Burning to Know

Being one of those loathesome Johnnies-come-lately to that hateful though catchy brand of alternative emo-pop à la the Killers and Modest Mouse, I only just discovered that This Fire by Franz Ferdinand is a tribute to the Great Fire of Rome, which began in the areas surrounding the Circus Maximus and continued to rage for six days only to rekindle again for another three. While word on the street blames Nero, the deranged emperor who is said to have fiddled while the wild conflagration razed his city to the street, the song’s refrain, “This fire is out of control. We’re going to burn this city. Burn this city,” speaks to a more contemporary point of view.

The lyrics are meant to channel the Christians whom many modern German scholars now think started and supported the flames. Small fires were commonplace in Rome during the hot summer months, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Yet, in the affluent parts of town, where the politicians lived, such house fires were hard to come by. Powered by divine vengeance and justified by prophecy, these early Christians set about bringing what they felt to be the Apocalypse, setting the stage for the Second Coming. Hence, they would wanted this fire to be “out of control.” And so, they were “going to burn this city,” and bid us all to “Burn this city”—except in Latin. Truly, this is one of those too rare moments when good scholarship and popular art walk hand and hand. It is my hope that we can expect more music like this to come.

The infamous fire began at night on July 19, 64 A.D, a date which held great weight within then nascent, splintered, and exceedingly superstitious Christendom. [So much has changed since then.] Each year a core of my friends, a rotating cast of spectators, and I purchase fireworks and duel with Roman candles in the woods to commemorate the event and American independence [from Rome, of course].

But then again, maybe I made it up.

It’s been a long week, after all.

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