15.41

[1] Domuum et īnsulārum et templōrum quae āmissa sunt numerum inīre haud prōmptum fuerit: sed vetustissimā religiōne, quod Servius Tullius Lūnae et magna āra fānumque quae praesentī Herculī Arcas Evander sacrāverat, aedēsque Statōris Iovis vōtā Rōmulō Numaeque rēgia et dēlūbrum Vestae cum Penātibus populī Rōmānī exusta; iam opēs tot victōriīs quaesītae et Graecārum artium decora, exim monumenta ingeniōrum antīqua et incorrupta, ut quamvīs in tantā resurgentis urbis pulchritūdine multa seniōrēs meminerint quae reparārī nequībant. [2] fuēre quī adnotārent XIIIĪ Kal. Sextīlēs prīncipium incendiī huius ortum, quō et Sēnōnēs captam urbem īnflammāverint. āliī eō usque cūrā prōgressī sunt ut totidem annōs mēnsēsque et diēs inter utraque incendia numerent.

Essay

41.1

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. . . [full essay]

Study Questions

41.1:

  • numerum inire haud promptum fuerit: what do you think this suggests about the number of buildings destroyed?
  • What kind of ablative is vetustissima religione?
  • Pick out and briefly comment on the significance of two of the sacred sites mentioned by Tacitus.

41.2:

  • Explain the mood of adnotarent.
  • What type of clause is introduced by eo usque ... ut...?

Stylistic Appreciation:

How does Tacitus’ use of language in this passage invest his account of the fire’s destruction with drama and pathos?

Discussion Point:

Why does Tacitus select the monuments and works of art he does for mention in this chapter? What about them contributes to the sense of irreparable loss he is evoking? To what extent is the attitude of the seniores here recognizable? And of those who observed the rather contrived coincidences? Why do you think Tacitus includes this sort of bizarre observation in his history?

41.1 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.’1 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.

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.

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:2

  • [templum], quod Servius Tullius Lunae (or Lucinae) [sc. sacraverat]
  • magna ara fanumque, quae praesenti Herculi Arcas Evander sacraverat
  • aedes Statoris Iovis vota Romulo
  • Numae regia
  • delubrum Vestae cum penatibus populi Romani

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.

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.

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).3 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.

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.

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.

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.

delubrum Vestae cum Penatibus populi Romani: The temple of Vesta, a distinctive circular building in the Forum, was where the Vestal Virgins tended to their sacred flame, symbolising the hearth of the Roman family (but we are also reminded of Nero’s freak-out at Vesta’s Capitoline temple in 37.1). The Penates, the household gods of Rome, were also kept here: these were said to have been brought to Italy by Aeneas on his flight from Troy, so are once again items of the utmost antiquity and sanctity. The destruction of these items, saved from Troy’s fall but now ruined, is an extremely potent and ominous symbol of both the power of the fire and the reign of Nero. In placing a reference to the Penates last – the only object in a list of temples – Tacitus may even hint slyly at Nero’s performance of the ‘Sack of Troy’ during the fire: everyone of his readers would know where they originally came from. The effect is enhanced by the following sentence, where Tacitus switches into a generic lamentation about the number of ancient and venerable objects that burnt, through which the Penates retrospectively gain even greater profile and significance.

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.

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: opesdecoramonumenta, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

multa: Tacitus places the accusative object emphatically before the subject (seniores) to stress the enormity of the losses of ancient wonders.

quae reparari nequibant: Tacitus is explicit: although the new city was splendid, the likes of the great relics lost were never to be seen again.

41.2 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.

adnotarent: The subjunctive is generic. adnotarent introduces an indirect statement with principium as subject accusative and ortum [sc. esse] as verb.

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.

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?)

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’4 – curious since there are compelling scholarly arguments that the number of the Beast in Revelation in fact signifies – Nero!5 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!).’

cura: An ablative of cause.

Footnotes

1 Furneaux (1907) 368.

2 Miller (1973) 92 regards vetustissima religione as ‘a loosely attached abl. of attendant circumstances or quality.’ Cf. fessa aetate (38.4).

3 Koestermann (1968) 243.

4 Miller (1973) 93.

5 Klauck (2003).

insula, -ae, f.: block of flats

numerum ineo, -ire, -ii: I reach a number, count

promptus, -a, -um: easy

vetustus, -a, -um: old, ancient

religio, -onis, f.: holiness, sanctity

ara, -ae, f.: altar

fanum, -i, n.: shrine

Hercules, -is, m.: Hercules

Arcas, -adis: Arcadian (from Arcadia, region of Greece)

sacro, -are, -avi, -atum: I consecrate

Stator, -oris, m.: ‘the Stayer’ (a title of Jupiter)

voveo, -ere, vovi, votum: I vow, devote

Numa, -ae, m.: Numa (second king of Rome)

regia, -ae, f.: palace

delubrum, -i, n.: shrine

Penates, -ium, m.pl.: household gods

exuro, -ere, -ussi, -ustum: I burn

decus, -oris, n.: glory, pride

exim: then

monumentum, -i, n.: monument

ingenium, -ii, n.: (here) man of genius

incorruptus, -a, -um: undamaged

quamvis: although

pulchritudo, -inis, f.: beauty

resurgo, -ere, -surrexi, -surrectum: I recover, rise again

seniores, -um, m.pl.: older men

memini, -isse : I remember

reparo, -are, -avi, -atum: I restore

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

adnoto, -are, -avi, -atum: I notice

principium, -ii, n.: beginning

Senones, -um, m.pl.: the Senonian Gauls

inflammo, -are, -avi, -atum: I set fire to

cura, -ae, f.: study

totidem: the same number of

numero, -are, -avi, -atum: I count

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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/15-41