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CANI are proud to announce that Natalie Haynes has been appointed as our Honorary Patron.
Natalie is the author of not only A Thousand Ships, which has been nominated for the Women’s Prize of 2020, but also The Amber Fury, The Children of Jocasta, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life and the forthcoming Pandora’s Jar. Natalie has also just announced that she will be writing two more as-yet-untitled books on Medusa and Medea
As well as a fantastic author, Natalie is a prodigious broadcaster. The many episodes of her ‘Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics’ with BBC Radio 4 can be heard on Audible and BBC Sounds. During lockdown, she has also produced a series of videos called #OvidNotCovid, looking at various female characters in the Heroides of Ovid. You can watch these by going to Natalie’s Insragram @nataliehaynesautho
Natalie has also been a frequent and fantastic guest of CANI since our refounding, presenting several talks in Belfast. We cannot wait for our Honorary Patron to return to these shores.
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The area occupied by modern Belfast has seen some form of human occupation since the Bronze Age. The Giant’s Ring is an almost 5,000-year-old henge while the hills around the city host the remains of Iron Age forts. That said, it was but a minor settlement throughout much of its history, with some castles built to secure control for various hegemons in the regions, such as John de Courcy and the O’Neill clan. It was not until the 17th century that Belfast was incorporated as a town, before growing as an industrial and trading centre throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to challenge Dublin as Ireland’s biggest city.
This growth was reflected in the significant expansion of its street map and in the course of researching a paper on ‘Patterns in the Street-Names of Belfast,’ Dr Paul Tempan noticed that some of those new streets had names taken from ancient history and mythology, a small cluster of which are on the south side of the Donegall Road and built by 1893 (Irish Historic Towns Atlas xvii). Of course, these names with mythical connections are but a small percentage of the total, with many more derived from landowners, traders and commemorating politicians etc., but for CANI, it is the potential ancient and mythical inspiration that draws the attention.
Thalia Street is named after the Greek Muse of comedy and poetry, Θάλεια. Thalia’s name means ‘joyous’ or ‘flourishing,’ reflecting her own continued skill in comic and poetic songs. She is often portrayed as an ivy-crowned young woman, holding a comic mask, a bugle or trumpet and something resembling a shepherd’s staff.
Euterpe Street is named after another Greek Muse: Eὐτέρπη, who presided over music and lyric poetry. Her name means ‘rejoicing well’ or ‘delight,’ probably reflecting the reception of her own compositions. Ancient poets referred to her as the ‘giver of delight.’ She is often depicted holding a flute, and is sometimes presented as the inventor of some ancient musical instruments.
Pandora Street is named after the first mortal woman according to Greek myth, created by Hephaestus on the instructions of Zeus. Her name, Πανδώρα, derives from the Greek πᾶν, pān, meaning ‘all and δῶρον, dōron, meaning ‘gift.’ This could mean either ‘all-gifted,’ reflecting the many gifts given to her by the gods or ‘all-giving’ in something of an (sarcastic?) inversion of the myth, with her opening of a box – more accurately a jar, a change made by a textual mistake in the 16th century – ‘gifting’ many ills upon the world. Only ‘hope’ remained in the Pandoran box/jar, either in its genuine form or a more ‘deceptive expectation.’ (Hesiod, Work and Days 60-105).
Daphne Street shares a name with Δάφνη, meaning ‘laurel’, a mythological Greek naiad, a variety of nymph associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of freshwater. Her parentage is disputed in the mythological texts, but mostly share the idea that she was the daughter of a river god. Daphne’s myth is similarly mixed, but the general narrative has her receiving the unwanted attention of Apollo, who has been cured by Cupid. Rather than succumb to these forced advances, Daphne asked for her father’s help, and he turned her into a laurel tree to escape Apollo.
Egeria Street takes its name either from the nymph of Roman legend or from the eponym that stems from said legend for a female advisor of counsellor. She gained this reputation by acting as the divine consort and counsellor of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome (c.715-673BC). Through her advice, Numa formulated various laws, rituals and customs vital to the make-up of the early Roman state.
There is another ‘Egeria’ in ancient times much less unlikely to have drawn the attention of street-naming ‘Belfastians.’ She is thought to be the late fourth century author of an account of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem known as the Itinerarium Egeriae. Unfortunately, while likely the earliest such itinerary, Egeria’s work only survives in fragments of a later copy.
Fortuna Street, named after the goddess of fortune, the Roman equivalent of Tyche, and frequently seen as the personification of luck. She is often depicted with a cornucopia (horn of plenty), which associates her with ‘good luck,’ but really, she was capable of bringing both good and bad luck. Because of that, she is seen wielding a ball, which was described as the Rota Fortunae – the ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ a symbol of the capriciousness of Fate. She can also be seen holding a rudder, highlighting how she steers the ‘ship’ as something of a guiding force, and yet, she could also be represented as veiled or blind.
There was also Eureka Street, built in 1870 (Irish Historic Towns Atlas XVII.18), demolished and then replaced by Eureka Drive. Of course, this was not named after a person, god or place, but instead the famous exclamation – εὕρηκα! “I have found it!” – of the third century BC Syracusan Greek scientist, Archimedes. He reportedly made his exclamation upon stepping into a bath, noticing that the water level rose, and realising that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. This would allow for more precise measuring of irregular objects. Archimedes was so eager to expound upon his realisation that he leapt out the bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. Had the Belfast street-builders or namers found something in the area to use such a name linked with discovery?
There are also numerous streets in Belfast which take their name from someone or something that has taken its name from something an ancient or myth. In Castlereagh, East Belfast, there is Cicero Gardens, which takes its name from the horse that won the Derby in 1905, which in turn takes its name from the great orator of the late Roman Republic (‘Cicero’ means ‘chickpea’ in Latin). Perhaps rather surprisingly, Cicero the Horse seems to have had no connection to Ireland, with an English owner, and English trainer and an American jockey. Perhaps a local won a lot of money betting on the equine chickpea?
Vulcan Street on the Short Strand may be so named due to local industries (not for a love of the home planet of Star Trek’s Mr Spock). That said, there was a Vulcan Foundry in another part of Belfast, while the English company Vulcan Foundry Ltd produced locomotives for the Belfast and County Down Railway in the 1880s. The Roman Vulcan was god of fire, volcanoes, metalworking, deserts and the forge. Due to the latter, he was frequently depicted wielding a blacksmith’s hammer.
Apollo Road, off Boucher Road, was probably named after the Apollo space programme that put the first men on the Moon, rather than directly after the Greek god of healing, medicine and archery, and of music and poetry, son of Zeus and Leto and the twin brother of Artemis.
Rosetta Park is likely named after Rosetta Primary School, which in turn was likely named to commemorate (probably an anniversary of) the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and therefore Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion.
Are there any other ancient or mythical street names you have come across on your travels in Belfast or anywhere else in Ireland? My own hometown has a ‘Victoria Street’ but given that it is right beside a ‘Queen Street’ (as well as an ‘Edward Street’ and ‘Henry Street’), it is undoubtedly named after Queen Victoria, rather than any direct use of the Latin for ‘victory’. Belfast itself has Great Victoria Street as well.
Our next blog entry, with considerable input from Dr Tempan, will expand on some other Belfast street names with ancient connections, specifically in reference to Claudius Ptolemy’s map of Ireland.
Paul Tempan and Peter Crawford
Those of you interested in the Classics may already have come across some Ovidian play on COVID-19. For this blog, I have taken ‘COVID-19’ as a reference – ‘See Ovid I.9’ Unfortunately, it does not list which work of Ovid to read, so let’s look at them all!
Not sure if these lines provide deep or meaningful, but then I am no poet and as a political historian of Late Antiquity, I barely class as a classicist… I am also not 100% sure of the translations… but hopefully it gets people wanting to read more Ovid.
Heroides I.9 [Penelope to Ulysses]
nec mihi quaerenti spatiosam fallere noctem
nor my hand, bereft, exhaust me, working all night long
quis probet in silvis Cererem regnare iugosis,
Who’d approve of Ceres ruling the wooded hills,
Ars Amatoria I.9
Ille quidem ferus est et qui mihi saepe repugnet:
It’s true Love’s wild, and one who often flouts me:
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.
Of things at strife among themselves, for want of order due.
invenies illic et festa domestica vobis;
And here you’ll find the festivals of your House,
felices ornent haec instrumenta libellos:
Happier books are decorated with these things:
Epistulae ex Ponto I.9 [To Brutus]
Non tamen accedunt, sed, ut aspicis ipse, latere
They still will not go, but as you see they think
Remedia Amoris I.9
Quin etiam docui, qua posses arte parari,
Indeed I’ve taught, as well, by what art you can be won,
Quisquis is est (nam nomen adhuc utcumque tacebo),
Whoever it is (for I’ll be silent still as yet about his name)
Medicamina Faciei Femineae I.9
vellera saepe eadem Tyrio medicantur aëno;
The fleeces are dyed many times in the brazen cauldrons with Tyrian purple
The appearance of three False Neros in the two decades after the emperor’s death in 68 was not the only ‘afterlife’ that Nero had. He became increasingly associated with a legend that he was not dead, no matter how long-lived that made him, and was waiting to return to reclaim his throne. This legend that saw him connected to some of the more prominent beliefs in the burgeoning faith of Christianity.
Similarly, it is not at all clear how much influence the three False Neros might have had on the development of that legend – did they influence its creation? Were they influenced by it? Or do both the impostors and the legend share the same influence? Might it be possible to see the evolution of this legend through a variety of sources?
The first/second century Greek philosopher and historian Dio Chrysostom also wrote on the phenomenon of people believing that Nero was still alive long after his death.
“…for so far as the rest of his subjects were concerned, there was nothing to prevent his continuing to be Emperor for all time, seeing that even now everybody wishes he were still alive. And the great majority do believe that he is, although in a certain sense he has died not once but often along with those who had been firmly convinced that he was still alive” (Dio Chrysostom, On Beauty 21.10).
There is not much information in this discourse of Dio with which to associate this comment with any specific False Nero. Could he be linking this yearning for the rule of Nero to the growing dislike of Domitian in some circles, which would limit it to the third impostor in 88/89? (Jones (1978), 135 dates it to 88 rather than the previous date of Trajan’s reign) Dio may instead be commenting generally on the atmosphere that spawned these impostors, which could encompass one, two or all three of them.
The pervasion of this atmosphere cannot be easily dismissed, and whether it bore or was born by the repeated ‘re-appearances’ of Nero in the second half of the first century, it seems to have had a significant impact on various religious texts, specifically in Nero’s seeming incorporation into eschatological literature and association with Judaeo-Christian portents of renewal and doom through the Nero Redivivius legend.
Several variations of the legend exist, playing on both hope and fear of Nero’s return. Suetonius would have it that Nero’s connection to such religious texts happened even before his death with astrologers predicting Nero’s downfall but also promising him “the rule of the East, when he was cast off, a few expressly naming the sovereignty of Jerusalem” (Suetonius, Nero 40.2).
The earliest written version The Jewish Sibylline Oracles saw Nero in exile, a great criminal king who had fled to the Parthians only to soon return at the head of a vast army to destroy Rome and the world (Sibylline Oracles IV.119-124, 138-139, V.137-152, 362f.; Collins (1974), 80-87) It also refers to Nero as a “purple dragon” (I.88) and a “great beast” (V.157).
By the time certain parts of the Sibylline Oracles were written, Nero would have been well over 100 years old so while they do not speak of him being reborn or revived, the leap is not far to make.
Aspects of that leap may be seen in sections of the Bible. It could be that the False Neros influenced the mentioning of false Christs and false prophets in Mark 13:21-22, but it is in the Book of Revelation where the real inferences towards Nero may appear.
The idea that Nero might return to reclaim his throne at the head of an army from across the Euphrates, possibly used by or taken from the False Neros, may have inspired the author of the Book of Revelation, who writes of the Beast being wounded in a similar fashion to Nero’s fatal injury, only for that wound to heal miraculously, which would also been similar to Nero if he had indeed survived the somewhat self-inflicted wound (Revelation 13:3; Minear (1953), 93-101).
Attempts to portray Nero in such Beastly fashion are also seen in the seeming encoding of his name as a cryptogram in the ‘Number of the Beast.’ As it might be expected, it does require some literary gymnastics and assigning numbers to certain Greco-Hebrew letters and sounds, such as n=50, r=200, w=6, q=100 and s=60, but ‘Nero Caesar’ renders the number 666… (Sanders (1918), 95-99; Klauck (2001), 690)
Perhaps then some in the late first century thought that Nero was to be Christ’s antagonist? Or could the author be using Nero as something of a cipher for Domitian? Such veiled criticism of Nero as the Beast or a harbinger of doom may well have been to protect the author and anyone found reading it.
These criticisms were also the next step in joining the Nero Redivivius legend to the Antichrist. While this connection does not seem to appear directly in these early religious texts, it was established by the third century. He was certainly connected to the Beast in the Ascension of Isaiah, an anonymous work comprised of sections from various points in the first to third century and perhaps compiled later again. Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-14 presents Nero as “a lawless king, the slayer of his mother,” a Christian persecutor, and the personification of Beliar, the Hebrew Devil, to ultimately be slain by Christ in the final battle.
The mid-third century Christian poet, Commodianus, presents the revived Nero as something of a lieutenant of the Antichrist to “be raised up from hell” to rule part of the world (Commodianus, Instructions 41).
Not all Christians shared the popular belief that Nero was the Antichrist, his precursor or lieutenant. In his On the Deaths of the Persecutors, the early fourth century convert, Lactantius, belittles the idea that Nero would return (Lactantius, DMP II.7), although in the process of doing so, he acknowledges that such a belief was still around at the time when the Roman Empire was on the cusp of Christianisation.
Even a century later, when the empire had been Christianised, St. Augustine felt the need to address Nero Redivivius in the section of the City of God which dealt with II Thessalonians 2:7. And as with Lactantius, Augustine ridicules the inferences others have made regarding Nero’s proposed reviving (as well as the attempts to have ‘Nero as the Antichrist’ appear in the writings of St. Paul), but demonstrating that these ideas were still prominent enough to need to be debunked at the turn of the fifth century (Augustine, City of God 19.3.2).
This is further seen in the early fifth century writings of Sulpicius Severus, who calls Nero, “the basest of all men, and even of wild beasts…who will yet appear immediately before the coming of Antichrist” (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, II.28-29), following Revelation in that Nero’s ‘fatal’ wound will have healed for him to be able to be a precursor to the Antichrist (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, II.29).
It is possible to see the development of the Nero Redivivius myth through Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Sibylline Oracles, Revelation and later sources, although the links are not always clear or strong and there is also considerable opposition to Nero Redivivius‘ influence on Revelation (Klauck (2001), 690 nn.28-29 lists many dissenting voices).
Collins, J.J. The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. Missoula (1974)
Jones, C.P. The Roman World of Dio Chrysostom. Cambridge (1978)
Klauck, H-J. ‘Do They Never Come Back? “Nero Redivivus” and the Apocalypse of John,’ The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63 (2001), 683-698
Kreitzer, L. ‘Hadrian and the Nero Redivivus Myth,’ ZNW 79 (1988), 92-115
Minear, P.S. ‘The Wounded Beast,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953), 93-101
Sanders, H. A. ‘The Number of the Beast in Revelation,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 37 (1918), 95-99
Van Henten, J.W. ‘Nero Redivivius Demolished: The Coherence of the Nero Traditions in the Sibylline Oracles,’ JSP 21 (2000), 3-17
Confronted with rebellions by Vindex in Gaul and Galba in Spain and rumours of the allegiance of Verginius Rufus’ army in Germania, the emperor Nero panicked. Rather than face up to what was perhaps far less dangerous an opposition than it first looks, Nero looked to flee the capital, reach Ostia and make for the eastern provinces, which had been the most supportive of him during his reign. This plan was reputedly interrupted when some of the Guards he ordered to flee with him refused.
Returning to the imperial palace, Nero mulled over his options, which he narrowed to throwing himself on the mercy of Galba, appealing to the people in the hope that they would allow him to take up residence in Egypt or fleeing to Parthia. With no firm decision made, the emperor drifted off into what must had been a fitful sleep. News of his proposed flight and various prevarications seems to have stripped away the loyalty of those in the palace, Guards and servants alike for upon waking Nero found virtually no one to help him; not even someone to kill him (Suetonius, Nero 47).
Having considered throwing himself into the Tiber, Nero instead escaped in disguise to the villa of his freedman, Phaon, about 4 miles outside Rome, with just four followers. Upon hearing the news that the Senate had declared him a public enemy, Nero finally decided on committing suicide, although even as agents of the Senate could be heard approaching, he still needed his private secretary, Epaphroditus, to carry out this ‘suicide’ on 9 June 68 (Suetonius, Nero 49).
Despite his body being seen by Galba’s freedman Icelus, cremated and then buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi (pointedly not the Mausoleum of Augustus), what is now the Villa Borghese, on the Pincian Hill in Rome (Suetonius, Nero 50), there were several contributing factors which led to questions around whether or not Nero had actually died in 68. Both his death and burial had not been colossal public spectacles, which could have raised dissatisfaction and suspicion (Tacitus, Hist. II.8). There was also shock and fear of losing not just a young emperor at only 31 years old, but also the last in the line of the long-lived Julio-Claudian dynasty that had brought about a century of stability to the Roman Empire. His various plans to go east and to ensure his survival suggested that he had the potential to escape and had not lost his will to live. Nero was also still popular with certain sections of the population, such as the lowest classes, who loved the circus and theatre and grasped at every rumour (Tacitus, Hist. I.4.3; his tomb was covered in flowers and his statues draped in togas), which in itself not only saw people wanting him to have survived but also questioning the official suicide story because he still had support in large parts of the empire. His being an artist may also have spawned a dramatic ‘afterlife’, particularly in Greece and the Hellenised East due to his ‘liberation’ of Greece.
Some of these factors combined to make it that “there were people who… even continued to circulate his edicts, pretending he was still alive and would soon return to confound his enemies” (Suetonius, Nero 57). Could the idea that people were continuing to ‘circulate Neronian edicts’ not only mean that they were following the edicts of Nero himself but that people were issuing false edicts in his name?
This unwillingness to accept the demise of the last Julio-Claudian emperor and lingering loyalty and suspicion to both the dynasty and Nero himself enabled the appearance of three separate men claiming to be the deceased emperor.
The Original False Nero (AD69)
Using similar language to when his report of the presence of a False Drusus in the Cyclades in AD31 (Tacitus, Ann. V.10), Tacitus records that “Achaea and Asia were alarmed by a false report of Nero’s return” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8). Indeed, there are several repeated aspects in the Tacitean stories of the False Drusus and the first False Nero – both recall the panic of ‘Achaea and Asia’; both are set in the Cyclades, involvement of “an ignorant following” of slaves, freedmen and adventurers and both impostors looking to get to Egypt/Syria (The False Drusus was not even the first impostor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The slave Clemens claimed to Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Augustus in AD16, only to be captured and executed by Tiberius (Dio 57.16)).
Could this reflect something in Tacitus’ claim of a “Greek taste for novelties and marvels,” (Tacitus, Ann. V.10; a more charming way of saying ‘gullible and stupid’?) with their repeated willingness to accept the word of the impostors? Or is Tacitus recycling information he had from one impostor and superimposing it onto another because he had no other information as well as following the literary tropes surrounding rebels/revolts/usurpers in being only able to attract the dregs of society to their cause?
The timing of this first impostor’s appearance may reflect not just the continuing connection some had with Nero and the Julio-Claudian dynasty but also the continuing hot-potatoing of the imperial position. Nero’s immediate successor, Galba, was already dead; as was the man who ousted him, Nero’s former courtier, Otho. And now, in late 68/early 69, the empire was in the run-up to the Second Battle of Bedriacum between the forces of Vitellius and Vespasian on 27 October 69.
This first (unnamed) Neronian pretender was either a slave from Pontus or a freedman from Italy. The basis for his impersonation was that he not only looked like Nero, but he could play the cithara and was a trained singer. That the impostor (and Tacitus?) felt that this was important evidence of his being Nero demonstrates what the deceased emperor was most famous for in Greece – Nero had visited Greece in 66-67 to participate at the Panhellenic Games and declared the ‘liberation’ of the Greeks.
He was able to attract runaway slaves, adventurers and “some army deserters who had been roaming about in destitution until he bribed them to follow him by lavish promises” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8) They took ship in the Aegean, looking to reach either Egypt or Syria, not because ‘Nero’ had made any contact with those regions, but because they had been supportive of the emperor and had resources and soldiers.
En route, bad weather forced them to land on Cythnus, where ‘Nero’ met some soldiers returning from the east on leave. He was able to recruit some of them to his cause, but those who refused were executed as the impostor could not yet afford to have his fledgling plot come to the attention of the authorities. However, ‘Nero’ still needed followers and resources, even if getting them risked drawing attention, so he engaged in some low-level piracy, robbed several local businessmen and armed a number of their slaves, likely gaining their support on the promise of their freedom.
Into the midst of this island-borne conspiracy arrived a centurion from one of the Syrian legions called Sisenna. He was passing through the Aegean seemingly on his way to Rome to present the praetorians with a silver or bronze ornament of clasping hands, “a traditional token of mutual hospitality” (Tacitus, Hist. I.54). Putting in at Cythnus, Sisenna found himself a target of various entreaties from ‘Nero’ and his followers, who will have viewed the centurion as a useful tool in extending their support into the Syrian legions. However, rightly fearing for his life, Sisenna managed to slip away and spread word of this impostor.
This seems like a complete disaster for ‘Nero’, who had already murdered many to prevent word of his plot spreading; however, while “this caused a wave of panic… many restless or discontented creatures rallied with eagerness to a famous name.” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8) It is likely that it was this initial burst of support that caused the alarm in ‘Achaea and Asia.’
As it turned out, the plot of this first False Nero failed at its first real interaction with forces of the central government. Again showing that Cythnus was on a much-travelled route for military and political personnel, the newly appointed governor of Galatia and Pamphylia, Calpurnius Asprenas, arrived on the island, escorted by two triremes from the Ravennate fleet.
“Agents of the self-styled Nero” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) approached the captains of the two triremes. They agreed to meet the ‘emperor’ who, “assuming a pathetic air,” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) tried to appeal to the loyalty of these men to ‘him’, hoping to get them to take the impostor and his supporters to Syria or Egypt.
Either half-convinced or tricking ‘Nero’, the captains said that they would have to talk to their crews. Rather than try to bring their crews over to the impostor, the captains went straight to Asprenas. The governor immediately organised the storming of ‘Nero’s’ ship with the Ravennate sailors. The impostor was quickly overpowered and captured, with Asprenas seeing to his rapid execution. “His body, which arrested attention by the eyes, hair and savage expression, was taken to Asia and then to Rome.” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) Asprenas would go on to have a successful career. After his governorship of Galatia and Pamphylia, he served as suffect consul in 78 and governor of Africa, perhaps in 82/83.
The Second False Nero (79-81)
The second False Nero appeared during the reign of the emperor Titus (79-81). This impostor was an Asian called Terentius Maximus, who based his claim on similar grounds of physical appearance and musical ability. This ‘Nero’ claimed that he “had escaped from the soldiers who had been sent against him and that he had been living in concealment somewhere up to this time” (John of Antioch fr.104). He found support from the more ‘disreputable’ classes, much as the first impostor had done, and “it would not be rash to assume that he too found a following in the Roman provinces of the east” (Griffin (1984), 215).
However, Terentius Maximus ‘Nero’ seemed to have gained the much more important support of a Parthian king. Since the death of Vologaesus I in 77, three of his sons – Vologaesus II, Pacorus II and Artabanus III – had contended with each other for the Parthian throne, so the identity of the king is uncertain, but it appears to have been Artabanus.
This Parthian support appeared to come in useful for despite having gained some followers in the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire, Terentius Maximus soon felt it necessary to flee across the Euphrates to the court of Artabanus III (Dio 66.19.3b; was he forced to flee by Roman forces loyal to Titus?). The Parthian king gave this Pseudo-Nero refuge and promised military aid in ‘restoring’ Terentius to the imperial throne, something which the impostor expected due to ‘his’ having ceded Armenia to the Parthians during ‘his’ time in power.
However, seemingly once his true identity was uncovered and perhaps when Artabanus recognised that this impostor was of little use to him and provided an obstacle to Roman support/neutrality in his quest to be sole Parthian king, he had Terentius Maximus executed (Dio 66.19.3c; John of Antioch fr.104; Zonaras XI.18).
Terentius Maximus does seem to have gotten one thing right in his plotting – the expectation that the Parthians were receptive to a False Nero due to their past good relations with him. Nero’s willingness to compromise over Armenia may have been the reason behind Vologaesus I (51-78) requesting that the Senate honour the deceased emperor’s memory (Suetonius, Nero 57).
At the very least, if he was not initially duped into believing that Terentius was Nero, Artabanus was happy to accept the fiction for his own political ends, both as a challenge to Titus and as ‘imperial’ backing in his challenge to his brother Pacorus II for the Parthian throne.
Parthian willingness to support Neronian pretenders may have sprouted not just from the good relations Nero had fostered with them over Armenia but also the apparent frostiness with the Flavian dynasty. Despite Vologaesus I giving Vespasian a large corps of archers for his war with Vitellius, Vespasian had refused the Parthian king’s request for a joint expedition throughout the Caucasus passes against the Alans in 75. The Parthians were so put out by this rebuff that they threatened to invade Syria in 76.
The presence of ‘Nero’ at their court will have been a boon to Parthian attempts to firmly establish their control over Armenia and perhaps disrupt the Roman defence should the Parthians make inroads into the eastern provinces by tapping into any latent loyalty to Nero and/or the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
However, while Armenia and Flavian frostiness might explain Parthia goodwill towards Neronian impostors, could this Parthian ‘love’ of Nero instead reflect a lasting regard for him in the Roman literary circles that Suetonius was connected to? Is Suetonius positing Parthian respect for Nero when it is instead lasting literary regard for the musical emperor?
The Third False Nero (c.88)
This Parthian goodwill towards the memory of Nero, their less favourable relations with the Flavians and the potential political benefits saw them back “the mysterious individual [who] came forward claiming to be Nero” (Suetonius, Nero 57) some twenty years after his death – c.88 during the reign of Domitian, who the Parthians may have known was unpopular with the Roman senatorial classes (by this point, Pacorus II had overcome his brothers and was sole Parthian king).
Suetonius perhaps plays into any accusations that he was allowing pro-Nero literary influences to seep into his work by claiming that “so magical was the sound of his name in the Parthians’ ears that they supported him to the best of their ability, and only handed him over with great reluctance” (Suetonius, Nero 57).
While Suetonius is dialling up the drama, Tacitus reports that there is a hint of truth in the Suetonian depiction of the Parthian reaction to this third impostor, as “thanks to the activities of a charlatan masquerading as Nero, even Parthia was on the brink of declaring war” (Tacitus, Hist. I.2). However, despite Vologaesus’ annoyance at Vespasian and Parthian support for two Neronian impostors, Romano-Parthian relations remained peaceful throughout the remainder of the first century and on into the early second century, before the massive Parthian campaign of the emperor Trajan (Gallivan (1973), 364-365 on the chronology of the False Neros).
As already seen with Clemens and the False Drusus, imperial impostors were not created through the mystery surrounding Nero’s death. The attempted use of Pseudo-Neros by the Parthians would not be the last such attempt by Rome’s enemies. There was a Pseudo-Theodosius, supposedly son of the emperor Mauricius, who the Persians used in their war against the Romans in 602-628, while in the late eleventh century, the Norman conqueror, Robert Guiscard, invaded Roman possessions in the Balkans with a monk called Raiktor who claimed to be the deposed and executed emperor Michael VII Doukas (Anna Komnena, Alexiad I.12).
The False Neros has endured as a story, becoming the focus of some historical fiction with Lion Feuchtwanger’s Der Falsche Nero (1936) using the story of the second Neronian impostor, Terentius Maximus, while Lindsey Davis looked at the last of these Pseudo-Neros in the 2017 book The Third Nero: Never Say Nero Again.
We may laugh at the ancients who were taken in by these False Neros, but what of the number of people who believe that Hitler did not commit suicide in his bunker in 1945? And how many people claim to have seen Elvis in the decades since his death?
Bradley, K. ‘The Chronology of Nero’s Visit to Greece A.D. 66/67,’ Latomus 37 (1978), 61-72
Brunt, P.A. ‘The Revolt of Vindex and the False Nero,’ Latomus 18 (1959), 531-539
Griffin, M.T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. London (1984)
Gallivan, P. ‘The False Neros: A Re-Examination,’ Historia 22 (1973), 364-365
Syme, R. Some Arval Brethren. Oxford (1980)
Tuplin, C.J. ‘The False Drusus of A.D. 31 and the Fall of Sejanus,’ Latomus 46 (1987), 781-805