July 9, 68 AD: The Roman Emperor Nero committed suicide after he was deposed by the Senate 1,941 years ago today (we think it was a Saturday). Nero is best remembered all these years later for his tyranny and lavishness – that he “fiddled while Rome burned” and later constructed a golden palace.
As for the fiddling, the Great Fire of Rome started on a July night in the year 64 AD. Who or what caused the fire is up for debate but popular legend placed the emperor playing his lyre and singing whilst the city burned (fiddles weren’t popular at the time, partially due to their non-existence). Following the fire Nero sought to construct a palace to show off his wealth and give the greatest parties the world had seen. The resulting Golden Palace, or Domus Aurea, was brick and mortar but took its name from the gold leaf that covered its walls. In addition to the interior of gold and jewels and paintings, Nero had a massive golden statue of himself installed outside the palace in the event anyone forgot where they were going or the name of their host.
During the 1960s, Bellairs was quite familiar with both Nero and the extravagances of his reign as emperor. John’s aborted doctoral dissertation was an analysis of The Tragedy of Nero (1624) written by an anonymous author in the midst of the Elizabethan era. While some of the historical names and places from this play popped up later in his fiction (i.e. Melichus and Sporus and even the Golden Palace), we’re told that once St. Fidgeta became a published reality, whatever remnants there were of the thesis were destroyed and John “never looked back.”
We cracked a smile at this bit of trivia: Nero is a major character in the film The Sign of the Cross (1932) where he is portrayed by actor Charles Laughton. A number of people we’ve interviewed over the years have responded with Laughton’s name* when we’ve asked for a description of Bellairs.
* Laughton and that Hitchcock fellow.