[1] Cēterum urbis quae domuī supererant nōn, ut post Gallica incendia, nūllā distīnctiōne nec passim ērēcta, sed dīmēnsīs vīcōrum ōrdinibus et lātīs viārum spatiīs cohibitaque aedificiōrum altitūdine ac patefactīs āreīs additīsque porticibus quae frontem īnsulārum prōtegerent. [2] eās porticūs Nerō suā pecūniā extructūrum pūrgātāsque āreās dominīs trāditūrum pollicitus est. addidit praemia prō cuiusque ōrdine et reī familiāris cōpiīs fīnīvitque tempus intrā quod effectīs domibus aut īnsulīs apīscerentur. [3] rūderī accipiendō Ōstiēnsēs palūdēs dēstinābat utique nāvēs quae frūmentum Tiberī subvectāssent onustae rudere dēcurrerent; aedificiaque ipsa certa suī parte sine trabibus saxō Gabīnō Albānōve solidārentur, quod is lapis ignibus impervius est; [4] iam aqua prīvātōrum licentia intercepta quō largior et plūribus locīs in pūblicum flueret, cūstōdēs; et subsidia reprimendīs ignibus in prōpatulō quisque habēret; nec commūniōne parietum, sed propriīs quaeque mūrīs ambīrentur. [5] eā ex ūtilitāte acceptā decōrem quoque novae urbī attulere. erant tamen quī crēderent veterem illam fōrmam salūbritātī magis condūxisse, quoniam angustiae itinerum et altitūdō tēctōrum nōn perinde sōlis vapōre perrumperentur: at nunc patulam lātitūdinem et nūlla umbra dēfēnsam graviōre aestū ārdēscere.



Tacitus frames this sentence with an initial and a final relative clause: urbis quae domui supererant – quae frontem insularum protegerent. In between he gives details on the architectual. . .  [full essay]

Study Questions


  • How does the design of dimensis vicorum ordinibus et latis viarum spatiis cohibitaque aedificiorum altitudine suggest the imposition of order?
  • Explain the mood of protegerent.


  • What construction is effectis domibus?


  • Explain the syntax of accipiendo.


  • Why is haberet subjunctive?


  • Explain the mood of perrumperentur.
  • Why is the infinitive ardescere used here?

Stylistic Appreciation:

In what ways does Tacitus make this passage a thought-provoking and ambivalent account of Nero’s attempts to improve the city?

Discussion Point:

Is Tacitus’ assessment of Nero’s building works fair? How does Nero’s programme of improvements compare to the approaches of other governments, in the modern day or through history, to catastrophes?

43.1 ceterum: This is the second chapter in a row that Tacitus begins with the adverb ceterum.

urbis quae domui supererant: The partitive genitive urbis depends on the elided ea. With the relative clause, Tacitus makes a savagely ironic comment on the inordinate size of Nero’s new palace – as if it left marginal space for reconstructing the rest of the city that had burned down. Koestermann thinks the phrase quae domui supererant is ‘suspicious’, but cites a two-line poem (a ‘distich’) transmitted by Suetonius, Nero 39.2 (Roma domus fiet: Veios migrate, Quirites, | si non et Veios occupat ista domus – ‘Rome is becoming one house; off with you to Veii, Quirites! If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well’) and Martial, Liber de Spectaculis 2.4 (cited above) as two other sources that crack the same joke.1 In further support, one could point to the fact that Tacitus concluded his stock-taking of the destruction wrought by the fire in Chapter 40 by using the same verb as here: septem reliquis pauca tectorum vestigia supererant, lacera et semusta. The lexical coincidence seems to intimate that the large-scale devastation inflicted on the cityscape by the fire are similar in kind to those inflicted by Nero’s palace.

ut post Gallica incendia: Another reference to the torching of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC. In Livy’s account (as we saw above), when the Gauls sacked Rome, a proposal to move Rome to the site of Veii was flattened by the re-founding hero Camillus with the rhetorical question (5.54):

Si fraude, si casu Veiis incendium ortum sit, ventoque ut fieri potest, diffusa flamma magnam partem urbis absumat, Fidenas inde aut Gabios aliamve quam urbem quaesituri sumus quo transmigremus?

[If by crime or chance a fire should break out at Veii, and that the wind should spread the flames, as may easily happen, until they consume a great part of the city – are we to quit it, and seek out Fidenae, or Gabii, or any other town you like, and migrate there?]

nulla distinctione nec passim erecta: Livy tells us that, after the Gauls, the city was rebuilt in a rushed and haphazard way (5.55):

... promisce urbs aedificari coepta. tegula publice praebita est; saxi materiaeque caedendae unde quisque vellet ius factum, praedibus acceptis eo anno aedificia perfecturos. festinatio curam exemit uicos dirigendi, dum omisso sui alienique discrimine in vacuo aedificant...

[... people began in a random fashion to rebuild the city. Tiles were supplied at public expense, and everybody was granted the right to quarry stone and to hew timber where he liked, after giving security for the completion of the structures within that year. In their haste men were careless about making the streets straight and, paying no attention to their own and others’ rights, built on the vacant spaces...]

In Tacitus, the emphatic nulla and the vivid passim (‘all over the place’) evoke the weaving, irregular streets that resulted.

latis viarum spatiis: Remember the narrowness of the streets before, mentioned in Chapter 38 as a cause of the fire’s rapid progress and one of the reasons for the high death toll. Nero’s vision is for wide boulevards.

porticibus: Colonnades to walk and talk in. Here, the stone colonnades also have the extra advantage of protecting the jerry-built blocks of flats from fire, from passing traffic and from the sun.

quae frontem insularum protegerent: The subjunctive in the relative clause expresses purpose. Cf. Suetonius, Nero 16.1: Formam aedificiorum urbis novam excogitavit et ut ante insulas ac domos porticus essent, de quarum solariis incendia arcerentur; easque sumptu suo exstruxit (‘He devised a new form of buildings of the city and in front of the houses and apartments he erected porches, from the flat roofs of which fires could be fought; and these he put up at his own cost’).

43.2 eas porticus Nero sua pecunia extructurum purgatasque areas dominis traditurum pollicitus est: The subject is Nero, the verb is pollicitus est, which introduces an indirect statement. The subject accusative (se, i.e. Nero) is only implied. Tacitus does not say that Nero did do these things, only that he promised. We never find out if he delivered on this promise. But Suetonius (Nero 16.1: see above), too, reports that Nero built the colonnades at his own expense. In addition, he took on the expense of clearing away the rubble, so that those who lost their property in the fire had a clean construction site on which to rebuild their houses.

addidit praemia pro cuiusque ordine et rei familiaris copiis finivitque tempus intra quod effectis domibus aut insulis apiscerentur: Nero also provided financial support for the rebuilding effort, correlating the amount according to the rank (pro ... ordine) and wealth (pro ... rei familiaris copiis) of each individual (cuiusque); he also specified a deadline by which the reconstruction had to be completed if the owners wished to cash in on the reward-scheme. The house-owners are the subject of the deponent verb apiscerentur; its (implied) accusative object is ea (= praemia). effectis domibus aut insulis is an ablative absolute. Despite the fact that landlords received a sum of money on timely completion of houses or flats which complied with the regulations, the rebuilding nevertheless proceeded slowly, as Suetonius notes in his biography of Vespasian (8.5): Deformis urbs veteribus incendiis ac ruinis erat; vacuas areas occupare et aedificare, si possessores cessarent, cuiusque permisit (‘As the city was unsightly from former fires and fallen buildings, he allowed anyone to take possession of vacant sites and build upon them, in case the owners failed to do so’).

43.3 ruderi accipiendo Ostienses paludes destinabat utique...: This verb has two objects, connected by the -que after uti: the accusative Ostienses paludes; and the uti-clause. Nero and his advisers came up with a smart scheme, by which the boats that brought corn up the Tiber returned loaded with rubble, to be deposited at Ostia, where the Tiber reached the sea. On previous occasions, people apparently dumped the rubble straight into the Tiber, which caused blockages: see Suetonius, Augustus 30.1, cited above.

ruderi ... rudere: The position of this word (rubble) at the beginning and end of the sentence enacts the sense of the conveyer-belt system Nero is trying to achieve.

subvectassent: The syncopated form of subvectavissent.

aedificiaque ipsa certa sui parte sine trabibus saxo Gabino Albanove solidarentur: The Latin reflects the building blocks under discussion: aedificia ipsacerta sui partesine trabibussaxo Gabino Albanove + the verb that indicates the aims and objectives of the effort: solidarentur.

aedificia ipsa: The ipsa helps to stress Nero’s attention to detail in the reconstruction of the city.

certa sui parte: sui refers back to aedificia. The lower part of the buildings was to be made out of stone only.

saxo Gabino Albanove: An instrumental ablative. Its position next to sine trabibus helps to emphasise the replacement of wooden beams with fire-proof rock. Gabian rock was quarried in Gabii, ten miles east of Rome; Alban rock came from the shores of the Alban Lake, 15 miles south-east of Rome.

quod is lapis ignibus impervius est: These types of rock were of volcanic origin and hence known for their fire-resistant qualities. But, as Miller points out, ‘they are also rough and not very decorative: hence the regulation to ensure their use.’2

43.4 aqua privatorum licentia intercepta: Tacitus begins with the problem – irresponsible citizens diverting Rome’s water supply for their own use (often only for ornamental fountains). The prominent position of aqua (a long way from its verb flueret) stresses the need to address this problem; and the pejorative licentia (an ablative of cause) heaps condemnation on the Romans who thieve from their fellows.

privatorum ... in publicum: The contrast between private and public also dominated Tacitus’ account of Nero’s Domus Aurea. It is almost as if the emperor here seems to make some amends for his own encroachment of civic space by stopping the private theft of public resources.

custodes: Nero’s arrangements here build on the public administration of a vital resource (water) first put into place by Augustus.3 Nero’s custodians were meant to patrol the aqueducts to ensure individuals could not siphon water off for themselves.

subsidia reprimendis ignibus: A remarkably modern, ‘health and safety’-style idea.

quisque haberet ... quaeque ... ambirentur: The quisque and the quaeque (which refers back to aedificia) emphasise the attempt to achieve universal fire protection.

nec communione parietum, sed propriis quaeque muris: There is classic Tacitean variatio at play here: firstly in the two different words for wall (parietum ... muris); and secondly in the change of construction from ‘noun + genitive’ to ‘noun + adjective attribute.’ This not only keeps the narrative from becoming monotonous, but also enacts the change of the regulations itself. Clearly detached houses are much less conducive to the spread of fire than semi-detached buildings. As Koestermann points out, already the 12 Tables (Rome’s most ancient code of law) specified a distance of 2.5 feet between housing blocks (insulae).4

45.5 ea ex utilitate accepta decorem quoque novae urbi attulere: attulere = attulerunt. The pronoun ea (nominative neuter plural) sums up the measures Nero put in place. Motivated in the first place by utilitarian considerations, they also (quoque) helped to beautify the city. decus is a very positive word, implying glory and achievement as well as purely aesthetic qualities. In addition, novae urbi gives a flavour of what post-conflagration Rome must have looked like, a city renewed, with a different outlook than before.

erant tamen qui...: Even after such a positive passage on Nero’s work, Tacitus reports the comments of some more sceptical voices (although, as usual, he refrains from indicating whether he shares their opinion). This finish to the chapter helps to convey Nero’s unpopularity: even when he did well, there were plenty of critics. Miller, following Koestermann, notes that ‘there always are such people: and they sometimes (as here) have a point.’5 Perhaps, though the open streets, even if affording less shade, may well have been healthier in terms of preventing disease and ensuring a supply of fresh air. (Contrast Livy’s affectionate nostalgia for the rabbit warren of Rome as shoved up after the Gallic wipe-out, above.)

qui crederent: The subjunctive in the relative clause is generic.

angustiae itinerum et altitudo tectorum: Tacitus had occasion to mention the (notorious) narrowness of the Roman streets in Chapter 38 as one of the key causes of the fire’s rapid spread. So one wonders whether he is making a point here about Nero’s no-win position and the intractability of some of his critics. You may reflect on how sensitive the handling of disasters such as the New Orleans floods has proved for the standing of American presidents.

non perinde solis vapore perrumperentur: perrumperentur is in the (oblique) subjunctive: this is not Tacitus’ own explanation but the argument of the critics who exaggerate the power of the sun’s rays so as to be able to harp about the new layout of the city. Put differently, this sentence does not mean ‘since the narrowness of the streets etc. were not so easily penetrated’, but ‘since they argued that the narrowness of the streets etc. were not so easily penetrated.’ This subtlety keeps the historian at an arm’s length from the comments of these men.

solis vapore: A metaphorical expression for ‘the heat of the sun’ – Tacitus here stays within the idiom used by Nero’s critics.

patulam latitudinem et nulla umbra defensam graviore aestu ardescere: Tacitus continues to reproduce the exaggerated language of the critics: note the metonymic expression patula latitudo, picking out for emphasis the offending feature of the new streets (they are broad and open); the hyperbole in nulla umbra; the powerful phrase graviore aestu; the almost-military idea of defensam; and the emphatic metaphor in ardescere. At Annals 4.67.2 Tacitus calls the volcano Vesuvius a mons ardescens. The verb also ominously recalls the fire and anticipates the burning of the Christians.


1 Koestermann (1968) 248.

2 Miller (1973) 95.

3 Eck (2009) 238–39.

4 Koestermann (1968) 251.

5 Miller (1973) 95.

Gallicus, -a, -um: of the Gauls

distinctio, -onis, f.: demarcation

erigo, -ere, -rexi, -rectum: I build

dimetior, -iri, -mensus sum: I measure out

vicus, -i, m.: street

cohibeo, -ere, -ui, -itum: I restrict

altitudo, -inis, f.: height

patefacio, -ere, -feci, -factum: I leave open

porticus, -us, f.: colonnade

protego, -ere, -texi, -tectum: I protect

purgo, -are, -avi, -atum: I clear

pro (+ abl.): (here) according to

rei familiaris copiae, -arum, f.pl. personal wealth

finio, -ire, -ivi, -itum: I prescribe, define

apiscor, -i, aptus sum: I obtain

rudus, -eris, n.: rubble

Ostienses paludes, -um, : f.pl. the marshes of Ostia

destino, -are, -avi, -atum: I assign

Tiberis, -is, m.: river Tiber

subvecto, -are, -avi, -atum: I carry up

onustus, -a, -um: loaded with

trabes, -is, f.: wooden beam

solido, -are, -avi, -atum: I reinforce, support

lapis, -is, m.: stone

impervius, -a, -um: resistant to

licentia, -ae, f.: unrestrained behaviour

largior, -ius: (here) ‘in greater abundance’

in publicum: for public use

subsidium, -ii, n.: means, equipment

reprimo, -ere, -pressi, -pressum: I stop, extinguish

propatulum, -i, n.: an accessible position

communio, -onis, f.: sharing

paries, -etis, m.: party-wall

proprius, -a, -um: one’s own

ambio, -ire, -ivi, -itum: I encircle

utilitas, -atis, f.: usefulness

decor, -oris, m.: beauty

salubritas, -atis, f.: health

conduco, -ere, -duxi, -ductum: (here) I am conducive

angustiae, -arum, f.pl.: narrowness

perinde: so much, so readily

vapor, -oris, m.: heat

patulus, -a, -um: open

latitudo, -inis, f.: wide space

aestus, -us, m.: heat

ardesco, -ere, arsi: I burn, grow hot

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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/15-43