On politicians

While Rome burned, it is said, the Emperor Nero golfed, partied, and selfied. This, anyway, is my updated account. In an earlier version, he played his fiddle. The fire, which broke out in the evening of 18th July, 64 anno Domini (or 817, ab urbe condita), continued for a week, levelling ten of pagan Rome’s fourteen districts, and leaving at least half a million homeless. I gather it started in the merchant quarter, where fires usually started, back then. There were lots of merchants; there were lots of warehouse fires. And this despite numerous municipal regulations.

Read your Tacitus, however, and you will see that this rumour has been corrected. In fact, Nero rushed back to Rome from his palace at Antium (just outside the Beltway), took charge of the fire-fighting operation from the first night, opened public buildings and his own gardens to shelter the dispossessed, and made immediate arrangements to import huge quantities of grain into the city, for distribution free or at nominal cost. Criticisms of his Department of Homeland Security were feverish and unfair.

There is another problem with this rumour. The violin was not invented for another fifteen hundred years. Those still circulating the story should say he was playing on his cythera, instead. Nero was an enthusiastic and accomplished amateur musician; perhaps some people resented it. He was a man of culture; an Ivy League guy. But he was also an accomplished politician, and nobody’s fool.

Rumours that he set this fire himself are about as likely as rumours that George Bush started Hurricane Katrina. It would not have been in the chief executive’s interest to do so, in either case. For Nero was already sinking in the polls — curiously not because he’d ascended to office by having his mother kill his uncle, then killing his mother in turn; or many similar instances of hardball. Politics was politics then as now; success is to the ruthless. No, Nero was unpopular thanks to his growing reputation for ineffectuality. His failure to stop the fire hurt him in the same way as Bush’s failure to stop the hurricane.

After consulting with a few focus groups, Nero decided upon a scapegoat. He chose the Christians. He accused them of complicity in setting the fire, and his subsequent persecution of them — which included the martyrdoms of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — probably improved his popularity rating, at least slightly. From what I can make out, the early Christians were not well liked. People thought they were spooky and weird.

This recovery was temporary, however, and soon his own infantry were threatening mutiny; there were uprisings in the Heartland, in Red States like Hispania and Gaul; eventually the Roman Senate stopped playing lapdog. Once emboldened, the Senators moved to impeach him. Still, it was four years after the Great Fire of Rome when, now surrounded on all sides by his enemies list, like Nixon, he did the Roman thing, and cut his own throat.

Let it be said, the details are complicated, and possibly unreliable. There may be some anachronisms in my own account.

Suetonius and Cassius Dio pile on, with damaging revelations. But the historians have also found more subtle indications that, nasty as Nero may have been in the backrooms of power, he was quite popular with the public through most of his reign — ever offering hope and change. He presented himself as a “compassionate conservative.” It had been fairly smooth riding, through the decade before that Fire.

Among the reasons for this was that he brought the boys home from the Middle East. The peace agreement he negotiated with the Parthian Empire (modern Iran, plus Iraq, Kurdistan, eastern Syria, and the Gulf States) promised “peace in our time.” He left the Iranians as the dominant regional power, and gave up on trying to inspect their nuclear weapons programme. …

Come to think of it, they may not have had a nuclear weapons programme. One must remember that a lot of technology — even the design of musical instruments — has developed over the last two thousand years. So much has changed; and was changing then, with the fashions, spring to fall, and generation to generation. The world is like that.

And yet some things do not change. There will always be politics, there will always be scapegoats, there will always be the world ending tomorrow. Often such predictions come more or less true. There will always be public opinion, too, and it will always be idiotic. Men will rise and fall who try to ride the tiger. It is quite the circus down here, quite the rodeo — history in its course.

I have the same sense, looking through the news this morning. Terrible things are going to happen, but then, terrible things are always going to happen, in this fallen world. It is important to put one’s faith in God and not in men. The Psalmist sings this, Isaiah too — in fact it is written on every page of the Bible, whether on or between the lines.

Get used to it, as they say. For as Saints Peter and Paul have confirmed, in the end you can put your faith only in Jesus.