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seminars > spring 2013 schedule > seminar: Nero: Tyrant, or Tragic Figure?


Honors Seminars Spring 2013

Nero: Tyrant, or Tragic Figure?

HON 290 Sec:001  
3 hours  
GER Cat:
Humanities (History): Global Knowledge  
1330 - 1445  
Dr. Molly M. Pryzwansky
Restrictions: N/A  

One of the most enduring images of the Roman Empire is that of the Emperor Nero (54-68 CE) fiddling on the roof while Rome burned. In addition to delighting in-and perhaps even setting-the Great Fire of 64, Nero is also infamous for persecuting Christians and having had a sexual affair with his mother, Agrippina, whom he later killed. Besides his mother, Nero is also said to have had a hand in the murder of his stepfather, the Emperor Claudius, as well as his stepbrother, tutor (the famous philosopher Seneca), and two of his wives. We will ask whether or not such accusations have any basis in fact. If so, what do they say about Nero or his time? If not, when and why were such charges made?

In fleshing-out our picture of Nero we will draw on a range of evidence. We will read (in translation) historical and biographical accounts of the emperor from Roman authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus, and Greek authors such as Cassius Dio. We will also read the Octavia Praetexta, an anonymous 1st-century Latin play about Nero's murdered wife. In addition to these historical and literary sources, we will examine coin and sculptural depictions of Nero, together with the archaeological record of the city of Rome. At the end of the course, we will delve into the afterlife of the emperor's image, especially in films such as Quo Vadis? (1951) and Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I (1981). We will ask how true such representations are to the ancient sources, and in what ways they mythologize or demonize the emperor. Of particular interest will be the fact that Nero was driven from power in a coup and forced to suicide-does the inglorious nature of the emperor's demise affect his later image?

For the final project, students will write a research paper exploring one aspect of Nero's life, reign, and/or representation. The paper will draw on both primary and secondary source evidence, and will use advanced critical skills. Students will be encouraged to tie together different types of evidence-from the literary to the historical and artistic-in their research papers, offering a well-rounded assessment of the last member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.