At the British Museum

Dear Readers, I was at the Emperor Nero exhibition at the British Museum yesterday, and rather than overwhelm you with all the artifacts, I thought I’d just choose two that appealed to me. The exhibition tries very hard to point out that Nero wasn’t just the chap who ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, and shows many examples of Nero’s civic-mindedness, ability to cope with natural disasters and general sense of responsibility. However, there is no doubt that Nero was something of a show-off, and in particular he loved to perform in front of an audience, either playing a musical instrument or appearing in theatrical performances, particularly tragedies. So I loved this little ivory, showing a tragic actor peering out from behind his mask. This is just the kind of costume that Nero would have worn, right down to the snazzy platform shoes.

It really is the most exquisitely-carved piece, dating back to the First Century AD and found in Rome. The lighting in the exhibition is low, so it’s difficult to get all the details, but the actor is peering out from behind his mask. Sadly, I can imagine all the senators sitting watching Nero cavorting about with rictus grins on their faces, while they plan how to get rid of him. He was eventually ‘given the opportunity’ to commit suicide, and his cremation was arranged by his wet nurse, Claudia Ecloge,  and his first love, Claudia Acte, a freedwoman (the relationship was nixed by Nero’s mother Agrippina).

Here’s the second piece that caught my eye. This was recovered from a house in Pompeii, and depicts the earthquake of AD62 which occurred during Nero’s reign. Look at the way that the buildings are toppling and things are falling over! I like the anxious-looking farmer with his ox on the right, and on the left of the top photo the mounted rider on a statue appears to be on the verge of falling off.  And is that a dog hiding under the altar?


I love both these pieces because they make me feel closer to the people who actually lived in the Roman Empire, what with their gadding about to the theatre, and the sudden natural disasters that happened to them. Perhaps most of all, I love the sense of humour in the earthquake piece. Am I just projecting if I sense that whoever made it actually had fun in the process? It wouldn’t be true that the sculptors of the time couldn’t produce remarkably life-like sculpture if they wanted to, as the actor piece demonstrates. Let me know what you think, Readers.

The Nero exhibition finishes this Saturday (24th October), but it’s well worth catching if you have the time.

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