Nero, Bibi And Modicum

News from the Imperial Capital of the World

Pareto Chameleon

As summer blooms over the famed city on the seven hills, it is the season for outdoor sports and revelries. After a strenuous morning of chariot racing, Nero Claudius Caesar, the fifth emperor of Rome, was relaxing in the pool one afternoon in the luxurious garden of Maecenas. He had decided to give a little time to the serious business of state. Contrary to fake rumours that circulate among the high-born elite, the emperor is by no means unmindful of his responsibilities towards the defence of the empire and the wellbeing of his subjects. In fact, a topic he particularly relishes is diplomacy. That is what he was attending to that afternoon. His chief advisor, the wise Seneca, was giving him news from the far-flung corners of the empire.

All was well, Seneca assured his young master. Even the diabolical Ping, the ruler of Sina, had been cornered by loyal imperial allies who were resisting tooth and nail his impudent territorial ambitions. The imperial navy had been deployed to keep a watch on his coastline. Of particular distinction has been the contribution of Hindia’s ruler Modicum Rex. He has stood like a rock against all the miscreants and conspirators who are out to defame the glorious empire. He has been ably assisted in this effort by his minister Amitus Amicus. Together, they have built the edifice of a strong kingdom that is firmly allied with the empire.

The name Modicum Rex seemed to ring a bell in the emperor’s mind. The wise Seneca noticed the slight flicker in his master’s eyes and immediately picked up the cue. “You may remember, your highness, your meeting with Modicum Rex at a banquet in the capital of Gaul three years ago. You were intrigued by his refusal to eat any meat or fish and wondered if it might have anything to do with the teachings of the Buddha. Modicum gave you a long explanation of how Buddhists actually had no problems with eating meat and that it was pious worshippers of the cow like Modicum who kept away from it. You then asked him about the divinity of the cow and was puzzled when he said that the cow was not worshipped in temples but used to plough the land and pull carts and that every effluent from its body including milk and various excrements were deemed to have magical properties and consumed for their beneficial effects.”

“I was not puzzled,” Nero suddenly interjected. “You are mistaken, Seneca. I was not so much puzzled as disgusted by all that talk of dung and urine at the dinner table.” Realising that the conversation had taken a disagreeable turn, Seneca deftly set it back on track. “But you did appreciate – did you not, your highness? – that Modicum Rex showed a very keen interest in security matters and was eager to cooperate with the empire. He also showed, you may recall, a more than exemplary penchant for launching grand schemes that would attract the admiration of his subjects and dwarf the achievements of his rivals.”

“Yes, I do remember that he showed promise as a fledgling autocrat.” Nero seemed to dive into his pool of memory. “He boasted that he completely ignored the senate, never met newsmongers and muzzled the voices of naysayers. I liked his attitude.”

Encouraged by the emperor’s response, Seneca pushed his case. “Your highness, I have some recent news from Hindia that will gladden your heart. Modicum Rex has not only made the senators of his country utterly impotent and irrelevant, he has also taken a leaf out of your book and built a superbly grand amphitheatre and attached his name to it. He is also fond of monumental statues and intends to build a colossus in his likeness.I am also told that he has plans to hold the Olympics in his country. We have let it be known through our ambassador that we would very much like the chariot race to be included as an event. That might give you the chance to visit that splendid oriental country and take part in the games. Needless to say, there is no charioteer in the world who can stop you from winning a gold medal in that event.”

Warming up to the suggestion, the emperor responded: “Now that you remind me, did not Modicum send me a couple of striped tigers for my menagerie? We must arrange to set them among a group of strongly built slaves in the amphitheatre one of these days to see how ferocious they really are.”

“Not only tigers, your highness. Modicum Rex also sent you some peacocks which are kept in the HortiLolliani. He is particularly fond of peacocks and takes care to feed them himself. You tried a few months ago to taste the peacock’s flesh and found it too tough. Perhaps it was not cooked the proper way.”

“Did I do that?” Nero asked. “I don’t remember. But you are digressing, dear Seneca. You were supposed to give me the latest reports from Hindia.”

“Yes, indeed. The reports are very encouraging, your highness,” Seneca went back to the scroll in his hand. “Modicum Rex is now building a series of grand palaces in the centre of his capital and has torn down the old buildings and decrepit trees that stood there. He wants the new palace complex to be the lasting monument of his reign. In this too, you will notice, he has chosen to follow your example. You will remember the great fire that engulfed Rome, starting from the slopes of the Aventino hill overlooking the Circus Maximus, spreading across the Palatino hill to three or four other districts. The fire burnt for almost a week. But it cleared out a large tract of land for you to build your new palaces. You must admit…”

“You don’t have to remind me of the fire,” Nero interrupted. “It is not a pleasant subject and I don’t want to be reminded of it.”

“Your highness,” Seneca explained patiently, “I am only bringing it up to remind you of the scurrilous canards that were spread that you were blissfully playing the cithara while Rome was burning. Of course, that was not true because you were only attending a scheduled concert in the Palazzo Celio where you were a listener, not a performer. Modicum Rex has also been subjected to ruthless criticism by his enemies for his building plans. They accuse him of megalomania and insensitivity to the real needs of his subjects.”

“His enemies are fools. Who cares about real needs? The people love pomp and spectacle and want their ruler to be bigger and more powerful than the gods. A good autocrat knows this. I hope Modicum has not been deterred by the words of these habitual faultfinders.”

“No. In fact, he has gone a step further and put all these malcontents in prison.”

“Excellent! May be that’s what I should do with the meddlesome senators here.”

“Modicum has been helped in this matter by another of our loyal allies. You must remember the people of Zion who, with our permission, evicted the Philistines from their land and started a colony of settlers. Their ruler, Bibi Zion, made several trips to Rome and met you a few times.”

“Yes, of course,” Nero responded with a broad smile. “I liked Bibi. He was quite a sport and joined our parties. What has he got to do with Modicum? I wouldn’t have thought they were of the same type at all.”

“Your highness, mutual interest can bring together many dissimilar elements. Bibi Zion has assembled groups of technical wizards and given them the licence to sell products that can get into a person’s mobile phone and collect all his private conversations. Not only that, they can even plant information on that phone that can be used against its owner as evidence of subversive activities.”

“Mobile phone?” The emperor looked confused. “You mean those little toys that young people carry to watch pictures of orgies?”

“Er… well, that is one of its uses.” Seneca did not want to pursue that line of questioning. “But there are many others. Anyway, Bibi Zion’s men have developed one such lethal product which they have named Pegasus.”

“Pegasus? Isn’t that a flying horse with wings? Is there really such a creature? Do you think Bibi could get me one?” The emperor was all ears.

“It’s not a real horse. It’s only the name of what is called an app. It’s not a real thing at all. The Greeks imagined many such mythical creatures. Pegasus, they said, flew so far that he became a constellation in the sky.”

“So, what are you trying to tell me?” Nero looked visibly disappointed. “I still don’t understand what Bibi has got to do with Modicum.”

“After secret talks with Modicum, Bibi instructed his minions to sell the Pegasus app to Modicum. That is where the minister Amitus Amicus comes in. He is scheming, vicious and cruel. Amitus arranged to plant the app in the phones of hundreds of people – opponents, critics, foreigners, even members of their own government whom he suspected might be plotting against Modicum. As a result, he had complete information on all their meetings, consultations, plans, strategies, financial dealings, even private affairs. Needless to say, he has used the information to good effect, scuttling the plans of his opponents, sowing distrust and disunity among them, blackmailing them when needed, and slamming sedition charges against the dangerous ones to throw them in jail.”

“But if Pegasus is such a wonderful tool, why hasn’t Bibi given it to me? I feel quite upset.” The emperor did look hurt.

“Let me assure you, your highness,” Seneca’s voice was soothing, “we are much better off without that nasty piece of works. In fact, we have arranged with Bibi so that Pegasus can never be used against a Roman phone number. These are dangerous instruments and there’s no knowing what damage they can inflict if they fall into the wrong hands. We have much more reliable methods of dealing with our enemies.”

“I see. But Modicum, you say, has used it well.”

“Modicum Rex, with the help of Amitus Amicus, has put in prison hundreds of people who dared to criticise him. They got the senate to pass a law by which judges were obliged to treat all such offenders as guilty until they were proved innocent. In one such case, letters and documents were put into the personal writing machines of more than a dozen persons who had no knowledge of these papers. They were then arrested and charged with sedition for possessing these incriminating documents. One of these persons – an eighty-four year old man who was known for his kindness towards the poor – was treated so cruelly in prison despite his many illnesses that he died. But this has not deterred Modicum and Amitus from keeping all the others behind bars. The idea is to keep them waiting for the trial as long as possible, since everyone knows that the fake evidence will not stand up in court. Some prisoners have been kept in jail for almost ten years without their trials being completed.”

The cool breeze had brought a fragrant waft across the pool. The fifth emperor of Rome fell into a reverie. He saw the three of them – Nero, Bibi and Modicum – walking along the beach, holding hands, the waters gently lapping over their bare feet. The emperor felt secure in the knowledge that he had such trusted and efficient allies. His diplomacy was proving to be a success. A sudden idea flashed across his mind and pulled him out of his dream.

“Seneca, what would be a nice gift for me to send Modicum? Do you think he would like a pair of horses?”

Seneca considered the question for a few seconds and said, “I am not sure Modicum Rex has a taste for horses. He tends to go for machines. Actually, I have thought about this matter already. My suggestion would be to present him with one of your latest flying chariots. I think Modicum would like that very much.”

“But that is an expensive machine. Won’t the stupid senators complain once more about budget deficits and infructuous spending on diplomatic gifts?”

“Your highness,” Seneca answered, “you of course will personally send the flying chariot to Modicum Rex as a gift. We will present the bill to his officers. Rest assured, he will pay. He loves these machines on which he can fly from capital to capital all over the world.”

Secure in the knowledge that his global diplomacy would flourish without straining his budget, the fifth emperor of Rome thanked Seneca and signalled that he was now ready for the evening festivities.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021