October 21, 2019  (Web Review)

The Nero Files

(2018) 60 min. DVD: $24.99 ($54.99 w/PPR). PBS Video (www.teacher.shop.pbs.org). ISBN: 978-1-5317-0925-9.

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

One of history’s most loathed figures was the Roman emperor Nero, who has been traditionally accused of having set fire to the capital city on the night of July 18, 64 A.D., allegedly for artistic inspiration. But is that an accurate history or a colorful rewriting of the past by Nero’s many enemies? Filmmaker Klaus T. Steindl’s PBS-aired Secrets of the Dead documentary offers a boldly different interpretation of Nero’s life. Forensic psychologist Thomas Müller is the key witness in an argument that Nero was not a lunatic, but rather a heroic—albeit maligned—ruler. A main issue raised here is that the three Roman historians who documented Nero’s reign—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio—were born after Nero’s death and presented stories of Nero’s life that had no foundation in fact. Nero was committed to infrastructure projects (including his own palace), so the claim that he set much of Rome on fire makes little sense. In fact, records from the time show that Nero led the crisis management efforts rather than fiddling while Rome burned, and incorporated fire safety regulations into Roman rebuilding efforts. Nero blamed the fire on the Christian minority, which permanently pegged him as a villain, and the film suggests that some Christians may actually have been responsible in order to usher in a fiery environment envisioned for Christ’s return. Whether history will eventually be rewritten and Nero reformed remains to be seen, but this is an interesting challenge to long-held notions. Highly recommended. Aud: H, C, P. (P. Hall)