Was Nero a genuine poet?
But the emperor did not obtain publicity by his theatrical talents only. He also aspired to poetic taste. He gathered round himself at dinner men who possessed some versifying ability but were not yet known. As they sat on, they strung together verses they had brought with them, or extemporized -- and filled out Nero's poems themselves, which lack vigour, inspiration, and homogeneity.
(Tacitus, Annals 14.17, trans. Michael Grant.)
Or does he [Canius Rufus] emulate the compositions that a mendacious writer ascribed to Nero?
(Martial, Epigrams 3.20.4, trans. Shackleton Bailey.)
As a boy Nero read most of the usual school subjects except philosophy which, Agrippina warned him, was no proper study for a future ruler. His tutor Seneca hid the works of the early rhetoricians from him, intending to be admired himself as long as possible. So Nero turned his hand to poetry, and would dash off verses without any effort. It is often claimed that he published other people's work as his own; but notebooks and loose pages have come into my possession, which contain some of Nero's best-known poems in his own handwriting, and have clearly been neither copied nor dictated. Many erasures and cancellations, as well as words substituted above the lines prove that he was thinking things out for himself.
(Suetonius, Nero 52, trans. Robert Graves.)
Nero himself is said to have feared your [Nerva's] ears, when in youth he lightly turned out for you some playful piece.
(Martial, Epigrams 9.26.9-10, trans. Shackleton Bailey.)
Political rivalry and poetry:
Now Nero listened to more disreputable advisers. These attacked Seneca, first for his wealth, which was enormous and excessive for any subject, they said, and was still increasing; secondly, for the grandeur of his mansions and beauty of his gardens, which outdid even the emperor's; and thirdly, for his alleged bids for popularity. They also charged Seneca with allowing no one to be called eloquent but himself. 'He is always writing poetry,' they suggested, 'now that Nero has become fond of it. ...'
(Tacitus, Annals 14.52, trans. Michael Grant.)
However, his [Piso's] ambitions were not what originated the conspiracy. Who did, who initiated this enterprise which so many joined, I could not easily say. Subrius Flavus, a colonel of the Guard, and Sulpicius Asper, company-commander, were in the forefront -- as their courageous deaths showed. Violent hatred was what brought in Lucan and Plautius Lateranus. Lucan's animosity was personal. For Nero had the impudence to compete with Lucan as a poet, and had impeded his reputation by vetoing his publicity.
(Tacitus, Annals 15.49, trans. Michael Grant.)
As a fitting climax to their performances, Nero himself made his appearance in the theatre, being announced under his own name by Gallio. So there stood this Caesar on the stage wearing the garb of a lyre-player. This emperor uttered the words: "My lords, of your kindness give me ear," and this Augustus sang to the lyre some piece called "Attis" or "The Bacchantes" ....
(Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.20, trans. Ernest Cary.)
Nero continued to do many ridiculous things. Thus, on the occasion of a certain popular festival, he descended to the orchestra of the theatre, where he read some Trojan lays of his own, and in honour of these, numerous sacrifices were offered; as was the case with everything else that he did. He was now making preparations to write an epic narrating all the achievements of the Romans; and even before composing a line of it he began to consider the proper number of books, consulting among others Annaeus Cornutus, who at this time was famed for his learning. This man he came very near putting to death and did deport to an island, because, while some were urging him to write four hundred books, Cornutus said that they were too many and nobody would read them. And when someone objected, "Yet Chrysippus, whom you praise and imitate, composed many more," the other retorted: "But they were a help to the conduct of men's lives." So Cornutus incurred banishment for this. Lucan, on the other hand, was debarred from writing poetry because he was receiving high praise for his work.
(Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.29, trans. Ernest Cary.)
References to specific poems:
The Neapolitan theatre was filled. Besides the local population, it contained visitors from all around attracted by the notable occasion. Present, too, were those who attend the emperor out of respect or to perform various services -- and even units of troops. The theatre now provided what seemed to most people an evil omen, but to Nero a sign of divine providence and favour. For when it was empty (the crowd having left), it collapsed. But there were no casualties; and Nero composed a poem thanking the gods for the happy outcome of the incident.
(Tacitus, Annals, 15.34, trans. Michael Grant.)
Quintianus was a notorious degenerate who had been insulted by Nero in an offensive poem, and desired revenge.
(Tacitus, Annals, 15.49, trans. Michael Grant.)
Yet, whoever is familiar with poet Nero's verse, knows that Nerva is the Tibullus of our time.
(Martial, Epigrams 8.70.7-8, trans. Shackleton Bailey.)
... Claudius Pollio, an ex-praetor, and the target of Nero's satire The One-Eyed Man... .
(Suetonius, Domitian 1, trans. Robert Graves.)
Among the other portentous events of his career is the fact that Domitius Nero bestowed this name on the hair of his wife Poppaea, even going so far as to call it in one of his poems 'sucint' or 'amber-coloured,' for no defect lacks a term that represents it as an asset. From that time, respectable women began to aspire to this as a third possible colour for their hair.
(Pliny, Natural History 37.50, trans. D.E. Eichholz.)
Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called 'the beauty of the flames'; then put on his tragedian's costume and sang The Fall of Ilium from beginning to end.
(Suetonius, Nero 38, trans. Robert Graves.)
Cynthium regem Troiae, quem in Troicis suis Nero commemorat.
(Servius, Georgics 3.36, in Edward Courtney, The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford UP, 2003), page 359.)
sane hic Paris secundum Troica Neronis fortissimus fuit, adeo ut in Troiae agonali certamine superaret omnes, ipsum etiam Hectorem. qui cum iratus in eum stringeret gladium, dixit se esse germanum; quod adlatis crepundiis probauit qui habitu rustico adhuc latebat.
(Servius, Aeneid 5.370, in Edward Courtney, The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford UP, 2003), page 359.)
And they put up at an inn close to the gate, and were taking their supper, for it was already eventide, when a drunken fellow with a far from harsh voice turned up as it were for a revel; and he was one it seems who was in the habit of going round about Rome singing Nero's songs and hired for the purpose, and anyone who neglected to listen to him or refused to pay him for his music, he had the right to arrest for violating Nero's majesty. And he carried a harp and all the outfit proper for a harpist, and he also had put away in a casket a second-hand string which others had fastened on their instruments and tuned up before him, and this he said he had purchased off Nero's own lyre for two minas, and that he would sell it to no one who was not a first-rate harpist and fit to contend for the prize at Delphi.
He then struck up a prelude, according to his custom, and after performing a short hymn composed by Nero, he added various lays, some out of the story of Orestes, and some from the Antigone, and others from one or another of the tragedies composed by Nero, and he proceeded to drawl out the rondos which Nero was in the habit of murdering by his miserable writhings and modulations.
As they listened with some indifference, he proceeded to accuse them of violating Nero's majesty and of being enemies of his divine voice; but they paid no attention to him. Then Menippus asked Apollonius how he appreciated these remarks, whereupon he said: "How do I appreciate them? Why, just as I did his songs. Let us, however, O Menippus, not take too much offence at his remarks, but let us give him something for his performance and dismiss him to sacrifice to the Muses of Nero."
(Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.39, trans. F.C. Conybeare.)
Besides, as Nero Caesar says so elegantly:
Colla Cytheriacae splendent agitata columbae
"The neck of the dove of Venus glistens in movement."
(Seneca, Natural Questions 1.5.6, trans. T.H. Corcoran.)
He [Lucan] was recalled from Athens by Nero and made one of his intimate friends, besides being honoured with the quaestorship; but he could not keep the emperor's favour. For piqued because Nero had suddenly called a meeting of the senate and gone out when he was giving a reading, with no other motive than to throw cold water on the performance, he afterwards did not refrain from words and acts of hostility to the prince, which are still notorious. Once for example in a public privy, when he relieved his bowels with an uncommonly loud noise, he shouted out this half line of the emperor's, while those who were there for the same purpose took to their heels:
sub terris tonuisse putes.
"You might suppose it thundered 'neath the earth."
(Suetonius, Life of Lucan, trans. J.C. Rolfe.)
Tigrin . . . de hoc ait in primo libro Nero:
quique pererratam subductus Persida Tigris
deserir et longo terrarum tractus hiatu
reddit quaesitas iam non quaerentibus undas.
(Schol. Lucan, 3.261, in Edward Courtney, The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford UP, 2003), page 357.)