edited by Mathew Owen and Ingo Gildenhard
Annals 15.44 Essay
haec refers back to the measures covered in the previous chapters. In addition to efforts that relied on human skill and ingenuity, Nero and his advisers looked into the perceived supernatural dimension of the fire. The Romans had the option of ascribing catastrophic events at least in part to the will of the gods, as an expression of their wrath with human failings in religious observance. In the aftermath of natural or military disasters, they therefore tried to figure out what had gone wrong and what they needed to do to make amends, to re-establish good relations with the divine sphere. The chapter is therefore replete with technical words from Roman ritual and cult: piacula, Sibyllae libri, supplicatum, propitiata, templum et simulacrum deae, sellisternia, pervigilia. The persistent use of perfect passives (petita, aditi, supplicatum, propitiata, perspersum, with sunt/est systematically elided except in the last item) conveys a sense of the formality characteristic of ritual proceedings – as does the pronounced p-consonance petita ... piacula ... supplicatum ... Proserpinae ... propitiata ... primum ... apud proximum ... templum ... perspersum ... pervigilia.
The clause introduced by sed brings out the tremendous effort Nero invested to make up for the loss of confidence in his reign caused by the fire and to combat the pernicious rumour that he was responsible for it – all to no avail. The sentence is designed as a scale, with the verb (decedebat) at the centre. On one side, we have three phrases that summarily rehearse Nero’s measures in the wake of the fire, in syntactical variation: ablative noun + adjective (ope humana), ablative noun + genitive singular (largitionibus principis), genitive plural + ablative noun (deum placamentis); on the other side, the simple noun (and subject of the sentence), i.e. infamia, which finds further elaboration in the quin-clause. The anaphora of non ... non... underlines the failure of the efforts, which cover the human sphere more generally (ope humana harks back to humanis consiliis in 44.1), the emperor (specifically the praemia mentioned in 43.2 and his other forms of aid), and the gods (the large-scale campaign of appeasement Tacitus just recounted). These were not sufficient to quell the rumours, and hence Nero decided on more drastic measures – he needed a scapegoat to detract attention from his own perceived culpability. For this purpose, the Christians came in handy: Christianity was spreading through the Roman empire at the time, with two of its founding figures, Peter and Paul, still active. Legend even had them perish in Nero’s persecution. The sect quickly acquired a foul reputation because of its secrecy and idiosyncratic rites, such as the holy communion, during which worshippers consumed the body and blood of Christ, which an uncomprehending public turned into lurid and slanderous charges of ritual infanticide and cannibalism. This is the earliest reference to Christians in Roman historiography.
Nero’s persecution set a dangerous precedent. Rives draws out the implications of this incident for the fate of Christians in imperial times: ‘This episode provided a very clear precedent that being a Christian was in itself enough to justify condemnation to death. Thereafter, if anyone came before a Roman governor with a charge that someone was a Christian, the governor would have been fully justified in following this precedent and condemning that person, provided that he or she did nothing to disprove the allegation.’ At the same time, ‘Roman officials nevertheless had considerable leeway in how they responded to particular situations.’