Nero Again

Further News From The Imperial Capital

Pareto Chamelon

Nero Claudius Caesar was livid. He flung the bunch of grapes on which he had been absentmindedly nibbling at the startled minister Seneca and shouted, ‘Catch him and bring him here. I’ll feed him to the lions!’

Unfortunately, the aged Seneca was not quick enough to dodge the fruity projectile which smashed into his face, bursting into a soggy mess that began to drip onto his ceremonial toga. Gingerly wiping the muck from below his eyes, he stammered out a response: ‘But Modicum Rex has pledged eternal allegiance to your majesty.’

‘Eternal allegiance my left toe! He is a traitor!’ The emperor’s fury was undiminished. ‘We must bring him to Rome and teach him a lesson he will never forget.’

As he made a futile attempt to stroke away the juice stains on his toga, the wise Seneca realised that Nero’s anger would only be stoked by assurances of Modicum’s loyalty. He decided to change his line. ‘Your majesty, we have conveyed to Modicum Rex your great displeasure and warned him of serious consequences if he fails to reverse his unacceptable policies towards Ruskiya. We expect an answer from Hindia in the next few days.’

‘Tell him we’ll take away the flying chariots we gave him. And no more fancy cannons for his army. Let the diabolical Ping overrun his country. We won’t bat an eyelid. The ungrateful wretch.’ Nero Claudius Caesar’s words revealed his utter frustration at the sudden turn of events in his empire.

Indeed, news from the empire had not been happy in recent weeks. It all started a few months ago when Putinov of Ruskiya decided to invade tiny Ukrania. Nero had not heard of Ukrania before and was not much enlightened when Seneca had tried to point it out on a map. It was all barbarian country anyway. But Putinov’s audacity had crossed all limits. Nero was outraged to hear (even though Seneca had tried his best to prevent the news from reaching the emperor’s ears) that Putinov had even started calling himself the czar of Ruskiya which, Nero had been told, was a rendering of Caesar in the barbarian tongue. The emperor was so enraged that he had called the LegatusLegionis and ordered six crack legions to be immediately despatched to attack Ruskiya. The military commander was so nonplussed by this peremptory order that he sent word to Seneca who, in his inimitably gentle way, had explained to the emperor that this was a command that could not possibly be executed.

Seneca had a tough time trying to explain to an impatient Caesar the intricate subtleties of nuclear strategy. ‘Oh, why can’t we go back to the days of the Cold War,’ the imperial advisor kept muttering to himself. Then, not only emperors but even senators, scroll writers, teachers and housewives understood that war between superpowers had to be avoided at all costs. But ever since Rome had established a universal empire some three decades ago, people had forgotten the lessons of nuclear deterrence. Seneca’s effort was futile. Nero could not be made to understand why such colossal amounts of money had been spent on these expensive rockets only for them to be kept for ever in their silos. Somebody, the emperor thought, was trying to fool him. Finally, Seneca declared that the weapons had been trained not to fly off unless they themselves perceived an imminent threat of attack; without that, not even the emperor’s screams would release them from their stations. Ever since then, Nero’s mood had become sullen.

Seneca had devised a complicated set of sanctions to squeeze Putinov’s revenues. It involved a great deal of wheeling and dealing to get the argumentative Gauls and the surly Franks to come on board. The nations of Europe dreaded the prospect of having to weather the winter without piped gas from Ruskiya. There was no guarantee that the sanctions would hold. Besides, Putinov’s navy was blockading Ukrania’s seaports to prevent wheat being shipped out from the empire’s biggest granary, causing massive shortages all over the world. Even more alarmingly, fuel prices had risen everywhere, even in the imperial capital, and Roman citizens were beginning to complain. Soon, the emperor would hear of all this and demand explanations from his advisor.

As it is, the last couple of years had gone badly in the empire. A strange fever had broken out, beginning in that secretive country called Sina but soon spreading everywhere else, killing thousands. No one knew how to prevent it. The best advice Seneca could give was for people to avoid physical contact with other humans. The recommendation was not popular. Dinner parties and orgies had to be prohibited. Senators and plutocrats began to invent new pleasures with non-humans. The emperor claimed sovereign privilege and continued with his daily entertainments until he too was struck by the fever. Fortunately, his physicians managed to cure him in a few days. And then, just when the dreaded disease seemed to have receded and cultural life was returning to its voluptuous normal, the wily Putinov had struck.

Seneca was actually quite happy with the way his diplomacy, combining carrots with a big stick, had reasserted Rome’s authority over the fractious nations of Europe. Scared by Putinov’s threats, they had all meekly gathered under the empire’s protective umbrella. Of course, they would have to pay for the expenses. Seneca had also coaxed them to send weapons and medicines to Ukrania. Needless to say, they were grumbling among themselves, but as far as public demonstrations were concerned, there was a show of unity not seen in many decades. Not that Emperor Nero was hugely impressed. He didn’t care much for the Franks and the Gauls, and as for the others, considered them below the standard of civilised humans. Nevertheless, he didn’t protest when Seneca made an elaborate presentation of the grand success of the new imperial diplomatic effort.

That is when the news reached Rome that Modicum Rex had cut a secret deal with Putinov to buy crude oil from Ruskiya. This was totally against the sanctions announced by Rome to punish Putinov which every imperial underling was obliged to respect. True, Modicum did have a problem. Even though his rule was virtually unchallenged in his country, the economy was not doing well and his subjects were becoming restive because of rising prices. The sanctions had sent the prices of fuel sky high. Modicum did the smart thing. He instructed his officials to covertly buy oil from Ruskiya without transacting the business through imperial banks. But soon the intelligence made its way to Seneca’s parlour. One thing led to the next. Ergo, the smashed grapes on Seneca’s face.

The wise advisor had tried to give his emperor a cultural explanation of Modicum’s betrayal. The ruler of Hindia, he said, came from a region whose merchants had for centuries perfected the intricate art of buying cheap and selling dear. They had done so regardless of the military or political fortunes of the country and did not consider a profitable deal to have any moral significance that might affect their relations with family and friends. It was a different culture – somewhat lower in the scale of civilisation, perhaps –but nonetheless different. Hence, one shouldn’t attach too much significance to Modicum’s truancy. He was, the advisor reasoned, not inherently untrustworthy.

Nero, as we have noted, had not been placated by this complicated explanation. The aged advisor had left the imperial chambers in a dejected mood and a soiled toga. Back in his villa in the Palatino hill, Seneca plotted an elaborate scheme to restore the emperor’s faith in his advisor’s abilities. A visit would be arranged of the High Priestess Pelucia of the Pantheon temple to the breakaway island of Formosia. That would be certain to send the diabolical Ping of Sina into a frenzy of hot words and hotter but ineffectual military threats.

Sure enough, as soon as Seneca’s plans were carried out, Ping vowed revenge by invading Formosia. Everyone in the region got alarmed and sought reassurance from Rome that they would be protected. Most interestingly, Modicum sent word to both Nero and Seneca that he was firmly, and for ever, loyal to the empire and that the minor infraction of the Ruskiya sanctions would soon be rectified. Not only that, he would soon visit Rome personally to pledge his allegiance at Caesar’s feet. Clearly, Modicum was terrified by the prospect of an aggressive Sina on his borders.

Seneca heaved a sigh of relief and ordered a new toga for himself. As for Ukrania and Formosia, he knew from long experience that they were mere pawns in the great game of empire, unworthy of even a tear drop.

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022