My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“A Nero: Any bloody-minded man, relentless tyrant, or evil-doer of extraordinary cruelty; from the depraved and infamous Roman Emperor C. Claudius Nero.” – “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable”
Almost twenty-one centuries after the Great Fire of Rome, most people believe that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In reality, Nero–who ruled as Emperor between AD 54 and AD 68–played a lyre, and the fiddle as we know it had yet to be invented. Even the historian Tacitus discounts the rumor that Nero sang and played his lyre while enjoying the six-day spectacle of his city on fire. But the fiddling myth lives on.
Nobody knows whether the fire was accident or arson. Disgruntled Romans said Nero started it for reasons of insanity or to clear away land for a new palace. Nero blamed and persecuted Christians to direct the public’s antagonism away from himself. Don Westenhaver’s well-researched novel “Nero’s Concert” provides readers with a what-might-have-happened scenario for the calamitous days of July, 64 AD and their aftermath.
In “Nero’s Concert,” Nero does not start the fire. He asks his close friend Rusticus to investigate in hopes of proving Christians are responsible. Nero doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for. Tensions mount and the friendship between Nero and Rusticus becomes strained. Subsequently, Rusticus’ life and safety are jeopardized when Nero turns to Tigellinus, the sadistic prefect of the Praetorian Guard, for more appropriate conclusions and when Rusticus falls in love with a Christian.
In addition to Nero and Tigellinus, Westenhaver’s novel includes Seneca, Poppaea, St. Peter and other historical characters. Rusticus, who is wholly fictional, attends to both his duty and his heart, making him a wonderfully level-headed protagonist for a story about a chaotic city with an erratic Emperor.
When Camilia, a nurse helping the injured during the fire, tells a Tribune she’s found a murdered senator among the dead, the Tribune says he will take her information to Rusticus rather than Tigellinus.
“I don’t know Tigellinus obviously,” says Camilia, “but his reputation is that he punishes those who bring bad news.”
“Yes,” the Tribune responds. “Whereas Rusticus seems quite different–analytical and professional. Somewhat distant rather than friendly. But I worked with him on the fire and he was fair to everyone.”
Through the novel’s wide window into the past, readers see the workings of the Roman hierarchy via Rusticus’ investigation and his interactions with Seneca, Nero and Tigellinus. As Camilia and Rusticus spend time together, readers learn about daily life and about the horrors of being a Christian at a time when such beliefs are likely to lead to imprisonment, torture and death. The author has taken great care in his presentation of facts about Rome’s rulers, buildings and people. An author’s note at the end of the novel supplies additional details.
While Westenhaver’s writing is highly readable, his modern-day words and phrases add a disruptive casualness that doesn’t fit the time or place. When Thaddeus calls out to Rusticus with the words “Hey boss,” the reality of Rome within the novel crumbles a bit. So, too, when Nero’s efforts to improve his image are referred to as “public relations,” an individual is called “your guy,” a parade is called a “big deal,” and sexual encounters are described as “getting laid.” Personal taste may dictate whether or not this is distracting.
The research behind the story gets in the way of the story occasionally when the primary plot line is diverted into travelogue-style moments around the city and a vacation trip Rusticus and Camilia take to the Bay of Naples. Likewise, a visit with an imprisoned St. Peter strays past its intended purpose into a monologue about Christianity. Such information does provide interesting facts and insights into the characters and the times, but at the expense of the novel’s pacing. Some readers may skim these sections while others may enjoy the additional atmosphere.
On balance, “Nero’s Concert” is an engaging love story as well as an entertaining and informative account of a time that lives in our consciousness as myth more than fact. Readers will come away from the novel knowing that, in all likelihood, Nero neither played a violin nor fiddled around while Rome burned.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell