Of course, terrorism is as old as belief clashes and humanity itself, but according to an apocalyptic scholar (I didn't know they gave degrees in that field) interviewed in last night's "Secrets of the Dead" on PBS, about the fire of 64 AD in Rome, the fire was the act of early Christians, trying to topple the "decadent" Roman empire. Sound familiar? This German scholar went on to say that the fabled "Whore of Babylon" in the book of Revelation was a metaphor for Rome, the city of the seven hills. Like the Muslim jihadists of our era, these early Christians, disgusted with what they perceived as immorality in the Roman Empire's ruling class (granted, they wouldn't be wrong), spurred on by prophecy, decided to burn the city, the epicenter of the empire that persecuted them and they viewed as decadent. Nero, the emperor at the time of the fire, was accused by history of scapegoating the Christians for the fire, possibly to cover up his own involvement, but according to this latest conspiracy theory, he was just meting out typically gruesome Roman justice. Nero's punishment for the Christians for starting the fire? Tying them to stakes and setting them on fire, to be used as human torches for an extravagent party at his new palace, built on the charred remains of old Rome.
Nero's new palace led to the first conspiracy theory about the fire, that Nero or men acting on his orders started the fire for the sole purpose of smoking out the senators and other Rome illuminaries standing in the way of construction of his new palace. Roman historian Tacitus added to this theory, recording that men with torches were seen amid the flames, saying they were acting on orders. Over time, this theory has been given little more credibility than the current 9/11 conspiracy theory that the Bush administration orchestrated the attacks themselves. Yes, a lot about the official account of 9/11 doesn't add up, and America-hating Muslim terrorists would have been the perfect scapegoat, but many consider it a strectch to suggest that even Bush and his league of evil could plan and execute something like this. Even I, with my sometimes irrational hatred of this administration, have trouble believing it. Muslim terrorists who hate America and are willing to kill themselves in the fight against what they view as an evil empire do exist. Whether this justifies Bush's current foreign "policy" is the subject for another post. Yes, Nero was an egomaniac (like many others in his position as the absolute ruler of a powerful empire) who had no problem destroying those who stood in his way. But if the fire was arson designed to level prime real estate in Rome for a new palace, why does evidence indicate that the fire started in the slums, populated by the poor who adored Nero's spectacle? Conspiracy theorists always said that the fire couldn't have spread naturally, but a fire expert interviewed in last night's show indicated through a demonstration that it could have, and an archaeologist showed remains of supposedly strong buildings destroyed in the fire. In the pre-electric days of ancient Rome, open flames were the only source of light and heat, and in the wooden shelters of the poor, the fire could have easily spread. Like the Chicago fire, the fire of Rome was most likely an unfortunate accident, which Nero used to his advantage.
But what about the prophecy, and the men with torches? Records from this time are hardly airtight, and the fire expert in last night's show provided a more plausible theory. When a fire starts, or any other vandalism, such as the LA Riots, many spectators get involved just for the sake of mindless destruction. The Christians, seeing the city they loathed go up in flames, might have added to the fire as an act of revenge. But the so-called "evidence" that they started the fire themselves is in religious prophecy and the actions of an arrogant emperor who needed a scapegoat to satisfy the populus, at least a few of whom thought he was involved. In the last two thousand years, fanatic Christians have proven themselves capable of unimaginable destruction and bloodshed, but I can't see that, given more plausible evidence and theories, they can claim credit for the fire that destroyed Rome. But, as the show pointed out, we'll probably never know what happened on July 19, 64 AD.