Did Nancy Pelosi just compare Trump to Emperor Nero: Here are 5 things you need to know about the Roman tyrant

Did Nancy Pelosi just compare Trump to Emperor Nero: Here are 5 things you need to know about the Roman tyrant
Donald Trump, Emperor Nero (Getty Images)

As the number of confirmed cases with the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) infection worldwide surges with the United States accounting for the most number of confirmed cases, many are calling out President Donald Trump over his delayed response to the pandemic.

Recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced her thoughts on Trump's response, comparing him to Nero, who is often thought to be the cruelest and most depraved of ancient Rome's emperors.

Pelosi said in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, "We should be taking every precaution. What the President, his denial at the beginning was deadly." She added, "I don't know what the scientists said to him, when did this President know about this, and what did he know? What did he know and when did he know it? That's for an after-action review. But as the President fiddles, people are dying. And we just have to take every precaution."

Pelosi's statement borrows from the very popular phrase, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned." In the summer of 64 AD, Rome was ravaged by a great fire for approximately a week, destroying 70 percent of the city and leaving half its population homeless and many dead.

According to a well-known expression, Rome’s emperor at the time, the decadent and unpopular Nero, “fiddled while Rome burned.” The expression has a double meaning: Not only did Nero play music while his people suffered, but he was an ineffectual leader in a time of crisis. But was Nero as bad as history says? Here are five scandalous facts about the ancient Roman emperor.

Emperor Nero commits suicide with his own sword after the Roman army overruns the city, 9th June 68 AD. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nero the Antichrist

In the years following Nero's death, theories came along which projected Nero to be the Antichrist. Although many of the populace believed that Nero intentionally had started the fire, he himself blamed the Christians. Because of their supposed hatred of mankind, he had them thrown to dogs, nailed to crosses in his gardens and burned alive. 

Therefore, Nero was perceived by Christians as a persecutor of their faith. The Sibylline Oracles, Book 5 and 8, written in the 2nd century, speak of Nero returning and bringing destruction. Within Christian communities, these writings, along with others, fueled the belief that Nero would return as the Antichrist.

Some modern biblical scholars even contend that the number 666 in the Book of Revelation is a code for Nero, a view supported by Roman Catholic Biblical commentaries.

Nero's husband, Sporus

After Nero's wife, Poppaea Sabina died in 65 AD, some contend it was during childbirth, others say Nero killed her after kicking her in the stomach. Nero then married Sporus, a young man who bore a striking resemblance to Poppaea. 

Nero had Sporus castrated and during their marriage, Nero had Sporus appear in public as his wife wearing the regalia that was customary for Roman empresses. Nero had earlier married another freedman, Pythagoras, who had played the role of Nero's husband; now Sporus played the role of Nero's wife. Some think Nero used his marriage to Sporus to assuage the guilt he felt for kicking his pregnant wife Poppaea to death.

Shortly before Nero's death, during the Calends festival, Sporus presented Nero with a ring bearing a gemstone depicting the Rape of Proserpina, in which the ruler of the underworld forces a young girl to become his bride. It was at the time considered one of the many bad omens of Nero's fall.

Incest and Matricide

Nero not only racked up a reputation for being cruel but also for being an incestuous deviant. Even more scandalous was the fact that the emperor took a mistress who turned out to be the spitting image of his mother.

According to their accounts, his mother Agrippina was a ruthless and ambitious woman who schemed and murdered to get her son on the throne. When it finally paid off, she had no intention of fading into the background. However, five years into his reign, Nero and Agrippina became locked in a brutal power struggle. As soon as Agrippina discovered her grip on Nero slipping, she reputedly gave in and slept with her son.

Over time, Seneca and Burrus gained prominence over Nero’s mother and encouraged Nero to step out of her shadow. Agrippina responded by promoting her stepson Britannicus as the true heir to the throne. Britannicus died in February 55 under dubious circumstances. He was most probably poisoned by Nero. In 59 AD, Nero ordered the execution of his mother.

Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 - 59), sometimes called Agrippinilla, sister of the Roman emperor Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, circa 50 AD. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nero the sore Olympics loser

Nero was a great admirer of Greek culture. In 67 AD, when the Olympics was in full swing, Nero was determined to share in their glory and admiration. In defiance of the Olympic regulations, he stood behind his 10 horse chariot, while his opponents manned only four steeds being the fearful persona that he is, no one questioned him.

After the race began, Nero began having some trouble, however. As the charioteers rounded the first corner, the slightly overweight Nero found his ten-horse vehicle too bulky to maneuver. He was thrown from the chariot and injured so badly, he almost died.

It didn’t seem to matter that he was unable to finish the race due to his extensive injuries. Nero was still the winner of the race after the officiants were told he would have won had he not been thrown off his chariot.

Nero taxed urine

Nero has the distinguished honor of being the first person to tax urine. In ancient Rome, urine was a valuable commodity. It was collected from the cesspools where the lower classes of society emptied their small pots and the public toilets which the upper classes used and recycled. The Romans used the urine to bleach/clean clothes, make leather soft, dye clothes, make gunpowder and to whiten their teeth. 

Just like any other businessman/emperor, Nero sought to capitalize on the trade, enacting a urine tax, known as the vectigal urinae, on the buyers of urine. Although the tax was eventually removed, it was reenacted around 70 AD with the succession of emperor Vespasian (ruler of Rome from 69-79 AD).  

“When [Vespasian's] son Titus blamed him for even laying a tax upon urine, he applied to his nose a piece of the money he received in the first installment and asked him if it stunk. And he replying no, 'And yet,' said he, 'it is derived from urine,'” wrote Suetonius in The Lives of the Caesars circa A.D. 120.

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