The Emperor and the Transient Preacher

I just got started on Ernie Pyle in my last entry, and I’m getting set to write about Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Mauldin and Vinegar Joe Stilwell, but tonight I’d like to write about ancient Rome, that wonderful cesspool of decadence and depravity.

We in America like to think we are decadent with our “Desperate Housewives” and our video visits to the Playboy mansion, but, believe me, decadence is something into which we have barely dipped our toes.

You want decadence? How about this: The chief of state attends a wedding and rapes the bride — and the groom!

That’s Rome, mighty Rome. There’s a scene in Spartacus where Laurence Olivier, the Roman patrician, is talking to Tony Curtis (the slave). In that movie the Romans all had British accents and the slaves all had American accents — nice touch! Anyway Olivier gestures toward the city that stretches out below the balcony and says to to Curtis that Rome is so mighty it cannot be opposed; the only alternative is to submit, and the suggestion is very clear that Curtis is going to have to submit in a very personal way. That’s when Tony takes off and joins the gladiator army.

I remember reading somewhere that the Aztecs used to sacrifice as many as 30,000 people in a single day in the name of religion, and I confess I felt this sense that they must be different from me, that people like me would never do such a thing.

So then I read where the Romans slaughtered, or caused to be slaughtered in mutual combat, as many as 70,000 people in a single day. But that was just for entertainment. That’s different.

If you want a glimpse of Rome by a master of historical fiction, Quo Vadis by Heinrich Sienckiwicz rises head and shoulders above the rest. James Michener, no slouch himself, once said that Sienckiwicz did more research on ancient Rome than many scholars in the field.

For the quick version, rent the movie. It will be one of the best movies you see this year, or any year. Peter Ustinov plays Nero — the role of a lifetime — peering through an emerald that he used as a kind of spyglass. He considered himself a master singer, actor and charioteer. After all he once won a chariot race in the Olympics even though he fell out of his chariot and couldn’t finish.

In one classic scene Nero is driving a chariot drawn by lions in an endless procession of soldiers, notables and slaves carrying all the imperial possessions, harps and lamps and furniture and statues, that Nero just can’t travel without.

Saint Peter has come to clap eyes on this paragon of evil, and has been given a vantage point by his followers on a box by the side of the road. The procession stops, as all parades must from time to time, and Nero looks through his emerald at Saint Peter. Saint Peter looks back.

One is the ruler of the known world with the power to dispatch legions, to level cities, to tunnel through mountains, etc. etc. One is a Jewish immigrant, little better than a slave, who preaches a strange foreign creed and lives on the generosity of his coreligionists.

Guess who wins? Quess who claims the city as his own for all eternity? For the answer to that, you’ll have to read the book.

The wacky premise in Quo Vadis is that Nero wants to write an epic poem about the destruction of Troy — Homer just didn’t do it justice, you see — but he had never seen a great city burn. His evil henchman Sejanus is all ears and suggests burning a coastal resort town. Nero scoffs at this, of course. It must be a great city. You get the picture.

But then Sienckiwicz begins describing the conflagration in amazing depth and detail. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to be in Rome during the great fire, this is the book for you.

I don’t want to spoil the book or the movie for you, but I have to say, Nero’s end is so appropriate. Abandoned by all, unable to commit suicide himself, he has to find a slave to kill him, lamenting, “What an artist the world has lost in me!”