Suetonius’ Nero describes some of the Roman Emperor Nero’s productions in the Colosseum, including a play called The Fire by Afranius. The Burning House project got me thinking about it again – is anything other than life worth saving when the situation is that dangerous?
I really think we should stop going to the Flavian Amphitheatre. The shows, the spectacles, whatever you want to call them are just getting more and more shocking. That said, I did get the most lovely necklace last time – slaves with big baskets of trinkets just tossing them out into the audience. But really. Honestly, Lydia Domitilla must have died, just died. when she saw her husband performing in a play there. She got a lovely guinea-fowl,(she told me they had it for supper and it was beautiful) from another slave with freebies. But you know. Senators dressed up and performing. I don’t know what Nero’s thinking, truly I don’t.
“Annia! Annia, my little sparrow, where are you?”
“Annia, look at this.”
“What is it?”
“A script. A new play by Afranius. “The Fire.” I scrolled through it – looks quite exciting."
I smell a rat.
“And why does my noble husband have a script?”
“I’m in the play. But it’s all right, I’m in the play because Nero likes me and you know what that means. And I know what you’re going to say but he’s put me in the play because he likes me and if I say I won’t do it he’ll have me killed.”
Nero may well do this.
My husband is now going on about something he is trying to get heard at the senate, I’m only half listening. I don’t want my husband performing. He’s a senator, not one of those actors.
“But let me tell you about this play. There’s this house, you see, a rich man’s house. There’s a party and I’m going to play one of the guests. In the end, the house burns down and all the guests have to make off with whatever they can lay their hands on.”
“He’s going to burn the house down, isn’t he? There’s going to be heat and flames and things?”
“Well, I don’t….”
“What about those senators with the lion. Nero didn’t show any mercy then, did he?”
“They were slaves.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You knew they were senators just as well as I did.”
“But this is different. It’s a play. Theatre.”
“It’s not taking place in a theatre, is it?”
We look at each other. There’s no way of knowing what idea Nero will have next. But my husband won’t really burn to death, he’ll be able to get out, and…
“…what about the stuff in the house? Is that real too? Can you really take it away with you?”
“I think so.”
“Well find out! I’m sick of that dining table – those satyrs on the legs are disgusting! You could get us a new one.”
My sister got a new wine cooler recently. Very smart.
“And you could get us a new wine cooler too.”
“Anything else?” I’m not keen on his tone, I must say.
“I don’t like my dressing table. Maybe…?”
“That’s it then, is it?”
I’ve gone a bit far. “Yes, my lord,” is all I can say.
The play, The Fire, is today. After some deliberation, I decide to go to the amphitheatre and watch, just because I can’t wait to see what he’ll pull out of the house for me. There really is a house, built in the very middle. Two storeys, garden, no bath house but then there isn’t anything you can take away from a bath house, is there? There is no end to what entertainment Nero will stage, is there? Camels, elephants, jewels, sea battles – wonders will never cease!
I’ve started to change my mind about that dining table though. I don’t like the satyrs – enough to put anyone off their food, really – but I’ve heard Metella Aurelia has the exact same one and everyone admires it when they go to dinner and asks her where she got it. My husband doesn’t know this. I wonder if I could get a message to him. I don’t want him wasting time with a dining table and not coming out with a new stool. I’m sure I told him about the stool. Didn’t I? Maybe I didn’t. I’m going to have to send him a message, somehow. There’s a slave…
“Oh, a jewellery box! For me? How lovely! It’s got such sweet carving…I must say, it’s lovely getting all these presents every time we come to the amphitheatre….” Oh. He’s gone. I’ll have to find another one….
The play is starting:
HOST: Welcome to my humble home!
GUESTS: Thank you, noble senator, you are so hospitable.
HOST: Please come into the garden and let us converse.
GUESTS: What charming flowers!
Venus, do we really talk this kind of tripe? Get to the new furniture. “Pray come inside my house and look at all my lovely possessions” would be a good line; hope it occurred to Afranius.
They’re entering the house now. I can’t see anyone with a torch to light it. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they just take what they want…or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s just a really bad play with no presents. Shame. I suppose it’s good about the fire, they’re pretty dangerous, after all, don’t really want my husband burnt to death….
Smoke is starting to come from the downstairs windows. It’s been lit from inside. Some people in the audience start to scream. I don’t scream. My husband’s in there, finding us lots of lovely things so we can have one of the finest houses in Rome, if he can just get it outside in time. Oh, how we’ll entertain!
The first man is out. He’s only managed to get some silly Samian ware cups. Panic must have got the better of him. He needed a list, then he wouldn’t have missed any of the real treats, and a plan. My husband had a plan. Start upstairs and work his way down to get out easily. Look at that man, though! He’s just sitting there outside the house, all he’s got is one little red cup in each hand and he’s crying like a baby. Silly fool.
Here’s the second man. Not my husband. Oh, this one’s got a wine cooler. That was the thing I really wanted. Looks quite a nice one, too. Bacchus and nymphs, very tasteful. Why didn’t my husband get that? It was on the ground floor, of course. What was I thinking of, telling him to start at the top?
The house is now a ball of flame. My husband hasn’t come out. He will, though. I’ll close my eyes and when I open them again he’ll be standing on the sand with the other two. Close and – open! No. Oh, Jupiter, where is he? Why will he not come out? Still hunting for things for me. Was I that bossy? Was I that worldly? The top storey collapses into the garden. Oh, my husband, my poor husband, my poor husband, poor me. To think Nero would kill him if he didn’t take part and he’s been killed anyway. All because I wanted those new things. I hope he wasn’t struggling with the dining table. I didn’t want it anyway. I hope it wasn’t that. What have I done? I am that greedy that I’d let my husband die for a few bits of furniture? Juno, give me back my husband and I’ll make sacrifices, I’ll honour you like you didn’t know a mortal could. I’ll stop being so worldly and just have normal things in my house, same as everyone else. I can’t see and I realise it’s because I’m crying. My husband’s gone, gone, cremated without even a coin for Charon.
Something is different and I rub my eyes. Someone is walking out of the house. My husband! It has to be. He’s sweaty and sooty and his toga’s on fire. He rolls on the sand to put it out, putting something down carefully first. He’s got treasure for me – what is it? A mirror, a glass one and really quite big! Wait until Metella Aurelia hears about this. Oh, I am a lucky girl!