Nero, 54-68. Dupondius (Orichalcum, 28 mm, 16.00 g, 6 h), Rome, circa 64. NERO CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG GER P M TR P IMP P P Radiate head of Nero to right. Rev. SECVRITAS AVGVSTI / S - C // II Securitas, bare to her waist, seated to right on high-backed throne on which she leans with her right arm, resting her head on her right hand and holding short scepter in her left; before her, garlanded and lighted altar, against which leans lighted torch resting on bucranium. BMC 213. CBN 313. Cohen -. Leoni, Nero, ill. 48 (this coin). RIC 193. A magnificent piece of spectacular beauty, with splendid orichalcum surfaces and a wonderful portrait in the finest late Julio-Claudian style. Extremely fine.
From the collection of Dipl.-Ing. Adrian Lang, ex Rauch 86, 12 May 2010, 633.
A devoted art lover himself, it is perhaps no surprise that Roman die engraving reached an artistic pinnacle under Nero. The last of the Julio-Claudian emperors had shown deep affection for the beaux-arts since his youth, seeing himself as a highly skilled singer, poet, and lyre player. This in itself was not unusual, as artistic and particularly literary pursuits were bon ton in the Roman elite, with Julius Caesar and Claudius famously being avid writers and Augustus surrounding himself with a circle of poets and intellectuals. Such activities, however, were supposed to be private and only to be shared with an exclusive circle of like-minded friends. It thus caused great outrage in the Roman elite when Nero, from 59 onwards, started performing in front of wider aristocratic audiences, and, worst of all, in front of the populace.
Such behavior was unthinkable for an aristocratic lifestyle and evoked great bitterness among traditionalists, resentment which only grew through the actions of Nero's entourage of senatorial and knightly flatterers, many of whom imitated the emperor's conduct. The situation was not helped by the fact that Nero's performances were apparently rather uninspiring and dull, with Vespasian famously falling asleep during the Neronia in 65, which almost got him executed by the furious wannabe-artist. However, it has to be pointed out that the populace in general and the audiences in Greece in particular, where Nero appeared in 66 as a singer, an actor, and an athlete, reportedly greatly enjoyed the spectacle, perhaps not least because Greek audiences were much more accustomed to such performances. Hellenistic kings often held their public appearances in theatres, as we learn from Plutarch:
'He ordered all the citizens to assemble in the theatre. He surrounded the rear and sides with troops and lined up his personal guard at the back of the stage. Then he himself, like a tragic actor, made his appearance down one of the stairways at the side.' (Plut. Demetr. 18.3).
The situation Plutarch describes here was Demetrios I. Poliorketes' (306-283 BC) address to the Athenians after his second conquest of the city in 294 BC. Other instances of theatrical staging of Hellenistic kingship are attested for Antiochos IV (175-164 BC) during the Daphne Festival in 166 BC, where the king appeared in the guise of Dionysos and is said to have danced naked before his guests (Ath. 5.195e-f), or of the Bithynian king, Prusias II (182-149 BC), who upon appearing in person before the Roman Senate in 167 BC orchestrated a great theatrical spectacle in an attempt to regain Roman favor after having failed to support the Republic's war against his brother-in-law, Perseus:
'And now, on entering the senate-house he stood in the doorway facing the members and putting both his hands on the ground bowed his head to the ground in adoration of the threshold and the seated senators, with the words, 'Hail, ye saviour gods,' making it impossible for anyone after him to surpass him in unmanliness, womanishness, and servility. And on entering he conducted himself during his interview in a similar manner, doing things that it were unbecoming even to mention. As he showed himself to be utterly contemptible, he received a kind answer for this very reason.' (Polyb. 30.18).
Examples like these show that while there is little doubt that Nero really did see himself as a highly gifted artist, much of his - from a Roman perspective - eccentric behavior stemmed from his enthusiastic philhellenism. The theatrical aspect of Greek kingship and the concept of royal τρυφή, a word with different meanings such as 'magnificence', 'voluptuousness' or 'extravagance', stood in stark contrast to the conservative Roman mos maiorum, the 'ancestral custom', which incorporated the virtues of discipline, hard work, justice, piety and devotion to public service. Clearly Nero neglected his duties as the ruler of an empire, but we have to keep in mind that the reports we have of his reign all originated from later senatorial historians, and are thus almost universally hostile. The youthful emperor was certainly not an ideal monarch, but his interest in, and support of the arts, history, geography, and sciences not only made him perform extravagantly in front of public audiences, it also had him send out expeditions to find the source of the Nile, conduct excavations in Carthage, and employ the finest artists of his era. Nero's concern for the fine arts manifests in his coinage, and his bronze coins in particular are often extremely refined, with remarkably detailed portraits cut in high relief and opulent renderings of deities, as seen on this exceptionally well preserved dupondius.