29. That Time When Wayne Newton Smacked Johnny Carson Around
Johnny Carson was sweetness and sunshine while he was on the air, and the epitome of the friendly guy you’d like to have as a neighbor. Away from the cameras and his adoring audience, however, Carson was a total jerk, given to bullying and abusing others, and even physically assaulting people in fits of rage. Examples of Carson being a jackass include an attempt to strangle NBC colleague Tom Snyder, refusing to visit his son who was institutionalized in a mental asylum and verbally and physically abusing his wives.
Many celebrities subjected to Carson’s abuse stayed quiet to protect their careers from the notoriously vindictive icon. An exception was singer and actor Wayne Newton, who resented Carson’s cracking gay jokes about him on national TV. Newton, thinking that they were buddies, begged Carson to cut it off, but Carson persisted. So an incensed Newton barged into Carson’s office, and slapped him around silly. It was one of the few times that Carson got his comeuppance. The Newton-is-gay jokes stopped.
28. Perception vs Reality: Humphrey Bogart Was Not as Sour or Tough as He Seemed
Classical Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart, full name Humphrey DeForest Bogart (1899 – 1957), was the living embodiment of the film noir tough guy. After a stint in the US Navy during WWI, he began acting in Broadway, then switched to motion pictures in 1930. For the next decade, he appeared in supporting roles, often as a hard-bitten gangster. By the time Bogart had his first breakout starring role in 1941’s High Sierra, he had already perfected his understated tough-guy persona.
He cemented that perception in the public’s mind with starring roles as a detective in iconic films such as 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and 1946’s The Big Sleep. He even buttressed his tough-guy cred while performing in romantic dramas, such as his starring role opposite Ingrid Bergman in 1942’s Casablanca, or in romantic adventures such as his role opposite Katherine Hepburn in 1951’s African Queen. In reality, as seen below, Bogart’s tough-guy persona was created and foisted upon him by his studio.
27. Humphrey Bogart Was “As Tough as Shirley Temple“
In Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood heyday, studios effectively owned their actors, lock, stock, and barrel. Actors like Bogart consented to have their names, appearances, and just about all aspects of their private lives changed to suit their bosses’ needs. One of the first things that Bogart’s studio Warner Bros. wanted to change about him was how he talked. He had a mouth deformity that made him speak with a lisp, which the studio thought was effeminate. They could not get rid of the lisp, so they gave him hormone shots and voice coaching lessons to make him speak in a more “manly” low and gravelly voice, often through clenched teeth.
Incidentally, Warner Bros. spread various stories about the cause of his deformity, to buttress his tough-guy image. At various times it was attributed to shrapnel from Bogart’s WWI Navy days, a fistfight, or a beatdown from his abusive father. The actual cause, as Bogart acknowledged, was a childhood accident. In real life, contra the common perception of Bogart as a hard-bitten tough guy, he was a sweetheart. As fellow tough-guy actor, James Cagney put it: “when it came to fighting, [Bogart] was about as tough as Shirley Temple“.
26. Was the Baddie King From Robin Hood Really That Bad? Or was it just perception?
The common perception of King John of England (1166 – 1216), best known as the baddie from the Robin Hood legend, is poor. John is depicted as the cowardly usurper who tries to seize the throne while his heroic brother, King Richard I the Lionheart, was doing God’s work, fighting in the Crusades. While the reality was more complicated, and Richard was actually a bad king who detested England, John was no saint. Among other things, he personally murdered his teenaged nephew, Arthur of Brittany, in a drunken rage. However, major strides in the rule of law and the earliest stirrings of what we view as civil rights occurred during John’s reign.
It was a continuation of a trend of advances in civil liberties that took place during the rule of the Plantagenet Dynasty, of which John was the third monarch. They often occurred despite Plantagenet monarchs’ opposition, or only with their reluctant acquiescence – but they occurred. King Henry II, John’s father and the dynasty’s founder, initiated things by reforming the legal system. The next step, taken in John’s reign, was to establish the principle that the king’s power is not absolute, but is limited by law and custom.
25. Contemporaries’ Poor Perception of King John Helped Advance Civil Liberties
King John ruled from 1199 until his death, and his reign was a disaster. Before him, his father and elder brother had cobbled together and defended the Angevin Empire – a collection of territories stretching from Ireland to the Spanish border. John lost the Duchy of Normandy to the French king, resulting in the collapse of that once-mighty empire. On top of that, he got into a dispute with Pope Innocent III, which led to John’s excommunication in 1209.
Between the preceding, his high-handed treatment of English nobles, and high taxes, John’s barons finally had enough of his misrule. They rebelled, and in 1215, forced him to sign the Magna Carta Libertatum (“The Great Charter of Liberty”). The document promised protections from illegal imprisonment and curbed the king’s powers in a variety of ways. It applied to the barons, not to commoners, but its principles of due process and limiting the king’s absolute authority by law were the first steps towards civil rights.
24. King John’s Problems were Caused By His Being Extraordinarily Incompetent
So King John of England had serious issues that supplied serious grounds for criticism and for the poor perception of his reign by contemporaries when he was alive, and by historians and scholars in centuries since. However, although John could be and often was a heel, he could also be quite a likable fellow when he wanted to be. The problem was that he often did not bother to even try. So his reign ended up being disastrous for England.
John lost his French holdings, got the Pope to excommunicate him and place England under interdiction, and triggered a baronial rebellion that ended with the Magna Carta. However, none of that came about because John was an evil king – at or at least as cartoonishly evil as he is often depicted in various versions of the Robin Hood story. Instead, John’s poor perception came about because, instead of being an exceptionally evil monarch, he was an exceptionally incompetent one.
23. A Serial Bungler Who Had Things Backfire Even When He Tried to Do Good
John’s brother, King Richard the Lionheart, was captured and imprisoned on his way back from the Crusades. So John tried to usurp the throne, but bungled it and ended up banished and had his property confiscated. When he became king, John entered into a disastrous marriage that cost him much of his holdings in France, then got into a ruinous war with the French king that cost him the rest. At home, he got into an argument with an archbishop, that ended up with the Pope excommunicating John and all of England.
Even when he tried to do the right thing, things backfired and worsened John’s perception. For example, he shifted some of the burden of taxation from poor peasants to wealthy nobles. The result was the First Baronial Revolt, and John’s forced signing of the Magna Carta. Fittingly, his final days were just as pathetic: while suffering a bout of dysentery that would ultimately do him in, he decided to take a shortcut through some marshy ground by a tidal estuary. The tide came in, John barely escaped drowning, but lost his baggage train and the Crown Jewels of England. He died soon thereafter.
22. Contrary to His Public Perception, “The Butcher of Baghdad” Had a Soft Side
“The Butcher of Baghdad”, Saddam Hussein (1937 – 2006), ruled Iraq from 1979 until his ouster in 2003. The perception of him as a butcher was spot on: his rule was marked by extreme brutality, repression, and corruption at home, plus costly wars against his neighbors. At least a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed in a variety of purges and genocides by Saddam’s security services. Hundreds of thousands more were killed in Saddam’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait.
However, although a vicious brute, Saddam was also a smooth operator who knew how to lay on the charm when he wanted to. Indeed, on the day he was led to his execution, most of Saddam’s American guards had tears in their eyes at the impending death of the kindly old man they had come to know. Saddam also had a maudlin streak that ran counter to his public perception: the man wrote four steamy romance novels, plus numerous poems and poetry collections.
Saddam Hussein’s best-known novel is Zabibah and the King, a convoluted love story set in seventh-century Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. The plot revolves around the beautiful and brilliant Zabibah, her perverted husband, and a handsome king named Hussein. Each night, Zabibah is summoned to Hussein’s palace, where she fobs off Hussein’s advances by giving long political speeches. Hussein’s hots for Zabibah increase, and… tension builds up between the duo.
Her husband, a deviant fond of orgies and money, is unhappy with the budding relationship between his wife and handsome Hussein. So hubby disguises himself and assaults Zabibah as she walks home from the palace one night in order to shame her. However, Hussein loves Zabibah too much to let that destroy the romance, so he goes after the perpetrator. After various adventures, Zabibah leads an army and is mortally wounded in battle, dying while proclaiming Arab nationalism with her last breath. Hussein kills the rapist, avenging Zabibah’s honor.
20. Whatever Else it Was, Saddam’s Novel Was Not Subtle
Although Saddam had his maudlin side, it wasn’t a subtle kind of maudlin. The plot of Zabibah and the King is as unsubtle an allegory as it is possible to cram into a novel. Zabibah represents the Iraqi people. The rapist husband represents America. The crime represents the United States’ ousting of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and is dated January 17th – the same date as the commencement of Operation Desert Storm. The heroic King Hussein is Saddam Hussein.
To nobody’s surprise, the Iraqi dictator’s novel did extremely well in Iraq. Knowing that they had better, Iraqi critics praised Zabibah as a literary masterpiece. It became a domestic best-seller, with over a million copies flying off the shelves, and a musical appeared in Iraqi theaters. Saddam’s sycophants in the Iraqi Ministry of Information turned the novel into a twenty-part television series, which aired on and was frequently rerun on Iraqi TV.
19. How The Modern Era’s Greatest Terrorist Leader Liked to Entertain Himself
Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s founder and the twenty-first century’s most notorious villain (to date), hardly needs an introduction, as he is probably history’s best-known terrorist. The terror attacks masterminded and carried out by his organization, particularly those of September 11th, 2001, have seared bin Laden’s name in global, and especially American, memories. Less known, however, is how bin Laden liked to pass his free time when he was not running a virtual terror state.
Apparently, he did not spend all his time issuing fatwas against Jews, infidels, and backsliding Muslims, or waging Jihad against opponents of his ‘Make Islam Great Again!‘ vision. In November 2017, the CIA released over 470,000 files seized from his compound following the 2011 raid that killed him. The contents included about 174 gigabytes of video, 7.4 gigabytes of image files, and 18 gigabytes of assorted documents. As it turned out, bin Laden had some hobbies and interests that stood in jarring contrast to what had hitherto been known about his persona.
Although he decried the infidel West and its corrupting cultural influence upon Islam and Muslims, the world’s leading Islamic Jihadist partook of Western. On bin Laden’s personal laptop was an eclectic collection of saved videos. Unsurprisingly, they included plenty of gory stuff, such as beheadings – what self-respecting Islamic jihadist wouldn’t have some of those? Surprisingly, they also included British slapstick comedy. As it turns out, bin Laden was a big fan of Rowan Atkinson, as evinced by the numerous episodes of Mr. Bean and Wallace and Gromit that were discovered on his hard drive.
Even more surprising, the terror mastermind had a thing for crotcheting – probably as good a way as any to pass the time while in hiding. Recovered from his laptop were 30 how-to-crotchet tutorial videos, including one for how to crotchet an iPod sock. And in a surprisingly not surprising twist, the man whose network tortured and killed people for smoking, drinking, dancing, or watching media depicting women not covered up in burkas, had porn saved in his laptop. Turns out that bin Laden was just as hypocritical as most of those who bray the loudest about the licentiousness of the modern age.
The word “horde” often conjures up a misleading image and mistaken perception, especially when it is coupled with Mongols. It brings to mind mindless swarms of disorganized barbarians, attacking their enemies in a wild hell-for-leather charge, and overwhelming their foes with numbers and reckless savagery, heedless of cost. The Mongols certainly were savage in their conduct of war. And considering their barbaric treatment of others, it is difficult to contest that they were barbarians, in all meanings of the word. However, they were also the most strictly disciplined, organized, and hierarchical military machine the world had seen until then.
Mongol discipline and professionalism rivaled even that of the Roman legions, and would not be matched or exceeded until the modern era’s professional armies. Such strict discipline and professionalism, more than anything else, won the Mongols their victories. They seldom had numerical superiority over their enemies. Indeed, the Mongols swept across Eurasia and conquered history’s largest contiguous empire despite being severely outnumbered by their foes. In their rise to empire, the Mongols routinely annihilated opposing armies that were two, three, or four or more times bigger than their own.
16. Far From Swamping Their Enemies With Superior Numbers, the Mongols Won Despite Being Outnumbered
The Mongols relied on superior strategy, tactics, training, discipline, and speed. Contra the mistaken perception of their massive “hordes”, the Mongols won despite being numerical underdogs because they were professionals, and extremely good at the business of war. They consistently beat bigger opponents by leveraging their own strengths, while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses of their enemies. Adding up all the preceding, the result was the most effective, efficient, and terrifying military machine that the world had ever known. And it all began with Genghis Khan, born Temujin (1162 – 1227). With diplomatic maneuvering, backed by force when warranted, Temujin took over the Mongol clans, one at a time.
He ruthlessly eradicated tribal distinctions by exterminating the nobility, and combined the commoners into a single Mongol tribe, united by their personal loyalty to him. He then took on the rival Tatar tribe, defeated them, and executed all males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, Temujin had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and united feuding tribes into a Mongol nation. That year, he called for a grand assembly, and revealed his vision, endorsed by shamans, that the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky. The Mongols proclaimed him “Genghis Khan”, meaning Universal Ruler.
15. Contra the Perception That Mongol Hordes Were Chaotic Barbarians, They Were Actually a Highly Organized and Well Oiled Military Machine
Genghis Khan organized the Mongols for war. He was a good judge of men, a great talent spotter, and his system was a meritocracy where the capable could rise, regardless of origins. He subjected the formerly fractious and feuding nomadic warriors to strict military discipline that was hard, but not overly harsh or unreasonable. And he drilled and trained them constantly. He then placed them in a well-organized hierarchical organization, with a clear-cut and effective chain of command.
Despite the perception that the Mongols were chaotic barbarians, their military was highly organized. Genghis Khan created a military structure based on decimals, with a hierarchy of ranks. At the base were squads of 10 men, known as an Arbans. 10 Arbans formed a company of 100, known as a Zuun. 10 Zuuns were combined into a regiment of 1000, known as a Minghan. 10 Minghans were formed into a division of 10,000, known as a Tuman. A separate imperial guard of 10,000 men protected the Khan and leading Mongol figures.
All Mongols rode horses since they were toddlers, and were taught archery in childhood. As a result, they were prime cavalry material by the time they joined the Mongol army as young men. In the army, they underwent extensive and continuous training that transformed them into a mounted elite. They practiced the individual skills of archery and horsemanship almost daily. They also trained constantly to master unit tactics. They drilled in maneuvers, formation changes, rotations, advances, retreats, and massed archery, until they became second nature.
Roughly six out of every ten Mongols were light cavalry horse archers, while the remaining four were heavy cavalry, typically armored and armed with lances. A favorite battlefield tactic, for which they incessantly trained, was to whittle their opponents from a distance with arrows. Once the Mongol commander judged the enemy sufficiently weakened, a signal would be given for a charge, spearheaded by the heavy cavalry, in which Mongol horsemen slashed the survivors with sabers, or skewered them with lances.
13. A Decisive Mongol Victory That Came About As a Result of Constant Practice and Drill
Another tactic practiced constantly by the Mongols, and that runs against the perception that they were mindless warriors, was the feigned retreat to lure the enemy into pursuing them. Once they brought the foe giving them chase to a favorable ground, the Mongols would turn at a signal, and surround or counterchange their pursuers. An illustrative example was the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223, which began with a severely outnumbered Mongols leading a numerically superior army of pursuing Rus and Cumans on a nine-day chase across the Steppe.
When the Mongols reached the favorable ground at the Kalka River in today’s Ukraine, they turned on their foes. The result was a decisive Mongol victory that broke the Rus, and set the stage for their subjugation under what came to be known as The Mongol Yoke for centuries. It was a victory that owed everything to constant training and drill. Through such continual practice, Genghis Khan revolutionized warfare on the Eurasian Steppe. He transformed the nomads under his command from amateur warrior bands into a disciplined professional army, with an established structure and hierarchical chain of command.
12. Genghis Khan Created a Medieval Fighting Machine That Had Many Modern Traits
Genghis Khan built on the inherent strengths of the nomads – hardihood, excellent horsemanship, and martial skills such as archery. When those strengths were coupled with discipline and professionalism, the result was a formidable – and contra the perception of Mongol hordes as backwards, surprisingly modern – fighting machine. A Mongol military trait that seems remarkably modern was the wide flexibility and leeway afforded soldiers and officers in carrying out their orders. The Mongol chain of command communicated the overall objectives and the commander’s vision and aim. Subordinates were not micromanaged, and initiative was encouraged, so long as they carried out orders promptly and effectively served the overall plan.
Another modern trait was strategic flexibility. The Tumans of 10,000 Mongols usually operated independently, marching separately to sweep across and devastate wide swathes of enemy territory. They were kept in contact with each other and with corps or army commanders in charge of two or more Tumans by a steady stream of message bearing couriers. If a Tuman made contact with an enemy force too big to handle, the other Tumans could quickly be called in and concentrated into an army.
11. Contra the Perception of Mongols Being Backwards Barbarians, They Introduced Innovations Centuries Before They Were Adopted in the Modern Era
Centuries after the Mongols’ heyday, Napoleon Bonaparte used a similar methodology of advancing on a broad front, with separate army corps making their own way, marching like the outstretched fingers of a hand. If and when a corps made contact with the main enemy force, it would engage to fix it in place, or otherwise operate in a manner that maintained contact. In the meanwhile, the remaining corps would rush in and concentrate upon the corps in contact with the enemy, transforming from a widespread advance like outstretched fingers, and into a solid fist.
The Mongols were anything but conservative when it came to war. Far from being wed to the traditional Steppe way of fighting, the Mongols were open-minded and receptive to adopting the military techniques of others, so long as they were effective. For example, there was no tradition of siege of warfare in the Steppe. Yet the Mongols successfully besieged numerous cities by employing Chinese, Persian, Arab, and European specialists. They learned how and incorporated engineering into their military establishment.
10. The Wholesome Perception of an American President vs His Shocking Scandal
The name Grover Cleveland (1837 – 1908) comes up most often nowadays as an answer to trivia questions. He is best known today for being the only American president to serve two non-consecutive terms. He was elected America’s 22nd president in 1884, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College in 1888, then bounced back and was elected the 24th president in 1892. A Democrat reformer, Cleveland left his mark by fighting the day’s endemic political corruption and had a reputation for integrity and honesty.
However, that wholesome perception is belied by a seedier side. Cleveland was also known for surviving explicit scandals that would sink any Democrat today. With some exceptions, such as with Thomas Jefferson, most presidential perversions and scandals involved consensual hanky-panky, or boorish conduct amounting to workplace sexual harassment. Inappropriate behavior, but not violent criminal conduct. Not so with Grover Cleveland: his biggest scandal involved straightforward assault and shocking levels of corruption and abuse of power in covering it up.
9. A Presidential Scandal That Puts Other Scandals to Shame
It began on the evening of December 15th, 1873, with a chance street encounter in Buffalo between Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland. At the time, he was a prominent lawyer and former Sheriff of Erie County, which included Buffalo. Cleveland, a stocky six-footer who had been courting Halpin for months, invited her to dinner at a restaurant, and she accepted. After a pleasant meal, he escorted her back to her boarding house. There, however, the pleasantness stopped, things took a horrible turn, and Halpin’s perception of Cleveland was forever altered.
According to Halpin in an affidavit, the future president assaulted her “by use of force and violence and without my consent“. When she threatened to report the assault, the former Sheriff threatened her into silence. As her affidavit continued, Cleveland: “told me he was determined to ruin me if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again, and commanded him to leave my room, which he did“.
8. Grover Cleveland’s Perception as a Reformer Survived a Serious Scandal
As Maria Halpin stated, a few weeks after she was assaulted by Grover Cleveland, she discovered that she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy in September of 1874. When she declared that Cleveland was the father, he used his connections to shut her up. He had the child removed from his mother’s care and placed in an orphanage and had Halpin committed to a mental asylum. She was quickly released after an evaluation concluded that she was not insane, and had only been institutionalized as a result of egregious abuse of power by corrupt political elites.
Because real life is not fair, and justice and karma are often a joke, Cleveland got away with it. His wholesome public perception survived Halpin’s accusations, and he went on to get elected Mayor of Buffalo, then Governor of New York, before running for president in 1884. News of the scandal and his illegitimate child came out during the presidential campaign, and his opponents attacked him for the contrast between his do-gooder public persona and his seedy private life. As seen below, he survived the scandal and won the election.
7. “Uncle Cleve” Went From Babysitting to Creeping
During the 1884 presidential election, Grover Cleveland’s campaign was dogged by chants from opponents, mimicking a baby crying “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?!” He won, however, and his supporters retorted with: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” Assault and fathering an illegitimate child upon his victim was the worst thing (that we know of) about Grover Cleveland. However, it was not his only pervy act. Another item from his personal life, which would amount to an icky scandal if it happened today, was the iffy relationship between Cleveland and his eventual wife, Frances Folsom (1864 – 1947).
Frances Clara Folsom, was born in Buffalo, New York, the only surviving child of Oscar Folsom, a lawyer and longtime close friend of Cleveland. At age 27, the future president met his future wife and future First Lady shortly after she was born. Cooing over the baby, Cleveland took an interest in Frances while she was still in swaddling clothes. He bought her a pram, used to babysit her as “Uncle Cleve”, and doted on her. Then things got creepy.
6. The President Who Groomed a Baby to Be His Bride
In 1875, Frances Folsom’s father was killed in an accident while racing his carriage. He left no will, so a court-appointed Cleveland to administer his deceased friend’s estate. That brought him in closer contact with Frances, and he became her new father figure and hero. Unlike Frances’ real father, who had been notoriously careless of both his life and his family, “Uncle Cleve” was dependable, attentive, and doting. He continued to dote on Frances as she grew up, and at some point, things went from doting to grooming: Cleveland took to sending her flowers, with notes saying “I am waiting for my bride to grow up“.
People thought Cleveland was kidding, but he was in deadly earnest. After he was elected president and while Frances was in college, Cleveland sent her a letter proposing marriage and fretted like a schoolboy while awaiting her reply. She agreed, and on June 2nd, 1886, as the Marine Band was conducted by John Philip Sousa, 21-year-old Frances Folsom wed the 49-year-old president in the White House’s Blue Room. To date, it is the only time a president was married in the White House or while in office.
5. In Jarring Contrast to His Perception as a Monster, Mao Zedong Had a Sensitive Poet Side
Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) led the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death, and after the communists won control in 1949, he ruled China from that date until his demise. During his time in power, Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions Chinese. They were killed outright by his followers, or starved to death because of Mao’s disastrous policies. However, there was more to Mao than a revolutionary and man of action. In jarring contrast to his well-deserved reputation as a monster, Mao was also a poet.
In addition to being a prolific mass murderer, Mao was also a prolific writer. Surprisingly, for a man so politically radical and revolutionary, he liked to write and pen verses in classical Chinese forms. It would be like a modern American anarchist who likes writing in the manner of Chaucer. As with most intellectuals of his generation, Mao’s education was based on a foundation of classical Chinese literature. However, while most of his contemporaries moved on to modern styles and themes, Mao stuck with the old when it came to literature and poetry.
Mao began composing poetry in his youth. Indeed, his image as a poet was a significant part of the Chinese public’s perception of Mao as he rose to power. He was actually considered a good poet. Not just by critics in China, who would have been foolhardy indeed to pan his poetry, but also by literary critics outside China and beyond Mao’s clutches. His poetry tended to be on romantic end of things, rather than the more modern realist genre and resembled the seventh to ninth century Tang Dynasty’s style.
Alone I stand in the autumn cold On the tip of Orange Island, The Xiang flowing northward; I see a thousand hills crimsoned through By their serried woods deep-dyed, And a hundred barges vying Over crystal blue waters. Eagles cleave the air, Fish glide under the shallow water; Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom. Brooding over this immensity, I ask, on this bondless land Who rules over man’s destiny? I was here with a throng of companions, Vivid yet those crowded months and years. Young we were, schoolmates, At life’s full flowering; Filled with student enthusiasm Boldly we cast all restraints aside. Pointing to our mountains and rivers, Setting people afire with our words, We counted the mighty no more than muck. Remember still How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters And the waves stayed the speeding boats?
3. This Emperor Was Horrible, But Contra His Perception, He Was Also an Artist at Heart
Nero was one of ancient Rome’s worst rulers. He was born in 37 AD, a nephew of the emperor Caligula, and grand-nephew of his successor, the emperor Claudius. Claudius fell in love with his niece and Nero’s mother, Agrippina. He married her and adopted Nero, naming him his heir and successor. Agrippina had Claudius poisoned in 54 AD, and her teenaged son became emperor. She dominated Nero during the first five years of his rule, so to escape her smothering embrace, he decided to murder her.
Nero tried to make it look accidental, such as with a roof designed to collapse and crush her. The roof fell on and crushed one of her maids, instead. Next, Nero gifted his mother a pleasure barge, which was rigged to capsize in the middle of a lake. Before Nero’s horrified gaze as he watched from a villa overlooking the lake, his mother swam from the sinking barge to shore like an otter. At his wit’s end, and dreading an awkward confrontation, Nero sent in some sailors to club her death with oars. With his mother out of the way, Nero was finally free to indulge his fantasies of… being an artist and Olympics champion.
After freeing himself from his domineering mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses and indulged himself to the fullest. Fancying himself a talented musician, he threw exceptionally long concerts, during which he sang while playing a lyre. Few dared leave before completion, or display anything less than rapt attention. The performances were so bad that women faked labor in order to leave, and men faked heart attacks or death so they could get carried out. Still, that was nothing compared to Nero’s pursuit of his dream to become an Olympics champion. He kicked that off by having the games delayed for two years until he could visit Greece.
Nero competed in chariot racing, and his competitors tried to throw the race by slowing down. Still, Nero failed to reach the finish line because he crashed and wrecked his chariot. The judges, combining sycophancy with fear of an unstable man who could have them crucified with a snap of his fingers, awarded him the victor’s wreath anyhow, reasoning that he would have won but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not even part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing.
Nero spent extravagantly in pursuit of his hobbies and to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied. In the meantime, he left the business of running the government to incompetent and corrupt cronies who wrecked it. By 68 AD, the Roman Empire had had enough, and numerous rebellions broke out. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public and begging their forgiveness. He thought that if he sang for them while playing the lyre, it would “soften their hearts”, and he would be allowed to retire to an out-of-the-way province as its governor.
He composed a speech and wrote a song. However, he changed his mind after it was pointed out that he would probably be torn apart by a mob as soon as he was sighted in public, before he got the chance to orate or sing. While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be publicly beaten to death, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him. All hope gone, Nero decided to end his life. Unable to do it himself, he had a freedman stab him, crying out before the fatal blow: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!” The perception of him molded by time.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading