The Flames of Rome invites you into to the Roman Palatine of the first century, sometime in the middle of the Acts of the Apostles. Maier gives a close view of what it might have looked like to be a witness to all the dirty deeds done by those in power at the time—the acts scandalized ancient Romans just as much they will scandalize you as you read about them. Maier connects how the politics of Rome affected the early Christian church: how Christians went from reluctantly tolerated to hunted down and murdered in the most imaginative ways.
This book takes real history and dramatizes it to connect the different events together in cohesive manner. This is important because history is often scattered across many different texts—and those texts are not always reliable in some areas—so putting together a cohesive picture can be difficult. It is especially useful to have a day-to-day perspective; many times we get caught up in the geopolitics of Rome and forget the individuals other than the emperors.
A Different Kind of Novel
What makes this book different is that every scene, character, event, and sometimes even specific phrases are well-documented history. There’s a Notes section at the end cataloging the most outrageous or controversial points, with Maier intentionally leaving out regular stuff because of space restraints. Even with the restricted amount of notes, there are a lot of them. There were many times I would read a chapter and think to myself, “There is no way we have solid evidence for that!” I would flip to the back of the book and check what Maier noted for that chapter. Almost every time, there was specific citations in a historical source backing up exactly what happened in the novel. Since Maier only included the controversial or items where the historical record is silent, many entries would say something to the effect, “We don’t have direct evidence of this, but comparing sources X, Y, and Z, this has been the most probable explanation scholars have reached. Read scholar A for a more thorough treatment.”
Maier does a good job of showing how the internal structure of the highest offices in Rome might have worked during the tail-end of Claudius’ reign and all throughout Nero’s rule. Mostly this just means showing how crazy they both were, but Maier also shows how the emperor’s staff would get things done by swaying the emperor. If you think today’s political climate is crazy, wait until you read about the murderous mothers, sex scandals, and multiple assassination attempts and you might think we are pretty fortunate, all things considered.
This book connected a lot of dots of history for me. It also changed the way I view several of the characters and books of the New Testament.
When we talk about Paul being in prison in Rome, I previously envisioned a dark and musty dungeon. Maier completely changed my mental model for Paul’s time in Rome. Paul would have been able to do quite a lot with few obstacles to evangelize. After reading this book, I will imagine a pleasant house arrest with lots of freedom to do as he wished.
We often today whitewash or dismissively talk about persecution, especially with Christianity enjoying such a privileged position today (even as it has lost some of that in recent decades). You will not be able to dismiss persecution so easily after reading this book: it is the stuff of nightmares. I found it difficult to read through the few chapters of the intense persecution. We recoil today at the beheadings in the Middle East (as we should), but that truly is getting off easy compared to some of the torture conducted by the Romans. After reading this book, you will have a new appreciation of Jesus’ words, “take up your cross and follow me.”
A Documentary Novel
As a novel, I found it to be good, but not great. As others have noted in other reviews, The Flames of Rome is not a masterpiece. Several characters and scenes fell flat and the first half of the book felt scattered. I recommend it because it connects Roman politics, highlights somewhat obscure historical people in a new light, and provides a well-evidenced historical story.
I will caution anyone who read this to not rely on it as a historical authority. It is fantastic for what it aims to be: a documentary novel. It is not a textbook. It is great for context and a perspective you don’t usually get from traditional history books.
If you like Roman history, you will probably like this. If you are Christian, you will probably quite like this book once the backstory is laid and the Christians come into play (…well, you may not like some aspects, but you’ll appreciate it, at least). I look forward to reading more from Maier.