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Cover of British Archaeology 89

Issue 89

July/August 2006



Sensational new discoveries at Bryn Celli Ddu

Missing royal table discovered in Westminster Hall

Unprecedented divide over Stonehenge

DNA surprise: Romani in England 400 years too early

Drama of Shrewsbury's lost medieval bridge

In Brief


Balloon over Stonehenge
Martyn Barber considers a photo taken 100 years ago.

Discovering Scotland
Dave Cowley looks back on 30 years of air photography.

Forgotten hero
Miles Russell finds Nero in England.

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Nero to South, Hero to North

Prehistorian Miles Russell has been looking at Roman portrait heads in Britain. He has a controversial theory about a reviled emperor.

He was about average height, his body marked with spots and malodorous. His features were regular rather than attractive. His eyes were blue and somewhat weak. His neck was over thick, his belly prominent, and his legs very slender... He was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls.
Suetonius Nero, 51

Our view of the emperor Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus is decidedly unflattering. Throughout history he has been vilified as a monster, wife-beater, mother-killer and torturer. The Hollywood epic has added to the myth, with screen greats such as Peter Ustinov (Quo Vadis) and Charles Laughton (Sign of the Cross) playing him as a spoilt and petulant child with psychopathic tendencies.

Roman biographers and historians, such as Suetonius, undoubtedly exaggerated the more unpleasant aspects of Nero's character, as one would expect for an emperor who, after death, was declared an enemy of the state. Nero's accession in AD54, however, had been met with great celebration, the 17 year old emperor and adopted son of Claudius being acclaimed an athletic hero, in marked contrast to his aged and rather austere predecessor. This is often overlooked today, in much the same way that the popular view of the Tudor king Henry VIII is of a bloated, bearded and debauched monarch, not the muscular warrior prince of his early reign.

The later portraits of Nero (as with Henry VIII's) certainly all show the effects of a decadent lifestyle, the emperor being heavy in the face with prominent multiple chins and a thick neck. However, while modern dictators prefer a youthful and athletic image (even if the reality is very different), the ancient mind equated obesity with wealth, luxury and success. Over-fleshy images like those made in the mid 60s, when Nero was in his late 20s, would have communicated his god-like status to the Roman people.

Nero's earliest official portrait type, however, is quite different. Sculptures produced at the time of his adoption by the emperor Claudius in AD51 show Nero as slender and boyish with a delicate, centrally-parted coiffure and lengthy sideburns which curl decoratively in front of slightly protruding ears. The face is smooth and regular with a rounded chin, crisply defined lips and enlarged, almond-shaped eyes. This was Nero aged 14, at the time of his first wearing of the Toga virilis, a mark of his progression into manhood.

Two of the best known examples of the teenage Nero are preserved in the Museo Nazionale di Antichità, Parma and the Musée du Louvre, Paris. These acknowledge him becoming the chief heir of Claudius (as opposed to his biological son Britannicus). They show similar postures: a placid, toga-wearing youth, arms slightly outstretched. The eyes, nose, ears and hairstyle are all instantly recognisable, with no indication of the monster to come.

A third representation of the teenage Nero has been found in Britain, though it has not before been recognised as such. The head, a portrait in marble, is one of the more famous discoveries made at Fishbourne Roman palace in West Sussex. The rounded cheeks and full, curving lips on the fragmentary piece exactly match the features of the young Nero on display in Parma and Paris, as do the rounded lower face, slightly protruding ears, curling locks of hair and almond-shaped eyes. Though attempts have been made to equate the portrait with a member of the Romano-British aristocracy, perhaps the son or heir of the palace owner, there can be no doubt that the face is Nero's.

The Fishbourne head has been forcibly removed from the body whilst substantial blows have fragmented the image and damaged the nose and chin. This seems to follow the process of damnatio memoriae, mutilation inflicted upon Nero and everything associated with him after his death in AD68. He was declared a hostis (hostile element) by the senate; an evildoer whose life and deeds required purging from Roman collective memory. Monuments were rededicated and his image overthrown. The damage to the Fishbourne portrait would be in line with such an empire-wide practice. Furthermore, the dumping of the smashed fragments into the foundations of the main palace, which swept away all trace of the Nero-inspired earlier phase (known as the proto-palace), would probably have been seen as an appropriate fate for the disgraced emperor.

Fishbourne is not the only British site to produce an image of Rome's fifth emperor.An idealised bronze statuette of an athletic, armour-clad Nero is on display in the British Museum, ostensibly from a site near Ipswich, Suffolk. Amore famous portrait, taking pride of place in the museum's Romano-British collection, was recovered from the River Alde near Saxmundham, Suffolk in 1907. The bronze head has long been misidentified as a representation of emperor Claudius. That it is not Claudius, is plain to see, the portrait possessing none of this fourth emperor's features, such as the high forehead, receding hairline, double chin and fleshy mouth. It does, however, have all the characteristics of the young Nero, especially evident in the hairstyle, mouth, eyes and ever-so-slightly lopsided ears, suggesting it was manufactured at the time of his accession to the imperial throne in AD54.

The Saxmundham head is often quoted as an example of the destruction wrought by queen Boudica's revolt of AD60: taken from the Roman town of Colchester, the statue was decapitated and mutilated before being dumped in a river. Although the portrait is not of Claudius, whose hated temple in Colchester had been a cause of the Boudican revolt, it remains possible that it was a victim of the uprising, as images of the then emperor Nero, Claudius's heir, would certainly have been in circulation and on prominent display. As Nero, however, it is equally possible that the axe blow to the back of the neck (and subsequent jagged tear around the throat) of the Saxmundham head occurred after Nero's death in AD68, another case of damnatio memoriae.

Yet another portrait from southern England, a final image of the later, fleshy emperor, was found late in the 18th century at Bosham, south-west of Chichester and Fishbourne. One of the largest representations of Nero known outside Italy, the head, nearly battered into oblivion, presently resides in the small but excellent Chichester District Museum. Most visitors pass by without comment, which is a shame, for the piece is nothing less than one of the most important archaeological discoveries yet made in the Roman province of Britain.

The head is clearly an imperial portrait: no other member of Roman aristocracy would have the gall, or possess the relevant permission, to record their own features in such a way. This was a dramatic statement of status and prestige; a colossal symbol of power. That the face is male, and that it probably once formed part of a full, free-standing piece, seems clear enough. Although past candidates for the portrait have included Vespasian (AD69–79) or Trajan (AD98–117), enough survives of the hairstyle, facial proportions and eyes, to make a clear and unambiguous identification of Nero.

This example dates to the later half of Nero's reign, between his post-adoption, boyish persona, and the morbidly obese figure of his final four years. The portrait type can be securely placed between the years AD59 and 64. The face is thickset and heavy, the lips registering the faintest hint of a smile. Despite the loss of his aquiline nose, the eyes are well-formed and almond-shaped betraying crisply defined lids. The coiffure is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Bosham head. The long curling locks that frame the forehead, flick out over the ears and descend the neck are unmistakably those of the more mature Nero, good parallels having been found throughout the empire. As with the Fishbourne and Saxmundham heads, the damage to the Bosham Nero is clear enough: great force has been applied to the nose and chin in an intentional act of vandalism designed to render the face unrecognisable.

As a consequence of the damnatio memoriae that followed Nero, few well-preserved portraits of the princeps survive, most having been defaced and mutilated. Many heads not smashed or cast out were reformed into the likeness of later emperors. In the British Museum resides a head of Nero recovered from the north African city of Carthage in the mid 1830s. The image is almost unrecognisable, the features having been recarved into the face of Vespasian (AD69–79). The curling locks of hair across the temple and around the ears and neck, however, are not those of the later emperor and they betray the original source material. The Bosham head was not recarved, but seems to have been detached from the body of the imperial statute and buried: an act of damnatio memoriae widely repeated elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the original context of the Bosham head remains unknown. It is worth noting, however, that the area around the supposed findspot has produced other pieces of sculpture, a head of Caligula, a finger from a larger than life bronze statue and a stone torso (complete with military breastplate and cloak) having been recovered in the last few hundred years.

It is the nature and location of the Bosham Nero that provokes the greatest quandary. Why was such a monumental image of the fifth emperor here in the first place, on the very margins of Chichester harbour? That the citizens of nearby Roman Chichester were desperate to win the favour and consent of Roman central government, is clear enough from an inscription found in the town in 1740. This dedication, which recorded a vow of loyalty made to Nero, citing his official name, full set of titles and descent from the deified emperor Augustus, appears to have been set up in AD58 or early 59. From a modern perspective, the inscription seems breathtakingly sycophantic, but for the people of Chichester it was a major statement of civic identity and pride, linking them directly to the imperial family.

The identification of a monumental statue of Nero close to the town raises the possibility of a British version of the Colossus Neroni, an immense 35m tall figure that once stood in the great atrium of Nero's Golden House in Rome. The Colossus Neroni, which portrayed Nero in the guise of the sun god Sol, was inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Would such a monumental statue of the emperor have been out of place in Sussex? Probably not, especially as the protopalace phase of development at nearby Fishbourne seems to have copied the opulence of Nero's own grand house in Rome. Alarger than life statue of the emperor situated close to the entrance of the broad open waterways of Chichester would also have been entirely appropriate, the original Colossus of Rhodes having been designed to guard the approaches to an important Mediterranean harbour.

Emperor worship was a vital element in the unification and control of newly acquired provinces, providing a focal point of personal devotion to the imperial household. Dedications and oaths of allegiance to the emperor proved an essential way of reaffirming loyalty to the Roman state that went beyond blood, race, friends or tribe, monumental displays of fidelity helping to fast track citizenship and secure a permanent place in the new order. However the Bosham, Saxmundham and Fishbourne finds are interpreted, their significance is clear.Nero, the adopted son of the deified Claudius, was a hero to the fledgling Romano-British elite: a semi-divine, warrior emperor to whom all allegiance was offered. Only those closer to the man in Rome were aware (and afraid) of his monstrous megalomania.

Miles Russell's Roman Sussex was published by Tempus on June 1 (ISBN 0752436015)

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