[1] Sequitur clādēs, forte an dolō prīncipis incertum (nam utrumque auctōrēs prōdidēre), sed omnibus quae huic urbī per violentiam ignium accidērunt gravior atque atrōcior. [2] initium in eā parte circī ortum quae Palātīnō Caeliōque montibus contigua est, ubi per tabernās, quibus id mercimōnium inerat quō flamma alitur, simul coeptus ignis et statim validus ac ventō citus longitūdinem circī corripuit. neque enim domus mūnīmentīs saeptae vel templa mūris cīncta aut quid aliud morae interiacēbat. [3] impetū pervagātum incendium plāna prīmum, deinde in ēdita adsurgēns et rūrsus īnferiōra populandō, antiit remedia vēlōcitāte malī et obnoxiā urbe artis itineribus hūcque et illūc flexīs atque ēnormibus vīcīs, quālīs vetus Rōma fuit. [4] ad hoc lāmenta paventium fēminārum, fessa aetāte aut rudis pueritiae, quīque sibi quīque aliīs cōnsulēbant, dum trahunt invalidōs aut opperiuntur, pars mōra, pars festīnāns, cūncta impediēbant. [5] et saepe dum in tergum respectant lateribus aut fronte circumveniēbantur, vel sī in proxima ēvāserant, illīs quoque ignī correptīs, etiam quae longinqua crēdiderant in eōdem cāsū reperiēbant. [6] postrēmō, quid vītārent quid peterent ambiguī, complēre viās, sternī per agrōs; quīdam āmissīs omnibus fortūnīs, diurnī quoque victūs, aliī cāritāte suōrum, quōs ēripere nequīverant, quamvīs patente effugiō interiēre. [7] nec quisquam dēfendere audēbat, crēbrīs multōrum minīs restinguere prohibentium, et quia aliī palam facēs iaciēbant atque esse sibi auctōrem vōciferābantur, sīve ut raptus licentius exercērent seu iussū.


Chapter 38 offers ‘a splendid study of the chaos produced by calamity, and of the human suffering involved.’1 Watch Tacitus keep his camera constantly on the. . . [full essay]

Study Questions


  • Parse prodidere.
  • What type of ablative is omnibus?


  • Comment on Tacitus’ selection of the word mercimonium.
  • State and explain the case of morae.


  • How is Tacitus’ use of verbs in this sentence particularly effective?


  • State and explain the case of rudis pueritiae.


  • Parse circumveniebantur.


  • Explain the mood of vitarent.


  • What type of dative is sibi?

Stylistic Appreciation:

How does Tacitus’ language in this chapter make the outbreak of the Great Fire both dramatic and moving?

Discussion Point:

Did Nero start the Fire? If not, is Tacitus right to raise the possibility he did? Does he want us to believe that Nero was behind it? Can you think of contemporary examples of ‘insinuation’ (maybe from journalism)?

38.1 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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

38.2 initium ... ortum [sc. est]: This is technically a tautology (‘the beginning began...’), and serves to give emphasis to the outbreak of the fire.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.’2

38.3 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.

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.

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).

populando: More military personification: this verb means ‘to plunder’ and is usually used of troops ravaging enemy land.

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.

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.

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.3

38.4 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.

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.

dum trahunt invalidos aut opperiuntur: trahunt and opperiuntur form another polar contrast.

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.

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.

38.5 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.

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.

38.6 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.

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: struerecompleta, 37.1, 3).

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:

Two subjects, juxtaposed asyndetically:

  • quidam
  • alii

Two ablatives, one an ablative absolute with causal force, the other an ablative of cause:

  • 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’)
  • caritate suorum, quos eripere nequiverant

Another, concessive ablative absolute that applies to both groups:

  • quamvis patente effugio

The main verb:

  • interiere

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.

38.7 defendere: The verb reinforces the impression that the fire acts like a hostile army bidding to sack the city.

(a) crebris (b) multorum (a) minis restinguere (b) prohibentium: The word-order is interlaced here: crebris goes with minis, multorum with prohibentium.

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.

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.


1 Miller (1975) 90.

2 Miller (1975) 88.

3 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’.

prodo, -ere, -didi, -ditum: (here) I record

circus, -i, m.: the Circus Maximus (Rome’s race track)

contiguus, -a, -um: adjoining to, next to

mercimonium, -ii, n.: wares

alo, -ere, alui, alitum: I feed, nourish

citus, -a, -um: swift

longitudo, -inis, f.: length

corripio, -ere, -ripui, -reptum: I seize, tear into

munimentum, -i, n.: solid defences

saeptus, -a, -um: fenced in

cinctus, -a, -um: surrounded

pervagor, -ari, -atus sum: I spread over, traverse

plana, -orum, n.pl.: the level ground

edita, -orum, n.pl.: higher areas

inferiora, -um, n.pl.: lower parts

populor, -ari, -atus sum: I ravage

anteeo, -ire, -ivi/ -ii, -itum: I outstrip

remedium, -ii, n.: (here) counter-measures

velocitas, -atis, f.: speed

obnoxius, -a, -um: vulnerable

artus, -a, -um: narrow

enormis, -e: irregular

vicus, -i, m.: street

lamentum, -i, n.: lamentation

paveo, -ere: I am frightened

rudis, -e: inexperienced, tender

opperior, -iri, oppertus sum: I wait for

evado, -ere, -vasi, -vasum: I escape

reperio, -ire, repperi, -rtum: I find

longinquus, -a, -um: remote

casus, -us, m.: (here) situation

ambiguus, -a, -um: uncertain

compleo, -ere, -plevi, -pletum: I fill

sternor, -i, stratus sum: I fling myself down

diurus, -a, -um: daily

victus, -us, m.: food

caritas, -atis, f.: love

nequeo, -ere, -ivi, -itum: I am unable

quamvis: although

pateo, -ere, -ui: I lie open

effugium, -ii, n.: escape

intereo, -ire, -ii, -itum: I die

mina, -ae, f.: threat

restinguo, -ere, -stinxi, -stinctum: I extinguish

fax, facis, f.: torch

auctor, -oris, m.: (here) authority

vociferor, -ari, -atus sum: I yell

raptus, -us, m.: looting

licenter: freely

exerceo, -ere, -ui, -itum: I carry out

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Suggested Citation

Mathew Owen and Ingo Gildenhard, Tacitus, Annals, 15.20–23, 33–45. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-78374-003-1. DCC edition, 2016. https://dcc.dickinson.edu/tacitus-annals/15-38