I have studied history almost all my life, I enjoy reading on specific topics, I am not one for generalities in history or the facile comment or anecdotes to explain an event. I think that it is worth knowing exactly what happened or what was said from reliable sources who did their own research. I also love archeology and spent a lot of time studying ancient ruins to discover their secrets.
Last year a new book on Emperor Nero was published by Professor John F. Drinkwater, in his 457 page book he presents a very different picture of Nero who was Emperor of Rome for 14 years. He took every myth about Nero and goes about deconstructing it and presenting a narrative that throws doubt on what we have been told. It is fascinating reading,
Drinkwater shows that after the death of Nero who had fled Rome taking Via Nomentana, a street I know well since I lived just off it, he failed to kill himself and ask his servant to please help him out as the pretorian guards were closing in. Nera was the last of the Julio-Claudian line who were the first emperors of Rome the dynasty that succeeded him, the Flavians had good reasons to paint a black picture of him and went to great lenghts to do so, thus the awful dark image we have. To make things worse the Christian Church decided for propaganda purposes to make him out as the devil personified despite the fact that he did not persecute Christians as it as always been claimed.
Knowing historical facts is important to help us understand the world we live in and how we got here. There are numerous other events and historical figures who have suffered at the hands of popular history.
One woman who suffered to this day, is in fact a Hollywood favourite in movies and several movies have been made of her in the last 20 years. I speak of Queen Marie-Antoinette born Imperial Princess of Austria and who at the age of 14 was engaged to marry the Dauphin of France, Louis.
When she arrives in Versailles in 1770 after having travelled from Vienna in a great escort befitting her rank with many stops on the way, she had left behind her mother Empress Maria-Theresa and her family, she comes from a relatively relaxed Imperial Court to the most archaic and stultifying strict and arcane protocol laden Court of France. She is 14 years old, she is naive but also bold and thinks nothing of asking for what she wants to the horror of the Minister of King Louis XV, grandfather of the future Louis XVI.
At the Palace of Versailles she is given a room, her entire apartment is ONE ROOM which can be seen today after years of meticulously correct restoration. The room is a State Bedchamber and it is also the room where every morning all the ladies of the Court will gather to wake her up and dress her up following a complicated protocol she is quite unfamiliar with.
The decor of Versailles and her room, (she only has one room to live in), is the same since 1715 some 60 years previously and is faded and old reminiscent of the era of the Sun King Louis XIV. Being a precocious 14 year old she did not hesitate to ask the superintendant du Palais to redecorate and modernize her room. The royal architect was brought in and what followed was a lot of effort to try to twart her plans. The women around her who were ladies in waiting where much older than her and many were ancient, they had no patience with the young women, she was constantly criticized for not accepting French ways at Court. Her life was extremely boring and her fiancé Louis was not really interested in her and more in study of sciences and in build locks of all kinds. Their marriage would be for political alliance and military reasons. Madame du Barry the mistress of King Louis XV did not like her and she had her group around her who opposed the new alliance of France with Austria. However Marie-Antoinette was very popular with the common people.
Marie Antoinette portrait of 1771, age 15, said to be the favourite of her Mother Empress Maria-Theresa.
In May 1774 King Louis XV dies suddenly and she becomes Queen and with her accession to the throne she receives the Petit Trianon in the Park at Versailles from her husband King Louis XVI, where she will spend most of her time. The period 1774 to 1778 is problematic since this is the period of the greatest extravagance and spending on hundreds of dresses, jewels, etc all at enormous expense to the Treasury. Her husband doubles her annual budget to 280,000 French Pounds (Livres) which is a great sum. But all this stops suddenly in 1778 when she becomes a mother with the birth of her first child Marie-Therese Charlotte known as Madame Royale (1778-1851). Even her taste for dresses change into a new fashion from London, she also abandons jewellery and becomes a doting mother. She will have one other daughter Princesse Sophie who dies in 1787 and the ill-fated Louis XVII who will die under mysterious circumstances and disappear at age 10 in a dark jail cell in 1795. He had another brother Louis-Joseph who dies as an infant just before the revolution in June 1789.
However despite all the crisis leading to the revolution the biggest problem was one of the Kingdom’s budget and the ballooning deficit caused by 2 wars which ruined the French treasury and bad harvests causing famine. The first war with a deficit of 2.5 million pounds was the Seven year war between France/Austria against England/Prussia 1756-1763 and then the American War of Independence 1776-1783 creating another deficit of 1.7 million pounds for France, though this war was wildly popular in France and Lafayette was a National Hero. If these deficits did not exist many political problems would have been avoided.
Probably the greatest cause of the unpopularity of Marie-Antoinette was her resistance to any idea of change or political modernization proposed by the leaders of the various parties at the time. Since she had been brought up in a system of Absolute Monarchy, she could not imagine any other system of government, despite was she saw in America and in England with the Constitutional Monarchy with a Parliament. She also adopted the same strict religious Catholic attitude of the religious bigots at Court. This did not help her at all and her glacial austere attitude towards the revolutionaries made her a marked woman.
In the end her name was blackened by the revolutionaries who really had no case against her, the trial was a farce with trumped up charges. After the death of her husband in January 1793 the revolution had achieved their goal. So a case had to be made and political events in Europe with foreign armies massing on the French border from Prussia, Austria and England was enough to convince the population that she was the author of their misery. However on the day of her execution instead of taking her directly to her place of execution, the revolutionaries thought they could parade her around in the street to rouse public anger. They soon realize this was a big mistake politically speaking, the people in the street were silent, many kneeling in prayer for the Queen and men taking their hats off. For the people she was a mother and public opinion was not in favour of killing a woman who had children. She died age 37.
Marie-Antoinette lived in the age of Enlightenment, in England Queen Charlotte was a close personal friend. In Prussia, Frederick II the Great ruled, in Russia Catherine the Great was Tsarina. The age of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau. Napoleon Bonaparte was still an unknown Corsican.
Here is some music composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le devin du Village which would have been familiar to Queen Marie-Antoinette, she may have seen a production of this operette.royal