Category: Rome

Nero: Myth and Monster

Nero: Myth and Monster

Emperor Nero’s reputation for wickedness and depravity had already attained mythic status within a century of his death, making him a prototype for early Christian beliefs regarding the Antichrist.

We begin the show with a look at the role poison played in Nero’s ascent, putting him on the throne at the age of 17 in 54AD. After her marriage to Emperor Claudius, Nero’s Mother, Agrippina the Younger, appears to have recruited the notorious poisoner Locusta, to do away with the Emperor when he began to show preference for his other son Britannicus over Nero. And it was Nero himself who later recruited Locusta to do away with the troubling Britannicus.

Agrippina’s role in Nero’s life constituted another kind of poison.  If we are to believe what the historian Tacitus describes as “rumors”  (rumors affirmed as true by the historian Suetonius), Agrippina seems to have shared her brother Caligula’s inclination toward sexual depravity. Shocking details regarding her relationship with her son are naturally provided.

However, Agrippina seems to have been more driven by lust for power (via her son) than sexual desire.  Part of her scheme to set him on the throne had been his marriage to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, who suffered greatly as a result.  We hear a bit about her shoddy treatment and arranged “suicide” as well as the rise of Nero’s second wife and former mistress Poppaea Sabina, who is (according to Suetonius) later kicked to death by the emperor.  More deaths of potential familial rivals are detailed.

Nero’s overweening Mother likewise falls afoul of her son, and we hear of some particularly bizarre and cartoonish attempts he makes on her life eventually ending with another “suicide” five years after Nero has taken the throne.

Agrippina’s alleged final words to her assassin — “Smite my womb” — expressing her regret over birthing her monstrous son, were woven into other legends amplified in the Middle Ages into a particularly strange narrative involving dissected bodies and frogs.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the relevant passage from Jacobus de Varagine’s 1275 compilation of hagiographies and related stories, The Golden Legend.

Nero & Mother
Medieval illumination showing Nero observing his mother’s dissection

Along the way, we also hear some tales of Nero’s vanity (his endless mandatory-attendance lyre concerts), excesses (pet tigers and Felliniesque parties) and further sexual aberrations (castration and marriage to his male “wife” Sporus in 67AD.)

As for the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, his musical performance celebrating the event is treated as historical fact by the majority of ancient chroniclers, but it involves neither lyre nor fiddle. The association with the fiddle is explained along the way, and we also hear a snippet of Jimmy Collie 1956 country-western song, “Nero Played His Fiddle (While Rome Burned)”  At least two sources (Suetonius and  Cassius Dio) agree that during the conflagration, Nero presented a song about the Sack of Troy, comparing that ancient city’s fate with Rome’s current plight.

While Suetonius asserts that the fire was instigated by Nero in order to clear land he desired for his pleasure palace, the  Domus Aurea  (Golden House), Tacitus records Nero blaming Rome’s Christians for the conflagration.

This particular nexus of Roman and Church history is largely responsible for the Nero’s enduring reputation in Western culture, one strengthened in modern times by the 1951 film, Quo Vadis, itself based on an 1896 Polish novel of the same name by Nobel-Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz.  We hear some snippets from the film that saved MGM studios and initiated a rash of sword-and-sandal epics of the ’50s and ’60s.

human torches
Christians prepared as torches in Henryk Siemiradzki 1876 painting “Candlesticks of Christianity”

Some particularly cruelly conceived deaths endured by Christians (and others) under Nero are discussed along with the executions of the apostles Peter and Paul and a peculiar connection between Nero and the Vatican.

Also associated with Nero is the magician Simon Magus, whose brief appearance in the biblical book of “Acts” is not particularly interesting, but whose career in apocryphal literature and medieval tradition is quite rich. We hear another interesting account from The Golden Legend describing the magician’s wonderworking feats and a sort of wizard battle between Simon Magus and St. Peter.  Also heard is a snippet the 1954 film The Silver Chalice featuring Jack Palance as the sorcerer.

After Nero’s death, the myth-making really began.  Because of the obscure circumstances of this death and burial, which we discuss, a belief circulated that he had either not died or would be resurrected (the Nero Redivivus legend).  Several imposters using his name took advantage of this, specifically three “Pseudo-Neros” gaining followers in distant lands between 4 and 20 years after his death.

Two of the Pseudo-Neros gained followers in Parthia (modern Iran), a detail found also in a  the prophecies of the Sibylline Oracles regarding a terrible End Times conqueror or Antichrist (though the latter word is never used) — and thus one positioning Nero as the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Purporting to be a record of the sayings of the Sibyl of classical antiquity, the Oracles were actually written somewhere between the 4th-6th centuries.  Books 5 and 8 are full of apocolyptic imagery laced with a few details seeming to match up with bits of Nero’s biography.  Interpreters of the biblical  book of Revelation have also provided clues connecting Nero with the Antichrist.

We close our show with a look at the haunted history of Nero’s grave in Rome as well as a more recent myth that’s evolved around the supremely exotic execution and torture of the poisoner Locusta.

Walled Up Alive

Walled Up Alive

Walling up a living victim, or immurement, has been used both as a punishment and for darker, magical purposes. In this episode, we detangle the history from the folklore of this grisly act.

We begin with an instance of immurement from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” (including a clip from a dramatization in 1954 radio show, Hall of Fantasy) and also get a glimpse of director Roger Corman’s freewheeling use of this element from Poe his 1962 anthology film, Tales of Terror, as well as 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Tales of Terror still
Peter Lorre walls up Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962)

Poe’s interest in immurement is typical of Gothic writers and their fascination with crypt-like spaces, often including the cells and catacombs within Catholic churches and monastic communities. Tales of immured nuns, abbots, and abbesses are particularly common, with the deed understood most typically as a punishment for unchastity but also occasionally for other outrageous deeds or teachings (including a case of dabbling in the black arts).  We have a look at some cases in which actual immured skeletons were said to have been discovered in religious communities and then consider the lore explaining their presence.  We also look at  ways in which writers like Sir Walter Scott and H. Rider Haggard blurred the line between historical and literary stories.

Walled up Nuns book
An 1895 booklet debating the topic of “Walled up Nuns & Nuns Walled In”

It’s likely that tales of nuns immured for unchastity were particularly prevalent as they echo the fate of Rome’s Vestal Virgins who failed to protect their virginity.  We hear some details of immurements, not only from ancient Rome, but also Greece as well as a particularly gruesome account read by Mrs. Karswell describing an ancient Assyrian revenge spree featuring immurement.

Cornelia the Vestal Virgin
“The Death of Cornelia, Vestal Virgin” by G. Mochetti.

Medieval accounts of immurement we look at include the Christian legend of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and one recounted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of  Count Ugolino della Gherardesca of Pisa (and his children/grandchildren, who are involved in a particularly grisly way).

Our next segment looks at punitive immurement from a cluster of legends in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.  We begin with a story from the Swedish island of Gotland, that of the Jungfrutornet (“maiden’s tower”) in the town of Visby.  The tower’s name is taken from the story of a maiden, who falls in love with a spy from Denmark, who uses her to obtain keys to the city gate in preparation for a devastating invasion.  The maiden’s punishment for betraying her town is, as you would have guessed, immurement.

We hear a similar story from Finland, which serves as the basis of the song (from which we hear a clip) Balladi Olavinlinnasta  or the ballad of Olaf’s Castle, and also a tale from a castle in Haapsalu, Estonia, said to be haunted by the maiden immured there.  Then we look at a church in the Estonian town of Põlva, where a particularly devout maiden was said to have allowed herself to be interred in a position of kneeling devotion as a sort of religious talisman forever protecting the church.

Walled in Wife
Sculpture of the walled in wife Rozafa, an Albanian version of the stonemason legend.

This notion of self-sacrificing immurement in a Christian context figures into the bizarre legend recounted of the 6th-century Irish saint Columba and his companion Odran, who allowed himself to be entombed in the foundation of a church on the Scottish island of Iona.

Our last segment looks at further stories of living humans entombed in buildings and other structures in what’s called a “foundation sacrifice.”  A cluster of tragic legends and ballads from southeastern Europe tell similar stories of women immured in structures by their husbands who work as stonemasons.  We hear these tales illustrated by a clip from the Hungarian ballad Kőműves Kelemen (“Kelemen the Stonemason”) as well as a bit of the soundtrack from the 1985 film The Legend of Suram Fortress by Sergei Parajanov  —  it’s based on a Georgian folk tale, so geographically close, though not quite one of the stonemasons-who-wall-up-their-wives genre.  But it’s a lovely film I just wanted to include.

We then move west in Europe to hear some stories of foundation sacrifices collected largely in Germany.  These include ancient sacrifices of children to the security of city walls, castles, and bridges, including a panic around a child sacrifice presumed necessary to a railroad bridge constructed near the town of Halle as late as the 1840s.

We end with a look at “church grims,” protective spirits of animals buried in church foundations (or churchyards) in Scandinavia and England, with lambs being preferred in the former and dogs in the latter — providing a connection to England’s black dog mythology.

And there’s one last story, much more modern, a 2018 news story from Houston Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#13: Ancient Necromancy

#13: Ancient Necromancy

Finishing up with our October theme of “talking to the dead,” we examine necromancy in the ancient world in this episode.  While the word has been generalized in its present use to mean cover any form of magic of a sinister bent, in its original meaning, it was simply what the Latinized-Greek etymology suggests: “necro-” for “dead” and “-mancy” for “divination by.”  Not that it wasn’t always regarded as a rather sinister activity.  It certainly was, and particularly by the Roman era, we’ll see the practice associated with most ghoulish sort of atrocities imaginable.  But it’s Halloween, so the more ghoulish, the better.

We begin around 630-540 BC when a necromancer was written into the Biblical book of 1 Samuel (or 1010 BC, if we are to date the figure by the time the events were alleged to have occurred — in any case, this is our oldest tale of a necromancer, known most commonly as the “Witch of Endor.”  It’s also our first of several examples of not getting particularly good news when you consult the dead on your future.  Much doom and gloom, when King Saul talks to the dead prophet Samuel, who never really liked him anyway.

"The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul" Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)
“The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul” Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)

Our next tale of ancient necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and though there’s no actual necromancer in this story, Odysseus follows instructions for summoning the dead in Hades given him by a pretty legitimate enchantress, namely, Circe.  We’ll see an interesting parallel here with the story of the Witch of Endor and learn of the vampiric love of blood attributed to the dead in ancient Greece.

Up next is a lesser known Greek tale of Periander, a tyrannical ruler of Corinth, who sends servants to consult the necromancers to discover the location of some money hidden on his estate, the location of which, only his deceased wife Melissa would know. Some interesting details here as we learn just why the late Melissa finds herself chilly in the afterlife and Periander demonstrates just how tyrannical a tyrant he really is.

A little background is then furnished the rather elaborate pantheon of the underworld and death-related spirits known to the Greeks, much of which was inherited by the Romans and one element even borrowed into a Sam Raimi film.  Interesting etymological links to modern curiosities abound!  Thanatos, Hypnos, Nyx, The Keres, Manes, Achlys, Lemures, and Lamia are all discussed.

Then there’s the story of Pausanias, King of Sparta, who led the Greeks in victory over the Persians in 479 BC.  Troubles begin when he becomes infatuated with a beautiful virgin, Cleonice, in Byzantium. One tragedy and betrayal follows another in this sad tale, and following instructions from a ghost summoned by necromancers only makes things worse.

Then we turn to the Romans for the most gruesome stories.

Detail: "Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho" John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)
Detail: “Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho” John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)

The necromancer or witch Erichtho appears in the poem Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic on Caesar’s Civil War. Her characterization was so she’s later picked up by other authors, such as Dante, who uses her in his Divine Comedy, the Jacobean writer John Marston, who uses her in a play, and Goethe, who in Faust features her in the Walpurgisnacht scene we talked about in Episode Two.  Erichtho hangs around graveyards and her spells and rites involve the most abominable elements you can imagine. Her memorably weird resurrection of a dead soldier in Pharsalia was said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her imaginings of dead things brought to life.

Next we have a look at a necromancer or witch appearing in the works of Horace, who uses her to darkly lampooning those who supported or engaged in the practice of magic in his poetry.   He embodies witchcraft in the figure of Canidia, who reappears in several of his works.  She’s nearly as ghastly as Erichtho, walking around with “tiny snakes twined in her hair,” perhaps to outdo her witch pal Sagana, whose coiffure Horace describes as “rough” and “standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar.”  After some serious spookery, Horace has some weird fun with the his story of Canidia, providing a particularly vulgar touch, while also taking a jab at a lover who rejected him.

We finish up with some actual cases of Roman necromancy, or at least some purported to have been real, though we can assume there’s probably an element of nasty gossip in some of the accounts.  Still, they make for good Halloween listening with spilled blood, entrails, and flayed skin.

"Tiresias appears to Ulysses" Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
“Tiresias appears to Ulysses” Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)