DVD on Nero’s Golden House – review

Nero’s Golden House
Microcinema // Unrated // April 28, 2009
List Price: $24.95
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman

The Movie:
Having recently reviewed both the SD-DVD and BD of Quo Vadis, I came to Nero’s Golden House smugly self-assured that everything vile we’ve all believed about the “evil” Roman Emperor, especially as enacted by such greats as Peter Ustinov, would be emphatically exposed and analyzed. Damn! I hate it when films fictionalize historical characters (you regular readers of my reviews know it’s best not to get me started on the Jessica Lange feature Frances, for example). This very interesting documentary uses Nero’s insanely grandiose digs, built after the infamous fire (and actually referred to quite explicitly in Quo Vadis), as the starting point for an examination that may not exactly fulfill most viewers’ preconceived notions of what the supposed mad fiddler was all about.

Nero’s Golden House starts with some contemporary shots of Rome, intercut with several vintage film clips of various actors portraying Nero (including Ustinov, of course), before stopping a wide pan on the Coliseum, which happens to be built on top of part of what once was the huge, 200 acre plot where Nero’s building ambitions reached their heights. The camera then moves a bit to the right and reveals and nice little sylvan glade in the midst of the Roman madness, revealing that underneath the mini-forest are the only remains of what once was an astoundingly huge array of buildings.

The documentary goes into the history of the discovery of these remains (it was actually hundreds of years ago, and the frescoes on the walls back then were evidently as fresh as the day they were painted), before rippling out into what the archeological remains tell us about Nero the man, his reign, and some of the mistaken history we’ve all swallowed hook, line and sinker. Along the way we get the usual assortment of learned talking heads, intercut with some fun archival film clips, and, perhaps a bit bizarrely, shots of the old Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas being demolished and then a new hotel being built (shown via some pretty cool time lapse photography).

If Rome wasn’t built in a day, it didn’t take them too much longer, as Nero’s Golden House makes quite clear. Due to their for the times advanced engineering techniques, including that new-fangled invention concrete, the Romans were able to erect absolutely epic structures in a surprisingly small amount of time. Nero, who it turns out wasn’t even in Rome when it burnt (hence couldn’t have been fiddling and/or lyre playing as it burned), used that facility to quickly reclaim the center area of Rome to build his Golden House, which, it seems, really was finished in gold leaf, something that must have been quite dazzling due to the main structure’s southern exposure. Nero’s aims for his massive manse were to solidify and give symbol to his power, which the project actually did for a while.

What is revealed throughout Nero’s Golden House is that our commonly held precepts about the emperor are mostly wrong, or at least misguided. Was Nero lewd and lascivious? Probably no more than the average Roman of the day. Was he a wannabe “artiste”? Most definitely, though the jury is still out on whether the “wannabe” moniker fits, as he actually may have had some talent, and he certainly was a champion of the arts. Was he stupid? Well, he may not have been the brightest bulb in the pack, but it seems that he was mostly naïve, the result of a sheltered upbringing by a mother who, if not quite as ruthless as Livia of I, Claudius fame, was not above scheming to make sure her son ascended to the throne. That lack of guile is what ultimately led to Nero’s downfall and the ultimate eradication of his huge fortress.

This is an appealingly broad, yet nicely intimate, look at a long pilloried figure of history who may not quite deserve the scorn he’s frequently given. The recreations of what the palace may have looked like are neat, if not always photo-realistic, and the learned commentary gives us enough insight into Nero the man to help better understand why such an immense structure was built to begin with. Quo Vadis and its ilk may be the version of Nero most people will always remember, but sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction (as some wise man once said), and Nero’s Golden House proves that, architecturally at least, that’s one adage that holds entirely too true.


Nero’s Golden House arrives with an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer that is pretty typical of television documentary fare–a certain degree of softness, but good color and contrast and overall excellent detail. There were a couple of very brief moments of aliasing in some busy relief work. Some of the archival film footage from movies of yore doesn’t look very good, and the wrongly blown up Quo Vadis (filmed in 1.33:1) looks horrible, frankly, which helps to show what an improvement the recent BD release of this venerable film really is.

The standard stereo soundtrack suffices just fine for what amounts to talking heads and narration. There’s nothing exceptional here, but equally there’s nothing horrible. All voices are easy to hear and understand. No subtitles are available.

None are offered.

Final Thoughts:
It may be more fun to relish in Ustinov’s over the top portrayal of the “mad” Roman Emperor, but Nero’s Golden House makes it abundantly clear that the actual man, while misguided and naive, actually did a lot of good for his Empire. Whether or not this frankly insanely massive structure qualifies as “something good” I’ll leave to the cultural historians to sort out, but Nero’s Golden House is an informative and consistently interesting documentary that helps dispel myths while illuminating a little known aspect of Nero’s roiling ambitions. Recommended.

Letter asking for Latin


Susan B. Thomas, Culpeper
Published: March 26, 2009

Student, parents, and citizens NOTA BENE! Language offerings in Culpeper County Public Schools are under assault! Latin and the French position at Culpeper County High are being eliminated. Now is the time to learn more and let the School Board, the Acting Superintendent, and the Curriculum Specialist for Culpeper County hear from you.

As the retired Latin teacher for Culpeper County, I was indeed distressed to learn that Latin is being cut from the course offerings in Culpeper County. When I considered retirement, I went to great lengths to try to insure that Culpeper Latin students would have a Latin teacher. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Denise Hunt, Recruitment and Retention Specialist, this was accomplished. Christine Steer came to Culpeper, took the necessary classes to acquire her certification in Latin, and has been teaching Latin here now for five years. Imagine my dismay last week when I learned that despite the fact that a qualified person is teaching Latin, it is being removed from the language options available to our best students. What happens to those students who have completed one year of Latin? Do they just loose that language credit? Many colleges expect two years of two languages, or three or more of one. Some of the colleges with strict entrance requirements look most favorably on those students who have had four or more years. Successful study of Latin always looks good to admissions officers. Is there no way to avoid taking this opportunity away from our students?

Perhaps, I am most concerned to know that those students who aspire to careers in areas such as law, science, pharmacy, and medicine no longer have the opportunity to take the language that will benefit them the most. All students who take Latin have an excellent opportunity to increase their English vocabulary through Latin roots even with only one year of Latin. Many students take Latin to increase their English vocabulary since 50 –60% of English words come from Latin roots. Research has shown that students who have knowledge of Latin root words score higher on SAT tests. The best way to learn Latin roots is to study the Latin language.

Have the School Board, the Acting Superintendent, and Curriculum Specialist all overlooked the fact that when students study Latin, they also study Roman culture and civilization? Many classical allusions occur in literature. The study of Roman authors and Greek and Roman mythology provides a foundation for these. The Romans were a dominant force in history for more than a thousand years. Exploring their civilization provides a background for history. Some have suggested that knowing about the issues from a different time period has given them a better perspective on some of the problems in our world at the current time.

Latin is the mother language for French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Latin students are well prepared for the vocabulary and grammar in these languages. Many people will tell you that they mastered their English grammar in Latin class as well.

Our government is a Republic modeled on the Roman Republic. Many state mottoes, college mottoes, and abbreviations in our society are in Latin. Three such phrases appear on the back of the dollar bill and on the United States Seal. Our own state uses “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. In addition, numerous inscriptions are written in Latin. Many abbreviations that Americans use stand for Latin phrases. A.M., P.M., P.S., A .D., etc., ad lib., cf., i.e., N.B., pro tem., e.g.,
Q. E. D., and vs. are a few examples. Don’t we want students educated in Culpeper County Schools to have an opportunity to learn what these and many other phrases such as quid pro quo, caveat emptor, de facto, corpus delicti, or carpe diem mean? Many people have no idea that A.D. even comes from Latin. They think it stands for “After Death”. Is this what we want for Culpeper students?

Interaction in the world has now become very global. This is a time for students to learn as many languages as they can. Therefore, the addition of German would seem to be a good thing. However, if offering German means that Culpeper can no longer afford to offer Latin too, this is not a good thing. As I have tried to point out above, much of our literature, history, and civilization are intricately intertwined with classical literature, culture, and civilization. 50-60% of the more difficult words in English have Latin roots. I do not believe there are nearly so many ways that German can support the overall educational program for our students. Furthermore, offering Latin allows the student an opportunity to study both an ancient and a modern foreign language. Comparing and contrasting life styles, customs, political systems, attitudes, and the general outlook on life in an ancient civilization with our way of life provide a very broad range of topics for student consideration. This is especially true for students who pursue three or more years of Latin study.

Culpeper has experienced sufficient growth to require a second high school. This does not seem to be an appropriate time to reduce our course offerings. In addition, did some of the uncertainty about whether teachers or students would move from school to school impact the enrollment in classes such as Latin this past year? Another factor that often affects enrollment is what other courses are offered during the same block. Since Culpeper’s Latin teacher had to move between two schools, this limited the number of times a level of Latin could be offered in each school. Mrs. Steer actually taught an advanced class after school, but of course not very many students are willing to forego sports and other after school commitments to take an additional class.

Culpeper also desires to attract additional business and industry to the area. A good school system is an integral component in the success of such attempts. Culpeper has been fortunate to have a Latin teacher and a strong Latin program for most of the past fifty to sixty years. If the Culpeper school system chooses to send the teacher we have away and eliminate the program, it is very unlikely that reinstating it will be an option. There are not that many Latin teachers available and numerous school systems are actively recruiting them. Culpeper was indeed fortune to get a certified teacher, and especially one dedicated enough to teach a class after school. In the face of such dedication and obstacles beyond the control of the teacher, how can the leaders of the school system find it appropriate to simply remove Latin from the curriculum? Is this what will be in store for French another year. If only one French teacher remains employed in the county, will French suffer the same fate another year due to scheduling conflicts and the inability of one teacher to be in two places at once? If the one French teacher remains in one location, how much time and money will be needed to transport students from the other high school. Surely, the leadership for the school system does not believe that the high school a student is assigned to on the basis of the location of his/her home should determine the language the student is assigned to study.

Another point to consider is whether persons teaching in other language areas are all certified. If not, are they moving in that direction, and are their intentions for staying in our school system even known? Also, please remember that students need language for college entrance. The students displaced from Latin, and any other language classes you cancel, will have to find a place in another language class. Is this going to overload Spanish to the extent that it will be necessary to seek people from programs such as VIF to fill the additional position that may be required? Are you confident that this can be done without needing to add another teacher somewhere else? Ask people who have been around for a while how these last minute arrivals related to students and how well they adapted to life here. I am not under the impression that they come with a low price tag either.

Yes, I realize that budgets are tight and that the School Board, Acting Superintendent and Curriculum Specialists have hard decisions to make. I gave 29 years of my life to teaching Latin. I did so not just to have a job, but because I deeply believe that studying Latin has great value for the student. Therefore, at the very least, I must ask that they reconsider their decision to remove it from the curriculum. Please let your voices be heard and encourage the school leadership to keep Latin as a course offering for Culpeper County students. Those students who are willing to put forth the effort required to learn it are greatly rewarded.

Encourage them to employ sufficient language personnel so that French students do not find that they have the same scheduling conflicts that contributed to the decrease in enrollment for Latin. Students of today are the leaders of tomorrow. America needs for all of them to receive the most complete education possible. Thomas Jefferson praised those who had enabled him to be schooled in the classics because of the contributions it made to his education. Should we choose to do any less for the students of Culpeper County in the years to come?


Susan B. Thomas
Former Culpeper Latin Teacher
Retired 2004

This is a legion

A good way to impress on students the sheer size of a legion.