Nero: The Artist, the Athlete and His Downfall
By John Mouratidi
Journal of Sport History, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1985)
Introduction: Modem scholars agree that the descriptions of Nero’s character and actions by the ancient historians form a one-sided picture and one far from the truth. So they have attempted, since the beginning of this century, to reinstate Nero from the degradation and disgrace into which the Roman historians forced him. Nero, some believed, never committed a crime for pleasure, but only when frightened, “though he got frightened easily.”
The Roman historians had good reason to write against Nero because their traditions and their class were tarnished by the emperor in many ways. Their descriptions of Nero and his actions promoted the image of his excessive cruelty Some of their narrations of his crimes and eccentricities are sensational and their judgement of him is not accurate, since they often formed opinions about the emperor on the basis of very limited information, or asserted as facts things that were no more than rumors.
The Christian writers of the later ages joined the ancient historians in their condemnation of Nero and his actions because the emperor’s terrible persecution of the Christian community of Rome caused the deaths of many Christian martyrs; the Christians never forgot their first persecutor. In fact, Nero’s oppression is the first recorded against the Christians and served as a prototype for the later executioners of Christians. When Christianity became the faith of the empire, Nero became “the Beast” and “the Antichrist” in the minds of the believers. With all due caution and without trying to overstate the case, it might be said that Nero’s history has been written by his enemies, who perpetuated and furthered his reputation as a “monster” and “Antichrist.”
One of the many ways that the old Roman traditions were tarnished by Nero was his dedication to artistic and athletic excellence, and his appearance as a competitor in the games or on the stage. The emperor and the Roman conservatives had two different concepts of what was good, decent and beautiful. He sought recognition and fame through competition in the games, a challenge that had been with him since childhood. He believed that nobility and athletic excellence are one, and the accomplishment of this goal would give his life meaning. Chariot driving charmed the emperor in such a way that Nero believed, as the flatterers hailed him, that he was a new Apollo. Nero was convinced that if he failed to achieve artistic and athletic glory he was a failure as an emperor and as a Roman. His association with athletes and artists and his attraction to the theatre and the gymnasium were dictated by his deep love and admiration for Greek culture. The achievement of artistic and athletic fame formed and fashioned his mind and directed his actions through intrigues, anxieties and dangers. Military ambitions and victories had never entered into his dreams. Throughout his short life, training for games and arts occupied a good share of his endeavor.