The Sack of Rome.

According to Tacitus, Petronius Arbiter:

…spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste (elegantiae arbiter) in connection with the science of luxurious living.

The Tom Ford of his day, his was among the more spectacular suicides. As the story has it (and no, I don’t care if it isn’t true), in 65 CE, the emperor dropped by for an evening of gladiator buttsecks during which he noticed the many priceless works of art littering Petronius’s penthouse triplex overlooking east 57th. Having had a day or two to work himself into a state, the emperor sent word that, admiring his subject’s collection, Petronius should do everyone a favor and kill himself leaving everything to said emperor.

Long story short: Petronius Arbiter gave a party, not unlike Truman Capote, and invited tout le monde to come and help him say goodbye. Naturally, invitations were as much sought-after by Rome’s fashionable elites as tickets to Book of Mormon are today (not even house seats available before the end of the year). Once his friends were suitably primed he took an oxycontin and opened a vein in his arm, tying it off with a tasseled cord brought from Cleopatra’s bedchamber (Marc Anthony having developed a taste for light bondage while on a fortnight walkabout of Britannicum.) Then he pointed out to his guests the objects most admired by Nero, raised his trusty walking-stick, and smashed them one by one: priceless antiques looted from Greece; chryselephantine statues of Jupiter wearing the assless chaps of power; Carthaginian porphyry and alabaster so fine it was transparent; terra cotta maquettes by Praxiteles beside the full-scale painted marble accounts of the same works; Pompeian glass; cameos; works so precious and fine their like has never been seen since; he smashed them all, opening his vein to let his blood add some splash to the trompe l’oiel mosaic floor. As long as he could raise his stick he smashed all the things he most loved, till all that was left was his famous ring bearing his own seal. With his last ounce of strength he crushed it beneath his heel before handing his will to his most-favored lover — a will that named all of Nero’s boyfriends and all his favorite sex acts — to die at last in his arms.

It’s believed by many that this paragon of the virtuous homosexual was also the author of the famous novel Satyricon, the touching account of one man’s pursuit of his boyfriend after his best friend elopes with him to get married in a frigid land across the Great Ocean, and though we only have fragments his work still brings imperial Rome to blazing life: her whorehouses, rent boys, public baths, massage parlors, Georgetown dinner parties given by arrivistes hoping to attract players but ending up with Peggy Noonan, etc. I wonder, did Nero think on Petronius’s suicide as he hid himself in a spider-hole to try to escape capture and death? Did he think of his own priceless collection of artworks left behind in the domus aurum built at vast expense after the christian terrorists burned the heart of the city? A palace so magnificent its like has never been seen since. A palace that Petronius had insisted the emperor build to demonstrate to the terrorists that they could never defeat the spirit of Rome. “Never negotiate with terrorists,” he advised. “Never pay a ransom. They’ll only ask for more and you can never give them enough to satisfy them and you will seriously piss off your base.” Did Nero think of the great lake he had built at his villa in Neapolis, a lake so vast that naval battles could be staged for his amusement when he grew tired of singing his compositions for the local populace?

He could hear a great hammering on the courtyard’s outer door. He doubted it could hold up for very much longer before it was smashed and the marines would be coming his way. Did he long for his mother and wonder why he could never gain her approval? Why she could never take the cocks out of her mouth long enough just once to say to him, “Well done, darling. Good show.”

And what of his own behavior? He’d heard reported that Petronius at his final party, to which the emperor had for some reason not been invited, had said “the only point of having an aristocracy is to show the plebes how to kill yourself properly.”

It had all started so long ago. He’d been in the middle of one of his most ambitious shows, Hello, Ptolly!, a song-filled account of the sack of Alexandria, when the damn colosseum went up in flames taking most of the old middle-class residential districts with it, leaving him with practically no tax-base to provide funding for social security and universal health care, programs he couldn’t cut without finding himself running for his life. Which he had to confess seemed a trifle ironic as his dead husband’s blood seeped through the thatch he’d put in place to conceal the emperor’s hiding place before falling on his sword.

The emperor couldn’t help but wonder why Petronius had been so scornful of the opening chorus of Happy Villagers coming out to meet the actor playing his grandfather, or great-grandfather, or whatever, before being crucified and burned by the royal guard. What was so wrong with Happy Villagers? They could get a lot of the exposition done and employ most of the household staff. He became aware of marines moving about above him and wondered again why he’d allowed himself to be talked out of running for governor of Florida as he’d wanted. “They should only sing,” Petronius had insisted, “when the emotion becomes too big for speech…”

“But of course!” the emperor exclaimed aloud. “Happy Villagers only belong in operetta! What we’re looking for is innovation! A new way to tell stories. A truly musical theatre…!”

He began to sing. Hoping in this way to soften the bite of the blade he could hear already slicing the air. Though Nero doubted his old tutor would have been impressed by his futile attempt to hold on to life and power at whatever cost, let it never be said that in his final moments he let down the side.

As the Visigoths approached the eternal city (‘eternal’ in this respect meaning till something better comes along) did The Fifteen think of the splendors of Nero or the style of Petronius as libraries burned and statues were toppled? True, the old council of religious orthodoxy wasn’t packed with hotties as it had been when Nero used it as a dumping-ground for his old boyfriends — though it was undoubtedly more theologically sound: which was cold comfort as they looked down from the portico of the imperial temple to Zeus Rampant as the marauding horde of unappealing tribesmen smashed the windows of Prada. Maybe at least now the Vestal Virgins would finally STFU about keeping the damn eternal flame alight, which would be something.

Did they look back on the cruel old days of Nero as being the beginning of the end? When the cost of endless wars, and the insatiable appetite for ever-more expensive musical theatre spectacles, sapped the appetite of the empire for making hard choices and sent it into a death spiral of tax-cuts and bad eleven o’clock numbers? Were they fools to ever have tried to negotiate with the Visigoths? Had they learned nothing from their encounter with the Vandals? Instead of that being the wake-up call it in retrospect it so clearly was, they’d merely used it as an excuse to spend more on greek fire and prototypes of steel-clad battle galleys not even the Arabs and Chinese could sink — if they’d ever found a way to make them float. Funny that no matter how much money they threw at them the damn things always managed to wind up at the bottom of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

As Caius Julius Caesar once famously said on landing at Brighton, “Coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

All The Fifteen could do while waiting for death and trying not to piss their togas was to look forward to the inevitable day when the Visigoths would meet their own Waterloosium, on the plains of Iberia perhaps, at the hands of a pan-Arab Welfare State Imperial Army. In Baghdad or Los Angeles. Or overwhelmed by pictish tribes, maddened by too much beer and football, left to run riot across Gaul without an imperial army to restrain them. The Pax Augusta was long since gone and now Pax Romana would be no more. What was left of the empire was in for a long dark future of anti-government zealots too ignorant to understand what it was they wanted to destroy.

Perhaps if The Fifteen had been braver, if they’d had more faith the emperor Honorius could stand up to Alaric. And perhaps if Honorius himself hadn’t been so obsessed with finding the middle ground. Or if the senate hadn’t cut that ground out from under the emperor’s feet by trying to pacify the enemy king by pretty much giving him anything he wanted. And of course, as Petronius Arbiter had said to Nero — whose reign was looking better all the time because of a thriving economy and tax cuts for the wealthy — “Never pay a ransom. If you do the terrorists win.”

Too late now. All they could do was face the end.

Perhaps a song might help?


“Anyone You Can Screw I Can Screw Better.”

Reminds me of the classic ’70s T-shirt, “The Last Great Act of Defiance.”

Shouldn’t this post be called “The Nutsack of Rome?”

Encounter with The Vandals (bring your chaps):

Turns out that there was a punk band called The Visigoths as well as The Vandals.

Did you just compare Barack Obama with Petronius? Shocking!

I would have gone with Caligula.

@Tommmcatt Be Fat, And That Be That: Obama is more Honorius. And who knows when empires end. The moment of collapse? – Britain; USSR: Ottoman; Austro-Hungarian; Korvettes – or at some point before when power is derailed by orthodoxy?

Some things never change. Which is why it’s always important to be ready to check out.

Add a Comment
Please log in to post a comment