When Roma[i] felt the first flickerings of fire in her chest, she knew. In Antium[ii] with the emperor Nero, far from the flames her self; she was helpless to do more than procure the madman’s aid. The man who paid her no heed when she spoke, who held her and all others as captive audience to his arts, who thought himself near a god among men; he was her sole source of aid. And he was too busy singing about the Sack of Ilium[iii] to listen. Fitting.
She would go as Lucretia[iv] had gone before her, raped of her land and her people as the flames leapt ever higher. But for Roma there was no escape.
Nero’s party continued by the light of the torches burning as Nero pranced about the stage. Roma clutched at her chest and stoically sank lower into her couch.
(“Some thought they ought to hurl it down from the rocks, others to burn it up, while others said they ought to dedicate it to Athena.”)[v]
So it was that Roma, overcome with pain, burnt from the inside out while the emperor made poor imitation of art.
No one there noticed. It was not permitted.[vi]
By the time the epic was over, the audience free to notice their City, the flames had already spread too far.
(Help us It burns How could you Why did you It is so hot! Jupiter help us Roma help us Someone help us!)
When the fires burnt out, six days and seven nights later, they took hundreds of acres, countless lives, and Roma’s sanity with them.
(“And those in the wooden horse came out and fell upon their enemies, killing many and sacking the city.”)
None of the cities knew, of course; sympathetic letters were written and sent, but never received. Nero had locked her away in his palace, she in no state to complain.
Seven days of burning, of feeling lives snuffed and damage dealt and ruins caused- well, it would change anyone.
She slept long and fitfully the night after the fires, and every night thereafter; never again looking at so much as through one, staring with blind eyes as she murmured broken Greek and Latin. Of shattered pasts and futures and present-but-not-quites, prophesies and riddles and paradoxes, and always burning burning burning.
(Later, Athens would wonder if these mutterings came from the Sibylline Books, Roma’s most jealously guarded secret. Other times she would consider not if but where they originated from; those three books saved, or those six lost to an ancient king’s doubt.)[vii]
Some people suspected something, of course, but not many. But in those times the cities did not walk among the people, but lived above them as gods. It was normal to go months or longer without seeing your city; some bread and circus games, and a lovely lady dressed as Victoria[viii] standing behind the emperor; it was enough.
As it was, nothing came of it until some months later when Athens, sick of the silence to her letters (not worried, never worried- for why should she worry about the lady who conquered, overcame, overthrew?) visited personally. Nero tried to placate her, sent his servants to halt her and turn her back.
(He should have known better than to try such with one worshipped as Athena.)
It took six months after the Great Fire for another City to realize something was wrong. It took another week after that for Athens to reach Rome. After she sent some letters, it was merely a matter of time.
(London-to-be, young, still more Druidic runes and tearing storms than proper Roman citizen, hated Roma for her conquering people. She hated Nero more for stealing her chance at revenge. Paris-to-be, likewise covered in Celtic tattoos and swirling drum beats, bared his teeth in a mockery of a grin and prepared for the hunt.)
(Athens convinced them both to wait, knew that the way to destroy a would-be-god was to prove his mortal fallibility to him, again and again and again, to chase him with his failures until his only option was to die a shell of a man. They agreed, grudgingly. In the coming weeks, however, the Roman citizens would learn to avoid the surrounding forests. They echoed with the footfall of prey, the panting of hounds and, on nights of the full moon, wild laughter and the haunting call of a hunting horn. Those who, foolish or desperate, entered the woods were never seen again. Sometimes though, if one listened closely, one might hear a familiar laugh among the full moon’s raucous cacophony. No one was ever sure which was worse, for a voice of the vanished to join the silent or the laughing, but that was another thing they didn’t talk about.)
(When the Piso Conspiracy failed to work, the Cities sharpened their swords and tried again. For Nero to fall to a City would be sweet, but fruitless; what would it do but feed his narcissism, that the Cities themselves came for him? To fall to his own people, on the other hand… that was a price worth waiting for.
Four years after the Fire, all their planning came through. Words whispered in taverns, weapons hidden in cellars, discontent noticed, remarked on, spread; a new favorite of the people arose. Nero had no chance.[ix]
Unloved by the people, abandoned by friends, allies, even a kind enemy to act as executioner;[x] Nero ran. Paris-to-be always liked a good hunt, and so rarely did the occasion arise where he could drive his prey to death- he found the novelty thrilling.)[xi]
(Three days after the death of Nero, as Rome slid into civil war, a private ceremony was held in the temple of Minerva. A steely-eyed glance to the priests was all it took to assure the Cities privacy as the mourned the loss of the Roma they had known. She was not dead, of course; she moved and breathed and spoke in tongues, and no doubt she would outlive them all. But she would never be the same woman who had come, had conquered, had changed the world. Together the mourned the loss of the City who had burnt at Nero’s feet.)
[i] In Latin, Rome was feminine Roma, and grammatically capable of doing anything another person could.
[ii] Antium was Nero’s birth place, and the location of his summer palace.
[iii] The Sack of Illium is a song about the Sack of Troy. Only fragments remain; my source was http://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm
[iv] Lucretia was a pious Roman woman who was raped by the son of the last of the Roman kings. She committed suicide, and her family avenged her death, and the whole of Rome took it as the last straw before rebelling (and thus bringing about the Roman Republic).
[v] From the Sack of Ilium
[vi] Nero actually made it illegal to leave his performances. Wiki held that women would give birth in the audience, and men would “wall over the wall and be carried to the crypts” out of boredom.
[vii] There were originally nine books of prophecy regarding ancient Rome that a woman attempted to sell to an early king at an exorbitant price. He laughed and refused. She promptly burnt three books and demanded the same price for the remaining six. Now the king tried to haggle, but she just burnt the next three, and asked for the original price for the remaining three books. Scared, the king agreed. Roma was the woman who first sold the books.
[viii] Athens was worshipped as Athena; Roma as Victoria, the goddess of victory. In 382 CE Victoria’s statue was removed from Rome by an emperor, causing much anger among the people; the people were loyal to their city, even if the emperor was disillusioned from his ill city.
[ix] Later, Paris would find it mildly ironic that he, who had orchestrated the overthrow of an emperor with only two others, would scoff so at Enjoras’ attempts, who had better reason and more allies. He would usually just drink until the feeling of irony went away.
[x] Nero was legitimately fearful of being torn apart by the mob if he tried to go through the city, and one source quoted Nero as saying “have I been abandoned by friend and foe alike?”
[xi] Tradition has it that Nero managed to sneak out of Rome with a few attendants, but that he could not bring himself to commit suicide; he didn’t have the nerve. Then a messenger came with the word that the government had declared him a public enemy in his absence, to be killed by stoning. Having heard this, when the hoof beats of the soldiers were audible, he forced his secretary to kill him. His dying words were “Oh, what an artist dies in me”. London won’t admit if she was that messenger, but Paris was that soldier; this ‘hunt’ literally chased the prey to death. Paris found it amusing.