Emperor Nero orders his closest friend Rusticus to find out who started the Great Fire, intending to blame the Christians. But Rusticus finds the evidence leads back to Nero.
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In 64 AD, the heart of Rome burned to the ground while Emperor Nero famously performed a concert. For 2,000 years, historians have accused him of setting the fire himself and making Christians the scapegoats. To punish them, he embarked on a persecution that was to last for three centuries. But the real Nero was more complex. The story is told by Nero’s fictional best friend, Rusticus, a famous gladiator who saves the young emperor’s life in a chariot race and goes on to become a top minister in the imperial court. Guided by the distinguished philosopher Seneca, Nero stabilizes the Roman Empire. He downplays military conquest and barbaric displays of violence, opting instead for diplomacy, dependable food supplies, and the rule of law.
Nero and Rusticus personally lead thousands of firefighters and policemen to control the fire for over a week, after which the Emperor asks Rusticus to investigate how the fire began. With the aid of a beautiful nurse, Camilia, he soon discovers three murdered senators, their faces covered by masks. The masks portray three other murder victims who died years earlier: Nero’s mother, step-father, and half-brother. While setting his empire on a steady course, Nero has himself become unstable. He is furious that Rusticus cannot find any evidence that the Christians are to blame for the fire and he orders him out of Rome. Rusticus takes the opportunity to go to Pompeii so he can follow two leads in the murder investigation. He is accompanied by Camilia and their eight-year-old daughters, who have become constant companions. By the time they return to Rome, Rusticus has fresh clues about the murders, and he has fallen deeply in love with Camilia.
Rusticus plans to ask for her hand in marriage, but he discovers she is a secret follower of Christ. She has not only concealed this from him, but has introduced his daughter to the forbidden cult. Furious, he walks out on her as she weeps desperately. He quickly discovers two more murders, and this time they are close friends. Rusticus is being hounded by another of Nero’s advisers, Tigellinus, and he now knows it was Tigellinus that killed his wife two years earlier. Rusticus and his daughter are forced into hiding. The first group of Christians are rounded up and thrown in prison. Fearing for the safety of Camilia and her family, Rusticus realizes he cannot live without her. Reunited, they are captured and imprisoned, where he meets the head of the new religion, Peter, before they are all led off to the arena to die.
The heavily researched novel takes place in the devastated city of Rome under an emperor who is growing increasingly psychotic. Characters include the evil Tigellinus, Nero’s selfish new wife Poppaea, and a witch who seems to read minds. There is a fanatical Christian named Gladius who agitates the Romans by claiming that Christ is coming to smite the unbelievers with fire. Gladius is also the son of the Good Thief, and his life changed 30 years earlier when he witnessed his father die on the cross, pardoned by Jesus.
The tone of Nero’s Concert is similar to Robert Harris’ best-seller Pompeii, and the recent HBO series, “Rome”, in that it merges actual historical figures with fictional characters and does so in a way that brings the action to the level of the street, showing daily life not just as it was for the rich and famous, but also for the common people.
Prologue – July, 64 AD
Minos was on his knees praying when he smelled the smoke. In Greece he had been a priest, and his evening worship was as natural and necessary as breathing. Here in Rome he was a baker, a slave, and a fugitive, and he shared a one-room apartment with his girlfriend Pati. She was already asleep and he was about to join her on the lumpy mattress. They had fallen in love at an estate on the outskirts of Rome, where they had been household slaves. But the estate’s manager fancied Pati for himself, so he had Minos whipped and ordered him to stay away from the girl. Three months ago, the young lovers had managed to escape from the estate, a crime punishable by death. Now they hid in a tenement in the Subura district of Rome, a swampy area bounded by the Forum, the Viminal Hill and the Oppian Hill. The neighborhood was infested by prostitutes, rats, criminals, and shopkeepers who sold the cheapest products. Tonight, as every night, Minos prayed that he and Pati would not get caught, and that they would make enough money to avoid starvation and pay the rent.
The odor of smoke was stronger now. Another tenant must be cooking nearby, thought Minos. Cooking indoors was strictly against the rules and grounds for eviction. He blessed himself, rose from his knees, and opened the door into the hallway. A swirl of soot immediately blew into their room. He could feel it powder his face. Minos shut the door, ran to his window and looked down. Five floors below was the alley, usually a slimy creek of garbage, trash, piss and excrement. But now it was a river of flame, obscuring the first floor apartments on both sides of the alley and licking the second and third floors.
The young man rushed over to Pati and shook her, yelling at her to wake up. He had no doubt that the flames would continue climbing upward, floor by floor, till the entire wooden building collapsed around them. They threw on their cloaks, even though the heat was ferocious. Minos grabbed a small cloth valise of their possessions and slung it over his shoulder. He took Pati’s hand and pulled her out of the apartment and then down the hallway toward the stairway. They leapt down three flights of stairs and then halted as they met a crowd of other tenants milling about, screaming, and covering their noses and mouths with cloths.
The stairs leading down to the second floor had vanished in flames trapping the crowd on the third floor landing. Several bodies lay crumpled below, one of them on fire. Minos and Pati sprinted down the hallway to the other end of the building. There were no stairs here, but a window looked out to the southwest towards the Palatine Hill.
They stared with mouths open. Though the sun had gone down hours ago, the city was brightly lit by fires all the way to the horizon. Dense smoke rose from hundreds of buildings, joining in an immense cloud that traveled sedately toward the Tiber River. They saw people leaping across the tops of buildings. A woman carrying a baby walked carefully along a roof not far from them. As they watched, she slipped and rolled over the edge with a high-pitched scream, still clutching her baby desperately, plunging into the fires way below. The young couple could now distinguish several different odors: the wood in the buildings gave off a tart smell like normal cooking fires, but there were also fragrances from burning straw and cloth, and the unmistakable stench of torched human flesh.
Minos looked around in panic for a way to escape from the tenement. It was hard to concentrate with all the screaming. He looked in the closest bedrooms, now all abandoned, and found thin blankets, which he and Pati tied end to end to form a rope. He knotted one end to a strong wooden beam and then jerked hard on the blankets to ensure they would hold his weight. Finally, he threw them out the window and reached over the sill with one leg.
“I’ll go first, Pati. That way if you start to slip, I can stop you from falling. Don’t be afraid, my love. We will survive this just like we did when we escaped from the estate.”
Minos hung outside the burning building, the heat growing more intense by the minute. He sensed the bottom of the blanket-rope was already on fire. As he dropped lower, Pati dutifully followed him. The updraft from the fire billowed out his tunic and cloak, exposing his bare legs, which began to tingle. He smelled burnt hair, knowing it was from his legs. The smoke made his eyes tear, and it was almost impossible to see and breathe. For a moment he simply held tightly to the blanket, pressing his face into it for protection, afraid to go lower, enveloped by the popping and hissing of burning wood. A nearby wall fell toward him, crashing and bursting, covering him with a shower of sparks. He smelled his clothes begin to smoke.
Pati’s foot grazed his head, prompting him to descend again. Minos slid down a few feet and then howled as his legs reached the part of the blankets that was burning. He instinctively spread his legs out, away from the fiery cloth, but then the flames reached his unprotected groin. Sheer agony slammed a door in his brain and he let go of the blanket-rope, dropping into the fire like the woman and the baby. He had a vague sensation of landing on burning coals and ashes. One of his legs broke, but he did not notice. He looked up, frantic for a glimpse of his beloved Pati, but the flames blocked her from view.
Minos felt pain in every part of his body. He felt like he was boiling in oil like a fish. He breathed in, but there was no air, only the gases of the flames. Pati crashed on top of him. He was blind by now, but he knew it was she and he embraced her gratefully and kissed her on the mouth. His lips felt hers kiss him in return, and he knew she was smiling at him. The heat and lack of air were no longer a problem. They had each other, and they glided into the afterlife.