I’m killing time while the wife and kids watch the Bachelorette (gag), and have been posting assorted things on my Facebook page about claims that Michael Jackson is actually alive. Also on my Facebook page I’ve posted links to assorted Weekly World News covers suggesting the same thing about Elvis (and Princess Di). What I’ve always found interesting (ever since Elvis died and this phenomenon seemed to have started) is that the same thing happened shortly after Nero died so I might as well write some sort of blog post on this. We begin with what Tacitus relates in Histories 2.9:
About this time Achaia and Asia Minor were terrified by a false report that Nero was at hand. Various rumours were current about his death; and so there were many who pretended and believed that he was still alive. The adventures and enterprises of the other pretenders I shall relate in the regular course of my work. The pretender in this case was a slave from Pontus, or, according to some accounts, a freedman from Italy, a skilful harp-player and singer, accomplishments, which, added to a resemblance in the face, gave a very deceptive plausibility to his pretensions. After attaching to himself some deserters, needy vagrants whom he bribed with great offers, he put to sea. Driven by stress of weather to the island of Cythnus, he induced certain soldiers, who were on their way from the East, to join him, and ordered others, who refused, to be executed. He also robbed the traders and armed all the most able bodied of the slaves. The centurion Sisenna, who was the bearer of the clasped right hands, the usual emblems of friendship, from the armies of Syria to the Praetorians, was assailed by him with various artifices, till he left the island secretly, and, fearing actual violence, made his escape with all haste. Thence the alarm spread far and wide, and many roused themselves at the well-known name, eager for change, and detesting the present state of things. The report was daily gaining credit when an accident put an end to it.
Galba had entrusted the government of Galatia and Pamphylia to Calpurnius Asprenas. Two triremes from the fleet of Misenum were given him to pursue the adventurer: with these he reached the island of Cythnus. Persons were found to summon the captains in the name of Nero. The pretender himself, assuming a studied appearance of sorrow, and appealing to their fidelity as old soldiers of his own, besought them to land him in Egypt or Syria. The captains, perhaps wavering, perhaps intending to deceive, declared that they must address their soldiers, and that they would return when the minds of all had been prepared. Everything, however, was faithfully reported to Asprenas, and at his bidding the ship was boarded and taken, and the man, whoever he was, killed. The body, in which the eyes, the hair, and the savage countenance, were remarkable features, was conveyed to Asia, and thence to Rome. The Histories via the Internet Classics Archive
But it didn’t end there … Cassius Dio relates another false Nero during the principate of Titus:
In his reign also the False Nero appeared, who was an Asiatic named Terentius Maximus. He resembled Nero both in appearance and in voice (for he too sang to the accompaniment of the lyre). He gained a few followers in Asia, and in his advance to the Euphrates attached a far greater number, and finally sought refuge with Artabanus, the Parthian leader, who, because of his anger against Titus, both received him and set about making preparations to restore him to Rome. (Epitome of Book 66 via Lacus Curtius)
… and there was (perhaps) a third False Nero, mentioned in the last chapter of Suetonius’ Nero:
He met his death in the thirty-second year of his age, on the anniversary of the murder of Octavia, and such was the public rejoicing that the people put on liberty-caps160 and ran about all over the city. Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies. Nay more, Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent envoys to the senate to renew his alliance, earnestly begged this too, that honour be paid to the memory of Nero. In fact, twenty years later, when I was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared, who gave out that he was Nero, and the name was still in such favour with the Parthians that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him with great reluctance. (via Lacus Curtius)
Tacitus, in the beginning of his Histories (1.2.1) mentions:
I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors. Four emperors perished by the sword. There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once. There was success in the East, and disaster in the West. There were disturbances in Illyricum; Gaul wavered in its allegiance; Britain was thoroughly subdued and immediately abandoned; the tribes of the Suevi and the Sarmatae rose in concert against us; the Dacians had the glory of inflicting as well as suffering defeat; the armies of Parthia were all but set in motion by the cheat of a counterfeit Nero. (Internet Classics Archive)
… this is usually assumed to be one of the aforementioned. The usual study of all these ‘sightings’ is Christopher Tuplin, ‘The False Neros of the First Century AD’, in C. Deroux (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History (Collection Latomus, 206; Brussels: Latomus): 364-404.
The parallel is not exact, of course — the above situations seem to involve actual persons impersonating Ner0 (but we have that phenomenon too) . But in at least one, of course, we’re in the realm of rumours and the implication is there might even have been more ‘sightings’. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting, and rather ancient phenomenon …
UPDATE (07/09/09) ~ rogueclassicism/Explorator reader Angelika Franz has written an interesting item on this ‘sightings’ phenomenon in modern and ancient times for Spiegel (in German):