Your RDA of Irony

Where There’s Smoke….

July 18

On this day in A.D. 64, Rome would have made a great music video for “Light My Fire.” This is not to compare Nero with James Morrison, although I am not sure who would suffer more by the comparison. If you believe “Quo Vadis”, then Nero started the fire if only to give himself a topic for an epic poem. But then you would also have to believe that Deborah Kerr would really prefer a frigid corpse like Robert Taylor to the adorable Peter Ustinov.

Historians believe that the Great Fire was just a natural calamity, the unfortunate flammable nature of Rome’s crowded wooden tenements. Yet, the Imperial government found a scapegoat for the conflagration: a small cult of Jewish schismatics. The cult’s numbers would not have totalled enough for an interesting persecution, and the group was so obscure that it should have escaped notice. Only the other Jews were somewhat familiar with it, and they didn’t like it much. However, the Romans barely tolerated any Jews. Nero took a particular pleasure in baiting them, sending increasingly more rapacious and cruel governors to ravage Judea. (The province finally revolted in 66.) So, given their general unpopularity in the Hellenized world, Jews would have made a much easier scapegoat for the Great Fire.

Why did the Imperial government overlook the easier target, and sift through all the Jewish sects to persecute one particular group? As we know from this cult’s earliest writings, the group was apocalyptic and awaiting the imminent end of the world. Its Rome congregation, witnessing the imperial city in flames, must have seen this as proof of the end times. With that impression, they would have celebrated the conflagration as their theological fulfillment. So, although they had not started the Great Fire, they were probably cheering it on; and their pagan neighbors would have resented that. The subsequent complaints led to the cult’s arrest and prosecution. The Roman government really thought that these pyrophiles were guilty, in thought if not deed.

As it turned out, the world did not end. Neither did that cult; it simply rescheduled its promised Apocalypse to an unspecified time.

  1. Ed Bederman says:

    Baby, you can light my fire !

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