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~ Q & A with Author Humphry Knipe ~

Q: Why Nero?

A: How 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.


Q: This put you on Nero's track?

A: Not 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.


Q: So why has he got such a terrible reputation?

A: Because 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!


Q: What about the Christians? Didn't they hate Nero too?

A: Yes, 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!


Q: How come?

A: Nero 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 upset.


Q: But weren't the Christians upset because he persecuted them?

A: Yes. 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 for incendiaries.


Q: But we hear of women being martyred at the same time.

A: Yes, 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 same!


Q: 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!


Q: The book seems to be as much about astrology as about Nero. How did you get onto that track?

A: The 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.


Q: Do you believe in astrology?

A: No. 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, it's amazing.


Q: But if astrology isn't true -

A: Doesn't 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 time.


Q: So that's why Nero fell?

A: That 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!


Q: 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 climate?

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 well.

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.