‘The Great Fire of Rome’ Or, The Fall of the American Idol Emperor

[21 September 2010]

By Paul Gregory Alms

Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. He was a contestant in American Idol. At least, he was involved in the ancient Roman equivalent. That is the central assertion of Stephen Dando-Collins slim, fast paced, history of the Emperor Nero and the great fire that consumed the city of Rome in 64 A.D. Nero was in a singing contest in the south of Italy when Rome caught fire. How he came to be there and what that says about Nero and how such an Emperor reacted to the destruction of much of the most powerful city on Earth are the questions that propel this narrative.

Dando-Collins sets out to do two things, to explain, first of all, Nero and the fire and, second, to do it quickly and easily and in an entertaining fashion. It is a laudable goal but Dando-Collins ends up writing history that is a bit too shallow, a bit too easy. He has a style that cannot make up its mind if it is trying to dramatize events or explain them. He has a habit of beginning the short chapters that make up his story in a novelistic, overly dramatic style:

The Praetorian prefect Tigellinus stood in the forum, looking approvingly at the bustle of early-morning activity around the shops of the Aemilian Basilica.

Marcus Valerius Martialus, or Martial, as later generations would come to know him, rose before dawn as usual this winter morning.

As the mule arrived outside the hillside villa in the late evening, it was clear, by the closed doors, that the staff was not expecting the master.

Yet by the middle of these same chapters this pretense is gone. Dando-Collins ends up mostly explaining events and personalities in a straight-forward way. It is a confusing approach. Is the book trying to be some sort of historical fiction or is it plain historical prose? His approach when he sheds the fiction-like introductions is essentially to retell Tacitus, Seutonius, and Dio, the ancient Roman historians in a modern way. He dresses up the basic storyline acquired from them in a pleasing way with a few facts about fires and ancient plumbing and construction and archaeology. This formula is the Annals of Tacitus plus encyclopedia plus a few background books on Rome plus short chapters filled with many adjectives.

Dando-Collins seems to want establish his credentials as a scholar early on the in the book and does so by trying to correct the widespread belief that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire of Rome. Dando-Collins instead reads the evidence as pointing to Nero laying the fault at the feet of the cult of Isis, an ancient Egyptian goddess whose popularity and worship had escalated throughout the Roman Empire in the years prior to Nero’s reign. It is an interesting conjecture. But, sources for the great fire are notoriously scarce, and Dando-Collins’ thinly sourced hypothesis (there are no footnotes or references to other scholars) seems more like speculation than anything else.

The book’s shortcomings in approach, however, are overshadowed somewhat by his subject. Nero and the Great Fire of Rome is a tale that begs to be told; it is a heck of a good story. Nero was a young man on the throne, only 17 years old when he was acclaimed as emperor. When the fire broke out, he was just 27. His youth is apparent mostly in his interest in winning singing and chariot competitions he entered in the south of Italy, and in the Olympic games in Greece. He sang and composed his own tunes. He raced chariots. He coveted the victories that were, of course, awarded him (who would decide against the Emperor?).

Such frivolities were thought by many to be far below the dignity of the Roman emperor and brought him much scorn among the upper classes. One imagines however that such antics might well have improved his standings among the “Nascar” set in the ancient world, which demanded circuses and entertainments and massive free public spectacles of songs and chariots and gladiators.

But such lower classes did not wield much power and Nero made many enemies. He was a ruthless man who learned well the lessons of power and murdered many to consolidate his hold on that power including his own mother. But ruthlessness soon gave way to paranoia—much of it justified. Many really were out to get him. He exposed two large scale plots against him in the years before he was actually murdered. The plots that were exposed led to a climate of fear and obsessive suspicion all over Rome as many fell victim to false betrayals, gossip, and lies.

The great fire is really an afterthought in the narrative despite its prominence in the title. The fire is described fairly well here but serves only as a pivotal moment in Nero’s life. He was off in Antium for a singing contest. He would never be able to shake the contrast between the gravity of the situation in Rome and the reason for his absence. The image was damning: the emperor was more a silly frolicking entertainer than one able to handle disasters. The fact that he could have never prevented the fire and that he did a fairly good job managing the rebuilding of Rome was beside the point. He was the American Idol emperor. The label stuck. Another plot and revolt was hatched and Nero did not survive it.

This is not a great work of history writing, but it is entertaining. It moves quickly and delivers its main points well. It is a passable introduction to the essential and compelling story of Nero.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/130868-the-great-fire-of-rome-by-stephen-dando-collins/