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Cruel Nero: the concept of the tyrant and the image of Nero in western political thought

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The use of a historical example such as Nero as part of an argument defending or condemning the regicides came automatically to literate Europeans of the seventeenth century who, as part of their classical education, were conditioned to use rhetorical devices, including examples and comparisons, when trying to convince readers to accept their arguments. Nero had, since shortly after his death in AD 68, been a favourite example of a tyrant, and for centuries literate Europeans had shared a traditional perception of Nero's iniquitous character and actions. Salmasius, however, referred to Nero as being not simply a tyrant but as ‘the worst of tyrants’. One of the major objectives of this essay is to demonstrate that this notion of Nero as worse than other tyrants and indeed, with some writers, than other men was widely shared during the Renaissance. Secondly, I will show that it was mainly the personality of Nero and especially his cruelty that was seen as justifying his exceptional status. Thirdly, I hope to explain how he came to have such a reputation and the influence of rhetoric and a related moralizing approach to writing history on establishing and perpetuating it. In accomplishing these three objectives it will also be necessary to elucidate the meaning that the term ‘tyrant’ had for Europeans of the Renaissance and earlier centuries. As will be shown, the tyrant was very frequently defined in terms of his vicious personality and especially his extreme cruelty.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Tulane University.

Publication date: 01 March 1991

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