It should have been dark. Lavinia Flavia Corva could read the parchment in front of her as well as if it had been morning. The sinister light touched her fingers, constantly dancing from yellow to red. Rome was burning in waves – sometimes intensely, then the flames became so low as to almost be invisible and one could be justified to think it was all over. But, it never was.
The screams of the men and women, children and elders of Rome, were no match for those of the Emperor. Lyre in hand, Nero was singing his latest carmina. Lavinia put her parchment aside and gave her Caesar her full attention, as was only right. Here, in the emperor’s favourite retreat in Antium, Nero and his court were far from the danger but close to the tragedy. When the emperor had entered the main hall, his first words had been ‘Fiat Lux!’, mocking the followers of the Christ, whose flesh was now the main source of light. It was also a reminder of who Nero really was. Lavinia had already heard whispers, saying that Nero was the one who started the fire. But it had not been him. Anything that required action was quite beyond him. If there was a fault in Nero, it was otium. Not the philosophical kind his master Seneca had taught him. He stood still, and everyone around him stood still. He could sing to a dead crowd and be happy. He could be surrounded by the dead, as he now was, his city burning, and be as gay as he always was.
Petronius, the arbiter elegantiarum of the court, caught her eye. His smile was as firm in place as his toga, but his gaze told a different story. The music stopped, and the court came back alive to applaud his master. Lavinia joined them. Petronius didn’t; he just walked towards her. He was a bold men with an attitude that would get him killed.
‘Are you happy about this performance?’ he asked once he had reached her. His smile did not falter when his gaze moved towards the open windows, the curtains drawn back, offering a view of the fire.
Lavinia turned towards the windows as well. ‘Which performance?’
He laughed. ‘Aren’t they one and the same?’
‘I suppose.’ Lavinia stood up. ‘We should not talk about this.’
‘No, you’re right, we should not.’ He whispered. ‘I wonder sometimes at all that we ‘should not’. But then I take a sip of wine and it passes.’ He smiled sardonically now. ‘That is me, the cowardly drunk.’
‘You are not. Everyone knows you’re the elegant drunk’ They both laughed. ‘Remember the time you said his lyre did not deserve him?’
‘Oh, I remember. His infinite ego mistook my meaning. It saved me. I still cannot believe his ego saved me, there aren’t many people who can say that.’
‘There are even fewer now.’ Lavinia’s smile turned sad. ‘So, we do nothing.’
‘We do what our Caesar does.’
Nero started another song, his lyre resting on his swollen belly, his little eyes closed in ecstasy, a lock of hair creating a shadow on his face. His concubines at his feet, his courtiers at his feet, Rome at his feet.
And so, Rome burnt.