The ultimate victim of Ancient Rome’s “cancel culture” will be rehabilitated in a blockbuster show at the British Museum next month.
Nero: The Man Behind the Myth will examine how Rome’s fifth emperor had his reputation destroyed after his death with all mention of him deleted from official records and statues bearing his likeness torn down.
Curator Thorsten Opper said the image handed down to us of a brutal tyrant who fiddled while Rome burned was created by historians writing after his death who used him as a scapegoat for the empire’s troubles.
He said: “If you look at the recent US election campaign we are weirdly entering a period again where news is not neutral, it’s very aggressive, it’s very partisan, so just imagine if you only have half of that content in future centuries to write a history of our period you might end up with something similar.
“Nero was in many ways a victim but in order for them not to admit that they had to build him up into this monster.”
Among the 200 exhibits gathered from around the world for the show are examples of street graffiti praising his rule that were preserved when Pompeii was buried under volcanic ash shortly after his death in 68AD.
Most of the statues built during his lifetime were destroyed when his reign ended but the show includes a bronze head of Nero found in a Suffolk river and another portrait that was recarved to look like his successor Vespasian.
Mr Opper said: “You can see some traces in the marble surface where it is clear it was recarved.
“Not like the Colston statue [of English slave trader Edward Colston] that they just put in the harbour in Bristol, this one was recarved and turned into his successor. It was a Nero and they physically altered it so it then became Vespasian.”
The exhibition will also look at the relatively new “Wild West” Roman province of Britain which was conquered shortly before Nero came to power.
It includes treasure hidden during the attack on Colchester by British tribes led by Boudica - known as the Fenwick Hoard it was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester’s High Street.
It is believed the treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during the uprising.
Among the items are Roman coins, military armlets and fashionable jewellery similar to finds from Pompeii.
British Museum director Hartwig Fischer said the show was “the first major exhibition in the UK to look beyond the commonly held view of Nero as the Emperor who fiddled while Rome burned”.
He said: “The exhibition’s representation of Nero is one that resonates with our times, in a world with deepening social and economic challenges, contested facts and the polarisation of opinion.”
The museum plans to reopen on May 17 with the Nero exhibition opening 10 days later and running to October 24.