry'. They may have belonged to Pliny, or a soldier under his command. 

Limestone carving of a Parthian Horseman - The Parthians established a vast empire across modern-day Iran, Iraq and Armenia. It endured for almost 500 years and was recognised by Rome as its equal in wealth, culture, and military strength. Its military might came primarily from its superior cavalry. Mounted on light horses and carrying bows, these legendary fighters feigned panicked retreat at full gallop, only to turn in the saddle and shoot back at the pursuing enemy. The archer depicted here wears the characteristic Parthian dress and carries a composite bow. 

Nero was a great supporter of public sports and entertainment. He, like many of his predecessors, was a populist and drew political power from the support of the masses. Military spectacle, including chariot racing, in the arena, was common. Chariot racing was managed by teams called factiones. Each faction had numerous charioteers and hundreds of supporting staff. Nero was a supporter of the popular Greens and when he raced chariots himself he would mix expensive ground chrysocolla with the sand turning it green in their honor. 

Marble of Nero AD 66-68 - This marble statue was displayed to stress Nero's martial qualities and in particular to Celebrate his success over the Parthians. The breastplate of this statue depicts the emperor as the Sun riding in his chariot. Below two mythical figures symbolise the Parthian submission to Rome. 

It was a great day out and a very interesting exhibition to share with the Young Padawan. 

I would certainly recommend seeing this exhibition if you are interested in the period. There is far more to see than the handful of items I have highlighted here. As with all of these special exhibitions, the British Museum is very good at selecting artifacts that tell the story they want to tell. Most are from their own collections but they can also bring in rare and special artifacts from other museums so often this will be the only chance to see some items together. 

My only gripe is with the museum's presentation of the information panels. The information they contain is excellent...but would it kill them to use a bigger font! All the info panels are at waist height and if you want to read them you have to stand in front of the display, blocking the view of anyone else. And some of the artifacts are very small (coins and small items of jewelry) inside huge cases so it's really hard to get up-close-and-personal with some of the artifacts...and if you do you block the view of the information panels for other visitors! Don't get me wrong, I love the British Museum, but they really need to break with stuffy tradition and work on their presentation skills! 


  1. I went last Sunday, I quite liked it but it was a bit too packed and as you pointed out difficult to see,it also failed to really fulfil what it's byline said it would about really re examining Nero's position in history, some good bits and I liked the grills in the exhibition but a little disappointing. Nowhere near as good as their Hadrian exhibition from a few years ago which was splendid, still a nice day out!
    Best Iain

  2. Thanks for sharing these exhibition photos and I hope the trip boosted your daughters history project. It made me want to go back and reread both Asterix and Rosemary Sutcliff books (technically it's still her centenary year)

    As it is the 50th anniversary of Peter Laing the first 15mm figures next October (1972-2022) I hope to finish rebasing the late Stuart Asquith's Roman and Pictish armies for my slowly ongoing asymmetric warfare Roman "Full Metal Hic Jacet" project

    I completely agree about tiny font in exhibitions ...

  3. A most interesting post. It is always great to see artefacts and pieces of armour and such up close and in person.
    Regards, James

  4. super photos and commentary Lee


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