many people get to be the Antichrist? Well, that's the short
answer. The long answer is that I was born and brought up in
puritanical South Africa and got out just in time to hit London
in 1966, height of the Flower Power era. Rolling Stones and
Jimi Hendrix concerts in Hyde Park. Will never forget it. Thought
the world was about to change for the better.
This put you on Nero's track?
until years later. I was in LA by then, living it up in Hefner's
Playboy mansion - my girlfriend Suze Randall was a staff photographer
for the magazine and quite a party animal herself. Got a taste
of the Sybaritic life style. Started reading up on the Romans.
Nero seemed the most fun by far. Very sixties.
So why has he got such a terrible reputation?
aristocrats wrote the history, the history that has survived
anyway. They hated him because they considered actors and musicians
the lowest of the low. And here was the emperor, supposedly
the noblest Roman of them all, growing his hair long and going
on a concert tour! Scandalous!
What about the Christians? Didn't they hate Nero too?
called him the Antichrist because he was shopping the same side
of the street as they were - the common people, slaves, immigrants.
Nero was stealing converts from under their noses!
was pushing art, music, beauty, the life of the senses. The
Christians, the zealot factions anyway, were pushing the opposite,
self-denial, sackcloth and ashes. That's why they came up with
the idea that before their Messiah showed up the world would
be ruled for a time by an evil Antichrist. Obviously Nero must
have been converting a lot of street traffic to get them so
But weren't the Christians upset because he persecuted them?
He found out that Christian activists helped spread the great
fire of Rome, perhaps even started it. They were trying to hurry
along the end of the world. They got the legal Roman punishment
But we hear of women being martyred at the same time.
seems like the Christians surrendered in droves. They believed
if they were martyred they'd go straight to heaven. In fact
the martyrdom craze got so out of hand that the Church had to
ban voluntary martyrdom. Maybe the Islamic imams should do the
What's the most common misconception of Nero, both from those
times and present day?
A: That he set Rome on fire to give him musical
inspiration and then sang while it burnt. Actually he directed
the fire fighting efforts and fought to save Rome's temples
and artistic treasures from the flames. The city burnt for five
days so it's quite likely he took a break at some point for
a quick song. Wouldn't be Nero otherwise!
The book seems to be as much about astrology as about Nero.
How did you get onto that track?
more I read about Nero and his time in the original histories
the more references I found to astrological predictions. One
day it hit me that it might be possible to re-create Nero's
horoscope to see if that helped explain his behavior. So I got
a professional astrologer who specialized in ancient astrology
to cast it. A horoscope is a circular thing with spokes like
a wheel. Or a spider's web. Very eerie looking.
Do you believe in astrology?
I cast my own horoscope and it's so ominous I decided not to
go down that road in case it led to a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Anyway, everybody during Nero's time was a believer. It was
the rocket science of the day. Nero's mother was an astrologer
herself. She saw in the stars when she was destined to assassinate
her husband the emperor Claudius and the exact time that Nero
was destined to be hailed emperor. It's right there in the charts,
But if astrology isn't true -
have to be as long as everybody believes it. Take the prediction
of Nero's death, for example. As the "evil hour" approached,
his friends fell away and his enemies hung together. That's
why casting imperial horoscopes had been illegal since Augustus's
So that's why Nero fell?
and his obsession with music. He believed that in the future
empires would expand by cultural means rather than by military
force. Right before his death he was busy planning to put down
a rebellion in Gaul at the head of an army of dancing girls
and musicians. He was way ahead of his time!
What current political figure is most like him and how?
A: George Bush. He fiddled while New Orleans drowned!
Q: Could someone like Nero survive in the current political
A: Reagan was an actor and Bill Clinton played the sax in
public, so the artistic side of Nero would have been ok today.
But he was about as interested in politics as Elvis.
Q: How do you suppose people would react to him today?
A: He would have fitted right in as a composer/performer.
I can see him doing something like Jesus Christ, Superstar.
He also loved organizing huge, elaborate stage shows. He was
made for Hollywood.
Q: You've described Nero as the world's
prototype rock star. Why?
A: Although there were other popular performers in the ancient
world, Nero was the first one who had the resources to create
a cult of personality on a massive scale. No one else was the
focus of such intense adulation either. He wasn't just a talented
composer and performer, he was a brilliant self-promoter as
Q: So the book is fiction, but it's
based on fact. How much is fact and how much is fiction?
A: I made a very serious effort - more than most novelists
- never to contradict historical fact. Tragically we've lost
the vast majority of the ancient histories and the ones that
survive are often contradictory so I had to do a lot of interpretation
and dot connecting. That was the challenge.