Friday, 5 February 2016

History With The TARDIS - The Great Fire of Rome

Before I get back into the swing of things with this blog, let's take another look at how Doctor Who has portrayed key moments / figures in history. This time, it's the story commonly entitled The Romans.
On screen, the Doctor and his companions have arrived outside Rome in the year 64AD. They spend a month or so relaxing at a villa, whose owner is off campaigning in Gaul. One day, the Doctor decides to visit Rome, and young companion Vicki goes with him. Ian and Barbara stay behind - only to be captured by slave-traders. The Doctor and Vicki find the body of an elderly lyre player on their travels - one Maximus Pettulian. The Doctor decides to impersonate him, in order to find out how the old man came to be killed. Believing he has failed, the assassin tries again, but is chased off. The Doctor and Vicki arrive in Rome and meet the Imperial family - Nero and his wife Poppaea. Ian and Barbara also find themselves in the city (he having first of all spent a few days as a galley-slave).
Vicki stops Poppaea from poisoning Barbara, and almost kills Nero instead. The Doctor upsets the Emperor by playing the lyre better than him. Nero plans to have him fed to alligators in the arena, but the Doctor inadvertently sets fire to the Emperor's plans for a new Rome with his spectacle lens - inspiring Nero to deliberately torch the city so that his dream will be built. Nero plucks his lyre as the city burns. Under cover of the fire, the time-travellers make their way back to the villa, and thence off to the TARDIS.

This story was written intentionally to have a lot of humour, and so not to be taken too seriously, despite some grim things happening in it. When it comes to the real facts, it is often way off the mark.
First of all, there is the villa that the travellers are staying in. The writer seems to be thinking of a villa as a small holiday home like those round the Med you might rent today. In fact, this would have been a vast agricultural estate with an army of slaves working it all year round.
As for the absence of the owner, there wasn't any campaigning going on in Gaul at this time. He is much more likely to have been in Britain, Boudicca having rebelled just 3 - 4 years earlier.
Then we have the portrayal of the Emperor.
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was 17 when he came to the throne. His mother was wife to the Emperor Claudius, and it is commonly held that she arranged the old Emperor's death in order that her son should inherit. This was 10 years before the Great Fire, so Nero should be under 30. On screen, we get Derek Francis playing him as a much older character. Very handsome as a youth, Nero did pile on the pounds thanks to his debauched lifestyle, and his double chins appear on both coins and statuary.

He certainly enjoyed the arts and performing himself - something which the Roman aristocracy disapproved of. Nero certainly planned to totally remodel Rome. He began by buying up huge sections of the Caelian Hill and extended the palace on the Palatine (from whence the word 'palace' derives) onto it. Today, under a park, lie the remains of part of his complex - the Domus Aurea or Golden House. In the flat area between the hills he had a vast ornamental lake built, and next to it a huge golden statue of himself was set up. A colossal statue in fact - which might give you a clue as to what his successors built on the site of the lake.
Two characters who appear at Nero's court are based on real figures - the cup-bearer Tigellinus, and the poisoner Locusta. The real Tigellinus was a Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. He outlived Nero - but only just. He backed the wrong successor - the short-reigned Galba - and was executed by the equally short-reigned Otho, in what is known as the Year of the Four Caesars.

Locusta, meanwhile, is supposed to have been the one employed by Nero's mother, Agrippina the Younger, to poison Claudius. She also did away with Claudius' own son and heir Britannicus. She also outlived Nero - but again only just. Galba had her executed as well.
A significant character in the TV programme is the slave-trader Sevcheria. He is a totally fictitious figure. The programme seems to be cutting the costs of an extra actor by having him suddenly become Nero's sadistic right hand man in the second half of the story. In fact, this role was closer to the real Tigellinus.
And what of the Great Fire itself? There is an old adage about Rome burning whilst Nero fiddles. Well, the programme at least has the Emperor playing a lyre, which you pluck, rather than a fiddle which you play with a bow. The ancient Romans themselves came up with a number of theories as to the cause of the fire. One was indeed that Nero was behind it, so that the Senate would allow him to build his dream Rome. He wasn't there in person, however. He was in Antium. Another story had him closer to the city, playing his lyre in the gardens of Maecenas (now a district of low rent housing just to the south of Termini station). Another theory, which Nero himself promoted, was that the fire had been started by a religious sect known as the Christians. Whatever happened to them? Christians were subjected to a dreadful persecution after the fire. Which brings us to the slave Tavius. He is shown to be a secret devotee of this new-fangled cult. He is seen to wear a crucifix. In reality, it would more likely have been the symbol of a fish he would have worn.
The theories that have Nero deliberately starting the fire all tend to come from writers who were patronised by later Emperors, so who had an agenda. At the time, Nero was only criticised for his tardiness in returning to the city to supervise the relief effort. Thousands of people were made homeless.
Nero lived only a further four years after the Great Fire. He was deposed, and chose to commit suicide rather than be captured and executed. His ashes were buried near the northern gate of the city - beside what is now the church of Santa Maria Del Popolo. This used to have a monastery attached and a tree in its grounds was supposed to be haunted by Nero's ghost - so the Pope had it cut down.
[Santa Maria Del Popolo is worth visiting for two superb Caravaggio altar pieces - The Crucifixion of St Peter, and The Conversion of St Paul. There's a side chapel designed by Raphael. Martin Luther stayed at the adjoining monastery on his trip to Rome - the one that initially triggered his desire to see the Church reformed].
One last thing - the stuff about "the arena". The Romans would probably have gone for crocodiles (from Egypt) rather than alligators. One well-respected Doctor Who guide book bemoans the fact that what we see on screen of the arena where Ian has to fight Delos is far too small to be the Colosseum... (And a Big Finish audio set during the Boudiccan Revolt has a couple of soldiers talking about visiting that well-known Roman landmark). Oh dear...
Yes, as mentioned above, at the end of Nero's life you would have got your feet wet if you visited the site of the Colosseum. Otho's successors, Vespasian and then his son Titus, drained the lake and built the famous arena. It was the first stone-built - so permanent - arena in the city. Prior to this there were only Theatres, plus temporary wood-built arenas.