Annals 15.43 Essay


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 principles that informed the rebuilding of Rome, revolving around the main verb: erecta [sc. sunt]. (The subject, which is also the antecedent of the first relative pronoun, i.e. ea, is elided.) Tacitus first lists two modes in which the city-planners (unlike their predecessors after similar catastrophes) did not proceed: nulla distinctione nec passim; then, in antithesis, he enumerates the principles that were applied, not least as precautionary measures against future fires:

  • dimensis vicorum ordinibus
  • latis viarum spatiis
  • cohibita aedificiorum altitudine
  • patefactis areis
  • additis porticibus

Tacitus’ verbal design emulates the layout of the new Rome: the adjectives or participles dimensis, latis, cohibita, patefactis, additis, which give a sense of careful planning and a desire to create a beautful city stand in stark contrast to nulla distinctione and passim before; they also all come first in their phrases. Likewise, the first three phrases dimensis vicorum ordinibus || latis viarum spatiis || cohibita aedificorum altitudine are of identical construction (ablative phrases sandwiching a genitive plural).


Tacitus now details measures undertaken by the emperor to relieve the stricken city. This was expected – it was the standard way to restore confidence among the population after the catastrophe. Apart from the instances of rapid response by Tiberius and Claudius cited above, see Suetonius, Augustus 30, who reports that Augustus gained renown by putting in place proactive measures and taking general care of intelligent town planning:

Spatium urbis in regiones vicosque divisit instituitque, ut illas annui magistratus sortito tuerentur, hos magistri e plebe cuiusque viciniae lecti. Adversus incendia excubias nocturnas vigilesque commentus est; ad coercendas inundationes alveum Tiberis laxavit ac repurgavit completum olim ruderibus et aedificiorum prolationibus coartatum. Quo autem facilius undique urbs adiretur, desumpta sibi Flaminia via Arimino tenus munienda reliquas triumphalibus viris ex manubiali pecunia sternendas distribuit.

[He divided the area of the city into regions and wards, arranging that the former should be under the charge of magistrates selected each year by lot, and the latter under ‘masters’ elected by the inhabitants of the respective neighourhoods. To guard against fires he devised a system of stations of night watchmen, and to control the floods he widened and cleared out the channel of the Tiber, which had for some time been filled with rubbish and narrowed by jutting buildings. Further, to make the approach to the city easier from every direction, he personally undertook to rebuild the Flaminian Road all the way to Ariminum, and assigned the rest of the highways to others who had been honoured with triumphs, asking them to use their prize-money in paving them.]

It would be interesting to compare the reaction of the Berlusconi government to the earthquake that flattened the Italian city of L’Aquila (in Abbruzzo) in April 2009 or the people of Japan to the 2011 tsunami. Tacitus, like other Roman historians, lets his emperor play one-man rescue team and take all plaudits and complaints as if he has no advisers behind him: for a while he suspends his ‘it’s all a[nother] big act’ rhetoric of suspicion.


Tacitus here enumerates three further measures undertaken by Nero for the benefit of the Roman citizens, as precautions against future fires. They are designed to ensure (a) a good supply of water; (b) means of fighting fires at the moment they break out; (c) measures to prevent fires from spreading. The syntax of this chapter still depends, in a loose way, on the destinabat of 43.3. Thus custodes could be taken either as a direct object (‘he designated guardians’) in parallel to Ostienses paludes or as the subject of an elliptical ut-clause in parallel to the uti-clause ([ut] custodes essent). custodes is preceded by a long purpose clause introduced by quo, but with the subject, i.e. aqua, which agrees with intercepta, placed in front for emphasis. Tacitus elides the ut in the two following clauses as well: et ... haberet; nec ... ambirentur.