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Nero, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. The names evoke horror and bloodshed -- but also awe at the range of power of these despots and their accomplishments. What makes a tyrant? And why, when history has taught us time and again that they must be stopped, do such leaders continue to exist? The five short but substantial biographies in this volume help answer these questions as they tell the stories of five diabolical geniuses, exploring who they are, what they did, and what they drove them ...
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Nero, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. The names evoke horror and bloodshed -- but also awe at the range of power of these despots and their accomplishments. What makes a tyrant? And why, when history has taught us time and again that they must be stopped, do such leaders continue to exist? The five short but substantial biographies in this volume help answer these questions as they tell the stories of five diabolical geniuses, exploring who they are, what they did, and what they drove them to such cruel lengths. You'll read about how the extragance of their lives and the complexity of their obsessions were played out through their political actions, often with global consequences. And you'll discover what conditions could create a tyrant just as horrible today. Spanning centuries and continents, these biographies offer a fascinating glimpse into history's darkest hearts and minds.
-- A warning given by Dionysus, god of wine, drunkenness, and theater, in Euripides' The Bacchae
The year A.D. 59. Rome. Since the day before, when heralds proclaimed a triumph, one question has been on everyone's lips: Where have the troops won a victory? The question has not yet been answered, though the young emperor, crowned with a victor's laurels, is about to enter the city.
Could there have been a battle with Parthia? After all, Rome's great rival to the east has been defeated but is still independent. Or maybe there has been a rising in Britain? The island-kingdom, conquered not more than twenty years earlier by Nero's predecessor Claudius, has been restless under the Roman yoke. Or perhaps Spain? Germany?
But no one guesses the monstrous truth. Although Romans have become used to the crimes of their emperors, Nero has gone beyond the debauchery of Tiberius and even the madness of Caligula. The streets are hung with tapestries and strewn with flowers, the priests offer up sacrifices, and the people have gathered -- to celebrate Nero's murder of his own mother.
Nor does anyone care when the truth becomes known -- Spain or Gaul or the emperor's mother, what's the difference? The spectacle is what counts, and no one knows better how to create such dazzling displays than Nero, who bankrupts the treasury with so many festivals that the Senate asks him to leave a few days for work, a request the emperor shrugs off, more interested in pleasing thecommon people, whom the Senate dismisses as "rabble."
Rabble or not, Nero woos them with gladiatorial shows and feasts and fantastic lotteries. A wooden ball hurled through the air can turn the slave who catches it into an estate-owning aristocrat, thus emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the social order. Then there are the bacchanals, to which the entire city is invited-everyone, that is, except the aristocrats, whom Nero snubs, despising their traditional Roman ways. In their place, actors and charioteers and poets and acrobats sit at his table. Or if the nobility are invited, it is not because the emperor wants to discuss state affairs with them, as was formerly the practice at these convivias. Nero asks them to the palace to degrade them, to have their slaves abuse them sexually in public, to seat their wives next to whores, and to give their daughters, as prizes to victorious gladiators.
The impulse behind such acts is not simply a perverse one, a flaunting of godlike power, as it was with Caligula. It is that Nero is in his way a revolutionary. He represents something new and subversive on the Roman scene: an emperor playing artist or an artist playing emperor, it is difficult to say which. Indifferent to military glory, Nero devotes himself instead to singing, painting, writing, and acting, not only as a source of private pleasure but for the purpose of launching his career as a public performer. His remark "If I am deposed as emperor, I can always earn my bread as a singer in Alexandria" is not an ironic quip but a daydream -- for he is disillusioned with absolute power. Being master of the civilized world bores him. The traditional Roman aristocrats bore him; Nero scorns them as philistines and turns to his Greek subjects for understanding.
For if the Roman genius shows itself in government and world conquest, the Greek spirit finds its fullest expression in art, drama, philosophy, in a spontaneity of consciousness that ill accords with Roman severity and gravitas ("dignity"). And it is the Greek spirit that inspires Nero.
Which is the real scandal of his reign -- that he values an artist's glory more highly than an emperor's; that he rejects Roman duty for Greek ecstasy; that he prefers the life of imagination to politics and statecraft. When he fantasizes about being a professional singer, it is Alexandria he dreams of, a sophisticated city more Greek than Egyptian, not martial Rome. And although the aristocrats can forgive him his matricide, they cannot forgive him his music.
Whatever the faults of other emperors -- Tiberius, for example, who retired to Capri to spend his days in debauchery, or the megalomaniac Caligula, self-indulged to the point of self-apotheosis -- they did not challenge the order of the Roman world. But Nero, who will beg on bended knee for the judge's leniency in singing competitions, violates Rome's sense of what an emperor should be. His absolute devotion to his art just adds to the scandal -- his hours of practice and study, the massage and special diets to improve his voice, the endless consultations with professional singers. He lies for hours with heavy lead sheets on his chest to strengthen his diaphragm for singing, and practices his harp as he receives senators or other officials who have come to discuss affairs of state.
Even to us, two thousand years later, the disgust of the great Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus is palpable when they describe Nero's grand performances, the first of which takes place after his mother's death. It is a memorable occasion in Rome's long history. When Agrippina was alive, she kept her son within bounds; if he sang or acted it was only in the palace and only for select friends. But now that she is dead, Nero has decided to celebrate his triumph with his artistic debut. The procession will wind its way through the cheering crowds to the Circus Maximus, where he plans to perform for all his subjects, commoner and aristocrat alike, since not even the disapproving nobility can afford to be absent. That would bring down charges of treason on their heads.
For the masses, though, there is no question of coercion. They are delighted by the news and since early morning have thronged the streets and balconies and rooftops waiting for their emperor to enter the city. There may be talk of the strangeness of this triumph, there may be all kinds of speculation and gossip, but when Nero finally appears at the gates, all questions fall away. A great cry goes up from thousands of throats: Ave Caesar! Hail! All Rome gazes with rapture at its hero. Ave Nero Caesar!Blood and Splendor. Copyright © by Daniel Myerson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted February 26, 2001
Myerson has written a tremendous collection of short biographies. Don't be fooled by its short size. Each biography is not only full and rich; the writing is as gripping as a first-class novel. Most impressive is his Myerson's remarkable insight into these historic villans. He has an incredible gift for revealing the layers and contradictions of this 'rogue' gallery. He also displays a sensitivity to what inspired these people to succumbing so completely to the darkest part of human nature. The writing is matched by Myerson's excellent 'writer's eye' for picking the most offbeat yet revealing moments in the lives of his topics. This keen eye is in use right away with the biography of Adolf Hitler. Of all the moments one could pick for this man of infinite horrors, Myerson introduces us to Hitler as the Fuhrer is sitting down to watch Gone With The Wind. This isn't just a clever introduction; this anecdote is used to bridge us to Hitler's own grand and apocalyptic concept of destiny and history. In short, this is one terrific book. Forget about history; this is a book for anyone who simply wants a gripping read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.