Friday, May 23, 2008

The Tabloid Tyrant

Death of Nero

What do Elvis Presley and the emperor Nero have in common?  Despite both being musicians, overweight, and a shared taste for flamboyant dress, they were also believed to be alive and well long after their officially reported deaths.

Contrary to the myth, Nero was very popular among the poor, who loved a ruler that could enjoy the vulgar pleasures of the arena and racetrack like a regular Joe.  Statues of him were sold in Rome long after his reign, and his tomb was often decorated with flowers.  Of course, only the wealthy and educated could write the histories, and they were not happy to have an emperor with the common touch.

After committing suicide in 69 A.D., there were rumors for many years after of a conspiracy.  It was believed Nero had been taken away to some remote part of the east to await the day when he would come again and deal justice to his enemies.  To the early Christians who had suffered greatly during his rule, he became a boogieman, the first Antichrist.  And the possibility of his return served a more pessimistic purpose of warning, as some believe he is the beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

These rumors were given such wide credibility that several pretenders came forward at various times to threaten the stability of the empire. 

One of the first of these imposters was a nameless slave whose origins were murky.  He sang and played the lyre, and his resemblance to the dead emperor was striking. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, he gathered about him followers composed mostly of the poor and deserters from the legions.  Taking to sea intending to sail for Rome, they encountered some inclement weather and were forced to make landfall on an island shortly after embarking.  Here, the counterfeit Nero created a short-lived pirate kingdom, praying on passing ships.  He was made short work of by the provincial governor, who raided his ship and sent his severed head on a tour of the provinces before ending in the capital.  Truly a rock star death.

Perhaps the most famous pseudo-Nero was Terentius Maximus, who arose many years later in Asia.  He also attracted a great following but took refuge in the kingdom of Parthia.  At last, his identity discovered, he was put to death.

Sightings and rumors of sightings were to continue for many decades thereafter.  It just goes to show, the gossip column and the conspiracy theory are nothing new.


Grant, Michael. Nero, Emperor In Revolt. New York, New York: American Heritage Press, 1970

Augustine, Saint. The City of God. 2008. New Advent. 23 March 2008

Suetonius, Tranquillus. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. 1914. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008*.html.

Tacitus, Publius C. The History. New York: Random House, 1942. The Perseus Digital Library. 23 March 2008;query=chapter%3D%2398;layout=;loc=2.7.

Dio, Cassius. The Roman History. Trans. Earnest Cary. Harvard University Press, 1927. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008*.html.

Chrysostom, Dio. The Twenty-first Discourse: On Beauty. Trans. J. W. Cohoon. Harvard University Press, 1939. LacusCurtius. 23 March 2008*.html.

Published May 22 in Ancient/Classical History.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Hitchens Hypothesis

Hitchens attempting to clean his conscience. I am predisposed to like Christopher Hitchens. He is a witty and erudite writer. His view's on everything from Orwell to religion are often perfectly in tune with my own (though his ignorance of Nietzsche is unforgivable). It is because of these great correspondences that his advocacy of the war in Iraq is all the more painful and baffling.

However, more than his tortured logic of using violence to stop violence, is his generalization of Pacifists and Pacifism as a whole. Those on the left who opposed and oppose the war are being somehow disingenuous he believes. We are using the word peace as a smokescreen for hidden bigotry. Perhaps he is right, but if true, Mr. Hitchens is privy to information denied to the rest of us.

As a pacifist myself, I know one need not be a Quaker to see the folly in war. I have no qualms regarding self-defense when the need arises. However, War with a capital W, is a military institution, and institutions have their own bigotries and agendas. The Military-industrial complex that Eisenhower (finally) warned us about so long ago has failed to make much of an impression upon the, as always, temperamentally bellicose American people. The concept that the military is just a department in the government and not a full partner does not seem to cross the mind of men and women inculcated since birth with the propaganda of God, Country and Guns. Not necessarily in that order.

We must also forgive Mr. Hitchens blindness due to his other handicap. Coming from a privileged background, and educated in quality private schools in a foreign land, he may be unable to see that it is always the poor who fight the wars and the rich who prosper from the loss. As someone who has studied Marx it is all the more astonishing that this should not smack him in the eye. Perhaps as a recently anointed citizen, like all converts since Saint Augustine, he can find little to fault in his new faith.

In an article published in 2001 on the invasion of Afghanistan, he had the following errors to relate:

"Well, ha ha ha, and yah, boo. It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history. Al-Qaida will take longer. There will be other mutants to fight. But if, as the peaceniks like to moan, more Bin Ladens will spring up to take his place, I can offer this assurance: should that be the case, there are many many more who will also spring up to kill him all over again. And there are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too."

"Ha ha ha to the pacifists", The Guardian, Wednesday November 14, 2001.

The Taliban appears now resurgent, Bin Laden is apparently alive and well, and as for being smarter and nicer, is it nice to bomb civilians and call them "collateral damage", or smart to believe that violence ever brought an end to violence?

To paraphrase that old saw of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to stop thinking."