Autokrator – “Qualis Artifex Pereo”

Day 3 of 6(66) Songs on Nero. The French band Autokrator (the ancient Greek term for ’emperor’) play doomy, industrial death metal. Their 2015 self-titled debut album is in large part a prosopography of Rome’s most infamous emperors, such as Caligula, Commodus, Caracalla, and Diocletian. Nero is among this lurid gallery, his song’s title the quotation attributed to him by the biographer Suetonius as the emperor’s last words before committing suicide: “what an artist perishes in me” (qualis artifex pereo).

By 68 CE, Nero’s 14 years of incompetence, extravagance, paranoia, and terror could no longer be endured. As armies in the provinces rose in revolt on after another, the Senate at last saw its chance to abandon their master, side with the rebel armies, and declare Nero a public enemy. The emperor fled the city to one of his estates, where he chose suicide over a humiliating execution, which very well may have involved being dragged through the streets by a hook before being unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber River. His final words are likely apocryphal, but telling of the character of a man who made a better poet and actor than a ruler.

Autokrator’s ode to Nero, however, goes beyond the final moments of his life. It is a synoptic pastiche of a number of episodes that define his reign, including, of course, the Great Fire of 64. Indeed, the lyrics suggest that Nero himself perished in the flames of the conflagration as the furies of his past crimes persecute him. The ghost of his unborn daughter, who perished when he kicked his pregnant wife Poppaea to death, appears to him, as well as those of the many victims executed for treason by his paranoia, and finally that of his mother Agrippina the Younger, the Machiavellian empress-mother murdered by her own son. “Let him kill me, provided he becomes emperor” is her alleged response to a prophecy she received before her son took power. So unswerving was the arc of her ambition that she was willing to die to see it realized. The scene Autokrator paints of Nero’s final moments suits the emperor’s self-image as the consummate performer: what an artist perishes so.

Fiddling while Rome is burning
Rivals to the throne eliminated
Seeing Aggripina’s ghost
“Let him kill me, provided he becomes emperor”
Weeding out conspirators
Aborting Poppaea the Younger
As Forces Of Darkness Empower
Running Nero Redivivus fever

Qualis artifex pereo

What an artist dies with me
What an artist the world is loosing
A talent, by cruelty, overshadowed
Gazing down on the great fire of Rome

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