Friday, 13 May 2016

Fiddling Nero

I confess that I've never really thought of UK Prime Minister David Cameron as Nero (more like Claudius if we're going to pick a Roman emperor entirely at random), 

but Trevor Phillips, former head of the UK equality watchdog, apparently thinks otherwise. His comments, noted in the Telegraph (so quite how accurate this is is anyone's guess) appear to claim that, thanks to a "liberal self-delusion" over mass immigration, Britain risks racial and religious conflict, likening the political elite to "the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned" unable (or unwilling) to comprehend the “dark side of the diverse society.” Now I'm not a politician (thank you for noticing) and have no wish to wade into any wider debate about the perceived state of society, however as an archaeologist who has spent (probably far too much) time examining the life, appreance, impact and general facial appearance of Rome's fifth emperor (right down to his ornate coiffure), I do feel able to make a few highly pedantic (and probably largely irrelevant) points in the interests of historical accuracy.

First off, let's just quickly bury the fact that Nero 'fiddled whilst Rome burned' (leaving the aside the rather awkward fact that the fiddle wasn't invented until a good millennium after his demise). 

Although it's a great expression, alluding to the ineffectiveness of political leaders at a time of crisis (which is what I assume Trevor Phillips meant), one thing we can be sure of was that Nero was only too aware of the significance the Great fire that struck Rome in July AD 64. Trouble is, he appears to have enjoyed the drama of it all, allegedly singing a song on the destruction of Troy as the city burnt. Nero was also astutely aware of the need to get Rome working again after the fire, organising relief, supplying food and setting about the immediate plans for reconstruction. Unfortunately for him, having done all this, Nero lost control of the PR campaign, once it became clear that his was planning to build a large private palace and pleasure dome within an area of the city cleared by the fire.

A second, and perhaps rather more important point, is that despite all the invading, killing and enslaving committed by the Roman Empire (and there was rather a lot of this), Rome was, up until the time of Nero, famously tolerant of all faiths, allowing diverse cultures of all sorts to flourish. It was during the reign of Nero however, following the Great Fire, that the first active persecution of religious minorities began in the city, partly to divert attention away from Nero's own increasing unpopularity. 

Now, whilst we have not (thankfully) descended to the mass burnings, crucifixions and animal related executions of the sort that Nero organised, it is true that there is today a worrying trend towards the demonisation of minority groups (as seen most shamefully in the recent London mayoral election campaign). In that respect, perhaps, the excesses of Nero's reign, not to say the fate that ultimately befell him, should serve as a warning. Toleration and cultural assimilation famously worked for Rome; active persecution did not.

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