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Television: Who Burned Rome? Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Larry F. Ball

A "typical Roman aristocrat's house," is recreated in a "fire chamber" to show how contents of the room would respond to fire. Verdict: The house burned very quickly. (Thirteen/WNET New York) [LARGER IMAGE]

The history of the Roman Empire is rich with deliciously idiosyncratic characters and astonishing events. The great fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and the question of the participation of the notorious emperor Nero and the city's mysterious early-Christian community in setting it is no exception.

The basic facts are well presented in Great Fire of Rome (airing on PBS, November 27, 8:00 p.m. EST). A small fire broke out just north of the Circus Maximus, a kind of street bazaar of relaxed morals, with numerous food stands, bookmakers, and naughtier amenities--the kind of place where small fires regularly broke out. The fire of A.D. 64 quickly got out of hand, however, eventually leveling about two-thirds of the city.

Large fires occurred regularly in Rome, but clarifying the cause of the A.D. 64 blaze is complicated. Two factions had both motive and opportunity to set the great fire: Nero, who wanted to create a grand new capital modestly named "Neropolis," and the Christian community, whose incendiary rhetoric had called for the burning of the city.

This documentary negotiates the controversies thoughtfully, relying on interviews with authoritative archaeologists and scientific studies, including the burning of a replica of a Roman house. The film concludes that the fire started accidentally; Nero and the early Christians may well have taken advantage of the opportunity it presented.

I would have liked to see more about Clementina Panella's excavations which are crucial for understanding the great fire; here she only demonstrates that the fire was big and hot. Interviews with eminent archaeologist Andrea Carandini waste time that should have been used to paint a clearer picture of the Christian community in Rome. All in all, given a topic that attracts extremist commentary, this documentary maintains a moderate tone and practical attitude toward both the scientific and literary data, doing as well with the great fire of A.D. 64 as could be expected in a one-hour program.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America