Friday, March 10, 2017

Review of Barrett, Fantham, and Yardley (eds.). The Emperor Nero

Anthony A. Barrett, Elaine Fantham, John C. Yardley (ed.), The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. xxvii, 300. ISBN 9780691156514. $35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Lauren Ginsberg, University of Cincinnati (


This sourcebook is a superb addition to current interest in Nero, not least because its authors form an all-star team for any study of Neronian Rome. Their goal is simple: “to illuminate incidents of Nero’s life and rule that are either historically significant or just inherently interesting” (p. vii). They also aim throughout to help readers get a sense for how radically sources can differ and how the tradition came to be; thus, where possible, they include at least two sources on each event/topic. Unusual are the heavy footnotes that occur throughout, but these are a treasure trove of further information (selected highlights below). The book includes a preface and introduction followed by ten thematic chapters. Each chapter includes an introduction (ranging from a paragraph to five pages) and excerpts from Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio. This is important to note at the start: while the volume’s subtitle might suggest a wider variety of sources, the book is really a guide to the historiography of Nero; other literary texts serve more as complements than objects of inquiry, often left unannotated or relegated to the end of a chapter.1 For example, the only excerpts from Seneca (Clem. 1.1-5) appear at the end of Chapter 2 without much help guidance for interpreting this complex work of political philosophy; so too excerpts from the Octavia do not orient readers to its status as a play and its difficulties. Documentary and material sources, however, are more successfully integrated throughout.

Nero has many intersections with first-century Judaism and Christianity, not least the use of the Nero Redivivus myth in the Book of Revelation. Chapter 4 of the book under review draws on the work of Josephus.