My Italian friend Angelo Paratico likes to compare Nero to Leung Chun-ying – and even wanted to dedicate to our chief executive a centuries-old book he translated about the infamous Roman emperor. In the end, my friend didn’t do so, but still presented the translated book as a gift.
Predictably, Leung’s office was not thrilled. His private secretary sent a note politely declining the offer and not-too-subtly warning him never to send “gifts” again. They probably thought the book was a rude joke, but they really misunderstood. Let me try to clear that up here.
You cannot find a bigger fan of C. Y. Leung than Angelo. “In the beginning, I was even planning to dedicate [the book] to him,” Angelo said. “But friends dissuaded me. A book on Nero would have sounded offensive – sort of inviting him to burn down Hong Kong.”
A novelist, journalist and history buff, Angelo spent six months translating from Latin to English Nero: An Exemplary Life, written by Girolamo Cardano, a 16th-century polymath in the mould of Leonardo da Vinci. The book, in which I wrote the foreword, has been published.
Cardano thought venerated Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius were shoddy, though everyone from Machiavelli to Edward Gibbon had depended on them as authoritative sources on the Julio-Claudian line of horrible emperors, including Nero.
Cardano thought Nero was a good emperor. Contemporary scholars think he was not so bad as traditionally thought.
“Nero did not burn down Rome,” Angelo said. “As an emperor, he had his share of problems, but most of the accusations made against him were not true. Like C. Y., he had a lot of bad press because he tried to help the poor against the rich landlords and bankers [money lenders] – all belonging to the senatorial class.
“C. Y. is bitterly attacked by the press because of his style of governance and the illegal structures at his home. But if he really delivers policy that will help the ‘have nots’ and enrich our city, that won’t matter in the end.”
You see, my friend was trying to offer solace to C. Y.: that you could try to do good and still be maligned – for centuries! Well, maybe that isn’t much comfort, really.