The fire of Rome

Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome can be divided as follows:

38: The outbreak of the fire and its devastation of the city

39: Nero’s return to Rome and his counter-measures

40: Control of the initial conflagration and a new outbreak

41: Assessment of the damages

The fire is the last big event in Tacitus’ account of AD 64 (Annals 15.33–47). The remainder of Book 15 (Chapters 48–74) covers the conspiracy of Piso in AD 65, which developed in part as a reaction to the rumour that Nero himself was responsible for setting the city on fire. Here is what Subrius Flavius, one of the conspiractors, allegedly said to Nero just before his execution (Annals 15.67):

‘oderam te’, inquit. ‘nec quisquam tibi fidelior militum fuit, dum amari meruisti: odisse coepi, postquam parricida matris et uxoris, auriga et histrio et incendiarius extitisti.’

[He said: ‘I hated you. No one of the soldiers was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you after you became the murder of your mother and your wife, a charioteer and actor, and an arsonist.’]

To come to terms with Tacitus’ account of the fire, it will be useful to begin by establishing some background, which we will do under the following four headings: (a) Emperors and fires in the Annals; (b) Other accounts of the Neronian fire; (c) Tacitus’ creative engagement with the urbs-capta motif; (d) Nero’s assimilation of the fire of Rome to the fall of Troy.

(a) Emperors and fires in the Annals

Tacitus mentions other significant fires elsewhere in his Annals; they had been a staple item in the city of Rome’s annual records from the year dot: but now Tacitus makes sure each time to comment on the fact that the event shaped the relation between the emperor and his subjects. These passages provide telling foils and benchmarks for the way Nero dealt with the challenge. Here is Annals 4.64 on events from AD 27 that occurred right after that collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidena (see above on 15.34.2):

Nondum ea clades exoleverat cum ignis violentia urbem ultra solitum adfecit, deusto monte Caelio; feralemque annum ferebant et ominibus adversis susceptum principi consilium absentiae, qui mos vulgo, fortuita ad culpam trahentes, ni Caesar obviam isset tribuendo pecunias ex modo detrimenti. actaeque ei grates apud senatum ab inlustribus famaque apud populum, quia sine ambitione aut proximorum precibus ignotos etiam et ultro accitos munificentia iuverat.

[The disaster had not yet faded from memory, when a fierce outbreak of fire affected the city to an unusual degree by burning down the Caelian Hill. ‘It was a fatal year, and the decision of the princeps to absent himself had been adopted despite evil omens’ – so men began to remark, converting, as is the habit of the crowd, the fortuitous into the culpable, when the Caesar checked the critics by a distribution of money in proportion to loss sustained. Thanks were returned to him; in the senate, by the noble; among the people, by a rise in his popularity: for without respect of persons, and without the intercession of relatives, he had aided with his liberality even unknown sufferers whom he had himself encouraged to apply.]

Tacitus here records a telling dynamic that also informs – mutatis mutandis – the Neronian fire. The people of Rome, he reports, are wont to ascribe responsibility for disasters to their leader, whom they charge with disregarding crucial pieces of supernatural intelligence that – so the assumption – could have averted the catastrophes if properly heeded. Tacitus, adopting the stance of enlightened and skeptical historiographer, mocks the people for positing causalities where there are none. Yet at the same time, both he (and the emperor) realize that these popular delusions about causal relationships between political and religious leadership on the one hand and general well-being or, conversely, suffering on the other are very real in their consequences. If the groundswell of negative opinion intensified, it could destabilize the political order, lead to riots, and cause a regime change (or at least a swap on top).7 Tiberius achieves a mood-swing through some swift and decisive action: a well-orchestrated, public show of concern, combined with material generosity towards all and sundry. These measures are so effective that his popularity ratings rise again. Catastrophes, then, put leaders under pressure, not least in the court of public opinion: they can either be deemed to have risen to the challenge or to have failed to meet it. Tiberius proved adept in his crisis-management. He pulled off a similar stunt towards the end of his reign. Here is Annals 6.45.1–2 (AD 36, the year before his death):

Idem annus gravi igne urbem adfecit, deusta parte circi quae Aventino contigua, ipsoque Aventino; quod damnum Caesar ad gloriam vertit exsolutis domuum et insularum pretiis. miliens sestertium in munificentia ea conlocatum, tanto acceptius in vulgum, quanto modicus privatis aedificationibus...

[The same year saw the capital visited by a serious fire, the part of the Circus adjoining the Aventine being burnt down along with the Aventine itself: a disaster which the Caesar converted to his own glory by paying the full value of the mansions and tenement-blocks destroyed. One hundred million sesterces were invested in this act of munificence, the more acceptably to the multitude as he showed restraint in building on his own behalf...]

For future reference, more specifically Tacitus’ account of the new palace that rose from the ashes of Nero’s burnt-down Rome, what is important here is the distinction between personal and public investment on the part of the emperor. Tiberius gains the respect of his subjects for using his private purse for the public’s benefit, while putting severe checks on his architectural self-aggrandizement. This approach reflects commitment to a norm that dates back to the republic. As Cicero says at pro Murena 76: odit populus Romanus privatam luxuriam, publicam magnificentiam diligit (‘the Roman people loathe private luxury but they love public grandeur’).

(b) Other accounts of the Neronian fire

Just like Tiberius in AD 27, Nero was not actually in Rome when the fire broke out. He returned to the capital to fund and oversee the relief efforts, though perhaps not as quickly as he could or should have done, at least according to popular opinion. Yet somehow, the urban rumour arose (and stuck) that Nero actually ordered the conflagration. Tacitus, as we shall see, is rather guarded on the question as to whether Nero was the culprit. Most of our other surviving sources, however, blame Nero outright. Here is Suetonius (Nero 38):

Sed nec populo aut moenibus patriae pepercit. Dicente quodam in sermone communi: ‘ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μειχθήτω πυρί’, ‘Immo’, inquit, ‘ἐμοῦ ζῶντος,’ planeque ita fecit. nam quasi offensus deformitate veterum aedificiorum et angustiis flexurisque vicorum, incendit urbem tam palam, ut plerique consulares cubicularios eius cum stuppa taedaque in praediis suis deprehensos non attigerint, et quaedam horrea circum domum Auream, quorum spatium maxime desiderabat, ut bellicis machinis labefacta atque inflammata sint, quod saxeo muro constructa erant. Per sex dies septemque noctes ea clade saevitum est ad monumentorum bustorumque deversoria plebe compulsa. Tunc praeter immensum numerum insularum domus priscorum ducum arserunt hostilibus adhuc spoliis adornatae deorumque aedes ab regibus ac deinde Punicis et Gallicis bellis votae dedicataeque, et quidquid visendum atque memorabile ex antiquitate duraverat. Hoc incendium e turre Maecenatiana prospectans laetusque ‘flammae’, ut aiebat, ‘pulchritudine’ Halosin Ilii in illo suo scaenico habitu decantavit. Ac ne non hinc quoque quantum posset praedae et manubiarum invaderet, pollicitus cadaverum et ruderum gratuitam egestionem nemini ad reliquias rerum suarum adire permisit; conlationibusque non receptis modo verum et efflagitatis provincias privatorumque census prope exhausit.

[But he showed no greater mercy to the people or the walls of his capital. When someone in a general conversation said: ‘When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire’, he rejoined ‘No, rather while I live’, and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his servants although they caught them on their estates with tow and firebrands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in ‘the beauty of the flames’, he sang the whole of the ‘Sack of Ilium’, in his regular stage costume. Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.]

Unlike Suetonius, who specifies a pragmatic reason for setting the city on fire, Cassius Dio identifies sheer wanton destruction as Nero’s principal motivation (62.16–18):

16 1 After this Nero set his heart on accomplishing what had doubtless always been his desire, namely to make an end of the whole city and realm during his lifetime. 2 At all events, he, like others before him, used to call Priam wonderfully fortunate in that he had seen his country and his throne destroyed together. Accordingly he secretly sent out men who pretended to be drunk or engaged in other kinds of mischief, and caused them at first to set fire to one or two or even several buildings in different parts of the city, so that people were at their wits’ end, not being able to find any beginning of the trouble nor to put an end to it, though they constantly were aware of many strange sights and sounds. 3 For there was nothing to be seen but many fires, as in a camp, and nothing to be heard from the talk of the people except such exclamations as ‘This or that is afire’, ‘Where?’ ‘How did it happen?’ ‘Who kindled it?’ ‘Help?’ Extraordinary excitement laid hold on all the citizens in all parts of the city, and they ran about, some in one direction and some in another, as if distracted. 4 Here men while assisting their neighbours would learn that their own premises were afire; there others, before word reached them that their own houses had caught fire, would be told that they were destroyed. Those who were inside their houses would run out into the narrow streets thinking that they could save them from the outside, while people in the streets would rush into the dwellings in the hope of accomplishing something inside. 5 There was shouting and wailing without end, of children, women, men, and the aged all together, so that no one could see anything or understand what was said by reason of the smoke and the shouting; and for this reason some might be seen standing speechless, as if they were dumb. 6 Meanwhile many who were carrying out their goods and many, too, who were stealing the property of others, kept running into one another and falling over their burdens. It was not possible to go forward nor yet to stand still, but people pushed and were pushed in turn, upset others and were themselves upset. 7 Many were suffocated, many were trampled underfoot; in a word, no evil that can possibly happen to people in such a crisis failed to befall them. They could not even escape anywhere easily; and if anybody did save himself from the immediate danger, he would fall into another and perish.

17 1 Now this did not all take place on a single day, but it lasted for several days and nights alike. Many houses were destroyed for want of anyone to help save them, and many others were set on fire by the very men who came to lend assistance; for the soldiers, including the night watch, having an eye to plunder, instead of putting out fires, kindled new ones. 2 While such scenes were occurring at various points, a wind caught up the flames and carried them indiscriminately against all the buildings that were left. Consequently no one concerned himself any longer about goods or houses, but all the survivors, standing where they thought they were safe, gazed upon what appeared to be a number of scattered islands on fire or many cities all burning at the same time. 3 There was no longer any grieving over personal losses, but they lamented the public calamity, recalling how once before most of the city had been thus laid waste by the Gauls. 18 1 While the whole population was in this state of mind and many, crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, Nero ascended to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the lyre-player’s garb, he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself, though to the eyes of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome.

And Pliny the Elder, too, is convinced of Nero’s guilt (Natural History 17.5, in a discussion of hugely expensive nettle trees):

duraveruntque, quoniam et de longissimo aevo arborum diximus, ad Neronis principis incendia cultu virides iuvenesque, ni princeps ille adcelerasset etiam arborum mortem.

[... and they lasted – since we have already also spoken of the limits of longevity in trees – down to the Emperor Nero’s conflagration, thanks to careful tendance still verdant and vigorous, had not the emperor mentioned hastened the death even of trees.]

The author of the Octavia (a so-called fabula praetexta or ‘historical drama’ that features Nero’s unfortunate first wife as protagonist) also blames Nero, but connects the fire with his outrageous treatment of Octavia, which happened two years earlier in AD 62 (831–33, Nero speaking):

mox tecta flammis concidant urbis meis,

ignes ruinae noxium populum premant

turpisque egestas, saeva cum luctu fames.

[Next the city’s buildings must fall to flames set by me. Fire, ruined homes, sordid poverty, cruel starvation along with grief must crush this criminal populace.]

In the light of a tradition in which Nero is the culprit plain and simple, Tacitus’ strategy is rather more subtle. He refrains from fingering Nero outright, relying instead on insinuation and a bag of further rhetorical tricks to associate the emperor with rendering his people, already adrift in a moral morass, ‘Romeless’ through the physical destruction of the capital. The most conspicuous ploy concerns his manipulation of the so-called urbs-capta topos, to which our last two sections are dedicated.

(c) Tacitus’ creative engagement with the urbs-capta motif

The urbs-capta topos refers to the rhetorical representation of a city captured and destroyed by enemy forces.8 The Rhetorica ad Herennium, an anonymous handbook on rhetoric from the first century BC, uses the topos as one of his examples to illustrate ‘vivid description’ (4.39.51):9

Nam neminem vestrum fugit, Quirites, urbe capta quae miseriae consequi soleant: arma qui contra tulerunt statim crudelissime trucidantur; ceteri qui possunt per aetatem et vires laborem ferre rapiuntur in servitutem, qui non possunt vita privantur; uno denique atque eodem tempore domus hostili flagrat incendio, et quos natura aut voluntas necessitudine et benivolentia coniunxit distrahuntur; liberi partim e gremiis diripiuntur parentum, partim in sinu iugulantur, partim ante pedes constuprantur. Nemo, iudices, est qui possit satis rem consequi verbis nec efferre oratione magnitudinem calamitatis.

[For none of you, fellow citizens, fails to see what miseries usually follow upon the capture of a city. Those who have borne arms against the victors are instantly slain with extreme cruelty. Of the rest, those who by reason of youth and strength can endure hard labour are carried off into slavery, and those who cannot are deprived of life. In short, at one and the same time a house blazes up by the enemy’s torch, and they whom nature of free choice has joined in the bonds of kinship or of sympathy are dragged apart. Of the children, some are torn from their parents’ arms, others murdered on their parents’ bosom, still other violated at their parents’ feet. No one, men of the jury, can, by words, do justice to the deed, nor reproduce in language the magnitude of the disaster.]

And here is Quintilian’s take, Institutio Oratoria 8.3.67–69:10

Sic et urbium captarum crescit miseratio. Sine dubio enim qui dicit expugnatam esse civitatem complectitur omnia quaecumque talis fortuna recipit, sed in adfectus minus penetrat brevis hic velut nuntius. At si aperias haec, quae verbo uno inclusa erant, apparebunt effusae per domus ac templa flammae et ruentium tectorum fragor et ex diversis clamoribus unus quidam sonus, aliorum fuga incerta, alii extremo complexu suorum cohaerentes et infantium feminarumque ploratus et male usque in illum diem servati fato senes: tum illa profanorum sacrorumque direptio, efferentium praedas repetentiumque discursus, et acti ante suum quisque praedonem catenati, et conata retinere infantem suum mater, et sicubi maius lucrum est pugna inter victores. Licet enim haec omnia, ut dixi, complectatur ‘eversio’, minus est tamen totum dicere quam omnia.

[This too is how the pathos of a captured city can be enhanced. No doubt, simply to say ‘the city was stormed’ is to embrace everything implicit in such a disaster, but this brief communiqué, as it were, does not touch the emotions. If you expand everything which was implicit in the one word, there will come into view flames racing through houses and temples, the crash of falling roofs, the single sound made up of many cries, the blind flight of some, others clinging to their dear ones in a last embrace, shrieks of children and women, the old men whom an unkind fate has allowed to live to see this day; then will come the pillage of property, secular and sacred, the frenzied activity of plunderers carrying off their booty and going back for more, the prisoners driven in chains before their captors, the mother who tries to keep her child with her, and the victors fighting one another wherever the spoils are richer. ‘Sack of a city’ does, as I said, comprise all these things; but to state the whole is less than to state all the parts.]

The parallels between Quintilian’s recommendations in particular of how to speak about a city captured and Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome are remarkable: they underscore the highly rhetorical (and hence conventional) nature of such descriptions. But Tacitus gives this material an interesting and innovative twist: he turns the fire from an instrument into the primary agent of destruction. In his narrative, it becomes a personified force that assaults the city of Rome like an external foe, reducing it to ashes and causing the same kind of human suffering as an enemy army.11

(d) Nero’s assimilation of the fire of Rome to the fall of Troy

Now the archetype of ‘the captured city’ was none other than Troy, the sack of which stands behind the use of the motif – from Homer to Tacitus:12

Its diffusion is owed in large measure, I believe, to the popularity of the theme of the destruction of Troy. The popularity of that theme is attested by the various treatments of the Iliupersis [‘The Fall of Troy’] in poems of the Epic Cycle and by Stesichorus, who is credited with being the inspiration of the scene of Troy’s destruction on a Tabula Iliaca. Various scenes from the sack of Troy frequently appear on vase-paintings. Scenes from the sack appear on the walls of Pompeian houses... The continuing popularity of the theme is indicated by Petronius’ treatment of the Halosis Troiae [‘The Capture of Troy’] (Satyricon 89); the poem, it will be remembered, is inspired by a wall-painting. Its possible relationship to Nero’s Troica (Dio 62.29.1) need not be discussed here; Nero was, however, alleged to have sung of the Troianum excidium during the fire of Rome (Tac. Ann. 15.39). ... It is clear that the destruction of Troy and the resulting suffering and grief were firmly established as a literary and artistic theme.

Nero and Tacitus, then, stand in a tradition that stretches back to Homer – but for both the emperor and ‘his’ historiographer one account arguably surpasses all others in importance: that by Virgil in Aeneid 2. It assumes a special significance for both thematic and ideological reasons. As Richard Heinze remarks, ‘in the whole course of the narrative..., it is striking how deliberately Virgil emphasizes the burning of the city.’13 Austin observes that this thematic choice intertwines with issues in ideology by connecting the (unorthodox) emphasis on catastrophic conflagration during the sack to the apologetic subtext that runs through Aeneid 2: ‘traditionally it was only when they finally left Troy that the Greeks fired the city..., and Heinze suggests that Virgil may be following some Hellenistic source. But there is no reason why the innovation may not be Virgil’s own... And the stress laid upon the flames stresses also the uselessness of trying to serve Troy by remaining there.’14 Let us recall, after all, that we get Virgil’s account of the sack of Troy via his internal narrator Aeneas, who needs to justify why he abandoned his hometown in its greatest hour of need: the greater the destruction by fire, the less point there was for Aeneas to keep fighting, the less questionable his decision to turn tail. Within the plot of the Aeneid, of course, the phoenix fated to soar from the ashes of Troy is – Rome. The incineration of Troy in Book 2 is the radical point of departure of a teleological development that will see Rome founded as an alternative world-capital and in due course ascend to the status of Mediterranean top dog, ruling over a far-flung empire without end (or, in Jupiter’s words, a world-wide imperium sine fine: see Aeneid 1.279). The principal agent of this ‘transference of empire’ (translatio imperii) from Troy to Rome was none other than the eponymous hero of the epic, Aeneas – the founding figure, via his son Ascanius or Iulus, of the gens Julia, to which Caesar, Augustus, and Nero also belonged. The ‘Troy connection’ – more specifically descent from Aeneas and thus divinity – already played a key role in Julius Caesar’s self-promotion long before Virgil wrote the Aeneid.15 And Virgil and Augustus together ensured that Troy acquired a central place in the imagination of imperial Rome more broadly: many events in Virgil’s literary universe stand in creative, etiological dialogue with Augustan investment in Rome’s Trojan ancestry. One of the best examples, not least for its relevance to Nero, is the so-called Game of Troy.16 Its first, legenday celebration, so Virgil recounts in Aeneid 5, happened on Sicily during the funeral games for Aeneas’ father Anchises; and he concludes his lengthy description by anticipating the future history of the Game (Aeneid 5.596–602):

hunc morem cursus atque haec certamina primus

Ascanius, Longam muris cum cingeret Albam,

rettulit et priscos docuit celebrare Latinos,

quo puer ipse modo, secum quo Troia pubes;

Albani docuere suos; hinc maxima porro

accepit Roma et patrium servavit honorem;

Troiaque nunc pueri, Troianum dicitur agmen.

[This manner of horsemanship, these contests Ascanius first revived when he surrounded Alba Longa with walls, and taught the early Latins how to celebrate them in the same way he had done as a boy and with him the Trojan youth. The Albans taught their children; from them in turn mighty Rome received and preserved the ancestral institution; and today the boys are called ‘Troy’ and the troop ‘Trojan.’]

Augustus, we learn from Suetonius, was particularly keen to sustain the tradition of the Game, following in the footsteps of Caesar (see Suetonius, Caesar 39.2) (Augustus 43.2):

Sed et Troiae lusum edidit frequentissime maiorum minorumque puerorum, prisci decorique moris existimans clarae stirpis indolem sic notescere.

[Besides he gave frequent performances of the game of Troy by older and younger boys, thinking it a time-honoured and worthy custom for the flower of the nobility to become known in this way.]

And it continued to be celebrated by his successors as well. In fact, a Game of Troy organized by Claudius provides the context for Nero’s first appearance in Tacitus’ Annals (11.11.2):

sedente Claudio circensibus ludis, cum pueri nobiles equis ludicrum Troiae inirent interque eos Britannicus imperatore genitus et L. Domitius adoptione mox in imperium et cognomentum Neronis adscitus, favor plebis acrior in Domitium loco praesagii acceptus est.

[During the presence of Claudius at the Circensian Games, when a cavalcade of boys from the great families opened the mimic battle of Troy, among them being the emperor’s son Britannicus, and Lucius Domitius, – soon to be adopted as heir to the throne and to the designation of Nero, – the livelier applause given by the populace to Domitius was accepted as prophetic.]

For our purposes, however, it is crucial to note that genealogical and etiological connections between Troy and Rome do not amount to the identity of the two cities. In fact, in the course of the Aeneid Aeneas is forced to undergo the painful process of learning to turn his back on Troy (and the past) and to pursue Rome (and the future). He does not fully grasp this until about midway through the poem. Likewise, in the final meeting between Jupiter and Juno towards the end of Aeneid 12 up in cloud-cuckoo-land, Juno only agrees to desist from further opposing destiny once Jupiter has promised her that the Roman people will bear hardly any trace of Trojan cultural identity (such as speech or dress).17 All of this is unsurprising: in a story that turns world-historical losers (the Trojans) into world-historical winners (the Romans), difference and differentiation from the catastrophic origins are just as important as legitimizing continuities.

Against this background, what happens in Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome acquires a fascinating intertextual and ideological complexion. As other sources, Tacitus records (though without committing himself to the truth of the rumour) that Nero, when the spirit moved him to comment on the conflagration in verse, allegedly assimilated the fire of Rome to the fall of Troy (15.39): ... pervaserat rumor ipso tempore flagrantis urbis inisse eum domesticam scaenam et cecinisse Troianum excidium, praesentia mala vetustis cladibus adsimulantem (‘the rumour had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage, and, assimilating the ills of the present to the calamities of the past, had sung the Destruction of Troy’). If he did, Nero would have activated a tragic outlook on Rome’s prospects of eternity that contrasts sharply with the notion of an imperium sine fine. This outlook recalls, rather, Scipio Aemilianus Minor. Greek sources report the Roman general to have been stirred into a moment of tragic reflexivity after his sack of Carthage in 146 BC, when he apparently recited two verses from the Iliad, in which Hector recognizes the inevitability of the fall of Troy (6.448–49):

ἔσσεται ἦμαρ ὅτ’ ἄν ποτ’ ὀλώλῃ Ἴλιος ἱρὴ

καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς ἐϋμμελίω Πριάμοιο.

[The day shall come when sacred Ilios will perish and Priam and the people of Priam with goodly spear of ash.]

Scipio here both thinks backwards in time (to Troy) as well as forward (to Rome), in anticipating the same future for Rome that Troy (and Carthage) have already suffered: destruction.18 In so doing, he clearly identifies Troy and Rome, at least from the point of view of their ultimate destiny.

His (and Nero’s) assimilation of destruction of Rome to the destruction of Troy invokes a cyclical notion of history at variance with Virgilian teleology, the phoenix rising from the ashes being reduced to it. But whereas Scipio simply ponders the ephemeral nature of human achievement at the moment of his greatest triumph, Nero’s Trojan reminiscences, especially as represented by Tacitus in the Annals, are more specific. Nero undoes the achievement of his ancestors, in particular Augustus; under his reign the success story of Julio(-Claudian) Rome that Virgil celebrated in the Aeneid unravels; he destroys the Virgilian masterplot by reducing Rome to its origins: the ashes of Troy. And he sings about it. What Nero does in verse, Tacitus does in prose. By taking his inspiration from the emperor and casting the Neronian fire in terms of a city sacked in his own narrative, arguably in oblique dialogue with the ‘Fiendfyre’ of Aeneid 2, he positions himself as an ideological antipode to Virgil’s Aeneid. If in Virgil the fall of Troy heralds the beginning of Rome and the inauguration of a history that has its positive end in Caesar and Augustus, i.e. the beginning of the Julian dynasty, in Tacitus the fire of Rome under Nero turns into a negative end to history, in which the new foundation that emerged from the ashes of Troy and found its culmination in Augustan Rome is itself reduced to rubble by the last representative of the Julio-Claudian lineage.


7 A fictional comparandum occurs in the first chapter of J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: ‘The Other Minister’, where the British (Muggle) Prime Minister is held responsible by his political opponents for a series of catastrophes (some nasty murders, the collapse of a bridge, a hurriance, the dismal weather): they gloatingly explain ‘why each and every one of them was the government’s fault’.

8 See the treatments by Paul (1982), who traces the literary topos and its thematic range back to Homer’s Iliad and explores its subsequent career in ‘tragic’ historiography, and Ziolkowski (1993), who looks into the specifically Roman spin on it.

9 We cite the text and translation by H. Caplan in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1954).

10 We cite the text and translation by D. A. Russell in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

11 Fans of J. K. Rowling’s Harry-Potter saga may wish to compare Tacitus’ passage with the ‘Fiendfyre’ that rages through the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 31: ‘The Battle of Hogwarts’: ‘It was not normal fire..: as they turned a corner the flames chased them as though they were alive, sentient, intent upon killing them. Now the fire was mutating, forming a gigantic pack of fiery beasts... .’

12 Paul (1982) 147–48.

13 Heinze (1915/1993) 17. References to Troy engulfed in flames occur at Aeneid 2.311, 327, 329, 337, 353, 374, 431, 505, 566, 600, 632, 664, 705, 758, 764).

14 Austin (1964) 135. See now also the discussion by Rossi (2004), Chapter 1: ‘The Fall of Troy: Between Tradition and Genre’, esp. 24–30: ‘Flames’.

15 See Suetonius, Caesar 6, citing from Caesar’s funeral speech for his aunt Julia, delivered in 68 BC (i.e. two year after Virgil’s birth): ‘The family of my aunt Julia is descended by her mother from the kings, and on her father’s side is akin to the immortal Gods; for the Marcii Reges (her mother’s family name) go back to Ancus Marcius, and the Julii, the family of which ours is a branch, to Venus.’

16 The following is based on O’Gorman (2000) 162–75 (‘The Game of Troy’).

17 Virgil, Aeneid 12.791-842.

18 See O’Gorman (2000) 168–71 for possible affinities between Scipio and Nero (via Livy).