"I am Nero, bloodthirsty emperor of Rome. ... Wait, something's not right."
I don't know what that could have been. The sixth-grader was standing on a kitchen chair wearing green shorts and soccer shoes with a yellow SpongeBob T-shirt smiling out of a toga created by his older sister from a bedsheet.
"Does this thing look right?" he asked, pointing at the laurel gracing his forehead. Actually, the laurel was a girl's plastic headband glued with holly leaves and painted gold.
And he was holding a violin, though the violin was still many centuries removed from the time of the Emperor Nero. So were soccer shoes, SpongeBob, the medium that carries SpongeBob, the electricity that powers the medium that carries SpongeBob and the computers that he is created on. Same goes for spray paint, the safe childbirth techniques that got this kid here and the very language that he is speaking. None of this, with the exception of the standard-issue boy himself, existed in Nero's time.
Which is precisely why his teacher decided -- this is his take on the matter -- to make "a complete fool of him" by making him the lead in his school's Walk Through Ancient Rome presentation. Rather than being proud of this plum part, he is troubled.
"I wanted to play the apostle Paul, but they gave that part to this kid named Paul," he told me.
Meanwhile, something remains not right and it isn't the unstrung red plastic violin borrowed from some neighborhood toy chest. And never mind that Nero is said to have sung, not played, while an "accidental" fire burned a hole in Rome big enough to accommodate his Golden Palace.
"Maybe it's the sheet?"
"Toga," he corrected. "I think it's Nero himself. Do you know what this guy did?"
Actually, I do but mainly because I once lived in Rome with not much to do beyond examining antiquities. That and what I've learned from his reading the part to me for days, a part that includes the words, "I am Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar," Which may be incorrect because I found the man also listed as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. Either way it appears that he began life in AD 37 (dying in AD 68 with not much in the way of tears shed for him) as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. The name would later be changed by his stepdad, Claudius.
But that's not what bothers the boy.
"The guy's a maniac. He killed everybody he knew, then burned Rome while playing this thing." This thing is a fiddle that could never have been in the hands of the emperor, who apparently started out good before degenerating from a surfeit of power.
"Plus," the kid asked, "why would Nero say this about himself?" Here he recites lines ameliorated by SpongeBob's smiling face: " 'I am famous for being one of the bad, evil emperors of Rome.' How did he know that he was bad and evil and, if he knew it, why would he say that about himself?"
Look, any guy who tried to murder his dear mother with poison, and by making the ceiling over her bed "accidentally" cave in and by sending her to sea in a collapsible boat before having the pesky woman clubbed to a pulp probably saw "bad" and "evil" as good words.
Later he poisoned his first wife, kicked his second wife to death when she complained about him staying too long at the chariot races and turned a number of perfectly decent Christians into human garden torches for their "complicity" in the great fire, a move that got him named the very first Antichrist.
Then there was the rampant sex, casual brutality and how he made good citizens listen to his singing. This may have been the last straw that caused the Senate to condemn him, an order he circumvented by killing himself.
"I mean, how would you feel if you were Nero's dad?"
You know, I'd probably feel like we might have done a few more things together. You know, bear baiting, crucifying Gauls, eel eating, gladiator stabbing, the usual father-son activities.