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The Great Fire of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins

Book Review by sonic

In this new book Stephen Dando-Collins (from hereon ‘D-C’) unsurprisingly tells the story of Nero and The Great Fire of Rome. Drawing on some of the revisionist history of the recent past, D-C defies the old, traditional interpretation that Nero set the fire and then blamed the Christians. Instead, he attempts a complete reanalysis of events in the hope of revealing the ‘truth’ hidden behind the very biased sources.

He begins by outlining the course of events leading up to the great fire, introducing the main characters and their relationships with Nero and with each other. This setting of context is vital to an understanding of how the fire started, how it was perceived at the time, and Nero’s role in the ensuing tragedy. Yet the book does not read like a ‘scholarly’ work: instead, the reader is treated to images of ‘artistic licence’. For example D-C introduces Tigellinus, one of the main characters of the story, with the line; ‘The Praetorian prefect Tigellinus stood in the Forum, looking approvingly at the bustle of early-morning activity around the shops of the Aemilia Basilica’. Although this style of writing does much to help convey the fact that, rather than an abstract image in history books Tigellinus was actually a real, flesh-and-blood person, the fact that the scene is straight out of D-C’s imagination can make the reader wary of what else in the story is going to be down to imagination rather than a reliance on the sources, with accompanying analysis and opinion. Unfortunately this worry is exacerbated by D-C’s use of Tacitus and, especially, Suetonius, both of whom sometimes use a similar style, making it hard to differentiate at times when D-C is quoting or where he is using his imagination.

However, once the wariness concerning the style is overcome, the reader can settle down to what is actually a rather good story, well told. The level of detail is high and, a lot of the time, D-C differentiates between his opinion and the ‘facts’ as related by the sources. Although the style can be criticised on historical grounds, it actually reads well and draws the reader into the story. Throughout, D-C’s sympathy for Nero is clear for all to see, and although this ‘bias’ does a lot to colour his narrative and judgements, this is an ‘open secret’ so does not tend to ‘damage’ the book, although the extent of his bias may be seen in the conclusion – as covered below.

What may be more damaging is some of D-C’s more controversial claims. One of these is his claim that the passage in Tacitus laying the blame at the feet of the Christians is wrong, and that it was the followers of the Egyptian Goddess Isis who were originally persecuted for the Fire. He notes that even in the third century it is commonly accepted that the ‘Jews’ described by Dio were likely to have actually been Christians, and that in the first century no source other than Tacitus calls the newly-founded religious group ‘Christians’ (p.7). He goes on to suggest that either the entire section of Tacitus’ Annals relating to the Fire and the ensuing persecution of the Christians is a forgery, or that a later copyist changed the word ‘Egyptian’ (meaning in this context the followers of Isis) into ‘Christian’ (p.9). Yet D-C’s decision not to include the modern sources where these discussions can be found weakens his argument, at least for the uninitiated. Furthermore, when discussing the concept that the passage in Tacitus is a forgery, D-C adds the caveat ‘as some believe’. Again, he does not include any references as to who these ‘some’ are, so the more cynical reader may, therefore, decide that the ‘some’ is D-C himself. Unfortunately, I am not an expert on these matters so am unable to comment on their accuracy.

Another claim comes at the end of the book, in the analysis of Nero’s reign as emperor. In many cases these conclusions are well thought out and fit perfectly with the description of events given in the book. Yet his overall conclusion on the Fire is that an individual – who shall not be named in order not to spoil the book – grasped the opportunity of the fire to damage Nero’s reputation and so encompass his downfall. D-C also notes that this was part of ‘a four-year campaign’ to overthrow the emperor (p.231). Unfortunately, D-C’s use of the phrase ‘It is not unrealistic to imagine …’ during these postulations reveals that there is no evidence to support this conclusion apart from D-C’s imagination.

As a final note, throughout the book D-C sets himself up as an impartial observer attempting to pierce the mists of time in order to arrive at the truth. Unfortunately, his sympathy towards Nero and his conclusion that Tacitus’ description of at least some of the events are at fault, leads to D-C attacking Tacitus in an unfair, anachronistic manner. When describing Nero’s rebuilding of Rome, Tacitus describes the new Rome as ‘more beautiful’, but then claims that the new, wider streets were ‘unhealthy’. D-C describes this claim as ‘ludicrous’ (p.229). This comment is unfair and relates, not to what was believed at the time, but to more modern discoveries concerning the origins of pestilence and disease. A milder word, such as ‘mistaken’, would surely have been more appropriate. This episode reveals that D-C’s sympathy for Nero may have biased the work so heavily in Nero’s favour that opinions and evidence contradicting D-C’s view may have been omitted, and this should be taken into account.

Overall, the book is an interesting read and the style will appeal to many readers who may be reluctant to persevere with more ‘academic’ treatises. If this encourages them to delve more deeply into Roman history, then the book has succeeded. On the other hand, to those who already have a knowledge of the period, the emphasis on story-telling rather than ‘historical accuracy’, the fact that many of the assumptions have no grounding in contemporary sources, and at least some of the overall conclusions may leave the reader cold and wishing they had not bothered. In brief, it is a good book for a beginner, but the more knowledgeable may be disappointed.

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The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and his City - Related Topic: Emperor Nero


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