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Repeating History: Fiddling While Charlotte Burned

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Susan Smith Columnist
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It was recently written that there are great similarities between former President William Jefferson Clinton and the Emperor Caligula, which I found intriguing but not quite as accurate as a comparison between our present President and the Emperor Nero.

Remember he of the “fiddling while Rome burned?”

If only the Roman Emperor Nero had had such an over-the-top adoring press in the 1st century as Obama has at present, he would perhaps be perceived as a less unlovely character than he is currently seen.  Emperor of Rome between AD 54 and 68, Nero was the son, (called Lucius Dominicus Nero), of Agrippina the Minor, or the Younger, (an extremely strong woman, who became the fourth wife of the Roman Emperor, and her uncle, Claudius), and Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, who died when Nero was very young.  Agrippina was unique in Roman history, as she was not only a descendant of Marc Antony, she was also closely related to Octavius Caesar, a sister of Caligula, but also a niece and a wife of Claudius, and the mother of Nero.  Despite the fact that Emperor Claudius had his own personal son, Brittanicus, by his third wife, Messalina, (whom Claudius had had executed), Agrippina managed to persuade her husband, that her son, now known as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, be adopted by Claudius and named as his successor.  Agrippina then proceeded to have her husband dispatched to the netherworld, by way of a poisoned dish of mushrooms (a known favorite, minus the poison, of the Emperor’s).  One has to marvel at the way the Romans accomplished the things they wanted to accomplish.

And they were the great moralists of the time.

Through the early part of his life, (he became Emperor at the age of 16), Nero was tutored by the Roman philosopher, Seneca, and demonstrated a predilection for the arts, especially poetry and music.  It quickly became clear that the lofty lessons of the great Seneca didn’t quite take, as not only did the young Emperor speedily dispatch (via the River Styx) his first wife, Octavia, (Emperor Claudius’ daughter and Nero’s stepsister), but also his mother, the aforementioned Agrippina, and then later, his rival for the throne, his stepbrother, Brittanicus.  One of his most (among many further) notorious murderous acts was kicking his pregnant second wife, Poppaea, to death, killing both mother and unborn child.

Nero was thought to have had great popularity with the people of Rome at the start of his rule.  In fact, over the course of his reign, Nero more often than not made rulings that pleased the lower classes, who were, throughout his regime, his biggest fans.  He was often criticized as being obsessed with his personal popularity; when, for example, complaints arose that the poor were being overly taxed, Nero attempted to repeal all such taxes.  The Roman Senate convinced him this action would bankrupt the public treasury, so as a compromise, the Emperor decreed that taxes, only for the poor, would be cut from 4.5% to 2.5%.  At the same time, the large public expenditures the Emperor was making on entertainment, (‘bread and circuses,’ thought to be vital to the Roman public) were also criticized; it was said that Nero did this knowing he was bankrupting the nation, but continued to do so nonetheless because he so craved the attention he received from the cheering masses at these events.

According to ancient historians, at the same time Nero was indulging in massive construction projects considered to be highly extravagant; the combination of all these large numbers of expenditures left Italy “thoroughly exhausted by contributions of money” with “the provinces ruined.”  Nero did not take this criticism to heart, but continued in his increasingly profligate ways, while all the time continuing to do whatever he had to do to maintain his popularity with the masses.

One of the very few things positive that can be attributed to Nero’s regime is his ‘invention’ of ice cream.  During the summer months, the Emperor sent hordes of slaves to the mountaintops in the Alps to collect snow, and return it to Rome as rapidly as possible so that it could be flavored with “honey and the pulp of fruit,” in an attempt to further please the audiences at the ‘bread and circuses’ entertainments by presenting this extraordinary treat to them.  It did, indeed, please the masses.

Rome went to war with Parthia under Nero, and though there was no clear outcome to the seemingly endless conflict between the two nations, victory was declared by the Emperor.  At the time, there was concern in Rome over how the young Emperor would handle what was a very complicated international situation; it became known that Nero had opted for a ‘peace deal’ instead of continuing the war.  The ‘victory,’ as it was called, was achieved by Nero’s bribing the judges, as well as to his status as Emperor.  Nero was later both criticized and praised for his ‘aversion to battle.’

Sound familiar yet?

It was at this time, as a result of the war, and the resulting ‘peace,’ that Romans also became increasingly concerned about continued availability of eastern grain supplies, (which did result in serious food shortages), and the rising budget deficit.

Sound familiar yet?

Adding to the mix, in July AD 64, a massive fire, which burned for six days and seven nights, ravaged Rome. The historian Tacitus reported that of the fourteen districts of the city, ‘four were undamaged, three were utterly destroyed and in the other seven there remained only a few mangled and half-burnt traces of houses.’  During what became known as “The Great Fire,” Nero was described by the historian Suetonius as playing his lyre (later known as his ‘fiddle’) and singing from the tower of Maecenas a tune called at the time, ‘The Capture of Troy’,’’ and this was as he watched the fire consume Rome.   Tacitus again wrote: “At the very time that Rome burned, he mounted his private stage and, reflecting present disasters in ancient calamities, sang about the destruction of Troy.”

In other words, the young leader of his country watched, uncaring, unreactive and entirely self-absorbed, as his nation and its prosperity were completely destroyed.

Sound familiar yet?

The Roman ruler’s reaction to this destruction was to take money Rome no longer had, (thanks to him), and vast amounts of it, to built a massive new palace, in which the entry hall was specially constructed to be large (120 feet high) enough to accommodate an enormous statue of – himself.  Recognized in the ancient world as the ‘Colossus Neronis,’ this huge bronze figure of the Emperor, which flattered him tremendously, (Nero was not an attractive man), stood for many years in the vestibule of the palace, which was known as the ‘Domus Aurea,’ or the ‘Golden House.’  Expansive gardens, which included a large artificial lake, were also built on the grounds that had formerly housed many Romans; in fact, the entire new complex was so immense that after the fire and the Emperor’s construction project, more than one third of the population at the time had to leave Rome to find somewhere outside the city in which to live.

Sound familiar yet?

To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, ‘tributes’, (i.e., taxes), were imposed upon those living in the provinces of the empire. Nero, always a man desperate for popularity, and perhaps sensing that the people were less than pleased with what he was doing, started looking for scapegoats on whom the fire and all its attendant catastrophes could be blamed.  He found it in an obscure new religious sect, known as ‘Christians.’  It is thought that Nero arrived at this group in part because “above all he was carried away by a craze for popularity and he was jealous of all who in any way stirred the feeling of the mob.”  Members of this new sect had clearly turned to their God, as shown to them in the recent form of Jesus Christ, and away from the Roman Emperor, thus deserving of Nero’s ire.  Nero then arranged many new entertainments for the masses, which focused on numerous ingenious methods of torturing and killing Christians.  These included everything from Christians’ encounters with assorted wild beasts and rabid dogs, as well as crucifixions, along with burning Christians to death during Roman evenings, which were said at the time to have provided ‘lighting’ for Nero’s gardens.  It was in two of these events that the Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred.

Even jaded Romans eventually found these new methods of entertainment to be a bit much.

Sound familiar yet?

As he descended into total degeneracy, Nero reverted to his past passions for the theater and music, even going so far as to perform on stage himself.  Though it was considered at the time to be a ‘moral outrage’ to have an Emperor of Rome performing before a public audience, it was nonetheless not allowed, under threat of death, for anyone in the audience to leave the auditorium while Nero was performing, no matter what the reason. The historian Suetonius writes of women giving birth during a Nero recital, and of men who pretended to die and were carried out.

While entertaining himself in this highly pleasurable (for him, not necessarily for members of the audience) manner, the Emperor continued to pursue his other earthly delight of persecuting Christians.  The disgust on the part of the populace with their leader became so great that upon finding out about an assassination plot against him, and learning that his own Praetorian Guard refused to protect him, Nero decided to take his own life in AD 68.  Just before doing this, however, he found his nerve failing him, so Nero demanded that one of his companions set an example for him by said companion first killing himself.  It is not known whether said companion in fact followed this imperial command.

Just before expiring, the Emperor was heard to have said, “Oh, what an artist the world loses in me!”

In an ironic twist of (ancient) history, it was know that in his youth, Nero, as was the case with most young Roman patricians, visited one of the great Roman oracles.  In this visit, Nero was told, “Beware the age of 73.”  As Nero was not quite thirty years old at the time, he thought he could continue his current path of degeneracy, licentiousness, etc.,  for quite some time without worry.

As it turned out, the battle-hardened veteran who came after Nero in power was a Roman soldier named Galba, who was 73 years old when he succeeded Nero, and became Emperor.  He did not remain so for long.

With Nero’s death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end.  Chaos ensued in Rome, as the lower-classes, slaves, frequenters of the arena and the theater, and “those who were supported by the famous excesses of Nero”, were understandably upset at Nero’s death, and rioted to demonstrate their “loyalty to the end and beyond,” to their leader.  This continued passion for Nero remained in force even after Galba assumed the mantle of power.

Few will argue that Nero does not rank as one of the worst emperors, if not the worst, in all Roman history.

He was without doubt the most narcissistic, and that took some doing.

Sound familiar yet?

The truly significant and tragic result of this period in Roman history, however, was that the greatest civilization in the world to that time never recovered from the rule of its tragically designated Emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar.  Rome thus began its irreversible decline, and did so not because of its people, who were still magnificent, but because of Rome’s progressively more destructive rulers, (Nero is considered to be perhaps the most extreme among this group), who refused to live by the rule of law, and also refused to consider the will of the people. As a result, the greatness of Rome was lost.  Forever.

Sound familiar yet?

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Susan Smith