February 11: Fiddler on the Roof
2016/02/11 § Leave a comment
On this day in 55 AD, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus died.
No, you haven’t forgotten him since taking Western Civ back in college. You never learned about him in the first place, because he didn’t do anything important, because he didn’t have a chance to. Britannicus, the rightful heir to lead the Roman empire, died the day before his fourteenth birthday. His death–under suspicious circumstances, to say the least–opened the way for Nero to more easily take the throne.
Nero! Now the teenager’s death isn’t suspicious anymore at all, is it?. Nero (37-68) was a nasty piece of work. Tyrannical and megalomaniacal, he taught the Romans what “licentious” and “extravagant” mean (and when Romans say you’re licentious and extravagant, you’ve got a problem). He killed a bunch of people, including his mother and probably poor Britannicus, shored up his shaky standing by pandering to the poor, persecuted Christians and basically lived life as one big no-holds-barred debauch. He thought of himself as a god–not in the sense of being generically divine, but he identified specifically with Apollo. He portrayed himself in the guise of the Sun God in a bronze colossus that stood almost 100′ tall and in the center of lavish gardens that surrounded the sumptuous palace that he built for himself. The real estate for this complex was made available by the fire of 64 AD that devastated three of Rome’s fourteen districts and that was allegedly set by Nero (or his henchmen) and for which he gleefully provided the soundtrack with his infamous fiddling, according to legend.
The palace, called the Domus Aurea (“Golden House”) is one of the world’s great monuments of luxurious oppression (see recent video footage in its ruins here). The ancient Roman counterpart of Versailles, it was an extraordinary grand manse designed to exude exceptional beauty and engineered to ensure utter control. Like the French behemoth, the Domus Aurea is also a high artistic achievement. Although as a political leader Nero was a first-class disaster, he knew from art. He basically wrote a blank check for the fresco painters and mosaicists; not only did they cover an extraordinary amount of ground (literally), they developed a whole new mode of decoration as a result of Nero’s encouragement. Impressive at the time, these devices also thrilled later tourists who poked around the ruins of the Domus Aurea to get inspiration for their own work–people you may have heard of, like Michelangelo and Raphael. The plan of the Domus Aurea is a little squirrelly, but its many oddities are made up for by its amazing octagonal dining hall, which featured an ingenious mechanism that, powered by slaves above the room, allowed the ceiling (which was painted to represent the heavens) to rotate while flower petals and perfumes wafted down on the guests below. Its framework was technically impressive too: one of the first great spaces defined by a pozzolana concrete vault, inaugurating one of the most important developments of Roman Imperial architecture. In essence, this playroom for an imperial-class nincompoop is the Pantheon’s grandpappy.
But that’s not how the Romans wanted to remember it; indeed they didn’t want to remember at all. The Domus Aurea has the distinction of being bestowed the damnatio memoriae–the damnation of memory–the forceful removal of all traces of a person or thing from the physical record. The palace was stripped of its finest materials, which were recycled elsewhere, and the site basically bulldozed (or whatever the Romans used before the invention of the bulldozer) and quickly developed: the Colosseum was built on the site where the Colossus once stood; Trajan later built baths on top of the crushed palace. Of course it wasn’t the Roman manner to just expunge the record of the emperor’s house: he had to go, too. Following a military coup that left him friendless, Nero was forced to commit suicide, stabbing himself on 9 June 68, within four years of moving in to his great house. He lived as emperor just about as long as Britannicus lived, period. Nero’s final words, by which he meant to be remembered, and by which you may judge him, were Qualis artifex pereo: “What an artist dies in me!”
image: The Fire of Rome, 18 July 64 AD by Hubert Robert, collection of Musee des Beaux-Arts Andre Malraux, Le Havre