¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The fire is the last big event in Tacitus’ account of AD 64 (Annals 15.33–47). The remainder of Book 15 (Chapters 48–74) covers the conspiracy of Piso in AD 65, which developed in part as a reaction to the rumour that Nero himself was responsible for setting the city on fire. Here is what Subrius Flavius, one of the conspiractors, allegedly said to Nero just before his execution (Annals 15.67):
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 ‘oderam te’, inquit. ‘nec quisquam tibi fidelior militum fuit, dum amari meruisti: odisse coepi, postquam parricida matris et uxoris, auriga et histrio et incendiarius extitisti.’
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [He said: ‘I hated you. No one of the soldiers was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you after you became the murder of your mother and your wife, a charioteer and actor, and an arsonist.’]
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 To come to terms with Tacitus’ account of the fire, it will be useful to begin by establishing some background, which we will do under the following four headings: (a) Emperors and fires in the Annals; (b) Other accounts of the Neronian fire; (c) Tacitus’ creative engagement with the urbs-capta motif; (d) Nero’s assimilation of the fire of Rome to the fall of Troy.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Tacitus mentions other significant fires elsewhere in his Annals; they had been a staple item in the city of Rome’s annual records from the year dot: but now Tacitus makes sure each time to comment on the fact that the event shaped the relation between the emperor and his subjects. These passages provide telling foils and benchmarks for the way Nero dealt with the challenge. Here is Annals 4.64 on events from AD 27 that occurred right after that collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidena (see above on 15.34.2):
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Nondum ea clades exoleverat cum ignis violentia urbem ultra solitum adfecit, deusto monte Caelio; feralemque annum ferebant et ominibus adversis susceptum principi consilium absentiae, qui mos vulgo, fortuita ad culpam trahentes, ni Caesar obviam isset tribuendo pecunias ex modo detrimenti. actaeque ei grates apud senatum ab inlustribus famaque apud populum, quia sine ambitione aut proximorum precibus ignotos etiam et ultro accitos munificentia iuverat.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [The disaster had not yet faded from memory, when a fierce outbreak of fire affected the city to an unusual degree by burning down the Caelian Hill. ‘It was a fatal year, and the decision of the princeps to absent himself had been adopted despite evil omens’ – so men began to remark, converting, as is the habit of the crowd, the fortuitous into the culpable, when the Caesar checked the critics by a distribution of money in proportion to loss sustained. Thanks were returned to him; in the senate, by the noble; among the people, by a rise in his popularity: for without respect of persons, and without the intercession of relatives, he had aided with his liberality even unknown sufferers whom he had himself encouraged to apply.]
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Tacitus here records a telling dynamic that also informs – mutatis mutandis – the Neronian fire. The people of Rome, he reports, are wont to ascribe responsibility for disasters to their leader, whom they charge with disregarding crucial pieces of supernatural intelligence that – so the assumption – could have averted the catastrophes if properly heeded. Tacitus, adopting the stance of enlightened and skeptical historiographer, mocks the people for positing causalities where there are none. Yet at the same time, both he (and the emperor) realize that these popular delusions about causal relationships between political and religious leadership on the one hand and general well-being or, conversely, suffering on the other are very real in their consequences. If the groundswell of negative opinion intensified, it could destabilize the political order, lead to riots, and cause a regime change (or at least a swap on top). Tiberius achieves a mood-swing through some swift and decisive action: a well-orchestrated, public show of concern, combined with material generosity towards all and sundry. These measures are so effective that his popularity ratings rise again. Catastrophes, then, put leaders under pressure, not least in the court of public opinion: they can either be deemed to have risen to the challenge or to have failed to meet it. Tiberius proved adept in his crisis-management. He pulled off a similar stunt towards the end of his reign. Here is Annals 6.45.1–2 (AD 36, the year before his death):
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Idem annus gravi igne urbem adfecit, deusta parte circi quae Aventino contigua, ipsoque Aventino; quod damnum Caesar ad gloriam vertit exsolutis domuum et insularum pretiis. miliens sestertium in munificentia ea conlocatum, tanto acceptius in vulgum, quanto modicus privatis aedificationibus…
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [The same year saw the capital visited by a serious fire, the part of the Circus adjoining the Aventine being burnt down along with the Aventine itself: a disaster which the Caesar converted to his own glory by paying the full value of the mansions and tenement-blocks destroyed. One hundred million sesterces were invested in this act of munificence, the more acceptably to the multitude as he showed restraint in building on his own behalf…]
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 For future reference, more specifically Tacitus’ account of the new palace that rose from the ashes of Nero’s burnt-down Rome, what is important here is the distinction between personal and public investment on the part of the emperor. Tiberius gains the respect of his subjects for using his private purse for the public’s benefit, while putting severe checks on his architectural self-aggrandizement. This approach reflects commitment to a norm that dates back to the republic. As Cicero says at pro Murena 76: odit populus Romanus privatam luxuriam, publicam magnificentiam diligit (‘the Roman people loathe private luxury but they love public grandeur’).
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Just like Tiberius in AD 27, Nero was not actually in Rome when the fire broke out. He returned to the capital to fund and oversee the relief efforts, though perhaps not as quickly as he could or should have done, at least according to popular opinion. Yet somehow, the urban rumour arose (and stuck) that Nero actually ordered the conflagration. Tacitus, as we shall see, is rather guarded on the question as to whether Nero was the culprit. Most of our other surviving sources, however, blame Nero outright. Here is Suetonius (Nero 38):
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Sed nec populo aut moenibus patriae pepercit. Dicente quodam in sermone communi: ‘ἐµοῦ θανόντος γαῖα µειχθήτω πυρί’, ‘Immo’, inquit, ‘ἐµοῦ ζῶντος,’ planeque ita fecit. nam quasi offensus deformitate veterum aedificiorum et angustiis flexurisque vicorum, incendit urbem tam palam, ut plerique consulares cubicularios eius cum stuppa taedaque in praediis suis deprehensos non attigerint, et quaedam horrea circum domum Auream, quorum spatium maxime desiderabat, ut bellicis machinis labefacta atque inflammata sint, quod saxeo muro constructa erant. Per sex dies septemque noctes ea clade saevitum est ad monumentorum bustorumque deversoria plebe compulsa. Tunc praeter immensum numerum insularum domus priscorum ducum arserunt hostilibus adhuc spoliis adornatae deorumque aedes ab regibus ac deinde Punicis et Gallicis bellis votae dedicataeque, et quidquid visendum atque memorabile ex antiquitate duraverat. Hoc incendium e turre Maecenatiana prospectans laetusque ‘flammae’, ut aiebat, ‘pulchritudine’ Halosin Ilii in illo suo scaenico habitu decantavit. Ac ne non hinc quoque quantum posset praedae et manubiarum invaderet, pollicitus cadaverum et ruderum gratuitam egestionem nemini ad reliquias rerum suarum adire permisit; conlationibusque non receptis modo verum et efflagitatis provincias privatorumque census prope exhausit.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [But he showed no greater mercy to the people or the walls of his capital. When someone in a general conversation said: ‘When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire’, he rejoined ‘No, rather while I live’, and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his servants although they caught them on their estates with tow and firebrands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in ‘the beauty of the flames’, he sang the whole of the ‘Sack of Ilium’, in his regular stage costume. Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.]
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Unlike Suetonius, who specifies a pragmatic reason for setting the city on fire, Cassius Dio identifies sheer wanton destruction as Nero’s principal motivation (62.16–18):
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 16 1 After this Nero set his heart on accomplishing what had doubtless always been his desire, namely to make an end of the whole city and realm during his lifetime. 2 At all events, he, like others before him, used to call Priam wonderfully fortunate in that he had seen his country and his throne destroyed together. Accordingly he secretly sent out men who pretended to be drunk or engaged in other kinds of mischief, and caused them at first to set fire to one or two or even several buildings in different parts of the city, so that people were at their wits’ end, not being able to find any beginning of the trouble nor to put an end to it, though they constantly were aware of many strange sights and sounds. 3 For there was nothing to be seen but many fires, as in a camp, and nothing to be heard from the talk of the people except such exclamations as ‘This or that is afire’, ‘Where?’ ‘How did it happen?’ ‘Who kindled it?’ ‘Help?’ Extraordinary excitement laid hold on all the citizens in all parts of the city, and they ran about, some in one direction and some in another, as if distracted. 4 Here men while assisting their neighbours would learn that their own premises were afire; there others, before word reached them that their own houses had caught fire, would be told that they were destroyed. Those who were inside their houses would run out into the narrow streets thinking that they could save them from the outside, while people in the streets would rush into the dwellings in the hope of accomplishing something inside. 5 There was shouting and wailing without end, of children, women, men, and the aged all together, so that no one could see anything or understand what was said by reason of the smoke and the shouting; and for this reason some might be seen standing speechless, as if they were dumb. 6 Meanwhile many who were carrying out their goods and many, too, who were stealing the property of others, kept running into one another and falling over their burdens. It was not possible to go forward nor yet to stand still, but people pushed and were pushed in turn, upset others and were themselves upset. 7 Many were suffocated, many were trampled underfoot; in a word, no evil that can possibly happen to people in such a crisis failed to befall them. They could not even escape anywhere easily; and if anybody did save himself from the immediate danger, he would fall into another and perish.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 17 1 Now this did not all take place on a single day, but it lasted for several days and nights alike. Many houses were destroyed for want of anyone to help save them, and many others were set on fire by the very men who came to lend assistance; for the soldiers, including the night watch, having an eye to plunder, instead of putting out fires, kindled new ones. 2 While such scenes were occurring at various points, a wind caught up the flames and carried them indiscriminately against all the buildings that were left. Consequently no one concerned himself any longer about goods or houses, but all the survivors, standing where they thought they were safe, gazed upon what appeared to be a number of scattered islands on fire or many cities all burning at the same time. 3 There was no longer any grieving over personal losses, but they lamented the public calamity, recalling how once before most of the city had been thus laid waste by the Gauls. 18 1 While the whole population was in this state of mind and many, crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, Nero ascended to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the lyre-player’s garb, he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself, though to the eyes of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 duraveruntque, quoniam et de longissimo aevo arborum diximus, ad Neronis principis incendia cultu virides iuvenesque, ni princeps ille adcelerasset etiam arborum mortem.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [… and they lasted – since we have already also spoken of the limits of longevity in trees – down to the Emperor Nero’s conflagration, thanks to careful tendance still verdant and vigorous, had not the emperor mentioned hastened the death even of trees.]
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The author of the Octavia (a so-called fabula praetexta or ‘historical drama’ that features Nero’s unfortunate first wife as protagonist) also blames Nero, but connects the fire with his outrageous treatment of Octavia, which happened two years earlier in AD 62 (831–33, Nero speaking):
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [Next the city’s buildings must fall to flames set by me. Fire, ruined homes, sordid poverty, cruel starvation along with grief must crush this criminal populace.]
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 In the light of a tradition in which Nero is the culprit plain and simple, Tacitus’ strategy is rather more subtle. He refrains from fingering Nero outright, relying instead on insinuation and a bag of further rhetorical tricks to associate the emperor with rendering his people, already adrift in a moral morass, ‘Romeless’ through the physical destruction of the capital. The most conspicuous ploy concerns his manipulation of the so-called urbs-capta topos, to which our last two sections are dedicated.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The urbs-capta topos refers to the rhetorical representation of a city captured and destroyed by enemy forces. The Rhetorica ad Herennium, an anonymous handbook on rhetoric from the first century BC, uses the topos as one of his examples to illustrate ‘vivid description’ (4.39.51):
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [For none of you, fellow citizens, fails to see what miseries usually follow upon the capture of a city. Those who have borne arms against the victors are instantly slain with extreme cruelty. Of the rest, those who by reason of youth and strength can endure hard labour are carried off into slavery, and those who cannot are deprived of life. In short, at one and the same time a house blazes up by the enemy’s torch, and they whom nature of free choice has joined in the bonds of kinship or of sympathy are dragged apart. Of the children, some are torn from their parents’ arms, others murdered on their parents’ bosom, still other violated at their parents’ feet. No one, men of the jury, can, by words, do justice to the deed, nor reproduce in language the magnitude of the disaster.]
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Sic et urbium captarum crescit miseratio. Sine dubio enim qui dicit expugnatam esse civitatem complectitur omnia quaecumque talis fortuna recipit, sed in adfectus minus penetrat brevis hic velut nuntius. At si aperias haec, quae verbo uno inclusa erant, apparebunt effusae per domus ac templa flammae et ruentium tectorum fragor et ex diversis clamoribus unus quidam sonus, aliorum fuga incerta, alii extremo complexu suorum cohaerentes et infantium feminarumque ploratus et male usque in illum diem servati fato senes: tum illa profanorum sacrorumque direptio, efferentium praedas repetentiumque discursus, et acti ante suum quisque praedonem catenati, et conata retinere infantem suum mater, et sicubi maius lucrum est pugna inter victores. Licet enim haec omnia, ut dixi, complectatur ‘eversio’, minus est tamen totum dicere quam omnia.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 [This too is how the pathos of a captured city can be enhanced. No doubt, simply to say ‘the city was stormed’ is to embrace everything implicit in such a disaster, but this brief communiqué, as it were, does not touch the emotions. If you expand everything which was implicit in the one word, there will come into view flames racing through houses and temples, the crash of falling roofs, the single sound made up of many cries, the blind flight of some, others clinging to their dear ones in a last embrace, shrieks of children and women, the old men whom an unkind fate has allowed to live to see this day; then will come the pillage of property, secular and sacred, the frenzied activity of plunderers carrying off their booty and going back for more, the prisoners driven in chains before their captors, the mother who tries to keep her child with her, and the victors fighting one another wherever the spoils are richer. ‘Sack of a city’ does, as I said, comprise all these things; but to state the whole is less than to state all the parts.]
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 The parallels between Quintilian’s recommendations in particular of how to speak about a city captured and Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome are remarkable: they underscore the highly rhetorical (and hence conventional) nature of such descriptions. But Tacitus gives this material an interesting and innovative twist: he turns the fire from an instrument into the primary agent of destruction. In his narrative, it becomes a personified force that assaults the city of Rome like an external foe, reducing it to ashes and causing the same kind of human suffering as an enemy army.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Its diffusion is owed in large measure, I believe, to the popularity of the theme of the destruction of Troy. The popularity of that theme is attested by the various treatments of the Iliupersis [‘The Fall of Troy’] in poems of the Epic Cycle and by Stesichorus, who is credited with being the inspiration of the scene of Troy’s destruction on a Tabula Iliaca. Various scenes from the sack of Troy frequently appear on vase-paintings. Scenes from the sack appear on the walls of Pompeian houses… The continuing popularity of the theme is indicated by Petronius’ treatment of the Halosis Troiae [‘The Capture of Troy’] (Satyricon 89); the poem, it will be remembered, is inspired by a wall-painting. Its possible relationship to Nero’s Troica (Dio 62.29.1) need not be discussed here; Nero was, however, alleged to have sung of the Troianum excidium during the fire of Rome (Tac. Ann. 15.39). … It is clear that the destruction of Troy and the resulting suffering and grief were firmly established as a literary and artistic theme.
Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0
Nero and Tacitus, then, stand in a tradition that stretches back to Homer –
but for both the emperor and ‘his’ historiographer one account arguably surpasses all others in importance: that by Virgil in Aeneid 2. It assumes a special significance for both thematic and ideological reasons. As Richard Heinze remarks, ‘in the whole course of the narrative…, it is striking how deliberately Virgil emphasizes the burning of the city.’ Austin observes that this thematic choice intertwines with issues in ideology by connecting the (unorthodox) emphasis on catastrophic conflagration during the sack to the apologetic subtext that runs through Aeneid 2: ‘traditionally it was only when they finally left Troy that the Greeks fired the city…, and Heinze suggests that Virgil may be following some Hellenistic source. But there is no reason why the innovation may not be Virgil’s own… And the stress laid upon the flames stresses also the uselessness of trying to serve Troy by remaining there.’ Let us recall, after all, that we get Virgil’s account of the sack of Troy via his internal narrator Aeneas, who needs to justify why he abandoned his hometown in its greatest hour of need: the greater the destruction by fire, the less point there was for Aeneas to keep fighting, the less questionable his decision to turn tail. Within the plot of the Aeneid, of course, the phoenix fated to soar from the ashes of Troy is – Rome. The incineration of Troy in Book 2 is the radical point of departure of a teleological development that will see Rome founded as an alternative world-capital and in due course ascend to the status of Mediterranean top dog, ruling over a far-flung empire without end (or, in Jupiter’s words, a world-wide imperium sine fine: see Aeneid 1.279). The principal agent of this ‘transference of empire’ (translatio imperii) from Troy to Rome was none other than the eponymous hero of the epic, Aeneas –
the founding figure, via his son Ascanius or Iulus, of the gens Julia, to which Caesar, Augustus, and Nero also belonged. The ‘Troy connection’ – more specifically descent from Aeneas and thus divinity – already played a key role in Julius Caesar’s self-promotion long before Virgil wrote the Aeneid. And Virgil and Augustus together ensured that Troy acquired a central place in the imagination of imperial Rome more broadly: many events in Virgil’s literary universe stand in creative, etiological dialogue with Augustan investment in Rome’s Trojan ancestry. One of the best examples, not least for its relevance to Nero, is the so-called Game of Troy. Its first, legenday celebration, so Virgil recounts in Aeneid 5, happened on Sicily during the funeral games for Aeneas’ father Anchises; and he concludes his lengthy description by anticipating the future history of the Game (Aeneid 5.596–602):
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 [This manner of horsemanship, these contests Ascanius first revived when he surrounded Alba Longa with walls, and taught the early Latins how to celebrate them in the same way he had done as a boy and with him the Trojan youth. The Albans taught their children; from them in turn mighty Rome received and preserved the ancestral institution; and today the boys are called ‘Troy’ and the troop ‘Trojan.’]
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Augustus, we learn from Suetonius, was particularly keen to sustain the tradition of the Game, following in the footsteps of Caesar (see Suetonius, Caesar 39.2) (Augustus 43.2):
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 [Besides he gave frequent performances of the game of Troy by older and younger boys, thinking it a time-honoured and worthy custom for the flower of the nobility to become known in this way.]
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 And it continued to be celebrated by his successors as well. In fact, a Game of Troy organized by Claudius provides the context for Nero’s first appearance in Tacitus’ Annals (11.11.2):
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 sedente Claudio circensibus ludis, cum pueri nobiles equis ludicrum Troiae inirent interque eos Britannicus imperatore genitus et L. Domitius adoptione mox in imperium et cognomentum Neronis adscitus, favor plebis acrior in Domitium loco praesagii acceptus est.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [During the presence of Claudius at the Circensian Games, when a cavalcade of boys from the great families opened the mimic battle of Troy, among them being the emperor’s son Britannicus, and Lucius Domitius, – soon to be adopted as heir to the throne and to the designation of Nero, – the livelier applause given by the populace to Domitius was accepted as prophetic.]
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 For our purposes, however, it is crucial to note that genealogical and etiological connections between Troy and Rome do not amount to the identity of the two cities. In fact, in the course of the Aeneid Aeneas is forced to undergo the painful process of learning to turn his back on Troy (and the past) and to pursue Rome (and the future). He does not fully grasp this until about midway through the poem. Likewise, in the final meeting between Jupiter and Juno towards the end of Aeneid 12 up in cloud-cuckoo-land, Juno only agrees to desist from further opposing destiny once Jupiter has promised her that the Roman people will bear hardly any trace of Trojan cultural identity (such as speech or dress). All of this is unsurprising: in a story that turns world-historical losers (the Trojans) into world-historical winners (the Romans), difference and differentiation from the catastrophic origins are just as important as legitimizing continuities.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Against this background, what happens in Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome acquires a fascinating intertextual and ideological complexion. As other sources, Tacitus records (though without committing himself to the truth of the rumour) that Nero, when the spirit moved him to comment on the conflagration in verse, allegedly assimilated the fire of Rome to the fall of Troy (15.39): … pervaserat rumor ipso tempore flagrantis urbis inisse eum domesticam scaenam et cecinisse Troianum excidium, praesentia mala vetustis cladibus adsimulantem (‘the rumour had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage, and, assimilating the ills of the present to the calamities of the past, had sung the Destruction of Troy’). If he did, Nero would have activated a tragic outlook on Rome’s prospects of eternity that contrasts sharply with the notion of an imperium sine fine. This outlook recalls, rather, Scipio Aemilianus Minor. Greek sources report the Roman general to have been stirred into a moment of tragic reflexivity after his sack of Carthage in 146 BC, when he apparently recited two verses from the Iliad, in which Hector recognizes the inevitability of the fall of Troy (6.448–49):
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Scipio here both thinks backwards in time (to Troy) as well as forward (to Rome), in anticipating the same future for Rome that Troy (and Carthage) have already suffered: destruction. In so doing, he clearly identifies Troy and Rome, at least from the point of view of their ultimate destiny.
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 His (and Nero’s) assimilation of destruction of Rome to the destruction of Troy invokes a cyclical notion of history at variance with Virgilian teleology, the phoenix rising from the ashes being reduced to it. But whereas Scipio simply ponders the ephemeral nature of human achievement at the moment of his greatest triumph, Nero’s Trojan reminiscences, especially as represented by Tacitus in the Annals, are more specific. Nero undoes the achievement of his ancestors, in particular Augustus; under his reign the success story of Julio(-Claudian) Rome that Virgil celebrated in the Aeneid unravels; he destroys the Virgilian masterplot by reducing Rome to its origins: the ashes of Troy. And he sings about it. What Nero does in verse, Tacitus does in prose. By taking his inspiration from the emperor and casting the Neronian fire in terms of a city sacked in his own narrative, arguably in oblique dialogue with the ‘Fiendfyre’ of Aeneid 2, he positions himself as an ideological antipode to Virgil’s Aeneid. If in Virgil the fall of Troy heralds the beginning of Rome and the inauguration of a history that has its positive end in Caesar and Augustus, i.e. the beginning of the Julian dynasty, in Tacitus the fire of Rome under Nero turns into a negative end to history, in which the new foundation that emerged from the ashes of Troy and found its culmination in Augustan Rome is itself reduced to rubble by the last representative of the Julio-Claudian lineage.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Chapter 38 offers ‘a splendid study of the chaos produced by calamity, and of the human suffering involved.’ Watch Tacitus keep his camera constantly on the move across different groups, using different signifiers for this purpose: quique, alii, pars, quidam, multi etc. This creates a complex and kaleidoscopic picture, with constant and varied activity all over his canvass. Key themes include: (i) The variety of constructions, complex syntax and winding sentences, evoking confusion; (ii) Personification of the fire, especially presentation of it as an invading army; (iii) Snapshot, impressionistic looks at different groups here and there; (iv) Moments of pathos and human suffering; (v) Speed of narrative and the progression of the fire. The structure of the opening paragraph is:
¶ 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 38.1 Sequitur clades, forte an dolo principis incertum (nam utrumque auctores prodidere), sed omnibus quae huic urbi per violentiam ignium acciderunt gravior atque atrocior.
¶ 62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 sequitur clades: This very simple phrase, after the ornate language and structures of the previous passage, comes as a crashing shock, enacting the eruption of the fire. The inversion of verb (sequitur) and subject (clades) and the use of historic present make the opening highly dramatic. sequitur is also a quintessentially annalistic term, which should not obfuscate the fact that Tacitus, under the veneer of reporting events in chronological sequence, has engineered a highly effective juxtaposition. The sense of sequitur here is both temporal and causal: the fire ‘follows’ the abominations, but also ‘follows from’ them. The word clades points backwards as well as forwards, summing up Nero’s perversion of Rome as a preliminary step towards the full-scale destruction of the city. As Syme puts it: ‘another spectacle follows abruptly, the conflagration of the city.’ Tacitus, of course, delays specifying what the clades comprised, slipping in an almost en passant reference to fire in the relative clause. We do not actually learn when precisely the fire broke out (19 July AD 64) until 41.2.
¶ 63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 forte an dolo principis incertum: Another classic example of Tacitean ‘alternative motivation’, not explicitly favouring one version or the other (incertum), but giving clear weight to the less reputable option (dolo principis) by placing it in the emphatic second position. We still haven’t heard what the matter at issue actually is.
¶ 64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 nam utrumque auctores prodidere: Tacitus likes to record instances where the sources differ for a variety of reasons: (a) it shows him to be a diligent and analytic historian who takes several conflicting accounts into consideration; (b) it allows him to include colourful and dramatic yet perhaps also dubious elements under the protection of referencing other historians; and (c) it obliges us to pitch into the story and figure out what we think must have been going down.
¶ 65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 In the light of the seemingly unanimous condemnatory tradition set out above, one also wonders which authors Tacitus refers to when reporting that opinion on Nero’s guilt was divided in the sources he consulted. This question has yet to find a satisfying answer. What is at any rate noticeable is how guarded Tacitus is in formulating the options: he does not commit himself explicitly either way.
¶ 66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 sed omnibus quae huic urbi per violentiam ignium acciderunt gravior atque atrocior [sc. erat]: omnibus picks up clades, i.e. omnibus cladibus, and is the antecedent of quae. Rome had suffered many fires in its history, as its location, layout and closely packed, frequently wooden buildings left it highly vulnerable. This Great Fire was remarkable only for the scale of its devastation. The hyperbaton of omnibus (an ablative of comparison dependent on gravior atque atrocior) emphasises the pre-eminent power of this fire, while huic helps to make the event more vivid for Tacitus’ Roman readers – ‘this city of ours.’ Tacitus has already pulled out all the superlative stops in Histories 3.71–72 for the disaster of disasters, arson in civil war of the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter (see below).
¶ 67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 38.2 initium in ea parte circi ortum quae Palatino Caelioque montibus contigua est, ubi per tabernas, quibus id mercimonium inerat quo flamma alitur, simul coeptus ignis et statim validus ac vento citus longitudinem circi corripuit. neque enim domus munimentis saeptae vel templa muris cincta aut quid aliud morae interiacebat.
¶ 69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 in ea parte circi … quae Palatino Caelioque montibus contigua est: The Circus Maximus was Rome’s great chariot racing track. It occupied the low land between the Palatine, Caelian and Aventine Hills (see Map of Rome). The part Tacitus refers to here is the south east corner of the Circus, in the vicinity of the Porta Capena.
¶ 70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 ubi tabernas, quibus id mercimonium inerat quo flamma alitur: There was a huge mall of shops (tabernas) in the arches of the tiered seats of the Circus. The rare word mercimonium (wares) is an archaism, there for variation and interest as usual but also perhaps evoking the creaking old shops where the fire started. In addition, the flames are personified (not for the last time in this description): quo flamma alitur provides the image of the fire greedily devouring the flammable goods.
¶ 71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 simul coeptus [sc. est] ignis et statim validus ac vento citus longitudinem circi corripuit: The two adverbs simul and statim make clear the immense speed with which the fire took hold. The fire’s progression is rapid, from beginning (coeptus), to immediately gaining strength (validus) and speed (citus) to engulfing (corripuit) huge areas. The alliterations (simul, statim; coeptus, citus, circi, corripuit; validus, vento) help to stress the fire’s speedy growth.
¶ 72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 neque enim domus munimentis saeptae [sc. sunt] vel templa muris cincta [sc. sunt] aut quid aliud morae interiacebat: A list of three architectural elements which might have stopped the fire: large houses surrounded by walls, temples with a precinct, or – anything else. The polysyndeton helps to underscore the absence of anything that could have stopped the roaring inferno. Tacitus combines parallelism with variation: domus munimentis saeptae and templa muris cincta are virtually identical in construction, but the last colon of the tricolon breaks the pattern, setting aside measured and systematic exposition for a comprehensive expression of despair. quid aliud morae (morae being a partitive genitive dependent on quid aliud) suggests how utterly conducive this part of Rome was to fire.
¶ 73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 domus … templa: Miller explains the architectural significance of the absence of large residences and temples in this area of the city: ‘self-contained houses, and temples, would have had walled grounds which might have stopped the flames: instead, there were only insulae (41,1), blocks of flats crowding narrow streets, which caught and spread the fire.’
¶ 74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 38.3 impetu pervagatum incendium plana primum, deinde in edita adsurgens et rursus inferiora populando, antiit remedia velocitate mali et obnoxia urbe artis itineribus hucque et illuc flexis atque enormibus vicis, qualis vetus Roma fuit.
¶ 75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 The first part of the sentence (from impetu to remedia) traces the path of the conflagration, marked by the sequence primum – deinde – rursus, and fizzing on through impetus-incendium-in-edita-inferiora. The subject is incendium. The two main verbs are pervagatum (sc. est) with plana as accusative object and antiit with remedia as accusative object. In between comes the present participle adsurgens linked by et with the gerund populando. The second part of the sentence (velocitate … fuit) specifies the reasons why the fire could spread so quickly. Here Tacitus links an ablative of cause (velocitate mali) with an ablative absolute of causal force (obnoxia urbe), to which he attaches two further ablatives of cause (artis itineribus hucque et illuc flexis; enormibus vicis).
¶ 76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 impetu: An ablative of manner, which amounts to more personification of the fire, and the first of several instances where it is presented as an assaulting army. The emphatic position here also draws our attention to this highly significant word. Its significance is manifold: (a) the metaphor of the fire as a sack of the city increases the drama and engages the reader in the savagery of the blaze; (b) Tacitus complained (very pointedly) at Annals 4.33 that such is the era he is writing about that he cannot write about great wars and battles but rather immorality and infighting: here he uses the fire to give outlet for the sort of narrative excitement usually reserved for war; (c) the idea of the city being sacked (it hadn’t been sacked by an army since 390 BC) also raises questions about how low Rome had sunk under Nero.
¶ 77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 pervagatum … plana primum: Further personification – the verb pervagor usually means ‘to range over’ or ‘rove about’, with the per-prefix conveying the breadth of its spread and the alliteration adding further emphasis and colour.
¶ 78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 plana primum … deinde in edita … rursus inferiora: The up-and-down, hither-and-thither surging of the uncontrollable fire is made very clear here with these simple phrases and the adverbs (first… then… again). As the following sentence makes clear, it thereby follows the narrow streets in this part of the city (cf. especially hucque et illuc flexis).
¶ 80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 antiit remedia: An emphatically placed verb for emphasis on the fire’s speed and irresistibility. The word remedia is also a subtle medical metaphor, characterising the fire as an incurable disease.
¶ 81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 artis itineribus hucque et illuc flexis atque enormibus vicis: The syntax here enacts the sense of the winding alleys of old Rome, their narrowness (artis), irregularity (enormibus) and winding nature (hucque et illuc flexis); the periphrastic hucque atque illuc flexis suggests the weaving back-streets; and the polysyndeton (-que … et … atque) keeps the sentence flowing onwards and adds to the labyrinthine impression.
¶ 82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 qualis vetus Roma fuit: Of course Tacitus’ readers, very few of whom would even vaguely have remembered pre-fire Rome, would be used to the more regimented building patterns which became the norm after this disaster. In fact, much of the Rome Tacitus knew was of Nero’s creation; but Tacitus, as John Henderson reminds us, here also stands in dialogue with his historiographical predecessors: as he will go on to rub in (below), many readers would have been familiar with the historian Livy’s (59 BC – AD 17) account of the rebuilding of Rome after near-total destruction by the Gauls, a nostalgic evocation of the citizens’ higgledy-piggledy but faultlessly communitarian reconstruction work that draws to a close his first pentade and Rome down to Camillus, the ‘august’ saviour (and precursor for Augustus). Tacitus’ phrase here virtually signals the intertextual reference.
¶ 83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 38.4 ad hoc lamenta paventium feminarum, fessa aetate aut rudis pueritiae, quique sibi quique aliis consulebat, dum trahunt invalidos aut opperiuntur, pars mora, pars festinans, cuncta impediebant.
¶ 85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 lamenta paventium feminarum, fessa aetate aut rudis pueritiae: More pronounced variatio from Tacitus: first a noun/genitive combination (lamenta paventium feminarum – ‘lamentations of frightened women’), then an ablative of quality (fessa aetate – ‘[those] of feeble age’), and finally a genitive of quality (rudis pueritiae – ‘[those] of tender childhood’). This syntactical variety helps to create interest, but also conveys a sense of the confusion and panic. Tacitus here focuses on the physically weaker and more vulnerable inhabitants (women, the old, children) in just the same way as he might describe the victims of a military attack on the city. This is pathos writ large.
¶ 86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 quique sibi quique aliis consulebant: The anaphora quique … quique… and polar contrast sibi … aliis (‘themselves… others’) underlines how all groups, selfish and altruistic, were contributing to the mayhem.
¶ 88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 pars mora, pars festinans: mora (an instrumental ablative) and the circumstantial participle festinans form yet another polar contrast, further enhanced by the anaphora of pars and the asyndeton. The overall picture is one of panic.
¶ 89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 cuncta impediebant: After a long and twisting sentence revolving around contrasts, Tacitus sums it all up by blurring the distinctions – a ploy that further underlines the scale of the mayhem.
¶ 90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 38.5 et saepe dum in tergum respectant lateribus aut fronte circumveniebantur, vel si in proxima evaserant, illis quoque igni correptis, etiam quae longinqua crediderant in eodem casu reperiebant.
¶ 91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 The sentence begins with another conjunction, piling on more information about the panic. An arresting image follows: as people look behind them, the fire surrounds them to their front and side. The mention of all three directions (tergum … lateribus … fronte) in close succession, summarised by the verb circumveniebantur, depicts the fire all around these poor incinerated people.
¶ 92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 si in proxima evaserant, illis quoque igni correptis: More language from the battle field: the vain efforts and hopelessness of fleeing from the fire is conveyed by the clause si … evaserant, which suggests a successful escape, followed immediately by the fact that there was no safety even in the neighbouring districts (proxima), given the merciless pursuit of the fire.
¶ 93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 etiam quae longinqua crediderant in eodem casu reperiebant: The subject of reperiebant is an (elided) ea, which is also the antecedent of the relative pronoun quae. The fire was everywhere: Tacitus’ point here is that, whilst it might not be surprising that nearby neighbourhoods (proxima) are consumed by the fire, in this great fire even (etiam) districts which people believed to be far away from the fire (longinqua) are engulfed.
¶ 94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 38.6 postremo, quid vitarent quid peterent ambigui, complere vias, sterni per agros; quidam amissis omnibus fortunis, diurni quoque victus, alii caritate suorum, quos eripere nequiverant, quamvis patente effugio interiere.
¶ 95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 quid vitarent quid peterent ambigui: The anaphora, asyndeton, polar verbs, and delayed ambigui underline the utter bewilderment of the citizens who do not know which way to turn.
¶ 96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 complere vias, sterni per agros: The historic infinitives complere and sterni, juxtaposed asyndetically, increase the pace of the narrative as the people take desperate action. complere implies a vast number of victims pouring into the streets, whereas sternere is another word often used in military contexts of ‘laying someone low’ or ‘razing cities.’ As John Henderson reminds us, in the human tragedy of the moment we ought not to forget the last pulsating throng that populated this very same cityscape but a chapter ago: struere … completa, 37.1, 3).
¶ 97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 quidam amissis omnibus fortunis, diurni quoque victus, alii caritate suorum, quos eripere nequiverant, quamvis patente effugio interiere: The sentence begins with a bipartite structure that in the end converges in a picture of death fraught with pathos. We get:
¶ 102 Leave a comment on paragraph 102 0 amissis omnibus fortunis (followed by the further specification in the genitive to stress their appalling plight: diurni quoque victus/ ‘even of the daily bread’ or ‘down to the last penny’)
¶ 108 Leave a comment on paragraph 108 0 Overall, the picture we end on is deeply moving – men refusing to abandon their loved ones even if they could not be saved. The final phrase quamvis patente effugio interiere is the most emotional as they refuse the option to save themselves. The last word īntĕrĭērē has a poetic rhythm (scanning like the fifth and sixth foot of a hexametric line), bringing the searing scene to a climax with death.
¶ 109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 38.7 nec quisquam defendere audebat, crebris multorum minis restinguere prohibentium, et quia alii palam faces iaciebant atque esse sibi auctorem vociferabantur, sive ut raptus licentius exercerent seu iussu.
¶ 110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 Tacitus now returns to the possibility that the fire began as arson; but again he refuses to take an unequivocal line. After the main sentence (nec … audebat), he again continues with two different constructions indicating cause: an ablative of cause (minis) and a quia-clause.
¶ 113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 et quia alii palam faces iaciebant atque esse sibi auctorem vociferabantur: Tacitus first stresses the shamelessness of these men with palam, before finishing his account of the fire as he began it – with suggestion of a sinister and deliberate hand behind this disaster. The unnamed auctorem (instigator, mastermind) lends an air of supernatural mystery and suspicion.
¶ 114 Leave a comment on paragraph 114 0 sive ut raptus licentius exercerent seu iussu: Tacitus concludes with an ‘alternative motivation’, pondering the reality of Nero’s hand in the whole disaster. He first mentions the possibility that looting was the cause (as it surely was to some extent), before adding the succinct, yet vague and ominous alternative seu iussu. The ablative of cause, rather than the purpose clause ut … exercerent, continues to linger in the mind.
¶ 116 Leave a comment on paragraph 116 0 39.1 Eo in tempore Nero Antii agens non ante in urbem regressus est quam domui eius, qua Palatium et Maecenatis hortos continuaverat, ignis propinquaret. neque tamen sisti potuit quin et Palatium et domus et cuncta circum haurirentur.
¶ 117 Leave a comment on paragraph 117 0 After his protestations of devotion to the city in chapter 36, it is not to Nero’s credit that he is not in Rome at the time of the fire but staying in his luxury villa at Antium. As we saw earlier (15.23), Antium was the town of Nero’s birth. While it does perhaps support the idea that Nero was not responsible for the fire, his nonchalance contrasts sharply with the efforts of his predecessors. Apart from the passages cited above, see also Suetonius, Claudius 18.1: Cum Aemiliana pertinacius arderent, in diribitorio duabus noctibus mansit ac deficiente militum ac familiarum turba auxilio plebem per magistratus ex omnibus vicis convocavit ac positis ante se cum pecunia fiscis ad subveniendum hortatus est, repraesentans pro opera dignam cuique mercedem (‘On the occasion of a stubborn fire in the Aemiliana he remained in the Diribitorium for two nights, and when a body of soldiers and of his own slaves could not give sufficient help, he summoned the commons from all parts of the city through the magistrates, and placing bags full of money before them, urged them to the rescue, paying each man on the spot a suitable reward for his services’). Nor does it do Nero credit, especially after his great claims of patriotism, that he only returned when his own property (domui eius) was threatened. The emphatic position of non ante stresses that this was the only thing that motivated his return, and the delayed subject ignis propinquaret suggests he waited for the last possible minute.
¶ 118 Leave a comment on paragraph 118 0 qua Palatium et Maecenatis hortos continuaverat: This is the so-called Domus Transitoria: cf. Suetonius, Nero 31.1: Non in alia re tamen damnosior quam in aedificando domum a Palatio Esquilias usque fecit, quam primo transitoriam, mox incendio absumptam restitutamque auream nominavit (‘There was nothing however in which he was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage, but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House’). Nero’s palace lay between the site of the traditional imperial residence, Augustus’ house on the Palatine (whence our word ‘palace’) and the great gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill, which he left to Augustus. The verb continuaverat exaggerates the scale of Nero’s immense crosstown palace – but also skewers Nero’s own hubristic wit in dubbing it ‘Passageway.’
¶ 119 Leave a comment on paragraph 119 0 neque tamen sisti potuit quin et Palatium et domus et cuncta circum haurirentur: The emphatically placed neque tamen underlines again the impossibility of controlling the blaze, and the repetition of Palatium and domus from the previous sentence emphasises that nothing could be saved. The polysyndeton et … et … et … and the alliterative cuncta circum both help to underscore the total devastation of the fire.
¶ 120 Leave a comment on paragraph 120 0 39.2 sed solacium populo exturbato ac profugo campum Martis ac monumenta Agrippae, hortos quin etiam suos patefecit et subitaria aedificia extruxit quae multitudinem inopem acciperent; subvectaque utensilia ab Ostia et propinquis municipiis pretiumque frumenti minutum usque ad ternos nummos.
¶ 121 Leave a comment on paragraph 121 0 The subject of patefecit and extruxit is Nero. patefecit takes three accusative objects, in a climactic tricolon: campum Martis, monumenta Agrippae, and hortos suos. (First we hit a public area of the city, then the building of one of Nero’s ancestors, finally his own gardens.) solacium (also in the accusative) stands in apposition to all three.
¶ 122 Leave a comment on paragraph 122 0 sed solacium: Tacitus changes the tone, marked by the sed, from Nero’s selfishness and failure to stop the fire to his more noble efforts at relief. His account is balanced, especially when compared to other historians of the event, presenting Nero’s suspected arson in the same breath as his great energy in trying to help. What an actor! How to tell what’s real in Nero’s world?
¶ 123 Leave a comment on paragraph 123 0 populo exturbato ac profugo: Tacitus conveys the misery of the citizens with the powerful and strengthened adjective exturbato (‘frightened out of their mind’) and the fact that they are homeless refugees (profugo) in their own city. Given Tacitus’ investment in aligning the fire of Rome with the sack of Troy (following in the footsteps of Nero, as the end of this paragraph makes clear), the term profugus may also gesture to Virgil’s Aeneid and the most famous profugus in Roman history, Aeneas. See Aeneid 1.2, where Aeneas is introduced as fato profugus (‘exiled by fate’).
¶ 124 Leave a comment on paragraph 124 0 campum Martis: The ‘Plain of Mars’ had once been the mustering and training ground for soldiers just outside the boundaries of the old city walls. By this period, it was intensively developed, especially with imperial buildings such as the Pantheon and sporting facilities. It is usually referred to as the Campus Martius (see Map of Rome).
¶ 125 Leave a comment on paragraph 125 0 monumenta Agrippae: Agrippa, Augustus’ right-hand man, had orchestrated much of the building on the Campus Martius, including the Porticus Vipsania, the Pantheon and the so-called Baths of Agrippa.
¶ 129 Leave a comment on paragraph 129 0 pretiumque frumenti minutum usque ad ternos nummos: This is a significant step: emperors did not usually intervene to set a maximum price for corn as it damaged the ability of merchants to make profit, so this marks a real emergency. With the price of corn at the time at around five sesterces per modius (about 16 pints of dry corn), this is a significant reduction, stressed by usque ad (‘right the way down to’).
¶ 130 Leave a comment on paragraph 130 0 39.3 quae quamquam popularia in inritum cadebant, quia pervaserat rumor ipso tempore flagrantis urbis inisse eum domesticam scaenam et cecinisse Troianum excidium, praesentia mala vetustis cladibus adsimulantem.
¶ 133 Leave a comment on paragraph 133 0 pervaserat rumor: The rumour is personified as a force of its own, wandering around (pervaserat). The inversion of normal word order (verb + subject) adds emphasis to the power of this rumour and the extent of its spread. The pluperfect indicates that the damage had already been done.
¶ 134 Leave a comment on paragraph 134 0 rumor: Interestingly, it is again only Tacitus of the extant historians who reports that this was only a rumour: the others cheerfully record it as a fact. See Suetonius, Nero 38 and Dio 62.18.1, both cited above.
¶ 135 Leave a comment on paragraph 135 0 inisse eum domesticam scaenam et cecinisse Troianum excidium: An indirect statement dependent on rumor, with eum as subjective accusative and inisse and cecinisse as infinitives (note their front position and rhyme). This is where one of the most famous stories of Roman history comes from – Nero fiddling as Rome burns. Whatever its veracity (not counting the violin!), the plausibility of the rumour feeds on Nero’s notorious obsession with dramatic performances.
¶ 136 Leave a comment on paragraph 136 0 domesticam scaenam: This harks back to 15.33, where Tacitus reports on Nero’s desire to appear on stage before a larger public, in venues other than his house. This particular performance here, if it ever happened, took place within the confines of Nero’s palace. There are no eye-witnesses Tacitus can rely on. So he reports a rumour – true to life, in the case of most such catastrophes?
¶ 137 Leave a comment on paragraph 137 0 Troianum excidium: The sack of the mighty city of Troy (on the western seaboard of modern Turkey) by the Greeks was one of the defining events of ancient mythology, told at length (above all) by Virgil in Aeneid 2. Nero opts for the grandest possible comparandum and must hint at the Trojan origins of Rome.
¶ 138 Leave a comment on paragraph 138 0 praesentia mala vetustis cladibus adsimulantem: The fact that Nero himself compared the fire to a (in fact the) military sack helps Tacitus’ own subtle presentation of the fire as a battle. As our introduction to the section on the fire has tried to make clear, the rumour of Nero conflating in song Troy and Rome plays right into Tacitus’ hands, enabling him to represent Nero, the last scion of the Julio-Claudian imperial lineage, as the ‘anti-Augustus’ of the principate: what started at Troy and climaxed with Augustus (as chronicled by Virgil) comes to an end with Nero (as chronicled by Tacitus).
¶ 140 Leave a comment on paragraph 140 0 40.1 Sexto demum die apud imas Esquilias finis incendio factus, prorutis per immensum aedificiis ut continuae violentiae campus et velut vacuum caelum occurreret. necdum positus metus aut redierat plebi spes: rursum grassatus ignis, patulis magis urbis locis; eoque strages hominum minor, delubra deum et porticus amoenitati dicatae latius procidere.
¶ 141 Leave a comment on paragraph 141 0 sexto demum die: The fire lasted six days before it was extinguished. demum (‘at last’) suggests both the real length of the fire, and also how long the misery must have seemed.
¶ 143 Leave a comment on paragraph 143 0 finis incendio factus, prorutis per immensum aedificiis: The phrase finis incendio factus, with its alliterative paronomasia (finis ~ factus) and its sequence of light and dark vowels, including all five (i, i, i, e, i – o, a, u), conveys a (premature) sense of closure. Through the demolition of buildings and clearance of the rubble, the fire was deprived of fuel. prorutis … aedificiis is an ablative absolute. The emphatic adverbial phrase with preposition per immensum (‘over a vast area’) makes clear the enormous scale of the demolitions, which razed large sections of the city to the ground.
¶ 144 Leave a comment on paragraph 144 0 ut continuae violentiae [sc. ignium or incendii] campus et velut vacuum caelum occurreret: continuae violentiae is in the dative singular (with occurreret). The description of the city as a campus (‘plain’) suggests the utter eradication of buildings, as does the self-proclaimed hyperbole velut vacuum caelum, which evokes the desolation of the Roman skyline. (continua violentia recalls and replaces continuaverat, said of endless palace of Nero in 39.1.) Tacitus here mixes c– and v-alliteration (continuae, campus, caelum; violentiae, velut, vacuum), but does so indiscriminately across the two themes of ‘conflagration’ and ‘counter-measures.’ The emphatic position of continuae violentiae also conveys the constant threat of the fire.
¶ 145 Leave a comment on paragraph 145 0 necdum positus [sc. erat] metus aut redierat plebi spes: The text is corrupt here, and based on conjecture. Some editors prefer to read levis instead of plebi. It seems reasonably certain, however, that we are dealing with the expression of the same thought in two opposite ways (‘still fear, no hope’), in each case with the verb coming first. The sentence stresses the despair that prevailed in the populace, with the elusive spes placed emphatically at the end.
¶ 146 Leave a comment on paragraph 146 0 rursum grassatus [sc. est] ignis patulis magis urbis locis: The verb (grassatus), once more placed first, is a very strong and evocative one, again personifying the fire in dramatic fashion: its basic meaning is ‘to press on, march, advance’, but it can also refer to brigands prowling around in the search for victims and carries connotations of lawlessness and violence. An inscription to commemorate the fire says VRBS PER NOVEM DIES ARSIT NERONIANIS TEMPORIBVS (‘the city burned for nine days in Neronian times’). If the first fire was six days in duration, this implies the second blaze lasted three days. After finis, prorutis, and aedificiis, we now get five words in a row ending in –is: a striking series of thudding homoioteleuta. patulis … locis is an ablative of place: this time it is the more open areas rather than the congested parts which burn.
¶ 147 Leave a comment on paragraph 147 0 eoque strages hominum minor [sc. erat]: The –que links grassatus [est] and [erat]. eo is an ablative of the measure of difference (‘to the extent to which’) that helps to coordinate the two comparatives minor and latius. The more open areas enabled people to avoid the flames better. The strong word strages (‘slaughter’, ‘carnage’) reminds us of the damage done by the first conflagration; and given the number of casualties then, the fact that the second fire cost fewer lives is only a qualified relief.
¶ 148 Leave a comment on paragraph 148 0 delubra deum et porticus amoenitati dicatae latius procidere: Buildings remained vulnerable, and here Tacitus stresses the importance and beauty of those that fell victim to the flames in the second conflagration. The asyndetic juxtaposition of minor [erat] and latius procidere ensures that the bad news abruptly overpowers the good news, conveying the sense that the lower death-toll among the human population was amply compensated for by large-scale architectural damage (an impression reinforced by the length of the respective clauses). The alliterative delubra deum emphasises the ominous destruction of holy places, and is an epic (Ennian) phrase used in the awe-ful tableau of the last hours of Virgil’s Troy (Aeneid 2.248), in a passage strongly intertwined with Livy’s account of the fall of Veii (5.21.5, alluding to the same – Ennian – forerunner); and the description of the colonnades as amoenitati dicatae, with attention-drawing assonance, makes clear the beauty of the incinerated buildings. Note also the comparative adverb latius, presenting the destruction here as even worse than the one caused by the first fire. Finally, the verb procidere (an historic infinitive) once again evokes the power of the fire, and keeps the music going through to the final collapse (por– … dic– ~ pro-cid– …).
¶ 149 Leave a comment on paragraph 149 0 40.2 plusque infamiae id incendium habuit quia praediis Tigellini Aemilianis proruperat videbaturque Nero condendae urbis novae et cognomento suo appellandae gloriam quaerere. quippe in regiones quattuordecim Roma dividitur, quarum quattuor integrae manebant, tres solo tenus deiectae: septem reliquis pauca tectorum vestigia supererant, lacera et semusta.
¶ 150 Leave a comment on paragraph 150 0 plusque infamiae id incendium habuit: As Tacitus told us in Chapter 39, Nero attracted opprobrium because of the suspicion of arson in the first fire. Now he says there was more scandal. The comparative adverb plus, like latius before, conveys the escalation in destruction, both of the city and of Nero’s reputation.
¶ 152 Leave a comment on paragraph 152 0 quia praediis Tigellini Aemilianis proruperat: praedium (‘estate’, ‘land’) is not to be confused with the more common/ familiar praeda (‘booty’). praediis … Aemilianis is an ablative of origin: apparently the second fire broke out at an estate that belonged to Tigellinus, the very same Praetorian Prefect who just stage-managed Nero’s all-aboard floating orgy. The estate was probably located somewhere between the Campus Martius and the Capitol Hill, in the vicinity of what would become the Forum of Trajan.
¶ 153 Leave a comment on paragraph 153 0 videbaturque Nero condendae urbis novae et cognomento suo appellandae gloriam quaerere: The position of the verb videbatur straight after proruperat underscores how immediately the people leapt to conclusions and set the rumour mill spinning. Possibly, Nero or Tigellinus were responsible for the second fire, wanting to clear space for full-scale rebuilding. But it is equally possible that embers from a six-day blaze flared up again, and people acted without evidence on their desire to attribute blame, coming up with the rumour that all this was the emperor’s doing. The chiastic arrangement of condendae urbis novae et cognomento suo appellandae, with the gerundives emphatic on the outside, exaggerates the shocking aims Nero was rumoured to have had. Suetonius, Nero 50, tells us that Nero intended to call the new city he wished to build Neropolis: a Greek name, and therefore yet another suggestion of Nero’s Greek obsession. (Tacitus is careful not to mention the name, nor to report this as anything more than a rumour.)
¶ 154 Leave a comment on paragraph 154 0 gloriam quaerere: The implications of gloria are insidious: it is a quality that derives first and foremost from military conquest, and thus feeds into the latent characterization of the fire as a hostile army sacking Rome – with Nero as mastermind and general. Perversely, gloria here derives not from the triumph over a foreign enemy and the return to Rome with the spoils of victory, but death and destruction of his own capital. There is also unmistakable irony in Tacitus’ use of gloria here: Nero desires glory for a re-foundation of the capital in his name, but what he acquires is notoriety for arson and hubris.
¶ 155 Leave a comment on paragraph 155 0 quippe in regiones quattuordecim Romam dividitur: The little word quippe introduces the final reckoning of the fire which Tacitus now gives, starting with a summary statement about the city: Augustus had divided Rome into fourteen administrative regions (see Map of Rome). Tacitus’ readers would of course not have needed a reminder about Rome’s administrative grid, especially since he already mentioned it at 14.12.2. And therefore many editors and commentators see this sentence as a marginal gloss by copyists that accidentally entered into the main text in the process of transmission. But one could turn this around if one reads 14.12.2 as an anticipation of the fire: there Tacitus reports that in AD 59 there were several eclipses of the sun and all fourteen administrative districts of Rome were hit by lightning (iam sol repente obscuratus et tactae de caelo quattuordecim urbis regiones). Since no disaster happened immediately Tacitus goes on to dismiss the idea that this striking coincidence was a genuine prodigy (i.e. a meaningful sign of advanced warning of pending disaster sent by the gods): quae adeo sine cura deum eveniebant, ut multos post ea annos Nero imperium et scelera continuaverit. By taking an oblique look back to 14.12.2 here, by means of repeating basic information about the administrative layout of the city, Tacitus almost asks his readers to re-assess his own earlier (already ironic, in view of the upcoming, if somewhat belated, fire?) evaluation of divine efficaciousness.
¶ 156 Leave a comment on paragraph 156 0 quattuor [sc. regiones] integrae manebant: It is not entirely certain which four districts are meant. Here is Miller: ‘these would be the districts farthest from the centre of the city and the fire, and would certainly include XIV (Transtiberina): as the fire stopped apud imas Esquilinas §1, V (Esquiliae) may have been another: the other possibilities are I (Porta Capena), VI (Alta Semita) and VII (Via Lata).’ Koestermann agrees on regio XIV Transtiberina, but disregards V Esquiliae and considers I Porta Capena, VI Alta Semita, and VII Via Lata as the other most likely candidates.
¶ 157 Leave a comment on paragraph 157 0 tres [sc. regiones] solo tenus deiectae [sc. erant]: tenus is a preposition that takes, and follows, the ablative (solo). Again, the districts in question are in dispute: ‘Of the three wholly destroyed, two must have been the 11th and 10th (Circus and Palatium), and the other is thought to have been the 3rd (Isis et Serapis, the Subura).’ Koestermann opts for regio XI Circus Maximus, X Palatium and IV Templum Pacis.
¶ 158 Leave a comment on paragraph 158 0 septem reliquis [sc. regionibus] pauca tectorum vestigia supererant, lacera et semusta: The systematic account of the destruction continues: the dramatic description of pauca vestigia being left paints the picture of the unrecognizable wreckage of buildings. The adjective lacer, –era, –erum, which means ‘mutilated’ or ‘mangled’ tends to be used of corpses and once more evokes the image of the city as a living being that fell victim to violent assault. Commentators draw attention to the fact that Tacitus here exaggerates. As he himself concedes later, the buildings on the Capitol remained intact and the Forum, too, was largely unaffected. See Annals 15.44.1 and 16.27. Even in the Campus Martius, buildings such as the Augustan portico of the Pantheon remained standing and, as Furneaux points out, ‘the theatre of Pompeius was used for the Neronia [in AD 65] immediately after the conspiracy.’
¶ 160 Leave a comment on paragraph 160 0 41.1 Domuum et insularum et templorum quae amissa sunt numerum inire haud promptum fuerit: sed vetustissima religione, quod Servius Tullius Lunae et magna ara fanumque quae praesenti Herculi Arcas Evander sacraverat, aedesque Statoris Iovis vota Romulo Numaeque regia et delubrum Vestae cum Penatibus populi Romani exusta; iam opes tot victoriis quaesitae et Graecarum artium decora, exim monumenta ingeniorum antiqua et incorrupta, ut quamvis in tanta resurgentis urbis pulchritudine multa seniores meminerint quae reparari nequibant.
¶ 161 Leave a comment on paragraph 161 0 Tacitus takes stock of the damage. A good passage to compare this with is Histories 3.72, where Tacitus had described the impact of a later fire on the Capitol, which wrought similar devastation on ancient buildings and heirlooms. (This fire occurred in AD 69 as the result of violence among troops during the chaos surrounding the fall of Vitellius.)
¶ 162 Leave a comment on paragraph 162 0 Id facinus post conditam urbem luctuosissimum foedissimumque rei publicae populi Romani accidit, nullo externo hoste, propitiis, si per mores nostros liceret, deis, sedem Iovis Optimi Maximi auspicato a maioribus pignus imperii conditam, quam non Porsenna dedita urbe neque Galli capta temerare potuissent, furore principum excindi. arserat et ante Capitolium civili bello, sed fraude privata: nunc palam obsessum, palam incensum, quibus armorum causis? quo tantae cladis pretio? stetit dum pro patria bellavimus. voverat Tarquinius Priscus rex bello Sabino, ieceratque fundamenta spe magis futurae magnitudinis quam quo modicae adhuc populi Romani res sufficerent. mox Servius Tullius sociorum studio, dein Tarquinius Superbus capta Suessa Pometia hostium spoliis exstruxere. sed gloria operis libertati reservata: pulsis regibus Horatius Pulvillus iterum consul dedicavit ea magnificentia quam immensae postea populi Romani opes ornarent potius quam augerent. isdem rursus vestigiis situm est, postquam interiecto quadringentorum quindecim annorum spatio L. Scipione C. Norbano consulibus flagraverat. curam victor Sulla suscepit, neque tamen dedicavit: hoc solum felicitati eius negatum. Lutatii Catuli nomen inter tanta Caesarum opera usque ad Vitellium mansit. ea tunc aedes cremabatur.
¶ 163 Leave a comment on paragraph 163 0 [This was the saddest and most shameful crime that the Roman state had ever suffered since its foundation. Rome had no foreign foe; the gods were ready to be propitious if our character had allowed; and yet the home of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, founded after due auspices by our ancestors as a pledge of empire, which neither Porsenna, when the city gave itself up to him, nor the Gauls when they captured it, could violate – this was the shrine that the mad fury of emperors destroyed! The Capitol had indeed been burned before in civil war, but the crime was that of private individuals. Now it was openly besieged, openly burned – and what were the causes that led to arms? What was the price paid for this great disaster? This temple stood intact so long as we fought for our country. King Tarquinius Priscus had vowed it in the war with the Sabines and had laid its foundations rather to match his hope of future greatness than in accordance with what the fortunes of the Roman people, still moderate, could supply. Later the building was begun by Servius Tullius with the enthusiastic help of Rome’s allies, and afterwards carried on by Tarquinius Superbus with the spoils taken from the enemy at the capture of Suessa Pometia. But the glory of completing the work was reserved for liberty: after the expulsion of the kings, Horatius Pulvillus in his second consulship dedicated it; and its magnificence was such that the enormous wealth of the Roman people acquired thereafter adorned rather than increased its splendour. The temple was built again on the same spot when after an interval of four hundred and fifteen years it had been burned in the consulship of Lucius Scipio and Gaius Norbanus. The victorious Sulla undertook the work, but still he did not dedicate it; that was the only thing that his good fortune was refused. Amid all the great works built by the Caesars the name of Lutatius Catulus kept its place down to Vitellius’ day. This was the temple that then was burned.]
¶ 163 Leave a comment on paragraph 163 0 domuum et insularum et templorum quae amissa sunt numerum inire haud promptum fuerit: The subject of the sentence is the infinitive inire, which governs the accusative numerum on which the genitive plurals domuum, insularum and templorum depend. (The relative pronoun quae, in the nominative neuter plural, corresponds grammatically to the closest of the nouns, i.e. templa, but clearly picks up all three.) The verb fuerit is in the perfect subjunctive, more specifically a ‘potential subjunctive of modest assertion.’ For the distinction between domus and insula, see Annals 6.45.1, also in the context of a fire (cited above). Cf. Suetonius, Nero 38.2: tunc praeter immensum numerum insularum domus priscorum ducum arserunt (‘at that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned’), who hands syntactical prominence to the aristocratic domus.
¶ 164 Leave a comment on paragraph 164 0 sed: The sed marks the contrast between the countless domus and insulae that fell victim to the flames, and the significant number of highly sacred temples and objects that perished – and which can be taken stock of, as Tacitus goes on to do.
¶ 165 Leave a comment on paragraph 165 0 sed vetustissima religione, quod Servius Tullius Lunae [sc. sacraverat], et magna ara fanumque, quae praesenti Herculi Arcas Evander sacraverat, aedesque Statoris Iovis vota Romulo Numaeque regia et delubrum Vestae cum Penatibus populi Romani exusta [sc. erant]: In the previous sentence Tacitus explained that he would not enter into an itemized accounting of ordinary buildings (including temples) that fell victim to the flames. But (sed), he now lists those temples of most venerable age and religious import that burnt down. vetustissima religione is an ablative of quality or characteristic modifying the understood subject templa; the main verb comes at the end: exusta, sc. sunt. In-between we get a list of the sacred sites that were destroyed:
¶ 170 Leave a comment on paragraph 170 0 The delayed and strengthened verb (ex-usta), right at the end of the huge list, stresses the total destruction of these sites and how all of them shared one common fate.
¶ 171 Leave a comment on paragraph 171 0 sed … et … -que … -que … -que … et …: Tacitus uses a prolonged polysyndeton in his enumeration of the buildings, which is well-balanced between et and –que and helps to generate a good sense of the large number of buildings that burnt down – an effect further enhanced by the sheer length of the sentence, and the variation in constructions and choice of words. To flesh out the special significance of the buildings under consideration Tacitus starts out with two relative clause (quod … Lunae; quae … sacraverat), then moves on to a perfect passive participle (vota Romulo), details one item without any further specification (Numae regia), and finishes with a prepositional phrase (cum penatibus populi Romani). To refer to holy sites, he piles up four different words, which are more or less synonymous with one another: templum (implied from the previous sentence), fanum, aedes, delubrum.
¶ 172 Leave a comment on paragraph 172 0 quod Servius Tullius Lunae [sc. sacraverat]: Servius Tullius was the sixth (and penultimate) king of Rome. This is the only place in which he is the founder of the temple of Luna on the Aventine, whereas other sources (Livy 1.45.2 and Dionysius Halicarnassus 4.26) have him as founder of the famous temple of Diana, also located on the Aventine. Since Diana was also goddess of the Moon, we may be dealing with a conflation of the two temples here. Koestermann prefers the alternative reading Lucinae (another name of Diana: see e.g. Catullus 34.13). Irrespective of the textual problem and the identity of the temple, it is apparent that Tacitus wishes to insist on the heavy toll taken on the most ancient and religious edifices, and in so doing to suggest the corruption of modern Rome and its fall from its ancient roots.
¶ 173 Leave a comment on paragraph 173 0 et magna ara fanumque, quae praesenti Herculi Arcas Evander sacraverat: The Ara Maxima, situated towards the north west of the Circus, was an ancient sanctuary dedicated to Hercules. Evander was a pre-historic/mythical hero who founded a settlement on the site of Rome after he came to Italy from Arcadia (hence Arcas) in Greece. He famously plays host to Aeneas in Aeneid 8. Virgil and other sources recount that Evander dedicated the altar after Hercules slew Cacus, the monster-in-residence at the future site of Rome. Again, the extreme antiquity of this shrine (which predates even the foundation of Rome) emphasises the loss.
¶ 174 Leave a comment on paragraph 174 0 aedes Statoris Iovis vota Romulo: Tacitus name-checks two of the greatest and most revered of figures: Jupiter, king of the gods, and the city’s founder Romulus. Romulus was said to have dedicated this temple to Jupiter after he stopped the Romans from fleeing during their war with the Sabines – hence the epithet Stator (‘the Stayer’). See, for instance, Livy 1.12.4–5. The temple stood in the Forum. Tacitus here arguably issues a subtle reminder of the indomitable military prowess of old, which in the inglorious present is literally burnt to cinders.
¶ 175 Leave a comment on paragraph 175 0 Numae regia: Numa, the second legendary king of Rome (way back in the eighth century BC), was especially famed for his religious devotion. His temple in the Forum was used as residence of Rome’s chief religious official, the pontifex maximus. It housed many sacred objects of great antiquity, such as the shields of the priesthood of the Salii.
¶ 177 Leave a comment on paragraph 177 0 iam opes tot victoriis quaesitae et Graecarum artium decora, exim monumenta ingeniorum antiqua et incorrupta [sc. exusta sunt], ut quamvis in tanta resurgentis urbis pulchritudine multa seniores meminerint quae reparari nequibant.
¶ 178 Leave a comment on paragraph 178 0 After a list of the shrines and temples (and the Penates) Tacitus proceeds to comment on the (again innumerable) objects that perished in the flames. The adverbs iam and exim, which give structure to the account, help to convey the seemingly endless list of items. The main sentence is designed as a tricolon: opes – decora – monumenta, the three subjects of the (elided) verb exusta sunt. But Tacitus, as is his wont, unsettles the design by linking the first and the second item with et and juxtaposing the first two (introduced by iam) and the last (introduced by exim) asyndetically.
¶ 179 Leave a comment on paragraph 179 0 opes tot victoriis quaesitae: The word opes (‘riches’; cf. English ‘opulence’) makes clear the preciousness of the spoils destroyed, whilst the glory of their acquisition is represented by victoriis – in contrast to Nero’s lavish use of riches and opulence, these were won in the proper Roman military manner.
¶ 180 Leave a comment on paragraph 180 0 Graecorum artium decora: decora refers to works of Greek art, which had been brought to Rome in the course of Rome’s conquest (and plunder) of the Greek world. In fact, Nero was among the most avid collectors. The use of the word decus, which can designate both social and aesthetic value (‘high esteem, honour, glory’ – ‘pleasing appearance, beauty, grace, splendour’) conveys the magnificence of the artefacts lost.
¶ 181 Leave a comment on paragraph 181 0 monumenta ingeniorum antiqua et incorrupta: Tacitus is referring to destroyed works of literature. Although Rome’s great Palatine Library was not damaged until its destruction in AD 363, many important texts may well have been burnt in temple records or private homes. The attributes antiqua et incorrupta contain an oblique and curious appraisal of the value of the works in question: Tacitus almost seems to be saying that these literary products were ancient and hence morally sound (i.e. untouched by the corruption that later set in), passing judgement on literary outputs in imperial times. The loss of this ancient, untainted literature is all the mere keenly felt given that his own times are no longer conducive to producing monumenta incorrupta. Alternatively, one could consider seeing here a rhetorical displacement of the attribute, with incorrupta modifying monumenta grammatically, but ingeniorum in terms of sense. The implications for Tacitus’ view on literary production in imperial Rome are the same.
¶ 182 Leave a comment on paragraph 182 0 ut quamvis in tanta resurgentis urbis pulchritudine multa seniores meminerint quae reparari nequibant: Tacitus admits that the new city built by Nero was full of beauty, made clear by tanta, which modifies, in hyperbaton, pulchritudine. The phrase in tanta … pulchritudine embraces the genitive resurgentis urbis, stressing the comprehensive beautification of the new Rome that rose after the conflagration. The vivid present participle resurgentis (lit. ‘rising again’) suggests that, even as the new beauty rose up, people realised the irreplaceable losses.
¶ 185 Leave a comment on paragraph 185 0 41.2 fuere qui adnotarent XIIII Kal. Sextiles principium incendii huius ortum [sc. esse] [sc. eo die], quo et Senones captam urbem inflammaverint. alii eo usque cura progressi sunt ut totidem annos mensesque et dies inter utraque incendia numerent.
¶ 186 Leave a comment on paragraph 186 0 fuere qui…: As so often, Tacitus reports what some people said and thought without endorsing it himself. Here, this takes the form of some rather contrived observations about ‘spooky’ coincidences and parallels – not the sort of things the highly rational Tacitus thinks important or sensible, but he does titillate his readers by including them, even as he makes quite clear his own view on the matter.
¶ 188 Leave a comment on paragraph 188 0 XIIII Kal. Sextiles: The Roman calendar had three marked days each month: the so-called ‘Kalends’ (always the first day of the month), ‘Nones’ (either the fifth or the seventh day of the month, depending on the number of days within), and ‘Ides’ (either the 13th or the 15th of the month, again depending on the number of days within). Dates that did not fall on the Kalends, Nones, or Ides (when the date would simply be ‘on the Kalends, or Nones, or Ides of [name of the month]’) were designated by looking forward to the next demarcation coming up and then counting backwards. This means that all the days in July after the Ides would be designated by looking ahead to the Kalends of August (1 August in our reckoning) and then counting backwards, and this is what is going on here. The day in question is (in our reckoning) 19 July, i.e. ante diem quartum decimum Kalendas Sextiles or, in the abbreviation Tacitus uses, XIIII Kal. Sextiles. There are fourteen days – quartum decimum = XIIII = XIV = 14 – since the Romans counted inclusively: both 19 July and 1 August contribute to the sum. In 8 BC, the Romans renamed Sextilis as Augustus (from which our August derives), but Tacitus pointedly ignores this re-branding.
¶ 189 Leave a comment on paragraph 189 0 quo et Senones captam urbem inflammaverint: The (Senonian) Gauls had captured and burned Rome in 390 BC on this same date. This is indeed a fascinating coincidence; but we must remember that there were a great number of fires in Rome, and that the dating of such earlier conflagrations may well have been both less than precise and open to a little massaging, way back in Rome’s history. The sack of Rome by the Gauls was remembered fearfully throughout Rome’s life as one of its lowest points, so the comparison here is an indication of how dire an event the Great Fire seemed to people. Notice how Tacitus stresses that the previous fire was during a military capture (captam), both reinforcing his imagery of the fire as an invading army and hinting further at the more inglorious causes attached to this modern fire (i.e. the emperor himself starting it – ‘then it was our great enemies, now it is our own leader!’). (Conversely, the coincidence could well be mustered as an argument against the suspicion that Nero played arsonist, at least of the first fire: would he have chosen a date that would inevitably have associated him with one of Rome’s worst enemies and nightmares?)
¶ 190 Leave a comment on paragraph 190 0 alii eo usque cura progressi sunt ut totidem annos mensesque et dies inter utraque incendia numerent: Miller has the following rather curious note here: ‘from 390 B.C. to A.D. 64 is (on Roman inclusive reckoning) 454 years: this can be expressed as 418 years, 418 months (34 years, 10 months) and 418 days (14 months). The calculation has about as much real significance as have attempts to express the names of, e.g., Napoleon or Hitler in terms of the number of the Beast in Revelation 13,18, and Tacitus’ comment indicates his opinion of such activities’ – curious since there are compelling scholarly arguments that the number of the Beast in Revelation in fact signifies – Nero! Given the apocalyptic anticipations in the run-up to the year 2000 (are you old enough to remember the hysteria caused by the ‘Y2K bug’ and the ‘millennium doomwatch’?) or, more recently, the press coverage of the ancient Mayan calendar insofar as it predicted the end of the world on 21 December 2012, we are in a good position to appreciate the kind of anxieties caused by prophecies that circulated in Neronian Rome. Tacitus makes abundantly plain that he views this alleged coincidence as very contrived. The phrase eo usque, the strong verb progressi sunt (gone, advanced) and the result clause (ut…) all indicate that the men who made these calculations were stretching things rather. Nevertheless, he wants to include it as a potentially amusing little nugget of information (and perhaps a derisive comment on how far some people go on these occasions to make supernatural sense of things). Cf. Cassius Dio 62.18.3: ‘When some portents took place at this time, the seers declared that they meant destruction for him and they advised him to divert the evil upon others.’ John Henderson recommends reading this passage with Livy in mind: ‘Tacitus expects those who know the historian Livy’s account of the Gallic Sack to remember how (well) Camillus underlines the count of years – 365, yes indeed: a significant number under the new Julian calendar! – that the gods looked after Rome since the foundation by Romulus: far too much to throw away … (5.54.5: the religious arguments ‘moved them’ most to stay put in their ruins, 5.55.1!).’
Leave a comment on paragraph 192 0
A fictional comparandum occurs in the first chapter of J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: ‘The Other Minister’, where the British (Muggle) Prime Minister is held responsible by his political opponents for a series of catastrophes (some nasty murders, the collapse of a bridge, a hurriance, the dismal weather): they gloatingly explain ‘why each and every one of them was the government’s fault’.
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See the treatments by Paul (1982), who traces the literary topos and its thematic range back to Homer’s Iliad and explores its subsequent career in ‘tragic’ historiography, and Ziolkowski (1993), who looks into the specifically Roman spin on it.
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Fans of J. K. Rowling’s Harry-Potter saga may wish to compare Tacitus’ passage with the ‘Fiendfyre’ that rages through the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 31: ‘The Battle of Hogwarts’: ‘It was not normal fire..: as they turned a corner the flames chased them as though they were alive, sentient, intent upon killing them. Now the fire was mutating, forming a gigantic pack of fiery beasts… .’
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See Suetonius, Caesar 6, citing from Caesar’s funeral speech for his aunt Julia, delivered in 68 BC (i.e. two year after Virgil’s birth): ‘The family of my aunt Julia is descended by her mother from the kings, and on her father’s side is akin to the immortal Gods; for the Marcii Reges (her mother’s family name) go back to Ancus Marcius, and the Julii, the family of which ours is a branch, to Venus.’
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See further Kraus (1994). Cicero, at de Lege Agraria 2.96, also mentions that Rome’s roads ‘are none of the best’ and its side-streets ‘of the narrowest’.