Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review (#50 of 2014) The Great Fire of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins

The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City
Dando-Collins aims to fill what he sees as a void of historical compilations of the Great fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and its consequences for Emperor Nero. The book is not greatly detailed, it focuses pretty narrowly on a four-year period.

Despite the record of two non-Christian historians (Tacitus, Suetonius) that Nero persecuted Christians, Dando-Collins maintains that it was likely not Christians who were blamed and persecuted for the fire of Rome, but rather members of the cult of Isis. Burning them in effigy would have added insult to the cult. There is evidence that the cult was suppressed in the years following the fire, even though Dando-Collins writes that Nero had a fascination with the cult and all things Egyptian. While there were Christians in Rome, they were not numerous enough to be blamed widely for events. D-C seems to accept Christian tradition in regards to some aspects of the lives of the Apostles Peter and Paul persecution, but rejects others. Christians could have been treated harshly by Romans for many reasons, as recorded in Luke's Book of Acts, but the biggest persecution was likely after the revolt of the Jews in Palestine in 66 A.D., when Nero reportedly banned Jews from Rome and likely executed those in custody. 

The narrative begins in January, 64 A.D. There is some attention given to its geography, how fires were traditionally fought, and how commerce was conducted. There is much information on the politics of the time, including all of the infidelities and corruption of Rome's senators and other officials. The descriptions of Rome make it helpful in order to see what the early Christians would have seen. However, there is not much information given from the perspective of commoners or travelers, though I do not know how much of that type of material survives.

Nero was not exactly "fiddling" while Rome burned, but he was on tour competing in American Idol-like singing competitions-- which he always won. While he was swift to return to the city, dole out aid, and made good, modern plans for the rebuilding of the city, he was always rumored to have been the fire's cause. 

Nero liked to compete in chariot races, dress like a gladiator, and competed in the games of 67 A.D., which disgusted the upper-class who looked down on entertainment professions as vulgar and definitely a disgrace for an emperor. Nero was also a bisexual adultering, thieving, lying murderer. His many exploits eventually led those around him to conspire against him in 65 A.D., but the plot fell apart due to a lack of nerve. The conspirators were then all arrested and put to death. (If you've seen the movie Gladiator you can get a visual sense of how plots against crazy emperors were stamped out by those who had much to gain by remaining loyal). In 68 A.D., several regions decided to revolt against Nero's policies and conspiracy overtook Nero's Praetorians and he was finished.

The author shifts perspective to give the views of Flavius Josephus, who was a Pharisee who traveled to Rome in 64 to negotiate the release of several priests and Pharisees who, like Paul, had appealed to Ceasar and were sent by Felix to make their case. (D-C reports that Agrippa had granted citizenship to various Pharisees such that they could make this appeal.) He likely knew Paul, or knew of him. The author does not take Paul at Luke's word that Paul was "born a citizen" of Rome, although it is possible that all citizens of Tarsus were granted citizenship at some point.


Nero was raising an army for a great eastern expedition when he rescheduled various games, which likely would have included public executions of state prisoners by wild animals. This is helpful as it gives an indictation of what Paul might have been expecting when he wrote 2 Timothy from prison. After the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D., as recorded by Josephus, Nero likely ordered the execution of all Jews in Roman custody; this likely included Peter and Paul-- tradition says Peter was executed first (he'd have been crucified as a punishment befitting a non-citizen) and Paul several months later (likely beheaded).

Dando-Collins defends Nero as a "visionary," and no more cruel than any other Ceasar or even modern-day rulers who support capital punishment. That is a little rich, but I think the author is basically just trying to push back against commonly repeated myths about Nero.

Critics of the book point out that Dando-Collins makes some major mistakes in his research and his citations, as well as takes liberty with Latin translations of quotes-- including Nero's last words. He also tends to take disputed hypotheses and run with them as facts to fit his narrative, which I find common among modern writers of history.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I learned a lot of useful information from it. It could have included more detail and an explanation of how history of Rome prior to 64-68 A.D. set precedents for how the fire was dealt with, and how all of Nero's actions set precedents for the later Roman Empire.

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