Sunday, February 22, 2009

Nightmare men

"Then the strife of war being aroused will come to the west,
and the fugitive from Rome will also come, brandishing a great spear,
having crossed the Euphrates with many myriads."
-- Sibylline Oracles, Book 4, 135.

"The sudden and mysterious disappearance of Nero encouraged a belief that he was alive and would return, a belief still prevalent as late as the time of [Emperor] Trajan, and shared by pagan, Jew and Christian." -- Cambridge Ancient History Vol. 11, p. 144.

Only a few times in history has it happened: A man holds the reigns of power, a man so loathsome, so horrible, so hated, that his very name becomes a synonym for evil. He rises to the pinnacle of power, but over-reaches, his empire collapses and he dies in squalor and infamy. He becomes, as the brilliant poet-prophet Isaiah wrote hopefully about Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, a "branch so abominable" that the very grave would spit him out.

The modern generation remembers this with the late, disgusting madman Adolph Hitler, whose mysterious death in the ashes of Berlin fed rumors for years that he yet lived. And perhaps there are people who still so believe.

For the people of the first century A.D., the hiss and byword was Nero, disgraced and disgusting Emperor of Rome, last scion of the once-glorious Julio-Claudian line. He, too, perished a suicide, and of him, too, rumors of survival long echoed through the lands he had ravaged.

That is the meaning of that cryptic paragraph I quoted above, from the Pseudepigrapha -- the fear that wouldn't die, that the end of the world would be ushered in by the return of Nero from the East to lead apocalyptic war.

The lesson from it: History, like nature, is non-moral. History does not always care to hand over human monsters for exhibit and execution but leaves us to wonder and worry long after their noxious reichs have crumbled. And so, our nightmares linger.

Another lesson: It is a cliche but also a truism, that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." And in the cases of both Nero and the modern Nazi madman, it is a sobering fact that they were both hailed as heroes of the people, when they first came to power.

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