Nero (37 – 68 AD)
It’s no coincidence that one of the most important surviving ancient texts about the evils of alcohol comes from the Age of Nero. It was written by Seneca the Younger, a stoic philosopher who in his later years was hired as tutor to the young emperor, and outlined the belief that excessive drinking meant a weakness of character. Given Seneca’s protégée, it’s easy to see where he might have got his inspiration.
As a teenager, Nero would get tanked up before roaming Rome’s streets, pillaging taverns and looking for people with whom to pick impossibly one-sided fights. One time, he started on a senator whose wife he’d once molested, and in his fury the aggrieved husband gave as good as he got, inflicting some injuries on Nero. After that Nero would never again roam the streets without an escort; after that, the aggrieved husband would never again draw breath.
As emperor, Nero participated in many less violent activities which, for a good, upstanding Roman, would have been considered abhorrent (the modern equivalent might be Queen Elizabeth pole dancing, or Putin riding around shirtless on horseback). Singing was one of them, and although Nero abstained from foods that could prove harmful to his voice, we’re told that he did need a bit of Dutch courage before performing at the theatre.
Chariot racing was another, and despite the fact that the Romans had their own drink-driving laws forbidding anybody to be intoxicated while in control of a chariot, it seems Nero may have broken this one, especially considering the fact that when he raced in the Olympics he fell off. He was still crowned winner of course. But as the most powerful man in the world, who in their right mind would disqualify him?
The moment we see Nero at his most dependent on alcohol comes from immediately after he ordered the murder of his mother, Agrippina. As he arrived to look upon her stabbed corpse, we’re told the incestuous emperor made a series of comments about her physical attributes; some critical, some complimentary. While doing this he demanded something to drink. If this anecdote is true, we can presume he did so to numb himself against the monstrosity of what he’d done.
Any banquets he hosted would last from noon until midnight. They wouldn’t be in private either, but in the Circus Maximus or on one of his many pleasure barges on the River Tiber or at Baiae on the Campanian Coastline. And such were their size and scale (in terms of participants and expenditure) that they would attract pop-up taverns replete with aristocratic prostitutes which, when you think about it, gives us our perfect caricatural image of the excessive lifestyles of the Roman elite.
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