Book explores Nero and the burning of Rome

"The Great Fire of Rome" by Stephen Dando-Collins; 978-0-306-81890-5; 263 pages; $25; September 2010; hardcover; history; Da Capo Press.

After 2,000 years, a burning question still remains - Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

Award-winning author and historian Stephen Dando-Collins in his book "The Great Fire of Rome" explores the mysteries surrounding the destruction and the rumors which have continued since July 19, AD 64 as to who was responsible for the setting of the fire which ravaged two-thirds of the city.

The ramifications of the fire were not only horrific, but the political consequences changed history and the eventual fall of Nero and his great empire.

July 19 was an extremely hot day when fire broke out in an open shop beneath the Circus Maximus where chariot-racing and other events were held in the city. Historians chronicled that a cooking fire got out of control, setting wooden rafters ablaze, and quickly accelerated to other shops as flames were fueled by strong winds and spread in all directions.

Buckets of water were used but were useless. People ran for their lives, some froze in their tracks, others ran into burning areas looking for their loved ones, and many others perished in the flames or were buried in rubble.

Even though Rome had an elaborate water and sewer system, which is still in use today, they did not have adequate means to fight fires. Fire destroyed many structures, including sacred temples, priceless frescoes and homes of the rich, which included Nero's palatial palace. After five days, the fire was finally controlled, but most of the city had burned, losing valuable Roman history.

Many rumors spread that Nero set the fire so that he could build a new city upon the ruins of Rome. However, Nero was out of town vacationing in Antium when the fire broke out, and it would have been very unlikely that he set the fire himself. It was also rumored that the Christians were at fault. Rumors ran rampant and became a part of folklore.

During the next several years, Nero's reputation had been severely damaged, and he became frustrated and fearful that he would be overthrown like all the emperors before him. Being a young man, the last of the Caesars, he wanted to have a male heir to succeed him. However, this did not happen. Many attempts to take Nero's life were tried to no avail, as many sympathizers refused to help. Any conspirators were put to death or exiled from Rome.

Nero has left an historic legacy carried on by ancient and modern scholars. Dando-Collins has written a fascinating and absorbing historical human drama about one of the most colorful emperors of ancient times. Nero was despised by many aristocrats and revered by most commoners. Public opinion was important to Nero and Rome prospered under his reign. It is said that the singing emperor fiddled while Rome burned, but the fact is, according to scholars, Nero actually played the lyre in a musical competition in Antium at the time of the fire.

The author has carefully examined new facts regarding myths surrounding Nero and traces his sensational short life as a young visionary ruler who was manipulated by others. Yet he managed to transform Rome into a city of beauty before and after the fire. There is little doubt that history would be different if Nero had lived longer than his 30 years, and there was never a catastrophic fire in Rome.

This book is a page-turner and an insightful eye-opener to ancient Roman history relating to the fall of the Roman Empire. Brilliantly written and highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly

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