Latin Text, Study Aids with Vocabulary, and Commentary, by Mathew Owen and Ingo Gildenhard

(v) 38–41: The fire of Rome

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome can be divided as follows:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 38: The outbreak of the fire and its devastation of the city

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 39: Nero’s return to Rome and his counter-measures

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 40: Control of the initial conflagration and a new outbreak

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 41: Assessment of the damages

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.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 (a) Emperors and fires in the Annals

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).[1] 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’).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 (b) Other accounts of the Neronian fire