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March 25, 2002

Seminar examines the original 'pop star': Nero

By Beverly Clark


Known in the popular imagination and Hollywood films as ancient Rome’s most depraved and decadent emperor, Nero is infamous for fiddling while the city of Rome burned.

The classic material gets a fresh approach in Emory College this semester with the freshman seminar “Nero: Hero/Anti-Hero?” which examines the life and reign of one of Rome’s most notorious rulers.

Students in the seminar seek to reveal the man behind the outrageous myths by examining one of the most exciting epochs in Roman history through surviving masterpieces of art and literature, as well as Nero’s portrayal by ancient authors as well as in Hollywood films such as Quo Vadis and The Sign of the Cross.

“I really hope to teach the students to look at art and literature critically and not just at face value,” said Eric Varner, assistant professor of classics and art history. “I want them to discover something they may not be exposed to during the course of their liberal arts education.”

Varner added that he also wants to give his freshman students a graduate seminar experience early in their academic career.

Because of the negative connotations attached to Nero himself, there is an air of debauchery connected to the art of the period by scholars. But Nero was also a popular ruler, beloved by the common people, whose era saw great progression in the arts, Varner said. Nero’s 14-year reign was one of the most productive artistic and literary periods in the Roman Empire, witnessing revolutionary developments in architecture, painting, sculpture and writing.

“Nero is an incredibly complex character. He was more than an emperor—he was a poet, an artist, a chariot racer,” Varner said.

The class grew out of Varner’s own work on a book about the art and decadence during the age of Nero and research on Rome’s “bad emperors.” He is now working with his class to discern the person behind the myth of Nero and sift fact from fiction.

“Nero, as far as we can tell, was a pretty charismatic person and has been described as the ‘first pop star,’” Varner said. “Nero is fun. He’s sexy. A majority of my students say the reason they signed up for the course is because Nero seems so interesting to them.”