Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]

This webpage reproduces a section of
The Annals


published in Vol. V
of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, 1937

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]

(Vol. V) Tacitus

Book XV (continued)

 p265  33 1 In the consulate of Gaius Laecanius and Marcus Licinius, a desire that grew every day sharper impelled Nero to appear regularly on the public stage — hitherto he had sung in his palace or his gardens at the Juvenile Games,​1 which now he began to scorn as thinly attended functions, too circumscribed for so ample a voice.​2 Not daring, however, to take the first step at Rome, he fixed upon Naples as a Greek city:​3 after so much preface, he reflected, he might cross into Achaia, win the glorious and time-hallowed crowns of song, and then, with heightened reputation, elicit the plaudits of his countrymen. Accordingly, a mob which had been collected from the town, together with spectators drawn by rumours of the event from the neighbouring colonies and municipalities, the suite which attends the emperor whether in compliment or upon various duties, and, in addition, a few maniples of soldiers, filled the Neapolitan theatre.

34 1 There an incident took place, sinister in the eyes of many, providential and a mark of divine favour in those of the sovereign; for, after the audience had left, the theatre, now empty, collapsed without injury to anyone. Therefore, celebrating in a set of verses his gratitude to Heaven, Nero — now bent on crossing the Adriatic — came to  p267 rest for the moment at Beneventum;​4 where a largely attended gladiatorial spectacle was being exhibited by Vatinius. Vatinius ranked among the foulest prodigies of that court; the product of a shoemaker's shop, endowed with a misshapen body and a scurrile wit, he had been adopted at the outset as a target for buffoonery; then, by calumniating every man of decency, he acquired a power which made him in influence, in wealth, and in capacity for harm, pre-eminent even among villains.5

35 1 But though Nero might attend his show, even in the midst of the diversions there was no armistice from crime; for in those very days Torquatus Silanus​6 was driven to die, because, not content with the nobility of the Junian house, he could point to the deified Augustus as his grandsire's grandsire. The accusers had orders to charge him with a prodigal munificence which left him no hope but in revolution, and to insist, further, that he had officials among his freedmen whom he styled his Masters of Letters, Petitions, and Accounts​7 — titles and rehearsals of the business of empire. Next, his confidential freedmen were arrested and removed; and Torquatus, finding his condemnation imminent, severed the arteries in his arms. There followed the usual speech from Nero, stating that, however guilty the defendant, however well founded his misgivings as to his defence, he should none the less have lived, if he had awaited the clemency of his judge.

36 1 Before long, giving up for the moment the idea of Greece (his reasons were a matter of doubt), he revisited the capital, his secret imaginations being now occupied with the eastern provinces,  p269 Egypt in particular. Then after asseverating by edict that his absence would not be for long, and that all departments of the state would remain as stable and prosperous as ever, he repaired to the Capitol in connection with his departure. There he performed his devotions; but, when he entered the temple of Vesta also, he began to quake in every limb, possibly from terror inspired by the deity, or possibly because the memory of his crimes never left him devoid of fear. He abandoned his project, therefore, with the excuse that all his interests weighed lighter with him than the love of his fatherland:— "He had seen the dejected looks of his countrymen: he could hear their whispered complaints against the long journey soon to be undertaken by one whose most limited excursions were insupportable to a people in the habit of drawing comfort under misfortune from the sight of their emperor. Consequently, as in private relation­ships the nearest pledges of affection were the dearest, so in public affairs the Roman people had the first call, and he must yield if it wished him to stay." These and similar professions were much to the taste of the populace with its passion for amusements and its dread of a shortage of cornº (always the chief preoccupation) in the event of his absence. The senate and high aristocracy were in doubt whether his cruelty was more formidable at a distance or at close quarters: in the upshot, as is inevitable in all great terrors, they believed the worse possibility to be the one which had become a fact.

37 1 He himself, to create the impression that no place gave him equal pleasure with Rome, began to serve banquets in the public places and to  p271 treat the entire city as his palace. In point of extravagance and notoriety, the most celebrated of the feasts was that arranged by Tigellinus; which I shall describe as a type, instead of narrating time and again the monotonous tale of prodigality. He constructed, then, a raft on the Pool of Agrippa,​8 and superimposed a banquet, to be set in motion by other craft acting as tugs. The vessels were gay with gold and ivory, and the oarsmen were catamites marshalled according to their ages and their libidinous attainments. He had collected birds and wild beasts from the ends of the earth, and marine animals from the ocean itself. On the quays of the lake stood brothels, filled with women of high rank; and, opposite, naked harlots met the view. First came obscene gestures and dances; then, as darkness advanced, the whole of the neighbouring grove, together with the dwelling-houses around, began to echo with song and to glitter with lights. Nero himself, defiled by every natural and unnatural lust had left no abomination in reserve with which to crown his vicious existence; except that, a few days later, he became, with the full rites of legitimate marriage, the wife of one of that herd of degenerates,​9 who bore the name of Pythagoras. The veil was drawn over the imperial head, witnesses were despatched to the scene; the dowry, the couch of wedded love, the nuptial torches, were there: everything, in fine, which night enshrouds even if a woman is the bride, was left open to the view.

38 1 There followed a disaster, whether due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign is uncertain — for each version has its sponsors​10 — but graver and more terrible than any other which has  p273 befallen this city by the ravages of fire. It took its rise in the part of the Circus touching the Palatine and Caelian Hills; where, among the shops packed with inflammable goods, the conflagration broke out, gathered strength in the same moment, and, impelled by the wind, swept the full length of the Circus: for there were neither mansions screened by boundary walls, nor temples surrounded by stone enclosures, nor obstructions of any description, to bar its progress. The flames, which in full career overran the level districts first, then shot up to the heights, and sank again to harry the lower parts, kept ahead of all remedial measures, the mischief travelling fast, and the town being an easy prey owing to the narrow, twisting lanes and formless streets typical of old Rome.​11 In addition, shrieking and terrified women; fugitives stricken or immature in years; men consulting their own safety or the safety of others, as they dragged the infirm along or paused to wait for them, combined by their dilatoriness or their haste to impede everything. Often, while they glanced back to the rear, they were attacked on the flanks or in front; or, if they had made their escape into a neighbouring quarter, that also was involved in the flames, and even districts which they had believed remote from danger were found to be in the same plight. At last, irresolute what to avoid or what to seek, they crowded into the roads or threw themselves down in the fields: some who had lost the whole of their means — their daily bread included — chose to die, though the way of escape was open, and were followed by others, through love for the relatives whom they had proved unable to rescue. None ventured to combat the fire, as there were  p275 reiterated threats from a large number of persons who forbade extinction, and others were openly throwing firebrands​12 and shouting that "they had their authority" — possibly in order to have a freer hand in looting, possibly from orders received.

39 1 Nero, who at the time was staying in Antium, did not return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the Gardens of Maecenas.​13 It proved impossible, however, to stop it from engulfing both the Palatine and the house and all their surroundings. Still, as a relief to the homeless and fugitive populace, he opened the Campus Martius, the buildings​14 of Agrippa, even his own Gardens, and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighbouring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces. Yet his measures, popular as their character might be, failed of their effect; for the report had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage,​15 and typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, had sung the destruction of Troy.

40 1 Only on the sixth day, was the conflagration brought to an end at the foot of the Esquiline, by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and  p277 opposing to the unabated fury of the flames a clear tract of ground and an open horizon. But fear had not yet been laid aside, nor had hope yet returned to the people, when the fire resumed its ravages; in the less congested parts of the city, however; so that, while the toll of human life was not so great, the destruction of temples and of porticoes dedicated to pleasure was on a wider scale. The second fire produced the greater scandal of the two, as it had broken out on Aemilian property​16 of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.​17 Rome, in fact, is divided into fourteen regions, of which four remained intact, while three were laid level with the ground: in the other seven nothing survived but a few dilapidated and half-burned relics of houses.18

41 1 It would not be easy to attempt an estimate of the private dwellings, tenement-blocks, and temples, which were lost; but the flames consumed, in their old-world sanctity, the temple dedicated to Luna by Servius Tullius, the great altar and chapel of the Arcadian Evander to the Present Hercules, the shrine of Jupiter Stator vowed by Romulus, the Palace of Numa, and the holy place of Vesta with the Penates of the Roman people.​19 To these must be added the precious trophies won upon so many fields, the glories of Greek art, and yet again the primitive and uncorrupted memorials of literary genius;​20 so that, despite the striking beauty of the  p279 rearisen city, the older generation recollects much that it proved impossible to replace. There were those who noted that the first outbreak of the fire took place on the nineteenth of July, the anniversary of the capture and burning of Rome by the Senones: others have pushed their researches so far as to resolve the interval between the two fires into equal numbers of years, of months, and of days.21

42 1 However, Nero turned to account the ruins of his fatherland by building a palace,​22 the marvels of which were to consist not so much in gems and gold, materials long familiar and vulgarized by luxury, as in fields and lakes and the air of solitude given by wooded ground alternating with clear tracts and open landscapes. The architects and engineers were Severus and Celer, who had the ingenuity and the courage to try the force of art even against the veto of nature and to fritter away the resources of a Caesar. They had undertaken to sink a navigable canal​23 running from Lake Avernus to the mouths of the Tiber along a desolate shore or through intervening hills; for the one district along the route moist enough to yield a supply of water is the Pomptine Marsh;​24 the rest being cliff and sand, which could be cut through, if at all, only by intolerable exertions for which no  p281 sufficient motive existed.​25 None the less, Nero, with his passion for the incredible, made an effort to tunnel the height nearest the Avernus, and some evidences of that futile ambition survive.

43 1 In the capital, however, the districts spared by the palace were rebuilt, not, as after the Gallic fire, indiscriminately and piecemeal, but in measured lines of streets, with broad thoroughfares, buildings of restricted height, and open spaces, while colonnades were added as a protection to the front of the tenement-blocks. These colonnades Nero offered to erect at his own expense, and also to hand over the building-sites, clear of rubbish, to the owners. He made a further offer of rewards, proportioned to the rank and resources of the various claimants, and fixed a term within which houses or blocks of tenement must be completed, if the bounty was to be secured. As the receptacle of the refuse he settled upon the Ostian Marshes, and gave orders that vessels which had carried grain up the Tiber must run down-stream laden with débris. The buildings themselves, to an extent definitely specified, were to be solid, untimbered structures of Gabine or Alban stone,​26 that particular stone being proof against fire. Again, there was to be a guard to ensure that the water-supply — intercepted by private lawlessness​a — should be available for public purposes in greater quantities and at more points; appliances for checking fire were to be kept by everyone in the open; there were to be no joint partitions between buildings, but each was to be surrounded by its own walls. These reforms, welcomed for their utility, were also beneficial to the appearance of the new capital. Still, there were  p283 those who held that the old form had been the more salubrious, as the narrow streets and high-built houses were not so easily penetrated by the rays of the sun; while now the broad expanses, with no protecting shadows, glowed under a more oppressive heat.

44 1 So far, the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the sea-shore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess. Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices,​27 whom the crowd styled Christians.​28 Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus,​29 and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast  p285 numbers​30 were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.​31 And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

45 1 Meanwhile, Italy had been laid waste for contributions of money; the provinces, the federate communities, and the so‑called free states, were ruined. The gods themselves formed part of the plunder, as the ravaged temples of the capital were drained of the gold dedicated in the triumphs or the vows, the prosperity or the fears, of the Roman nation at every epoch. But in Asia and Achaia, not offerings alone but the images of deity were being swept away, since Acratus and Carrinas Secundus had been despatched into the two provinces. The former was a freedman prepared for any enormity; the latter, as far as words went, was a master of Greek philosophy, but his character remained untinctured by the virtues. Seneca, it was rumoured, to divert the odium of sacrilege from  p287 himself, had asked leave to retire to a distant estate in the country, and, when it was not accorded, had feigned illness — a neuralgic affection, he said — and declined to leave his bedroom. Some have put it on record that, by the orders of Nero, poison had been prepared for him by one of his freedmen, Cleonicus by name; and that, owing either to the man's revelations or to his own alarms, it was avoided by Seneca, who supported life upon an extremely simple diet of field fruits and, if thirst was insistent, spring water.

46 1 About the same time, an attempted outbreak of the gladiators at the town of Praeneste​32 was quelled by the company of soldiers stationed as a guard upon the spot; not before the populace, allured and terrified as always by revolution, had turned its conversation to Spartacus​33 and the calamities of the past. Not long afterwards, news was received of a naval disaster. War was not the cause (for at no other time had peace been so completely undisturbed), but Nero had ordered the fleet to return to Campania​34 by a given date, no allowance being made for hazards of the sea. The helmsmen, therefore, in spite of a raging storm, stood out from Formiae; and, while attempting to round the promontory of Misenum, were driven by a south-west gale on to the beach at Cumae, losing a considerable number of triremes and smaller vessels in crowds.

47 1 At the close of the year, report was busy with portents heralding disaster to come — lightning-flashes in numbers never exceeded, a comet (a phenomenon to which Nero always made atonement in noble blood); two-headed embryos, human or of the other animals, thrown out in public or discovered  p289 in the sacrifices where it is the rule to kill pregnant victims. Again, in the territory of Placentia,​35 a calf was born close to the road with the head grown to a leg; and there followed an interpretation of the soothsayers, stating that another head was being prepared for the world; but it would be neither strong nor secret, as it had been repressed in the womb, and had been brought forth at the wayside.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 In his private theatre (XIV.15 init.).

2 "Celestial," according to his admirers (XVI.22); "weak and husky," according to Dio and Suetonius (LXI.20; Ner. 20). The Philostratean Nero, printed with Lucian, is more judicial:— Μευ. Ἡ φωνὴ δέ, Μουσώνιε, δι’ ἣν μουσομανεῖ . . ., πῶς ἔχει τῷ τυράννῳ; . . . Μουσ. Ἀλλ’ ἐκεῖνος γε, ὧ Μενέκρατες, οὔτε θαυμασίως ἔχει τοῦ φθέγματος οὔτε γελοίως κτλ.

3 The town was a foundation of the Chalcidian colony Cumae, and retained some of its Greek characteristics even into the Middle Ages.

4 In Samnium on the Appian Way, by which Nero was travelling to Brundisium.

5 Little else is known of him: see Hist. I.37, Dial. 11, D. Cass LXIII.15. His name was attached to a cheap and presumably grotesque type of calix (Juv. V.46; Mart. X.3, XIV.96).

6 XII.58 n.

7 See XI.29, with the notes, and XVI.8.

8 The exact site is not determined.

Thayer's Note: For an approximate location, see the article Stagnum Agrippae in Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

9 II.14 n.º

10 Those who survive follow the more sensational version (Suet. Ner. 38; D. Cass. LXII.16; Plin. H. N. XVII.1.5; [Sen.] Oct. 831 sqq.). There is obviously no possibility of deciding the question.

11 Similar descriptions are common. The town, in fact, was, as Livy puts it, "built promiscuously" after the Gallic disaster of 390 B.C. (V fin.), and the meanness of its appearance struck the Greeks forcibly (XL.5).

12 Suetonius is more circumstantial:— . . . incendit urbem, tam palam ut plerique consulares cubicularios eius, cum stuppa taedaque in praediis suis deprehensos, non attigerint (Ner. 38). Whatever the worth of the statements, it is clear that, if the town was fired deliberately, no particular secrecy was attempted: for there must have been a full moon on the night before the outbreak (July 17‑18).

13 On the Esquiline, and now imperial property. The house — domus transitoria (Suet. Ner. 31) — rose from its ashes as the Golden House; see chap. 42.

14 The great buildings erected by Agrippa, at the height of his power, in the Campus Martius — the Diribitorium, Diribitorium, Saepta Iulia, etc.

15 See the beginning of chap. 33. Suetonius and Dio give him more conspicuous eminences: the former, the Tower of Maecenas on the Esquiline; the latter, the palace-roof. The verses, if there is truth in the story, were doubtless from the Troica which Juvenal regarded as his crowning atrocity.

16 The exact site is uncertain.

17 The title contemplated was supposed to be Neronopolis (Suet. Ner. 55). Commodus, faced by a similar publish, decided with more originality for Colonia Commodiana.

18 Both the archaeological and the literary evidence show this assertion to be too sweeping.

19 The temple of Luna stood on the Aventine; the Ara Maxima and temple of Hercules, in the Forum Boarium; that of Jupiter Stator, the Regia, and the shrine of Vesta, on the northern side of the Palatine.

20 The natural inference, though direct evidence is lacking, is that the Palatine Library had suffered in the fire.

21 Rome was fired by the Gauls after Allia in 390 B.C., and the 454 years separating the two conflagrations may be resolved, though not exactly, into 418 years, 418 months, 418 days. The sentence, which had baffled Lipsius and succeeding editors, was explained in 1843 by Grotefend.

Thayer's Note: A good catch by my friend Jona Lendering of Livius — this arithmetic is wrong. There is no "Year 0", thus the difference spanning those dates is 453 years (418 years, 418 months, 60 days). It's nowhere as close as 454 years (418 years, 418 months, 425 days), but we need to stay honest, of course. We might also note that the starting date, "390 B.C.", is based on the Varronian chronology, which was by no means unanimous in Antiquity, and is probably off by four years or so. Jona suggests the commonly seen non-Varronian date for the Gaulish firing of Rome, 386 B.C., and proposes 414 years-months-days, which isn't a perfect fit either. None of these calculations takes into account the actual month and day of the two events. Tacitus himself hints that he thinks the whole business is jugglery, or as the French say, "tiré par les cheveux"; I agree.

22 The celebrated Domus Aurea, which moved the emperor to the admission that he "had begun to be housed like a human being." Its short-lived splendours are catalogued by Suetonius (Suet. Ner. 31): a modern monograph in Weege's Das Goldene Haus des Nero, 1913. It was demolished by Vespasian, and his Colosseum now occupies perhaps one-tenth of its area.

23 The lake could be made accessible from the Bay of Baiae by repairing the Julian Harbour (see XIV.5 n.). The canal was then to have been carried northwards to the Tiber by convict labour drawn from every quarter of the empire, the estimated length being 160 Roman miles (Suet. Ner. 31).

24 The water-logged, fever-ridden tract, some 30 miles long and from 6 to 11 broad, in S. Latium between the Volscian hills and the sea. The problem of its reclamation seems to have been definitely solved by Mussolini.

25 The object, apart from the draining of the Marshes was to enable the grain­ships to avoid 125 miles of open and dangerous coast.

26 Two kinds of the volcanic peperino of the Campagna — the latter quarried in the Alban hills, the former in the level between Tivoli and Frascati.

27 The charges bandied about in the next century were those always favoured in such cases: ritual murder, nameless abominations with extinguished lights, et hoc genus omne (Just. Mart. Apol. I.26, etc.).

28 About twenty years had elapsed since the name arose in Antioch (Acts xi.26). — For a clear statement of the main problems of this "Neronian persecution," the reader may be referred to Furneaux' Excursus (II2.416‑427).

29 The only mention in heathen Latin.

30 The expression, of course, may mean anything. Gibbon compared the terms applied by Livy to the 7,000 people involved in the Bacchanalian scandals — multitudinem ingentem, alterum iam populumº XXXIX.13), multa milia hominum (ib. 15).

31 Jewish "misanthropy" — which was proverbial — may have partly suggested the charge; though from a passage of Sulpicius Severus, almost certainly transcribed from the Histories (see vol. II p220 of this edition), it is evident that the gulf between Jew and Christian had been clearly recognized by the Roman high command in 70 A.D.

32 Palestrina. That the gladiators belonged to an imperial school (XI.35 n.) is shown by the presence of the military guard.

33 III.73 n.

34 The fleet was to return from Formiae (Mola di Gaëta), on the Latian coast to its base at Misenum.

35 Piacenza.

Thayer's Note:

a For some interesting details of how water fraud was perpetrated, see Frontinus, de Aquis, written about ten years before the Annals; especially II.110‑115.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 2 Apr 16