Monday, June 06, 2005

Could Be Worse

Though we too live in an Empire and are governed by psychopaths, in re-reading some of my favorite (which is to say, most outrageous) passages of Suetonius, I'm reminded that we still don't have it quite as bad as the Romans.

Here's Nero (Robert Graves's translation):

Not satisfied with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria... Having tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castration, he went through a wedding ceremony with him -- dowry, bridal veil and all -- took him to his palace with a great crowd in attendance, and treated him as a wife. A rather amusing joke is still going the rounds: the world would have been a happier place had Nero's father Domitius married that sort of wife. He dressed Sporus in the fine clothes normally worn by an Empress and took him in his own litter not only to every Greek assize and fair, but actually through the Street of Sigillaria at Rome, kissing him amorously now and then.

The lecherous passion he felt for his mother, Agrippina, was notorious; but her enemies would not let him consummate it, fearing that, if he did, she would become even more powerful and ruthless than hitherto. So he found a new mistress who was said to be her spitting image; some say that he did, in fact, commit incest with Agrippina every time they rode in the same litter -- the stains on his clothes when he emerged proved it.

Nero practised every kind of obscenity, and after defiling almost every part of his body finally invented a novel game: he was released from a cage dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was dispatched -- shall we say? -- by his freedman Doryphorus. Doryphorus now married him -- just as he himself had married Sporus -- and on the wedding night he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered. According to my informants he was convinced that nobody could remain chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.

Who said reading the classics can't be fun?

Now before a Christian nutcase misconstrues this excerpt, let me say that the crimes here are, aside the incest issue, not about sexuality at all, but rather are about Nero's power: it was such that he could and did violate people for whatever purpose his imagination could concieve.

I suspect that incest comes "naturally" in such a situation precisely because it is a natural and cultural taboo: for one with absolute power, who casually breaks laws and can completely control other people, such barriers are about all that's left and therefore are irresistible.

The theme of Suetonius's book is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yeah, everyone knows that, it's very intuitive, but it's demonstrated here in a way that in a study of Stalin, say, is insufficient: Suetonius's chronicle shows a pattern where a new Caesar is crowned, tries to be just, and inevitably degrades into madness. Of the twelve caesars covered, only Vespasian seems to have remained a decent human being from start to finish. In Suetonius is the study of human character in a specific context; what that context inevitably did to humans teaches us that as our leaders try to get more and more power, both for their person and for their office, we should resist no matter their motives, their ideals, their charms (though the last two aren't such a problem these days).

Vidal is good on this, as he always is when explaining human character in a historical context (the copy of the essay in the link is typo-ridden, however).