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Closing the Doors of Janus‘ Temple: Nero‘s Propaganda celebrating the Roman-Parthian Agreement of 58 A.D. on the Armenian Reign

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Nero was quite a popular emperor in his day. And when he received the brother of the Parthian king, the whole of Rome had a celebration.

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Rome. We are in the year 65 AD.

 

You will have heard only bad things about this man. For you, Nero will probably always look a bit like Peter Ustinov. His performance in the film "Quo Vadis" affected our image of Nero more than all the ancient sources put together.

 

However, Nero was not so unpopular in his own time. He had brought a fresh breeze into the palace. Despite the indignation of the venerable senators, this young man tried earnestly to develop his artistic skills. Many liberal minds saw this as a good thing. The day-to-day business of politics was taken care of by two experienced politicians, one of whom being the philosopher Seneca. Only after Seneca’s withdrawal did some of the senators plot to remove Nero. They were amateurs. Their conspiracy was discovered and many members of the upper class lost their lives.

 

Of course this was a propaganda disaster. Nero needed something to repress the memory of the conspiracy. And the political climate of the times played into his hands: the brother of the Parthian king was coming in person to Rome to be granted control over Armenia by Nero.

 

Armenia was the buffer between the Roman and the Parthian Empires. Whenever it came to war between the two empires, it was waged in Armenia. Sometimes one emerged victorious, sometimes the other. Mostly the Parthians won. But stubborn as only they could be, the Romans sent one legion after another.

 

In 58 AD they had succeeded for a change in bringing one of their men to power. A new war would have been the logical consequence. But the Parthian king Vologases I decided to try something new. He suggested a compromise: his brother would accept the rule over a demilitarised Armenia from the hands of Nero.

 

Nero was thrilled. He could use this for propaganda! There were huge celebrations, and countless coins were minted celebrating the victory. On the reverse, they showed an image that you would not necessarily associate with Armenia: the Temple of Janus.

 

The Temple of Janus was, in a way, the official threshold of the Roman Empire. It was a kind of gate construction with two large doors, one which faced inward and one outward. This reflected the Lord of the Temple, the god Janus, who gave his name to the month of January. Janus had two faces, one of which looked inwards, and one which looked outwards; one looking to the past, and one concentrating on the future.

 

The Temple of Janus was ritually extremely important. At state level it served to carry out ceremonies very similar to those performed by every citizen on his own private threshold, so as to secure Janus’ blessing for business dealings outside the home, and his protection within it. When an army marched into battle, the doors of the Temple of Janus were opened with great pomp and circumstance; when the army returned victorious, they were closed again. As Rome was almost constantly at war, the doors of the Temple of Janus often remained open for centuries at a time.

 

Augustus had used this for his own propaganda. He proudly proclaimed in his res gestae - a kind of account of his deeds:

 

“Our ancestors wanted the temple of Janus Quirinus to be closed when throughout the empire of the Roman people, by land and by sea, peace had been secured through victory. Although before my birth it had been closed twice in all in recorded memory from the founding of the city, the senate voted three times in my principate that it be closed.”

 

And that's exactly what Nero was hinting at with his sestertius. He was every bit as good as Augustus. "Pace populi Romani terra marique parta" - so reads the inscription. Translated: He closed the Temple of Janus "due to the peace, by land and sea, made by the Roman people". Nero even used for his coin inscription the exact same words that Augustus had employed in his res gestae.

 

This is why the coin shows the Temple of Janus. However, it is shown in what for us is an unusual perspective. The building, which we can see from one corner, is depicted as folded out. The entrance and the side wall are shown on the same level. However, the closed door is clearly visible. It is framed left and right by a column and decorated with a garland.

 

Even his enemies understood Nero’s diplomatic victory as his greatest triumph. And regardless of the plot to remove him: After the Parthian visit Nero felt so secure that he dared to fulfil a long-held dream: He travelled to Greece to triumph at the Olympic Games.