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Did Nero Burn Rome?


nero bust

The maniacal emperor Nero, his twisted face illuminated by the flames, fiddles frantically as he gloats over the spectacle of Rome burning, a catastrophic fire he started himself to inspire his bogus musical genius, a fire he plans to blame on innocent Christians. Two thousand years after Nero's death, this theme lives on: the swaggering megalomaniac, his innocent scapegoats, a day of reckoning. It's a story too good not to be true - if it weren't for the annoying intrusion of the facts.


Fact 1: ancient historians disagree where Nero "fiddled" (i.e. played his lyre or kithara - the violin wasn't invented yet). Cassius Dio (150-235 AD) assures us Nero perched on "the roof of the palace" on the Palatine hill to get the most inspirational view for singing his "Capture of Troy". Suetonius (69-122 AD), however, reports that he watched the fire from the Tower of Maecenas which stood on a different hill entirely (the Esquiline) from which he recited (not sang) "Capture of Troy". Tacitus (56-117 AD), usually reliable at a time when history was about as factual as tabloid news, repeats the rumor that Nero appeared on a private stage (not on a view point at all) and sang a lament comparing disasters past and present. Writes Princeton's Edward Champlin, "In brief, we can see the very origins of a legend: no one knows where the incident occurred, no one actually saw it." (Nero, Harvard University Press, p49).

Fact 2: Nero was a keen charioteer. He competed in the 67 AD Olympic games in Greece and was crowned the victor even though he fell off his chariot! Why would he start a conflagration in his favorite sports venue which was a stone's throw from his brand new palace? Far from stoking the fire, ancient sources are clear that Nero fought the flames with everything at his disposal, lamented the loss of artworks and ancient monuments, opened his palaces to the homeless. The only stoking he did was to create fire breaks.


If not Nero then who was responsible for the fire?

Fact 3: Nero was informed that a puritanical Jewish sect called Christians was to blame. Tacitus, for reasons that are not entirely clear, calls Christians "enemies of the human race" who were "clearly guilty" of arson (Annals 44.5). The Circus Maximus, with its brazen glorification of spectacle, would be a prime target for activists members of a sect seeking to cleanse the world by fire as envisaged in Revelation 21:1 which was written shortly after the conflagration. Once the fire got started, other Christians who believed the promise that Jesus would return in glory within the lifetime of some of the people he was preaching to (Mark 9:1) may have fed the flames.

Fact 4: Astronomy may be the decider. In 64 AD the star Sirius, brightest star in the sky, was first visible rising before the Sun at dawn on July 19, the day of the fire. This might not seem much of a motive to reach for your matches but it was a big deal to devotees of the Egyptian mother goddess Isis, an enormously popular cult at the time, even in Greece and Rome. Before becoming the Virgin Mary, Isis was Sirius and every year when she rose just before the Sun she commanded the Nile to flood and bring back life to the river's floodplain. The event, celebrated in pre-dawn ceremonies everywhere in the Empire, was the Egyptian New Year's Day with its promise of new beginnings.

This is where Saint Hippolytus Romanus (170–235 AD), the most important theologian of 3rd century Rome, makes his appearance. He was the disciple of Saint Irenaeus (130-202 AD) who was the disciple of Saint Polycarp (69-155 AD) who was the disciple of John the Apostle (6-100 AD), who was, of course, a disciple of Jesus.

Hippolytus, like most Romans of his day, was much enamored by the stars which, he believed, were keys to the secrets of the universe. Of special interest to him was Sirius who was also Isis, who was also Canis the dog star who was also the Logos which was another name for Christ.

In his Refutation of All Heresies (early 3rd century) he writes: "This Canis, therefore … as being a certain divine Logos, has been appointed judge of the quick and dead."The language in this heretical tract is allegorical, the rebirth of plants by the flooding of the Nile is conflated with the spiritual rebirth of men, but Hippolytus seems to be echoing the false hope that on July 19, 64 AD inspired some Christians to purge Rome in preparation for the Second Coming.

The Second Coming never came. Except for the Taliban, popular entertainment has conquered the world. If he lives on like Elvis, Nero would sing us one of his hymns in celebration.   

(My thanks to Prof. Gerhard Baudy for drawing my attention to Hippolytus's tract.)