Edward Champlin’s Nero is a scintillating work of scholarship. He has managed to make a work of prodigious learning a witty and entertaining read for professionals and non-professionals alike. His study illuminates the career of one of history’s most fascinating villains. In doing so, however, Champlin has not produced a conventional biography. Before picking up this book, the reader would do well to have the outline of Nero’s life and reign in mind. What Champlin sets out to accomplish is to understand Nero on Nero’s own terms. This does not mean that his book is an attempt to rehabilitate Nero. Champlin early on makes it clear that Nero earned his evil reputation; he was both a bad emperor and a bad man. Instead Champlin focuses on Nero’s obsession with art and performance, paying careful attention to the many appearances of the emperor on the stage and at the circus. In Champlin’s eyes, Nero saw himself first and foremost as an artist; as a ruler, Nero was a monster, but one who thought that he could justify and redeem his monstrousness through art.
Champlin organizes his book around certain key episodes in Nero’s life: the murder of his mother, the killings of his wives, the burning of Rome. In each case Nero directly addressed and helped shape public opinion by recasting his actions through his art. In his performances as a singer and dancer, he would select a mythological topic familiar to his audience that simultaneously acknowledged and excused his deeds. Thus after his murder of his mother, Agrippina, Nero appeared in public as Orestes, who was tragically driven to kill his guilty mother Clytemnestra. Champlin’s portrait of Nero is persuasive and engaging. He helps readers perceive a method to Nero’s madness.