Eō in tempore Nerō Antiī agēns nōn ante in urbem regressus est quam domuī eius, quā Palātium et Maecēnātīs hortōs continuāverat, ignis propinquāret. neque tamen sistī potuit quīn et Palātium et domus et cūncta circum haurīrentur.  sed sōlācium populō exturbātō ac profugō campum Mārtis ac monumenta Agrippae, hortōs quīn etiam suōs patefēcit et subitāria aedificia extrūxit quae multitūdinem inopem acciperent; subvectāque ūtēnsilia ab Ōstiā et propinquīs mūnicipiīs pretiumque frūmentī minūtum usque ad ternōs nummōs.  quae quamquam populāria in inritum cadēbant, quia pervāserat rūmor ipsō tempore flagrantis urbis inīsse eum domesticam scaenam et cecinisse Troiānum excidium, praesentia mala vetustīs clādibus adsimulantem.
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. . .[full essay]
- What is the case of Antii?
- To what imperial residence does Tacitus refer here? What is the Palatium?
- Parse haurirentur and explain its mood.
- How does solacium fit into this sentence grammatically?
- What is Ostia?
- State and explain the case of ipso tempore.
- Parse adsimulantem. With which word is it agreeing in this sentence?
How does this passage present a fascinating account of Nero’s reaction to the Fire?
What are we to make of Tacitus’ sudden change of tack in his treatment of Nero? Is your picture of the emperor altered by this chapter? ‘Fiddling while Rome burns’ has become proverbial: is it fair that Nero should be best remembered in this context? What elements of Nero’s response to the fire are recognizable from modern disaster relief? Nero’s practical and popular relief measures failed to alter public perception of the emperor: why? Can you think of other historical or modern examples, in which practical relief measures and political campaigning became intertwined?
39.1 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.’
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.
39.2 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.
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?
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’).
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).
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.
multitudinem inopem: This simple phrase suggests both the number of the impoverished Romans (multitudinem) and their ruin (inopem).
subvectaque utensilia: The emphatic position of the verb subvecta suggests Nero’s speedy measures.
Ostia: The port of Ostia was located on the coast at the ‘gateway’ (‘ostium’) to the Tiber south west of Rome (see Map of Italy).
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’).
39.3 quae ... popularia: quae is a connecting relative pronoun (= ea); it modifies popularia, which is an adjective used as a noun (‘these popular measures’).
quamquam: In a main clause: ‘however’
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
1 On famine and food supply in ancient Rome see further Garnsey (1988).
ago, -ere, egi, actum: (here) I stay, spend time
Palatium, -ii, n.: Palatine Hill
Maecenatis horti, -orum, m.pl.: Gardens of Maecenas
continuo, -are, -avi, -atum : I connect
propinquo, -are, -avi, -atum: I approach
sisto, -ere, stiti, statum: I stop
haurio, -ire, hausi, haustum: I consume
solacium, -ii, n.: consolation, relief
exturbatus, -a, -um: driven out
profugus, -a, -um: homeless
monumentum, -i, n.: public building
quin etiam: and even
patefacio, -ere, -feci, -factum: I throw open
subitarius, -a, -um: makeshift, emergency
inops, -opis: destitute
extruo, -ere, -xi, -ctum: I put up
subveho, -ere, -vexi, -vectum: I carry up
utensilia, -ium, n.pl.: provisions
Ostia, -ae, f.: Ostia (Rome’s port)
propinquus, -a, -um: neighbouring
municipium, -ii, n.: town
minuo, -ere, -ui, -utum: I reduce
usque ad: right down to
terni, -ae, -a: three
nummus, -i, m.: sesterce (Roman coin)
in inritum: to no effect
pervado, -ere, -vasi, -vasum: I spread
flagro, -are, -avi, -atum: I blaze
domesticus, -a, -um: private, domestic
scaena, -ae, f.: stage
Troianus, -a, -um: of Troy
excidium, -ii, n.: destruction
vetustus, -a, -um: ancient
adsimulo, -are, -avi, -atum: I compare