Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Great Fire of Rome

Fig.1: The Pretty Darn Great Fire of Rome.
The Great Fire of Rome began on July 19, 64 AD (Anno Doughnutty, the doughnut being invented 64 years prior), and by the end of its six-day pillage, damaged ten of the fourteen districts in the city, including six or seven just-fantastic pizzerias. While fires were common in ancient cities such as Rome, this is the only one to be considered "Great" (fig.1), with historians considering the fire of 69 AD as "Good," and the fire of 80 AD as "Just Alright."

The main source for the fire is from a Roman senator named Tacitus, who wrote in the early second century. Tacitus was definitely the John Steinbeck of his day, who just gushed about the pain and suffering inflicted upon man by the forces of nature, and was also every 10th grade Roman schoolboy’s nightmare. Particularly uplifting is this passage from his Annals: "Some who had lost everything, even their food for the day, could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames."  I would feel the same if my chicken burrito from Chipotle was destroyed, which is a food and a loved one all rolled up in one delicious soft flour tortilla.

Fig.2: The dumbest cow ever to 
graze the Earth.
Unlike the Great Chicago Fire, where we darn well know that Catherine O'Leary and her stupid hoof-spasming cow were to blame (fig. 2), there is no known culprit for the Great Fire of Rome. The center of the controversy has always been the Emperor Nero; whether the claim to his involvement is warranted or not, it's not particularly hard to understand why many Romans were quick to pin the blame on him. If Nero was at a party, he'd be the annoying guy standing around the food table, hogging all the pigs-in-a-blanket and double-dipping in the queso. He ruled tyrannically, and slowly ebbed away the power of the Senate in order to add to his own autocracy. He valued his own extravagance over the plight of his subjects. He is rumored to be behind the murders of his mother, his stepbrother, his pregnant wife, his trusted advisor, and even his freshman roommate. And worst of all, he enjoyed Greek culture, and built Greek gymnasiums and theaters within the empire. He also personally participated in Olympic Games in 67 AD, much to the displeasure of his culturally-stoic Roman citizens. He is even depicted sporting a Greek-style beard! A beard! Can you believe it? Well, I never…

The prevailing story goes that when the fire raged out of control, Nero sat on a rooftop in stage costume and sang The Sack of Ilium about the Trojan War while playing his lyre. Tacitus claims this was just a vicious rumor, but even if it isn't, wouldn't be possible that Nero was just trying to cheer people up during this calamitous time by performing a few showtunes? I know Joseph and his Magic Technicolor Dreamcoat lifted my spirits after my hamster's funeral. Anyway, Tacitus says that Nero was visiting a town thirty miles south of Rome, and when he heard word of the fire he rushed back to provide a relief effort for the city. He opened his private gardens to the homeless, built temporary shelters, and lowered the price of grain to the public. He even broke in to burning homes and saved beloved pets like a regular Anderson Cooper!

Fig.3: It's okay, Christians. You'll do some persecuting 
of your own someday!
Unfortunately, any positive contribution made by Nero was marred by his upcoming plans to build a grand palace for himself over the charred remains of a few public spaces and residential districts. This obviously did not go over very well, and rumors spread that Nero was the one who started the fire to clear the land for his palace, or even rebuild Rome completely in his image and name it Nerome or something stupid like that. Nero needed a scapegoat, and found it in the hated followers of a monotheistic religion founded in Judea who would be persecuted against for centuries to come. Nope, I'm not talking about history's fall guy, the Jews, but actually Christians! Yes, until Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity and his Edict of Milan protecting them in 313 AD, Christians were often on the short end of the stick (or should I say the fiery end of the stake) as far as the Romans were concerned. Nero had all professing Christians in Rome rounded up, tortured until they confessed to the fire, and then burned alive to serve as lighting for his new gardens (fig.3). In the days before lighter fluid, Christians often made a decent alternative, and could be purchased in bulk at the local Cosco.

Fig.4: I still can't believe he 
had the nerve to wear a beard!
Nero's reign was to last another four years before a governor in Spain by the name of Galba rose up in revolt to Nero's tax policies in 68 AD. Many people supported Nero's overthrow, including some high-ranking senators, administrators, and queso-lovers, and Nero was forced to flee Rome with his faithful servants and take up residence in the villa of one of the few homeboys he had left. There he heard that the Senate proclaimed him a public enemy and all around doodyhead, and so he decided to take his own life. Unfortunately he was too much of a pansy to do it himself, so he forced one of his freedmen to run him through with a sword. That's a party foul if you ask me.

Thus ended the reign of Nero, the last of the original Julio-Claudian Emperors. His death initiated a period of chaos known as the Civil War of 69, which is memorialized in a song by Bryan Adams. While Nero is remembered for a lot of craziness, it is the Great Fire of Rome that causes his name to go down in infamy, and gave him his nickname as "the Emperor who fiddled while Rome burned." Whether or not he actually did will probably never be determined, but sometimes history creates a better-sounding story than what actually happened. And that's why the pyramids were built by aliens.

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