VII

THE SINGING EMPEROR

Breaking the journey at the villas of court favorites en route, Nero and his massive entourage moved across the Campanian landscape like a creeping flood. So it was that the imperial caravan arrived at Neapolis on the Bay of Naples in time for the town’s annual contests in poetry and song.

On the first day of the contests, local dignitaries flocked to the temporary wooden theater that had been erected in the town for the annual event, joining the throng of senators and Equestrians that had followed Nero down from Rome. Among these leading men who had joined the emperor’s entourage was Gaius Petronius, who had only recently served as a consul. A wealthy, elegant, and cultured man who led an extravagant, stylish life, Petronius was so admired by Nero that the emperor had recently named him his official arbiter elegantiae, or director of good taste. Petronius subsequently became known as Gaius Petronius Arbiter. To him would be credited authorship of the hedonistic and satirical Roman novel The Satyricon. Petronius, one of the night livers—who Seneca thought defied nature by living their lives during the night hours and sleeping during the day—was astute enough to appear in the emperor’s company when it mattered.

“A rabble of the townsfolk was brought together,” Tacitus scornfully wrote of this day at the theater of Neapolis. They were joined by thousands more “whom the excitement of such an event attracted from the neighboring towns and [military] colonies.”¹ The audience on the tiered seating of the half-moon-shaped theater was completed by men of the emperor’s bodyguard, so that the venue, which was open to the sky, was packed.

The young Nero’s singing voice had originally been, according to his biographer Suetonius, “feeble and husky.” Once he had decided to take up singing seriously, said Suetonius, Nero “conscientiously undertook all the usual exercises for strengthening and developing the voice.”² One such exercise involved lying on the back with a slab of lead on the chest, to develop and strengthen the diaphragm. Nero also used enemas and emetics (the latter to deliberately induce vomiting after eating). Both were recommended by Roman physicians for improving the voice and were regularly employed by orators. Julius Caesar had notably followed a prescribed course of emetics toward the end of his life. Certain foods, such as apples, considered harmful to the vocal chords, were banished from Nero’s diet.

Nero suffered from severe nervousness prior to his stage appearances, and as his debut loomed, he would have been pacing back and forth behind the stage while two attendants attempted to steady his nerves with praise and assurances that all would be well. He had good reason to be nervous, for the rules of these contests were strict. A contestant must stand while performing, would lose points for clearing his throat, for spitting, for blowing his nose, or even for using his arm to wipe the sweat from his brow—contestants were not even permitted to take a handkerchief on stage. If a contestant made a major blunder while performing, he could be disqualified.

Like the other competitors, Nero had his name inscribed on a ticket of ivory, which the judges drew to decide the order of competition. Several competitors duly performed before, to the surprise of the audience, their emperor stepped out onto the stage wearing the long, ungirdled tunic of a lyre player and gave his preliminary oration.

Then, as he was handed his lyre by the senior officer of his bodyguard, the name of the song he would sing was announced by Cluvius Rufus, a former consul and a respected historian, who was a part of the imperial entourage and had volunteered to act as the emperor’s herald. And then Nero played and sang. His performance was creditable and well received by the audience. After all the contestants had performed, there was a nerve-racking wait for Nero while the judges consulted and compared notes. Finally, the chief judge stepped out onto the stage. The winner, he announced, was Nero Caesar. A beaming Nero accepted the victor’s laurel. The emperor was so pleased with his debut that he entered another of the Neapolitan contests scheduled for the following day.

In the interim, he gave his voice a rest, but the adulation of the crowd had been so seductive that he could not keep out of the public eye. So, that evening, after bathing in the town, he and the senior members of his entourage dined very publicly in the “orchestra” area at the front of the theater. As he passed through an applauding crowd on his way to dinner, people asked him what he would sing to them next.

“When I’ve downed a drink or two, I’ll give you something to make your ears ring,” he responded in Greek, the language of the song lyrics.³

The crowd applauded even more loudly.

The following day, Nero again took his chances in the draw for places. His fellow competitors, “whom he treated as equals,” according to Suetonius, were put at ease by his grace and charm, although behind their backs, he disparaged them to his friends. Not surprisingly, following the performances, the judges declared Nero again the winner. What judge would dare not give the prize to his emperor, to this emperor?

Come nightfall, the well-pleased crowd dispersed, the theater emptied, and in high spirits, Nero and his companions departed to the bath and the dinner table. The ordinary people of Neapolis and surrounding villages seemed excited and even flattered by the fact that Caesar had performed on their stage. The same could not be said for Rome’s elite. Nero’s appearance as a competitor on the public stage could be compared to a serving U.S. president competing on American Idol today. The general audience would no doubt be delighted, declaring it a refreshing departure for their country’s leader to do such a thing, while the establishment would be horror-struck, claiming that it demeaned the office of president of the United States. Similarly, the members of the Roman aristocracy were appalled that their head of state could stoop to such a thing, but none expressed such a dangerous view to Nero himself.

The social mores of Roman society were tightly observed. Even the dress code was ridiculously emphatic. The tunic of a man of Equestrian or senatorial rank had to be a particular length; for formal occasions, it must be white, with a purple border, the border being thin for the Equestrian, thicker for a senator. It must be worn belted, and it must be short-sleeved. Pliny the Elder, as one of his eccentricities, wore a long-sleeved tunic, primarily to keep his arms and hands warm in winter so that he might keep writing. Within five years, a young Roman legion commander, Alienus Caecina, would scandalize society by wearing multicolored, long-sleeved tunics of the kind favored by the Gauls, while on duty. Julius Caesar had also defied custom and worn long-sleeved tunics, but he was Caesar. Nero’s way of defying custom and social mores was by going on the stage.

That evening, as the populace of Neapolis bathed, strolled, and dined and as Nero celebrated his double victory, the city was shaken by an earthquake. Only minimal damage was done to the town, but the temporary wooden banks of seating at the theater, which, only hours before had been filled with thousands of spectators, came crashing down. Many people thought this an unlucky omen. Some would say it was proof that the gods were unhappy with Nero’s stage debut. But Nero considered the message to be just the opposite. He reminded those around him that, had the earthquake taken place during the day, a massive death toll would have resulted, and he thanked the gods for sparing all loss of life. He immediately began work on an “elaborate ode,” in the words of Tacitus, which praised the gods and celebrated the good luck that, he was convinced, the occasion represented.

Within several days, the Neronian cavalcade was again on the move. Nero’s success on the Neapolitan stage had convinced him that his original plan, that of competing in the famous contests in Greece, was a valid one. He was now on his way across Italy to the Adriatic coast. From there, he would take a ship to Greece. His first stop on his route to the Adriatic would be the crossroads town of Beneventum, thirty miles northeast of Neapolis, in the Apennine Mountains.

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