What haunts me in the story of Nero is the mercurial nature of art and fiction. They are good for us only so far as they encourage our well-being. Human nature, the bark-like exterior that both absorbs and protects us from what the world provides, is an exceedingly porous substance when it comes to dealing with their narratives. Yet when reality and fiction are presented in the same form, problems occur. This is when we are prone to misunderstanding their relative values. The slings and arrows of fictional Romans don’t hurt as much as those of outrageous fortune.
* * *
- The Genius of the Theatre
Comedians say things better than the rest of us. Here is Jerry Seinfeld on the subject:
I don’t know why we are so fascinated with actors in this culture. They don’t have a thought in their stupid bed-head hair-do mini-brains. “We must honor this man!” Why? “He pretended to be Bob Johnston. He’s a genius, I tell you. It’s genius what he’s doing.” Playing dress up and pretend is not genius, ladies and gentlemen. . . . Roll the cameras. Put on these clothes. Stand there. Ready. Say what we told you to say. Fantastic. He did it. Give this man a huge golden trophy. He’s a god-damn genius.
So the title includes the question “Did the Roman Emperor Nero invent Netflix?” As Netflix began in 1997 and Nero died more than 1900 years earlier in 68 CE, the sensible money would be on: no. This could be a really short essay.
However, what I am actually interested in is what Netflix represents in this age of binge watching as the world goes down in flames around us. The Seinfeld quote doesn’t even capture the whole insanity of the condition. It is not enough for us to enjoy, for example, Russell Crowe’s Gladiator (2000, Dir. Ridley Scott) but we feel the need to invest some of our admiration for the actions of General Maximus Decimus Meridius onto Crowe’s antipodean shoulders. And while celebrity worship has been discussed and criticized for decades,1 I don’t think we have begun to grasp how deeply our dependencies on fiction and the fictioneers have saturated our psychological make up. I would like to propose the Roman Emperor Nero – Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (37-68) – as a place to start.
- that Nero the hero
Picture the lad: average height, slightly plump and ginger-haired with a wispy under-the-chin beard and fluffy roman bangs. The poor little rich kid, propelled to the position by an ambitious mother, Agrippina, who married Claudius when Nero was around twelve years old. His uncle, the Emperor Caligula, had died in 41 CE (murdered, obviously) and his stepfather, the Emperor Claudius, died in 54 CE (murdered, obviously), so Nero became Emperor of the Roman Empire at age sixteen. Now, for most of us, the idea of putting a sixteen-year-old boy in charge of a large organization like the Roman Empire will sound like a bad idea. Sixteen-year-old boys will have other ideas on the subject. It turned out badly for Nero. Even though it was a chaperoned appointment initially, it could only end poorly. If you have pity in your heart for the likes of Justin Bieber or Michael Jackson, then spare a thought for Nero. The irrationality of being treated as special as you imagine yourself to be is a fate most teenagers rarely have to suffer. The peculiar fictions young minds create for themselves and their lives are gradually crushed by ordinary jobs and mundane arguments with their peers and partners. And rightly so.
What would your average boy or girl do if they became the head of a country? Lady Di had Elton John round for tea and crumpets, Kim Jon-un called Dennis Rodman for a sleepover. Nero was no different:
As soon as he became Emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest master of the lyre . . . and after listening to him sing after dinner for many successive days until late at night, he gradually began to practise himself . . . although his voice was weak and husky, he began to long to appear on the stage. (He) made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number . . . even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock. . . . He was greatly taken too with the rhythmic applause of some Alexandrians . . . and summoned more men from Alexandria. Not content with that, he selected some young men of the order of knights and more than five thousand sturdy young commoners, to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause (they called them “the bees,” “the roof-tiles,” and “the bricks’’), and to ply them vigorously whenever he sang. (For all these quotations I will be using excerpts from Seutonius’s The Twelve Caesars.)2
From a particular perspective, this makes complete sense. What sixteen-year-old wants a proper job with the responsibilities and worries and all that entails? Particularly if it is a position that usually leads to early retirement by means of assassination? With the Stoic philosopher Seneca as his teacher, presumably dictating to him the Roman virtues and the value of falling on your own sword for a noble death (if need be), Nero often retreated to the faux-life of actors and singers, charioteers and lyre players. He could sing of heroes or act the hero and be applauded (Quo Vadis, 1951, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, has a comical scene of Nero played by Peter Ustinov putting on an impromptu performance). Clearly it must have seemed a better prospect than a battlefield, or, for that matter, the Senate.
This isn’t to say that Nero retreated to the world of the theatre. The Empire enjoyed relative prosperity during some of his tenure, though whether through his abilities or those of his administrators is a matter of opinion. He was busy. He married three women. He rode in chariot races. He loved to build. The Domus Aurea was a vast and extraordinary villa placed in the center of the city with, besides much else, a revolving domed roof and a statue of Nero himself standing over thirty meters tall. But he was a destroyer too, the perpetrator of great cruelties, capable of uncommon greed, and a great abuser of the legal system to rid himself of perceived enemies or simply to remove those whose wealth he coveted since he was often running short of cash. And still he wanted to be loved and admired. He needed the cheers and the applause, to be considered a great talent, an artist. He was living the narcissist’s greatest fantasy, indulging his worst instincts without prosecution and only caring to listen to the praise.
Those on his right side could profit from his patronage:
He gave the lyre-player Menecrates and the gladiator Spiculus properties and residences equal to those of men who had celebrated triumphs.
Does it seem a puzzle that in a time and country where there would be many “real” heroes of the battlefields of the Empire that some Romans chose to give their adulation to people who performed those actions in artificial situations? But then, who would most of us choose to have round for dinner tonight, Tom Hanks talking about his “based on real life” movie Sully (2016, Dir. Clint Eastwood) or the actual Chesley Sullenberger? If you said Chesley, then you are a noble being. You are probably not Mrs. Chesley Sullenberger but a noble being nonetheless.
Perhaps it is no puzzle. War, conflict, death. They are painful subjects to any of us. Fight or flight. It is so common and natural for most, when presented with the difficulties and cruelties of life, to want to look away. Nietzsche’s much-quoted observation comes to mind:
Art is the necessary veil of illusion required for action, for without it, the true awfulness and absurdity of life kills action.3
Nero was in the midst of something awful and absurd. He had gained the whole world without lifting a finger but could lose it all with the next mushroom he ate (like his step-father Claudius). It was a narrative that invariably ended badly. And there were tasks and duties and obligations for his position, let us not forget. I hesitate to swell a brief piece on more of Seutonius’s disturbing portrait of this truly damaged individual. The tale is littered with the brutality and excess we would expect of the desperately entitled in a political system lacking any functioning safety rails. He clung to art, to some invented veil of illusion to create a sense from it, and it let him down. “What an artist dies in me,” are his reported last words. He failed to fall on his sword, and the task was left to an underling. The Roman ideal was from a narrative he could never embrace in life.
- The Uses of Enchantment
Once upon a time, Bruno Bettelheim wrote The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976). For those of us who wonder why we tell small children tales of witches, wolves, murderers, kidnappers, poverty, and injustice before leaving them alone in a darkened room on a cold, stormy night, the book answered about 7% of the question. The author offered that they were narratives that acted as a workshop for youthful fears in order to help them “cope with the psychological pressures of growing up and integrating their personalities.” If we assume he is right, this is a comforting answer. We could even extend the premise to include adults, and, for the most part, that is where the psychology of cinema seems to be primarily located. Freud may have gone out of favor but his favorite themes are still popular. The dream factory is a common enough descriptor of Hollywood, and the relation of dreams to movies is now a well-worn trope: the movie as an expression of our fears, our hopes, and our desires. (As a charming sub-narrative to Bettelheim’s theories, recent years have seen the distinguished author accused not only of plagiarizing the theory from earlier theorists but actually fictionalizing his own life and achievements.4. That the man who promoted the advantages of telling fairy tales benefitted from telling his own is a tale worthy of its own movie – starring, I can only hope, Sasha Baron Cohen.)
There is a fundamental question to ask here: Is fiction good for us? Is Bettleheim correct in presenting fairy tales as useful tools for working out problems? Do they provide a means to cope with life’s problems, and, is it the same for all of those movies and tv shows we adults watch on Netflix?
- Corona biers
The Coronavirus is at this time creating many problems in the world. Unemployment, illness, death. These will create hunger, debt, and homelessness. Does our Netflix viewing reflect these problems, and does our psychological state benefit from the things we watch? Netflix doesn’t give details of viewing figures. A casual browse of the “Top Ten” in several countries can provide some guide, if a pitiful one. On Sunday, July 12, their most recent big-budget movie The Old Guard (2020, Dir. Gina Prince) is the most popular item in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany – which is to say their newest and most promoted movie is what we are watching regardless of cultural, social, and psychological determinants (if Netflix is being honest about it). The Old Guard is a story about (mostly) ancient warriors who might die fighting for a few seconds but are then revived to live and fight once more blah blah betrayal blah blah question life and death blah revenge blah blah and set up for sequel blah. It’s a passable movie, neither profound nor particularly relevant nor as much fun as Highlander (1986, Dir. Russell Mulcahy). On August 3, 2020, almost the same results were evident for the new season of The Umbrella Academy. Though distinctly superior in imagination and writing quality to The Old Guard, it is also classifiable as the latest-release fantasy piece from the American dream factory. It is what we turn our heads to view, away from the calamity of our checking accounts and the scrambling headlines of the nation’s most recent political outrage. It is the soluble fluid of sound and light in which we may suspend both fears and boredom. And it is incorruptible, because, we claim, we can distinguish fiction from reality. As if our fealty to fiction is not the cornerstone of our lives.
Those films that actually involve the topic of epidemics, such as Contagion (2011, Dir. Stephen Soderbergh), Outbreak (1995, Dir. Wolfgang Petersen), and World War Z (2013, Dir. Mark Foster), might have had some purchase on the public’s curiosity back in February and March, but times have changed. Folk want to get back to their regular interests and fantasies.
It has been a while since movies were attacked for their inducement to pervert our morals or lead women to wear peekaboo hairstyles and consequently suffer mutilation for such a wanton mimicry of fashion. That they might encourage violence has always been a tough one to measure or prove. Now there seems to be a move to promote the benefits. From social bonding5 to our emotional and psychological well-being, films can now be perceived as a source of healing. Nadin Mai writes, in reviewing Art and Therapy (Alain de Botton, John Armstrong, 2014), that:
Art (film) can save one’s life. This is very much connected to the unconscious . . . and the attraction to specific art works and art genres during different phases of our lives.6
I will gloss over the fact that Mai is referring specifically to more arty cinematic fare than is usually found on Netflix. Submersion in your favorite Andrei Tarkovsky movie, with several minutes of peeling old wallpapers (Nostalgia, 1983), or Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012), with even more minutes of wailing old paupers, can both be touted as restorative compounds of visual pharmaceuticals. But are we letting them off the hook too easily? We enjoy them. We are engrossed by them. Endorphins are released, apparently. I have no idea if that is a good or bad thing, though it is invariably expressed as a positive. But to return to that Nietzsche quote for a moment, and dwell on that part about action:
Art is the necessary veil of illusion required for action.
I wonder if he wasn’t speaking of art from the creator’s point of view, rather than the consumers of art. Does art become, for the spectator, the veil of illusion required for inaction? Time and again we watch particular narratives played out, and with no effort on our part things work out just dandy. Is this not a lesson for our hypothetical unconscious? Just sit tight. Things will be fine in the end. Surprisingly, not such a bad message in the times of COVID-19. Or not. The resistance of so many Americans to taking the threat seriously has been explained in terms of political allegiance and misinformation. Is it possible that the most media-saturated nation on the planet has also been lulled by its fictionalized appeals to optimism and good fortune?
- The New Gods & Heroes
During WWII in the Pacific campaign, John Wayne visited wounded marines in a hospital ward in Hawaii. Wayne, who never served but made several very popular films such as They Were Expendable and The Sands of Iwo Jima, was booed by wounded soldiers. Apparently, the shocks of combat made them realize that Wayne and others were in the business of staging illusions for mass consumption.7
It is my duty to nitpick that last quote. Why were the soldiers booing? I’m guessing there is no actual record of a legless marine shouting “Curse you, Wayne, you perpetrator of illusions for mass consumption!” Yes, these combatants had discovered reality was different from fiction. And surely they recognized just as quickly that Wayne was not one of them. He wasn’t a draft dodger. As a father of four and in his thirties he was given a deferment, so he wasn’t obliged to sign up. But he was, by then, simply, a man of privilege, the “Duke,” one of the new breed of American aristocrats. For those young soldiers mutilated by the absurdity of the world they had newly entered, a civilian celebrity was a member of a different brotherhood. Still, I agree in principle with what they are saying.
Fiction requires a shared sense of normality to play off against. We need a common understanding of the rules that govern one to measure, or allow, the other. One would expect that when our reality is disturbed, so are the requirements of our fictions. It would be difficult to guess what manner this will take. Surely they won’t be the same in times of peace and times of strife – though this depends on the evolving relationship between producers and consumers. TV series and movies take time to make. The biggest-grossing US films 1941-45 were:
1941 Sergeant York (Dir. Howard Hawks)
1942 Mrs Miniver (Dir. William Wyler)
1943 This Is the Army (Dir. Michael Curtiz)
1944 Going My Way (Dir. Leo McCarey)
1945 The Bells of St Mary’s (Dir. Leo McCarey)
It reads like an updated version of the five stages of grief (patriotism, maternalism, populism, spiritualism, and campanology) as the hero evolves from an amiable sniper to a singing Catholic priest. The public could only take so many heroes in fatigues.
In casting around for different perspectives on Nero, I found one in the Journal of Sport History by John Mouratidis called “Nero: The Artist, the Athlete and His Downfall.” I initially hesitated to read it out of snobbery before I realized the writer was likely to have a unique perspective on the man that I could never have proposed. Of course. Sport. Athletics. Those peculiar pastimes borne out of both the preparation and pretense of war. It’s running away without being caught. Fighting without being killed. The thrill of combat and joy of victory and desolation of defeat but all with the added bonus of being able to have another go next week. These are practices that allow us (us?) the enactment of those same hopes and fears of childhood, for glory or death, with the same kid gloves and bumpers for your ten-pin bowling. Nero. The poor schmuck. Faced with growing up to be the warrior Emperor, he chose the path of pretense. With a willing cast and a needy, gullible audience, the moment of heroism, the act of sacrifice, the instance of wit and sheer brilliance could be witnessed and recorded by thousands. And these urbanite thousands cheered loudly and were convinced that this was as good as – no, better than – the grubby, blood-soiled moments of real and pitiless battle. Mouratidis writes:
Nero was convinced that if he did not achieve artistic and athletic glory he was a failure as an Emperor and a Roman.8
Well, that doesn’t fit with my own assessment, but we can go with it a little longer. War, sport, cinema, theatre, the local comedy club: all battlegrounds for glory. All of them with a lust for crossbreeding new permutations. I think of the biggest movie star of our present times, Tom Cruise, and his antics to perform his own stunts. Why? To make our viewing experience more real? Or is it to convince both himself and us that, even though he isn’t really Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, if he actually was in that situation, he could still jump over buildings and save humanity? John Wayne could express the same personal associations with the characters he played. Kirk Douglas recounts in his autobiography that Wayne criticized him for playing “a weak queer” like Vincent Van Gogh. Douglas told him “‘Hey, John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.’”9 Wayne – who was born Marion Michael Morrison – didn’t work hard at playing down the charade. I understand that. How hard do any of us care to dissemble our photogenic side to others?
- Nero’s Netflix List
I have gathered a few descriptions of Nero’s antics with comparative contemporary titles in order to weakly defend the title of the essay. They are a puzzling display of behaviours that are not helpful in declaring him completely bad or basically good. They do display a certain imagination in programming. See what you think:
“At the gladiatorial show, which he gave in a wooden amphitheatre, erected in the district of the Campus Martius within the space of a single year, he had no one put to death, not even criminals.” (The Hunger Games – PG-rated version)
“(He) compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Even those who fought with the wild beasts and performed the various services in the arena were of the same orders.” (The Hunger Games – R-rated version)
“At the Juvenales he had old men of consular rank and aged matrons take part.” (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)
“As the king (Tiridates of Armenia) approached along a sloping platform, the emperor at first let him fall at his feet, but raised him with his right hand and kissed him. Then, while the king made supplication, Nero took the turban from his head and replaced it with a diadem.” (The Crown)
“Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.” (The Oprah Winfrey Show)
“(He) shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol.” (Jackass: The Movie)
“He also exhibited a naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it.” (Aquaman)
And my personal favourite even though I doubt it is true:
While (Nero) was singing no one was allowed to leave the theatre even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall, since the gates at the entrance were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial. (Monty Python’s Life of Brian)
- COVID Times
Nero’s Rome did not suffer a pandemic, though Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius would have been familiar with the Antonine Plague (161-180) carried by returning Roman soldiers to the capital. It too was thought to have originated in China. Instead, the city of Rome had the great fire that destroyed two-thirds of the city. Nero’s ambiguous ego was revealed again. Those left homeless were aided, and reconstruction began quickly. But Nero also took advantage of the situation to appropriate large swathes of the city for his new home. Four years later he was dead. The Domus Aurea was picked clean of its opulence while the enormous statue was too big to move and renamed the Colossus. The pool and gardens nearby were repurposed in the following decade to become the Colosseum. Under the shadow of the Colossus it provided further entertainments for the next four centuries.
We would struggle to find a moral in all this. Terrible things happen. Both the good and bad die young. The vulnerable nature of human personality creates tiny victims who grow to be abusers of colossal consequence. Nothing new. What haunts me in the story of Nero is the mercurial nature of art and fiction. They are good for us only so far as they encourage our well-being. Human nature, the bark-like exterior that both absorbs and protects us from what the world provides, is an exceedingly porous substance when it comes to dealing with their narratives. Yet when reality and fiction are presented in the same form, problems occur. This is when we are prone to misunderstanding their relative values. The slings and arrows of fictional Romans don’t hurt as much as those of outrageous fortune.
Still, for those of us worrying about bills and rent and mortgages and the health of our children and family and the fragile future wrapped in uncertainty, there is something to watch: Netflix, Hulu, Disney, HBO, and other cornucopias of fictional lives that we hope will turn out well, for the most part. We still believe we can tell fact from fiction. We continue to select between truth and misinformation. We take comfort in our heroes and jettison the rest.
Nero is long dead. That self-absorbed narcissist who put his needs above the people. In some ways I feel sorry for the man. Each of us struggles with our good and bad parts and hope to be judged on the scales according to our collective record. He wasn’t totally bad. After all, he did give us Netflix, in a way. So I have been looking for something positive to say. Let me try: I didn’t explain something fully. I wrote that Nero had three wives, but it is difficult to track all his relationships. For instance:
He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife. And the witty jest that someone made is still current, that it would have been well for the world if Nero’s father, Domitius, had had that kind of wife. This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the assizes and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images, fondly kissing him from time to time.
So, perhaps we can say, at the very least, Nero can be considered relatively progressive on the whole modern issue of LGBTQ rights. That can be counted as a win, in a way.
- L. E. McCutcheon, R. Lange, and J. Houran. “Conceptualization and Measurement of Celebrity Worship.” British Journal of Psychology, Feb. 2002, 93, Pt. 1: 67-87. [↩]
- Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin, 1979. [↩]
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann, trans./ed. New York: Modern Library, 2000. [↩]
- Though the ideas go back to the early 1900s, it was Bettelheim’s book that proved popular and influential. “Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and Abuses of Scholarship,” Alan Dundes, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 411 (Winter, 1991), pp. 74-83. [↩]
- Emotional Arousal When Watching Drama Increases Pain Threshold and Social Bonding, R. I. M. Dunbar, Ben Teasdale, Jackie Thompson, Felix Budelmann, Sophie Duncan, Evert van Emde Boas, and Laurie Maguire, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160288 September 2016. [↩]
- https://theartsofslowcinema.com/2017/03/28/art-and-therapy-alain-de-botton-john-armstrong-2014/ [↩]
- Film, Television and the Psychology of the Social Dream, Robert Rieber, Robert Kelly, (2014) p. 105. [↩]
- “Nero: The Artist, the Athlete and His Downfall,” John Mouratidis, Journal of Sport History, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1985), pp. 5-20. [↩]
- https://federalnewsnetwork.com/entertainment-news/2020/02/kirk-douglas-rose-from-poverty-to-become-a-king-of-hollywood/ [↩]