Circus Economicus to Crisis Maximus
Nero, to win credit for himself of enjoying nothing so much as the capital, prepared banquets in the public places, and used the whole city, so to say, as his private house. Of these entertainments the most famous for their notorious profligacy were those furnished by Tigellinus, which I will describe as an illustration, that I may not have again and again to narrate similar extravagance. He had a raft constructed on Agrippa’s lake, put the guests on board and set it in motion by other vessels towing it. These vessels glittered with gold and ivory; the crews were arranged according to age and experience in vice. Birds and beasts had been procured from remote countries, and sea monsters from the ocean. On the margin of the lake were set up brothels crowded with noble ladies, and on the opposite bank were seen naked prostitutes with obscene gestures and movements. As darkness approached, all the adjacent grove and surrounding buildings resounded with song, and shone brilliantly with lights. Nero, who polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, had not omitted a single abomination which could heighten his depravity, till a few days afterwards he stooped to marry himself to one of that filthy herd, by name Pythagoras, with all the forms of regular wedlock. The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides. – Tacitus (Annals, 15.37)
Nero was populist and hedonist. He was also probably insane and it is postulated that he, and most other aristocratic Romans suffered from lead poisoning. The above account by Tacitus (having occurred during his childhood) occurs shortly before the great fire of Rome which, burning for a whole week, destroyed much of the City including Nero’s palace and the Temple of Jupiter, a building which had spanned eight centuries of history. It would have left around a million inhabitants homeless. The fire also completely destroyed the homes of the members of the Roman Senate. The entire system of legislative government, the decision making core of the Roman Empire, was left in disarray.
There is no answer to the question of who caused the great fire, but rumors abounded. It’s as likely that the fire was accidental as is the possibility of arson. Nero was suspected to have organized the fire by many, for reasons of reshaping the City against the wishes of the Senate. Fearing the loss of authority, he blamed the Christians, whom he persecuted with ever greater brutality thereafter. The Christians believed a prophecy which predicted Rome’s destruction by flame. The date of 19th July, on the night of which the star Sirius rose above the Roman horizon, was given much astrological significance. They were also probably saying “I told you so”, which would have invited the finger of blame. Refusing to ‘worship’ the Caesar and the Roman gods, Christians had already been identified as a potentially subversive group. The thing going against the theory that they conspired to burn down Rome is that such a crime would certainly not have been condoned by the followers of Jesus whose doctrine was generally pacifist, whose beliefs included a rejection of the brutality and moral depravity which abounded at the time.
Regarding statecraft, Nero’s populism (and popularity) was as important as his brutal oppression of perceived enemies. He lowered taxes (down to 2.5%), cut the wages of lawyers and cracked down on various forms of government corruption. He made imports cheaper by removing tariffs. These interventions were not ‘reforms’ as much as they were attempts to promote himself at any cost. The city of Rome, in many respects, had outgrown itself. The streets were a shambles and the quality of buildings poor. It didn’t seem to matter, because the people were distracted and they loved their Caesar. Yet Nero’s populism and extravagance threatened to bankrupt the government. In response, he kicked off Rome’s economic decline by debasing the dinarius, reducing its gold content by 5%.
The events in Rome around this period are significant, not merely because of the magnitude of the fire. Rome was rebuilt and the growth of the Empire continued, although the administrative problems compounded over time. Nero’s Rome stands out as being the time and place where Christianity began the war of ideas, the battle for Rome’s heart and mind, in earnest. That Nero chose Christians as the scapegoats for the Great Fire shows their significance. The number of followers of Jesus in Rome by 60 AD must already have numbered in the tens of thousands (or more) for Nero to have been so worried about them.
People occasionally compare the Western world with aspects of Roman history. There are some extremely important differences which nullify many of these comparisons. Nero was truly powerful as an individual. His personal opinion counted. Today, the personal opinion of almost every head of state in a Western democracy counts for almost nothing. Nero had significant control of the Empire’s finances. Today, no Western government has any realistic control of its finances; the issuance of money is practically in the hands of private individuals.
However, other similarities are striking, such as the emphasis on public entertainment as a means of distraction, while extreme brutality and torture is sanctioned by governments. The loss of grip on real power by politicians and their increasing populism have similarities with Nero’s approach. The debasement of the currency by Nero and the same today is also a telling sign of the times. History teaches that such moves tend to precede an unremitting economic decline that eventually threatens civilizations. Today, the flood of US dollars threatens to have the same effect, except that it is occurring so rapidly that the three hundred or so years it took for Rome to ruin itself might be curtailed to a mere 18 or so months for America and its closest allies.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but the lessons that can be gleaned from history are eternal. The Neroes of our time are not poisoned by lead exposure, but the philosophies that guide their decision making are no less poisonous and insidious. Nero’s era marked the beginning of centuries of Christian persecution, and the oppression of good ideas. Stupid decision making on a massive scale lead to Rome’s decline and fall. The suppression of ideas and the blindness (and corruption) of Western leadership threatens to have the same effect on our civilization. Yet the time of Nero and the centuries that followed are a source of great hope for our own future, because despite all efforts to the contrary, the principles of peaceful resistance, and the power of truth succeeded in overcoming even the most rigorous opposition. The Romans thought the world would be theirs, but they were wrong.
The fall of the Roman Empire, as gradual as it was, resulted in the end of slavery in Europe and the rise of Christianity. In our time, the pace of change is an order of magnitude greater, due in part to the speed at which ideas are propagated. As the economic crisis plays out, today’s oligarchy believes it is on the verge of world domination, of finally tying things up for good, but it cannot escape the fact that its position and influence are jeopardized by this very belief. The fact that the ‘global elite’ is not a meritocracy, that its money is meaningless, that its people are corrupt and its philosophies are not based on truth, makes it fallible and weak. By relying on false principles, it lays the seeds of its own destruction.
Roman civilization was not built on false economy, hedonism and laziness, or the Circus Maximus. Modern civilization will fall for the same reasons.