The Dictator With Rock Star Dreams

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Weekend Edition's classics commentator Elaine Fantham talk with host Scott Simon about what to do when your emperor wants to be a rock star. Roman Emperor Nero was this kind of ruler, and he took his music making very seriously.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the lowdown on Sandra Tsing Loh. But first, Roman Emperor Nero was adopted by his great-uncle, Claudius. At the age of 16, he succeeded Claudius to the throne. But he wasn't what you'd call sentimental about family. Nero murdered his mother and his adoptive brother, he tarred and feathered early Christians, and eventually, confronted with the certainty of his own execution, the emperor committed suicide. Nero also wanted to be a rock star, or the ancient equivalent thereof. Joining us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto is the world's ranking expert on the ancient equivalent thereof, our classics commentator, Elaine Fantham, professor emeritus at Princeton University. So, Elaine, so good to have you back.

Dr. ELAINE FANTHAM (Professor Emeritus of Latin, Princeton University): Thank you, Scott, but you're too kind. Don't over-praise, or I will disappoint.

SIMON: All right. I have to get to the rock star stuff first. Did he enter the equivalent of "Roman Idol"?

Dr. FANTHAM: Well, this is the funniest thing. You see, the Romans were fussy about what a well-bred person could do. And of their various activities, almost anything you did on the stage was disgraceful and humiliating and prostituting oneself. And the sort of usual toffee-nosed elite Roman would have taken a dim view of anybody, let alone their emperor, taking up the stage and singing. But we do know an awful lot about it. And what Nero did - after all, if you're emperor, you can do these things - was he created festivals.

When he reached the age where he shaved his very first beard, the clippings were preserved, as they were with anybody who thought highly of themselves, like, you know, bronzed baby booties. But he held a set of games called the Juvenalia, and he performed at those. But that was semi-private, so it didn't scandalize people too much. He took it terribly seriously. We're told that he actually wore a lead plate over his chest to strengthen his lungs, and that he - what's the word I want? - he took a medication to make him vomit to clear his throat, and he avoided eating anything like fruit and nuts which would clog his throat.

But the fist time he performed, according to Suetonius, it wasn't exactly an unobtrusive debut. A crowd had been organized of professional clappers. He had 5,000 Augustiani sitting there, unobtrusively of course, in the audience to applaud him.

SIMON: Could he even sing?

Dr. FANTHAM: Well, yes, apparently he had a small and rather husky voice. And, you know, singing was a little bit more demanding then, not so much because of the vocal trills and frills, but because if you were the singer to the cithara, to the lyre, which is what Nero was, you had to do four things. You had to compose the words, your words. You had to compose the tune, your tune. You had to play the cithara, and sing.

SIMON: Elaine are there any - do copies of these songs still exist? I mean, I don't mean recorded copies. I mean, like could somebody sing one of Emperor Nero's songs these days?

Dr. FANTHAM: Well, you asked for it. Have you ever seen "Quo Vadis"?

SIMON: Oh, that old film?

Dr. FANTHAM: The film.

SIMON: Peter Ustinov, right?

Dr. FANTHAM: Peter Ustinov.

Dr. FANTHAM: (Singing) Oh, lambent flame. Oh, voice divine. Oh, omnipotent fire. Hail.

Dr. FANTHAM: That's Nero's song.

SIMON: Bravo! Bravo!

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. FANTHAM: The trouble is you have to sit through most of "Quo Vadis" to get to that particular moment when Rome is burning and Peter Ustinov with his cithara is composing his own music. And that is his, allegedly his.

SIMON: I wonder if politics would be different these days if instead of major party debates, we had sing-offs. Just a thought. They've tried every other format, you know.

Dr. FANTHAM: Well, I don't think it can have been all that popular, because we are also told that when he performed they locked the exits of the theater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FANTHAM: And that women sometimes gave birth, childbirth, before they were able to leave the theater. And others might simulate death so as to be carried out.

SIMON: Elaine, it's always a delight to talk to you and to hear you sing, I must say. That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FANTHAM: Well, that's very sweet of you, Scott.

SIMON: Nice talking to you, Elaine. Take care.

Dr. FANTHAM: Bye.

SIMON: Elaine Fantham our classics commentator. She's also professor emeritus at Princeton University joining us from the CBC studios in Toronto.

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