“The ancient Greeks were an interesting lot,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “They gave us myths and stories, developed mathematics and invented democracy. The world would have been so much poorer without them. After them came the Romans, of course.”
Servaas gathers his brows together, shaking his head. As one of the few hippy-elders of the world, he feels he has to respond.
“But they had tyrants – like Nero. He didn’t like Christians much, setting a bad example for today’s extremists, like ISIS.”
“Ah, yes – the much maligned Nero. Yes, you’re right about the Christians – but he wasn’t a tyrant. A tyrant, according to Plato, is “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics—against his own people as well as others” This description, quite clearly, doesn’t fit Nero. He was extremely popular at the time, the masses loved him, and he stuck to the law. At least, he used the law to solidify his position as ruler. Clever, no?
“But he wasn’t a nice man. His stepfather – Claudius – had another son, Britannicus, a few years younger than the adopted Nero. Some wanted Britannicus to be the emperor after Claudius’s death – who incidentally died after eating some mushrooms. Poor Britannicus also died after ingesting poison on the day before he would have been proclaimed an adult. which would have strengthened his claim to the throne. The list of murders in which Nero was supposedly involved, is a lengthy one. If you dared cross him, you were simply removed from the scene. Even his mother didn’t escape his wrath.
“Despite all this, he was also rather popular with the ladies. He married three times – taking women from higher and lower in social standing – and is rumoured to have had a number of willing lassies waiting for his call. Isn’t it strange how women gravitate toward men in power? No matter what the man does or how he conducts his affairs, some ladies simply can’t resist sucking up to them, if you’ll excuse the pun.
“And then there was the Great Fire in Rome in 64 AD. Many historians blame Nero for the fire, but the debate on the cause still goes on. What is known, is that Nero certainly didn’t play a fiddle while Rome burnt – the fiddle would only be invented almost a thousand years later. But he may well have played a lyre, which may have been the granddaddy of the violin. Anyway, he wasn’t in Rome when the fire started, according to Tacitus, he was in Antium. But…of course he wouldn’t have run through Rome with a box of matches himself, he was the Emperor, for goodness’ sakes! A man like that had many servants, not so? If you’re the ruler, you’re supposed to be distanced from any criminal activity. It’s just like the Arms Deal: you have to make sure you have enough other officials to blame in order to make yourself look good.
“Anyway, Nero knew that popular support was important to anybody who wanted to stay in power. So, after the fire, he set about doing charitable deeds. He had Rome rebuilt, providing his subjects with brick houses to replace the shanties they had lived in before. While he was keeping the populace happy with their fine, new, one-roomed dwellings, he quietly had his architects design a new palace for him: the Domus Aurea or Golden House. This was – quite coincidentally – situated on a piece of ground recently bared by the fire.
“Now this palace was something else! Situated on a hillside, the grounds sloped down through an amazing garden which bordered the man-made lake. It had 300 rooms, and the main dining room had a revolving ceiling, resembling the movements of heaven! Other ceilings were covered in mosaic and there was a large statue of Nero, himself. And oh! The decorations! There were paintings and frescoes and and ivory and marble – every conceivable luxury of the time was displayed to emphasise the importance of the man we know as Nero, the Tyrant.
“In the end, Nero committed a sort-of suicide four years after the Fire of Rome. There were several reasons for this, notably the way he started taxing the rich and influential people of the day. Italy simply couldn’t sustain the extravagance of their emperor any longer. A revolt started, causing Nero to flee Rome. He later returned to the palace but found his loyal supporters had all left. The Senate convened, declared him a public enemy, and sentenced him to death. Upon hearing this, Nero sought refuge at some friend’s house, where he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to stab him to death.”
“A fitting end to a man who caused so much hardship.” Servaas nods. “What ye sow…”
“And his palace?” Vetfaan has to know.
“It became an embarrassment to his successors. The ivory and gold were stripped, but the edifice remained. Then they filled up the entire area, covering the palace with ground. The Baths of Titus were first built, followed by an amphitheatre and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Within 40 years the palace was buried beneath the soil.”
“Surely the people rejoiced at all this?”
“Some did, Precilla, but not all. The lower classes still held Nero in great esteem, revering his memory. It was only the people who understood what he had been doing who had reason to feel relieved. Still, it took a number of years for things to settle – a situation like that doesn’t end when the tyrant goes.
“And don’t think it’s an isolated case in the history of mankind. Rulers and kings have stayed in power by being supported by the people they reign over. It’s only when popular dissent grows from a grumble to a scream that things change. Rulers understand that. Remember: logic whispers, money shouts? That’s why President Zuma could say with so much confidence: “….only very clever and bright people care about…Nkandla.” He implied that his support came from the poor and disadvantaged part of society. It was true in Nero’s time, it’s still true today..”
“But the palace…the palace started the slide in his career, didn’t it?” The pleading note in Servaas’s voice is unmistakable.
“Back then, yes.” Gertruida sighs. “Who knows? Maybe history does keep on repeating itself, after all…”