Television Review: The Nero Files
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 3/4/2019


When I can, I want to be timely with these essays on Rome Reborn®, so when I learned about a new episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead, I wanted to watch and re-watch the show before bringing it to your attention. If you watched it, I hope you will join this website and participate in our discussion. If you’d like to see it, you may stream it free for a limited time on PBS here.

The 55-minute documentary has good production values. The historical reenactments are part live action and part digital, and the digital fits in fairly well; for example, ruins transform into a palace while Emperor Nero watches. The actors never speak, except right at the end during Nero’s suicide, when his slave whispers encouragement. They don’t need to speak, because there is a constant narration, except when one of the modern scholars or the profiler talks. Modern experiments are shown in clips, and what is happening is explained in satisfying and not boring detail. As a television episode for a viewer interested in the general period, it is fun, interesting, and enlightening; however, I’m not a casual viewer, and during my second time watching it I took notes then did some research on the things that made me frown as I watched the documentary the first time.

The narrator and the profiler repeatedly remind us, the viewers, that ancient accounts of Nero’s life are not objective. Yet only three named ancient authors’ words are questioned and looked into —Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. Why use only these three ancient writers when we have other evidence available to us?

With just a quick search, I found The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, a 2016 book from Princeton Press by Barrett, Fantham, and Yardley. This episode seems to be a German documentary, Die Akte Nero, from 2017, giving its producers time to learn about other ancient sources simply using the aforementioned book. Just using that same book would also have given the show’s producers at least three Neronian scholars to consult for the show. Nero expert and Rome Reborn collaborator Dr. Vasily Rudich, the author of a recently-finished highly acclaimed trilogy on Nero and his age, could have enlivened the show, sharpened the debate, and raised the level of historical expertise. An abundance of modern experts and ancient evidence is right there for the taking, yet this documentary is focused on three salacious ancient authors and brings in generalist experts. I’ll return to the issue of experts in this show in a moment.

Any decent ancient scholar readily admits that all sources will have biases, yet I noticed that only certain anti-Nero claims are investigated on this show, while other events in or around Nero’s life are just accepted, even though the sources used are the same as those that are challenged. The application of modern science and research into the past is what Secrets of the Dead has been about since it began in 2000, so I expected nothing else. However, I would like to see the criteria applied evenly across all reported events and not targeted so blatantly at specific events.

The “slanderous” events in this show included the death of Britannicus (Nero’s stepbrother), the death of Agrippina (Nero’s mother), Nero’s starting the Great Fire of Rome, the death of Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina, and the allegation that Nero was widely hated. In each of these cases, the documentary wants to show that the details are impossible or illogical. Weren’t we already given the “sources are biased” lecture? So why would the details be truthful?

At the same time, the ancient reports of Agrippina’s murder of the Emperor Claudius, Britannicus’ epilepsy, Christians setting the Great Fire, and Nero never wanting to be emperor at all are stated as facts. In short, any evidence that shows Nero as this show wants him to be shown (misunderstood artist forced to rule) is stated as fact, but anything showing Nero in a crazy or negative light must be challenged.

Then there is the problem of the specific experts used in this show. The Interpol profiler, Thomas Müller, is certainly qualified to look into modern criminal cases, but is he the best choice for this investigation? Müller only seems to serve as a secondary narrator who repeats information and asks questions.

The other experts used in the show include ancient historian Martin Zimmermann, forensic toxicologist Wolfgang Bicker, Roman archeologist Marcus Reuter, ancient historian Manfred Clauss, classicist and papyrologist Paul Schubert, and epigraphist Rebecca R. Benefiel. All of these experts have numerous articles and titles to qualify them to talk on some aspect of this show, but none are specialists in the study of Nero. Indeed, only Schubert and Benefiel offer new evidence outside of the three ancient writers this show is fixated upon.

The experts seem well aware of the limitations of the evidence, but both narrators — voiceover and Müller — make it sound as if Nero’s reputation were a purposeful hit job, though they offer no reason why. I could think of reasons why, but this show should be bringing that out for the viewer, who may not even have taken a college course in the early imperial period of Rome. The acting, too, shows a bias. Nero is always shown with a hurt or dismayed look whenever tragedy strikes, while his mother gazes on with a smug smile. Sometimes the acting makes the narration difficult to believe, such as the comments about how he was an artist forced to be a ruler when the actor is showing Nero throwing a fit like a spoiled child.

The conclusion that Nero was a victim is overblown in this documentary. Is he any more a “victim” of ancient accounts than any other emperor or member of the ruling elite? Of course, this show doesn't mention other emperors besides Claudius, and he is merely in this production to be killed off to make way for Nero. Emperor Nero, in fact, has been the subject or at least tangential to the subject covered in other Secrets of the Dead episodes, only some of which you can still watch without a streaming subscription. Is the bias I’m feeling with The Nero Files a PBS problem? I’m going to go check out the other documentaries there and let you know what I find out later.

Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files originally aired on PBS stations on February 20, 2019. You can stream it for free for a limited time on PBS here until March 20, 2019.

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