It would seem that I'm on a Paul Maier binge right now. That's okay, because The Flames of Rome is a great novel.
It starts in the hey day following the Emperor Claudius's conquest of Britain. The story revolves around Flavius Sabinus and his career and life. Things seem very good for Sabinus and Rome in general until Claudius is succeeded by his stepson, Nero. While Nero had a good start (thanks in large part to his tutor, Seneca), he descended into debauchery and madness, dragging much of Rome with it.
When a fire breaks out in Rome, consuming a good protion of the city, Nero needs someone to blame. It falls on the Christians, who he then murders in a number of them.
You may have noticed that while I say the novel revolves around Sabinus, I've spent most of the review speaking about the politics of the day. That's because while Sabinus is the main character, her moves mostly through the upper echelon of Roman society. The details Maier layers into the story from history (all well documented with endnotes) is incredible and helps bring the era to life.
Once again, though, craft is the Achilles heel of an otherwise good book. It's a bit weak in terms of simple craft. The historical details more than make up for it, though.
A word of caution, though. Nero was a horrific individual with some rather ... how shall I say this ... Well, I can't think of a polite way to put it. He was a pervert, pure and simple, and Maier dosn't pull any unches when it comes to describing his debaucheries. Nero's not the only one with such proclivities. Be warned, this is not a book to give to a younger reader and people who are sensitive to such things might want to avoid it.
For the rest of us who want an unflinching look at first century Roman society, this is the book for you.