Fiddling while Rome burns is nothing new

2010-11-06 15:35

I do hate to be a party pooper so close to the yearly party season, but there’s something historically familiar – and not in a good way – about excessive displays of wealth.

With conspicuous capitalists slurping sashimi off models, the president’s spindoctor spending a cool half a mil on his 40th and the top cop having the celeb wedding of the year there’s a lot more to be said about how stuff looks to us lesser mortals.

Throwing lavish parties to show-off how rich (read virile and popular) you are is nothing new.

But, if you look at a few choice examples from history it seldom ends well for the leader who should have known better.

Remember that tiresome French woman who jolled and jolled until the peasants were thoroughly fed up? She of the famously unfeeling line: “Let them eat cake.”

A remark that cost Marie Antoinette and her equally silly husband their heads. She has been reduced to an ­anecdote that epitomises political stupidity.

Other rulers who are infamous for party animalism include more than a few togo-toting Romans – chief among them Nero and ­Caligula.

Nero, a rather unpleasant fellow who executed his own mother for political expediency, is the one who “fiddled while Rome burned”.

Or rather he played the lyre and sang The Sack of Ilium in full costume while parts of the city were reduced to cinders.

It did not end well – he had to stab himself to death as an alternative to being beaten to a pulp after being declared a public enemy in the wake of tax increases to fuel his greed. An appetite for parties over fiscal control has him penned into the history books as a complete fool.

But Nero had a tough competitor to out-bling: his uncle Caligula, who preceeded him to the throne, ­exhausted the state coffers within a year because he kept making generous payments to secure his political support.

He also notoriously built a temporary bridge across a body of water and rode his horse Incitatus (yes, the same one he tried to turn into a consul and priest) across it just because he had built it, and then he got really big-for-his-boots.

He started appearing in public dressed as a god, but only the funkiest ones though, like Hercules, Mercury and Apollo. Hell he even cross-dressed as Venus.

Self-absorbed, sex-obsessed and prone to lavish spending sprees, as well as to killing random people on a whim, he was eventually stabbed to death by his own guard. His file in history is under M for “mad as a box of frogs”.

Another party-throwing, big-spending duo were Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines.

She, who had more than 1?000 pairs of shoes and 15 mink coats, said that she saw it as her duty to throw parties to be “some kind of light, a star to give the poor guidelines”. Huh?

Perhaps this is what our own moneybags types are trying to be.

After all, if you have a shack to live in, not quite enough food to feed your family and little prospect of a job any time soon what better way to put it out of your mind than with nightclub tales of your leaders’ ­largesse?

Our public servants (take note, Zizi Kodwa and Bheki Cele) should be leading by example, ­especially in an austere economic climate.

The likes of Khulubuse Zuma splashing out, no matter where he got his cash, looks bad because his uncle’s the president and his workers aren’t paid.

As for bullied Kenny Kunene, as a wonderful example of a savvy businessman in post-apartheid South Africa, he should be showing us poorer folk how to create wealth not how to squander it like there’s no old age to plan for.

Spending obscene amounts of money, no matter who you are or how you made it, is vulgar.

Doing it in a country like ours where the gap between the have-plenties and the have-nothings gapes dangerously is a bit like setting off the fireworks near the flammable 50-year-old Glenfiddich Scotch: ill-advised and potentially explosive.

» Edmunds is the managing editor of 7

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