When Vespasian had put an end at last to the eighteen months of confusion and war that followed the death of Nero, he immediately set about undoing the reign of his predecessor, in an effort to wipe out its traces. The Senate had already voted a damnatio memoriae, demanding the erasure of all mention of Nero's name from inscriptions throughout the Empire. His few achievements and many projects, some of them well on the way to completion, were promptly cancelled. His magnificent but still unfinished palace, known as the House of Gold, was dismantled, and the spaces it had occupied were turned over to the people. The artificial lake of its landscape garden was drained and work started on the first stage of a monument to the new dynasty, the huge Flavian amphitheatre. The Colossus of Nero, a gigantic portrait statue which had stood 120 feet high in the palace's vestibule, was cleansed of the tyrant's offending features, and carried upright through the city to stand at the eponymous arena's side. Those same features remained on coins already in circulation, of course, but, according to the philosopher Epictetus, they were avoided wherever possible; in fact, if someone noticed Nero's head among coins offered in payment he would shout out: 'Take it away! It's decayed and rotten! It's not acceptable!'
LRB 28 April 1994 | PDF Download