Books: “The Great Fire of Rome”

December 27, 2010


When I was a kid, I was led to believe by adults, who I assume meant well, that his contemporaries discouraged Christopher Columbus from undertaking his first voyage to “the Indies” on the grounds that he and his ships would drop off the edge of a flat earth. I didn’t imagine this. I have asked at least a dozen folks of my vintage — which grows increasingly rare, by the way — and they have recalled being told the same thing, even by teachers. I was well into middle age when I learned that the Europeans Columbus was likely to have encountered knew that the Earth was a sphere, and that the argument current at the time had to do with the planet’s size, not its shape. I now know that the idea of a spherical Earth, dates from the sixth century BC, although it wasn’t until much later that there was practical proof of what had been generally accepted as the fact. Columbus was one who helped to demonstrate it. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea, it turns out, wasn’t wrong about the globe; he was simply wrong about its dimensions.


It wasn’t until more recently — the past few weeks, in fact — that I learned the truth about the Roman emperor Nero, namely that he couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned, because the violin didn’t appear in Europe until hundreds of years after his death. That came up in a new biography of Nero written by Stephen Dando-Collins, who also casts doubt on the widely accepted ideas that Nero ordered the burning of Rome in 64 AD and that he initiated the Roman persecution of Christians in order to deflect blame for the fire from himself. (The writer points out that there were so few Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign that it’s even likely that the emperor knew nothing about them.)

Nero was 16 years old when he succeeded his uncle Claudius, becoming the fifth Roman emperor and the last who shared a bloodline with Julius Caesar. Among his interests were singing and chariot racing, and he wasn’t content just to be a spectator of either. Dando-Collins explains that Nero repeatedly entered amateur singing contests, which were all the rage at the time, much to the enjoyment of the hoi polloi and much to the dismay of the Roman nobility.

Nero: The boy emperor

Besides sponsoring and reveling in races, he also took the reins at times, once narrowly missing death when he was thrown from the chariot. He first entered a singing competition in Neapolis, what is now Naples. On the occasion of the fire in Rome, he was in his  birthplace, Antium — present day Anzio — to participate in another contest. The fire evidently started in the food concessions under the stands of the Circus Maximus, which was the largest wooden structure of any kind and the largest sports arena ever built. The capacity was about 300,000 spectators.

Rumors that Nero was responsible for the fire and that he had ordered his agents to impede the firefighting — such as it was — began while the city was still in flames. The rumors were the results of a complex of jealousies and intrigues that were common to life in the corridors of Roman power. They were encouraged, ironically, by Nero’s seemingly efficient response to the fire, which some said he caused so he could remake the city in his own image. He did build an enormous new residence for himself, but he also rebuilt the devastated part of the city with broader streets and a better water supply and — of all things — building codes to prevent some of the shoddy construction that had contributed to the losses in the fire.


Nero did a great deal to assist those whose homes and belongings were wiped out in the fire, but he was no angel. He irritated powerful people with what they considered his coarse behavior — including his bi-sexual adventures — and with his choices for appointments, favoring freedmen to blue bloods. He led the kind of uneasy life that went with being emperor  of Rome, and his insecurities — some of them well founded — resulted in the suicides and executions of many a noble figure, not the least of whom were his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his stepbrother. Dando-Collins describes in some detail the political dynamics and the bloody outcomes that both solidified Nero’s power and eventually led to his own downfall a few years after the fire, when he was only 30 years old.

Many of us, who have no reason to be students of ancient Roman history, carry around a cartoonish notion of Nero as a crazy tyrant. But while Dando-Collins doesn’t try to disguise the extreme measures the emperor would take to keep himself on the throne — and his head  on his shoulders — the writer does present Nero in context. He points out that contemporary accounts of Nero’s life were written in most cases by men who disliked him, that his manner of dealing with political enemies and criminals was not out of line with the practices of the time — in fact, was more lenient — and that he was remarkably patient with people who ridiculed him. The author also regards Nero as a “visionary” with respect to public works and points out that the empire was prosperous under his administration — at least until he started collecting and spending money to rebuild the ruined capital.

As much as we’d like to know the whole truth about people like Nero, they make history more interesting in their own way by flitting in and out of the shadows.

Nero agonizes over the death of his mother, whose constant interference caused the emperor to order her execution. Painting by John William Waterhouse


2 Responses to “Books: “The Great Fire of Rome””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    A very enjoyable post. I heard the “sail off the edge” stories, too. As I recall, I thought Columbus was testing Galileo’s theories.

    What did surprise me here is how young Nero was when he assumed power and when he died. My mental image of him was as a much older man.

    The Waterhouse image reminds me of an amusing story from my earliest blogging days. I’d chosen his Boreas as my first avatar. After a month of recording hit after hit from India and Pakistan, I suddenly realized the tiny avatar looked like a woman in a sari. I changed to the Mucha image, and my Indian/Pakistani audience disappeared. Every detail counts.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I’m not an expert on Columbus, but I think the disagreement he had with some of his contemporaries was based on his underestimate of the circumference of the Earth.

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