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CommentInsight & Opinion

What Nero's life tells us about the origins of CY's integrity crisis

Angelo Paratico says a re-evaluation of Nero's life throws light on contemporary local politics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 5:23am

Few figures have been more vilified and loathed throughout history than the Roman Emperor Nero, whose 14-year reign, almost 2000 years ago, has been portrayed as the epitome of tyranny and immorality.

It is from the historians of the period - Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius - that we get most of what we know about him. They presented him as a bloody and sleazy pervert, a fool, a sodomite, a dreamer, a vain and hopeless artist. Down the centuries, he had been accused - and condemned without appeal - of having murdered his mother, Agrippina; of killing his pregnant wife, Poppaea, by kicking her; of poisoning his adopted father and brother; of the senseless execution of Octavia, his adopted sister and first wife; and of having ordered his teacher, the philosopher Seneca, to commit suicide.

To top it off, he had Rome burned down in the year AD64, fiddling while looking at the flames engulfing the city, just to prove an able architect in rebuilding it, which he did. He then accused Christians of causing the fire and had them tortured and killed.

He ordered the construction of illegal structures (at least they were declared illegal later and taken care of): roads, tunnels and his magnificent palace, the Domus Aurea, later buried under rubble by Emperor Trajan, with an artificial lake in front of it, right where the Colosseum today stands.

It's a good story, so good that it has been made into plays and films and represented in paintings. The trouble is that a great deal of it just isn't true. It isn't credible that Nero set fire to Rome or that he sent thousands of Christians to their death: there were few Christians in Rome at the time. Current historical thinking is that he didn't kill his adopted father and brother; nor did he mortally wound his wife, Poppaea. Nero wasn't perfect, but then neither were those around him: Seneca was a ruthless loan shark and Nero's mother, Agrippina, was a power-hungry serial killer.

How did we end up with this compelling narrative, convenient and useful to many through the ages, but one which is ultimately fallacious? As George Orwell put it in Nineteen Eighty-Four: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."

Nero aspired to be a populist and an artist, helping the poor, curtailing the power of the oligarchy that controlled the empire. He did not start new wars, and limited gladiatorial games. By doing so, he stepped on some very powerful toes. The owners of these toes reacted angrily, spreading rumours that were picked up by historians like Tacitus and Suetonius who were serving new emperors. The rich set to work to unseat him on moral grounds, their only option. Nero had the blood of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony, Agrippa and Germanicus, and that made him a living treasure in the eyes of the people, who worshipped him for that.

The corrupt senatorial class accused Nero of lacking integrity, of degrading his office with his performances: he was singing, acting, racing with chariots. Scandalous indeed! Genocide and oppression of the poor, on the other hand, was quite ordinary to them.

If we analyse the life of Nero dispassionately, we should agree that he was a good emperor. Because of his cheerful ingenuity, he thought that what mattered was to deliver results and to improve the lives of the poor, not make the rich richer.

I imagine you will be shocked to learn that such distortions, of facts being replaced with symbols, are still going on. US President Barack Obama has often been reduced to an almost always inaccurate and misleading symbol by the opposition. Closer to home, Hong Kong's colonial period has become the flashpoint for all kinds of political arguments; the historical reality rarely figures - instead, the symbolism of colonialism is all that matters.

Our own chief executive has also been the victim of a similar process. Do the thousands of hungry poor in Hong Kong - and yes, there still are a great many thousands - care more about some illegal partitions in Leung Chun-ying's private home made before taking office, or about three square meals a day and the chance to educate their children? Some will say that I am missing the point here; and the senators in Nero's time would have said the same. They would have said that what matters above all else is that Nero - and our chief executive - lacks integrity.

But if absolute integrity is what makes a great leader, then perhaps we should source our chief executives from monasteries (which hasn't always worked either).

Our soi-disant Hong Kong democrats currently claiming the high moral ground may also, if put under a similar spotlight, have their dirty little secrets. They have made their point clear and the unseating of the emperor has failed. It is time to turn the page, otherwise people may think that they are serving their own vanity, not the welfare of the people of Rome, pardon, of Hong Kong.

Angelo Paratico is a writer based in Hong Kong. His latest book is a translation from Latin into English of Girolamo Cardano's Nero: An Exemplary Life


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This article is now closed to comments

Thank you to John Yuan and to whymak for their comments. Cardano decided to publish his Ars Magna in 1545 with the solution of the X3 equations (giving credit to Tartaglia) only when he discovered that Tartaglia himself had taken it from Scipione Dal Ferro, an obscure mathematician from Bologna. A furious dispute erupted but Tartaglia lost it against Cardano's brilliant young disciple, Ludovico Ferrari. Ferrari's life unfortunately was cut short by his sister who poisoned him over a family dispute.
Posted on behalf of reader John Yuan:
It’s incredible the accusations were so off from the reality about Nero. The sadness is not just how selfish humans could be when comes to protect own interests but most of all lamenting how gullible of all others that without them the accusations directed at Nero might not serve the hidden purpose: unseating him as a ruler. But understandably the incredible was credible because manipulating the public who most likely were undereducated bunch. Should such history repeat, we only can say the modern day’s elevated education for the public has not much advanced beyond the Nero’s time so it seems.

John Yuan
Well done! You have exposed my ignorance. I learned about Nero not from "respectable" sources such as Tacitus -- now fully discredited by you, but from Hollywood movies. When you mentioned about Nero strumming his harp as Rome burned, the image before my mind's eye is Peter Ustinov.
So I have no way to challenge your view on the remote resemblance of CY to a mighty Roman emperor. Except for delusionary Hong Kong morons, in the overall scheme of things, CY is just another mayor of an important Chinese city with some Western characteristics. Perhaps you're stretching things a little.
Your lecture to our so-called democrats, though well placed, will be much resented. Religious fanatics -- and democracy is just like any other religion -- don't need you to confuse them with facts.
I forgot to mention that I recognize the name of your author, Girolamo Cardano, perhaps in a way you least expect.
In Hong Kong high school, we were taught the solution of a cubic equation. More than 5 decades hence, I still could remember the simple trick needed to reduce the cubic into a quadratic equation. Anyway, my math teacher said we owe the trick to Cardano. No such thing. Nicolo Tartaglia solved the problem and was tricked by Cardano to reveal his answer.
Anyway, we Chinese still own the bragging rights. A Chinese mathematician solved this problem in the 7th Century during the Tang dynasty long before the Arabs taught Renaissance clergies algebraic methods. This was almost 8 centuries before Cardano.
I may be ashamed of those West-is-best Hong Kong bananas, but I am very proud of our children, especially those keen to learn about Western literature, music, arts and sciences. I hope this sets the record straight that I am not just another self-hate Chinese.


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