Annals 15.38 Essay

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 move across different groups, using different signifiers for this purpose: quique, alii, pars, quidam, multi etc. This creates a complex and kaleidoscopic picture, with constant and varied activity all over his canvass. Key themes include: (i) The variety of constructions, complex syntax and winding sentences, evoking confusion; (ii) Personification of the fire, especially presentation of it as an invading army; (iii) Snapshot, impressionistic looks at different groups here and there; (iv) Moments of pathos and human suffering; (v) Speed of narrative and the progression of the fire. The structure of the opening paragraph is:

38.1: Introduction and general significance

38.2: Outbreak and causes

38.3: Power of the flames

The first part of the sentence (from impetu to remedia) traces the path of the conflagration, marked by the sequence primum – deinde – rursus, and fizzing on through impetus-incendium-in-edita-inferiora. The subject is incendium. The two main verbs are pervagatum (sc. est) with plana as accusative object and antiit with remedia as accusative object. In between comes the present participle adsurgens linked by et with the gerund populando. The second part of the sentence (velocitate ... fuit) specifies the reasons why the fire could spread so quickly. Here Tacitus links an ablative of cause (velocitate mali) with an ablative absolute of causal force (obnoxia urbe), to which he attaches two further ablatives of cause (artis itineribus hucque et illuc flexisenormibus vicis).

38.4–7: The humans affected

38.4 With ad hoc, Tacitus moves from the physical destruction to the human cost.

38.5 The sentence begins with another conjunction, piling on more information about the panic. An arresting image follows: as people look behind them, the fire surrounds them to their front and side. The mention of all three directions (tergum ... lateribus ... fronte) in close succession, summarised by the verb circumveniebantur, depicts the fire all around these poor incinerated people.

38.7 Tacitus now returns to the possibility that the fire began as arson; but again he refuses to take an unequivocal line. After the main sentence (nec ... audebat), he again continues with two different constructions indicating cause: an ablative of cause (minis) and a quia-clause.