The Flames of Rome, by Paul L. Maier and first published in 1981, is an excellently researched historical novel about Rome in the days of Nero, including the years preceding and following the Great Fire of A.D. 64. Beginning in 47 A.D., in the last years of Claudius, the story relates the great political and moral corruption of Rome, and the sordid events surrounding those in Rome’s highest power. Here we meet Claudius’ third wife, Messalina, followed by his last wife, his niece Agrippina – and her son Domitius (later renamed Nero). Throughout the next twenty years, the story follows the life of Rome’s leaders, alternating between the story at Caesar’s palace – a cast including Nero, Agrippina, and the great philosopher Seneca – as well as the household of Aulus Plautius, one of Rome’s political leaders and war heroes. Special focus is placed on Aulus’ son-in-law, Flavius Sabinus (older brother to the future emperor Vespasian), who was Mayor of Rome during the Great Fire. After a many-character beginning, Sabinus in particular becomes the major focus and thrust of the story.
Christian characters also have a role, albeit a smaller one, in this story told from a Roman’s perspective. The fledgling Christian "cult" is first associated in their minds with the Jews, one of many religions allowed under Roman law, and of no consequence. One will not find serious, in-depth early Christian teaching here, either. A few of the Roman women are said to convert, but we really don’t see the events from their perspectives, or any details about the church meetings they attend. Yet throughout the twenty years of The Flames of Rome we get a nice chronology, a fascinating correlation of Roman history with many events listed in the book of Acts, plus the subsequent events up through Peter’s and Paul’s martyrdoms. It is insightful to learn, for instance, that Paul and his shipmates, after their shipwreck and wintering on Malta, most likely were in the same area, during the very week when Nero had his mother executed, near Naples in the early spring of A.D. 61.
Maier takes a serious approach to his historical work. All the characters named were actual known Romans. Also, unlike most historical fiction books, The Flames of Rome has extensive chapter-by-chapter notes. Of course, in dealing with such a topic -- ancient history of which so little is known -- the author does not hesitate to extrapolate what might have happened, complete with dialogue. The author takes pains to portray his best guess, but in the end we really don’t know the details of the Apostle Paul’s first trial before Nero – or how the fire in Rome really started. Yet through this fascinating blend of history and story, an intriguing plot develops, in which we see the major players of both the ruling Romans and the early Christian leaders.
Paul L. Maier’s The Flames of Rome is an excellent addition to good historical novels, ones that have good plots and well-researched history.