The great fire that started in Rome on 19 July 64 CE not only destroyed much of the city but also helped to bring down the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled the empire for nearly a century. Nero, who occupied the position of princeps (‘first citizen’) by virtue of being the great-great-grandson of Augustus, had destroyed all the other male members of the line by the time of the fire and had failed to father an heir. The dynasty’s future depended on a less than stable individual, and the fire made his prospects very much darker, especially when rumours began to spread that Nero had strummed his seven-stringed cithara and sung of the fall of Troy as the city burned, or that he had, for obscure reasons, started the blaze himself.
Up to that point, Nero had enjoyed fairly wide support, at least among the broad mass of Romans. The dynastic murders he ordered had alarmed the elite; the killing of his mother, Agrippina, with the help of a trick boat rigged to sink mid-journey, caused a bit of a stir. But the Senate accepted his pretext, that Agrippina had been plotting to overthrow the state, and declared a celebration of Nero’s deliverance. Rome was thriving and foreign enemies were at bay, so most senators chose not to trouble themselves over their princeps’ odd pastimes, such as singing before private audiences and racing chariots.
The fire, however, changed everything. Anthony Barrett, who has written several acclaimed studies of Julio-Claudians, invokes the parallel of the Chernobyl disaster, ‘a single event … so spectacularly disastrous that it proved fatal for the governing regime’. Nero never overcame the shame of the fire in his remaining four years in power. Indeed he has yet to overcome it: the image of the fatuous egotist playing the lyre (updated to a fiddle in the 17th century) while his city was consumed endures to this day.
Barrett’s central and most timely theme is the role of rumour and conspiracy theory in accelerating political change. Nero’s responsibility for the fire is supported by very slender evidence (I shall get to that), and as far as the lyre-strumming is concerned barely any evidence at all. But belief in his heedlessness or wanton destructiveness took hold with a rapidity that would impress QAnon followers today. The pressure became so intense that Nero felt compelled to find scapegoats, whom he subjected to crucifixion and immolation – in turn spawning a new rumour, one of the most consequential of all time, that he had martyred early Christians and perhaps even sent two apostles, Peter and Paul, to their deaths and subsequent sainthood.
The scale and intensity of the fire would be hard to overstate. It spread quickly from one of the shops adjoining the Circus Maximus to the Circus itself, the upper levels of which were largely made of wood. Soon it was raging up the Palatine, feeding on the homes of the wealthy, and on the Domus Transitoria, an elegant complex by means of which Nero was seeking to connect the Palatine to the Esquiline. News that his own project was threatened brought Nero to the scene; before this, according to Tacitus, he had been resting at Antium, on the coast, after planning, but then cancelling, various journeys abroad. By the time he arrived Romans were already dying in droves, cut off by the racing flames or trapped in the upper stories of apartment houses that offered no escape.
The blaze continued to rage for six days, then appeared to die out. But it sprang up again on the estate of Tigellinus, an important Nero supporter. Nero had by this time taken measures to aid the beleaguered Romans, among them opening up his own palaces to refugees and securing extra supplies of cheap grain. His concern for the city’s welfare couldn’t, according to Tacitus, quell public outrage – the image of the fiddling emperor had already taken hold.
Amid the conflagration, mysterious figures had been seen setting more fires and forbidding others to put them out, claiming that they were acting on the highest authority. Tacitus describes these arsonists in sinister tones; it’s clear we are meant to suspect that Nero dispatched them. Suetonius reports that the arsonists were also seen destroying stone buildings with battering rams and siege engines, creating the impression that Nero was trying to destroy his own city. Modern historians, however, have recognised in both reports the actions of the vigiles, Rome’s fire brigade, whose only hope of halting the blaze was to destroy buildings in its path and rob it of fuel. It was probably the breaks they created that finally stopped the fire, on its ninth day, after three of the city’s fourteen districts had been totally destroyed and seven others mostly destroyed. Only four remained untouched.
Nero strove to make good the losses of Roman citizens by taking charge of the clean-up and rebuilding. But he was criticised even for this: some said that the cartloads of ash and rubble were being hauled away to be sifted for treasure. The damage to the regime’s standing was enormous, as may be judged by a contemporary witness. Seneca the Younger, an insider at Nero’s court, was writing prolifically in the year the fire took place, producing the Moral Epistles and the less well-known Natural Questions, a philosophical meditation on natural science. Day to day events discussed in these works include a fire that destroyed much of Lugdunum (Lyon) and an earthquake in Campania. But Seneca never mentions the fire of Rome, the greatest calamity of his time. His silence must reflect the need to avoid public discussion of the event.
Had Seneca been more free to speak his mind, we would have a contemporary account of the fire, but as it is our major sources postdate it by decades. Tacitus, who may have been eight or nine when it happened, wrote about the fire in his Annals some fifty years later, at about the same time as his younger contemporary Suetonius. In the following century Dio Cassius gave his own version. Both he and Suetonius thought Nero entirely to blame; only Tacitus expresses uncertainty, while still casting Nero in an unfavourable light. Other, incidental references to the fire also point an accusing finger at Nero. Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History was composed in the 70s, wrote of some very long-lived lotus trees that survived nearly two centuries, ‘until the fires of princeps Nero’ – assigning Nero ownership if not agency. Then, in a snarky comment that may have come from Pliny, or may have been added by a later hand, the text claims that the lotuses would have lived much longer ‘had not that princeps hastened the death even of trees’.
Given the broad consensus of ancient writers, it’s noteworthy that modern scholars have largely sought to exculpate Nero. Barrett summarises the case made by the defence and adds a few points of his own. The night of 19 July had an almost full moon, the least propitious time for concealing an arson attack. The fire first sprang up close to the Palatine, where many of Nero’s own properties and building projects were located. Barrett also makes much of the emperor’s absence from Rome, at Antium, when the fire began. ‘His movements’ show him ‘reacting to circumstances, not dictating them’, Barrett writes, before concluding: ‘In academic writings at least, if not in the broad popular perception, Nero has been largely, and surely rightly, exonerated.’
Yet the issue of ‘movements’ can be read in a very different way, as demonstrated by Ted Champlin, the most prominent recent adherent of the Nero-as-arsonist theory. Noting the cancelled trips abroad and the sudden, inexplicable changes of plan, Champlin makes the case in Nero (2003) that he must at least have known what was coming. Nero’s stated reason for staying in Italy, according to Tacitus, was that the sight of the emperor had always offered Romans comfort when adversity struck – language that Champlin finds significant. It’s surprising that Barrett doesn’t engage with these arguments, though he does cite Champlin’s book in a footnote as a lone voice in dissent from the scholarly consensus.
Barrett and Champlin disagree on the meaning of a further piece of evidence, again recorded by Tacitus. In the year after the fire, a group of senators and soldiers conspired to assassinate Nero and replace him with a saner princeps; the plot was leaked, however, and Nero quashed it with a bloody purge. Among the conspirators interrogated and executed was Subrius Flavus, a high-ranking officer of the Praetorian Guard. In explaining the grounds for his betrayal, Subrius cited a list of Nero’s misdeeds, concluding with the worst of all: ‘You turned arsonist’ – words that Tacitus claims to be quoting verbatim. Champlin regards this testimony from a high-placed palace insider as trustworthy, while Barrett discounts it: ‘We are dealing here with the declaration of a man about to die … [Subrius] could have been happy to strike out at Nero with whatever weapon was handy.’ Either way, it’s clear that the charge of incendiarism was already widespread by 65 CE.
The crucial question is that of motive. Nero’s character and mind are exceedingly hard to penetrate, given the bizarre tales our sources record – who knows what desires the destruction of Rome might have fulfilled? These sources speak of his disgust with the crowding and squalor of Rome and his wish to remake the city from scratch, perhaps even to rename it Neropolis, after the fashion of the Hellenistic kings who founded Alexandria, Seleucia and Antiocheia. His pyromania may have been retrojected from what occurred after the fire, or what occurred may be taken as proof that the sources were right. Nero did indeed rebuild much of Rome according to his own design, and at the centre of the scorched city he raised an astonishing monument to his own arrogance and vanity, a huge complex he called the Domus Aurea or Golden House.
Barrett describes in detail this architectural wonder, the ruins of which are still being unearthed and interpreted. (Since subsequent emperors partly destroyed or built over the Domus, in an effort to move past the hubris it represented, much of the original structure is unrecoverable.) Its scale and cost were enormous. Nero reportedly shook down the provinces to pay for it and pillaged the sanctuaries of Greece for sculptures to place in its niches. More a country estate than a building, it covered as many as four hundred acres and included an artificial lake, gardens and parklands, fountains and watercourses, public baths, and an elegant shrine to the nymphs. In the main palace building, an octagonal room that formed the central dining space was surmounted by the first Roman dome, decorated with stars and planets and revolved on coasters to imitate the night sky. Painters unleashed an array of zoological fantasies on the palace walls; dubbed grottesche when rediscovered in the Renaissance, in a space that by then had become an underground ‘grotto’, their bizarre style gave rise to our ‘grotesque’.
At the entrance to the complex, Nero planned the most grotesque object of all, a bronze statue standing more than a hundred feet high, the colossus Neronis. This monstrosity was constructed by a Greek sculptor, Zenodorus, and wasn’t completed in Nero’s lifetime; it’s hard to know what it would have represented, had it not later been altered to depict Sol, the Sun god, becoming the colossus Solis.Pliny the Elder, who visited Zenodorus’ workshop, implies that the statue was cast in Nero’s own image, and if this is true, then the idea that Nero wanted to torch Rome and build a Neropolis begins to seem plausible. Pliny also reports that Nero exhibited a painting of himself on a canvas 120 feet high, in a public garden. It was struck by lightning soon after being displayed and went up in flames, which many must have regarded as poetic justice.
In the end, what matters for Barrett isn’t so much whether Nero started the fire as what it meant to Rome to believe that he had. The same is true of Nero’s alleged persecution, in the fire’s aftermath, of the people whom Tacitus (or someone impersonating him) called Chrestiani – probably the most famous misspelling, and the most disputed passage, in all ancient literature. As Barrett estimates, this short passage in Chapter 44 of Annals Book 15, ‘fewer than one hundred words in length, has prompted several books and perhaps as many as a hundred scholarly articles’, as high a ratio of comment to text as one might find in the Talmud. Barrett himself gives it thirty pages, and with good reason: if the reference to Chrestiani can be considered genuine, it is the earliest mention in Latin letters of the new Christian religion. The passage had an immense influence on the formation of Christian identity as something deeply threatened by pagan Rome.
Tacitus describes Nero’s attempt to shift blame for the fire onto a group of people despised for their transgressions. These scapegoats were clothed in animal skins to be torn by hunting dogs, hung on crosses (a common means of execution in Rome), or set alight and burned to death as human torches. Nero presided over these atrocities from the back of a racing chariot and exhibited the victims to the public. Tacitus explains that they were Chrestiani, followers of a certain Chrestus who had died in Judea; he denigrates this man’s following as a wicked superstition that later filtered into Rome, a place ‘where all sinful and shameful things are pooled’. Though Tacitus clearly reviles Nero for his sadistic impulses, he also shows contempt for the victims who fed them.
However, various problems call this passage into question. First-generation followers of Christ were not yet widely known as Christians (never mind ‘Chrestians’), but were as yet considered an apostate branch of Judaism. Nor is it at all clear that sufficient numbers had come to Rome by Nero’s time to have formed a recognisable subgroup. The apostles Peter and Paul had both arrived there in the 60s CE, Paul as a traveller and Peter as a prisoner, but otherwise the new sect was primarily found in the Greek East. Further, no other ancient writer prior to the fifth century, including Church Fathers deeply interested in martyrdom, refers to this Neronian torture of Christians. So Tacitus may have got his information wrong, or the two sentences that refer to the ‘Chrestians’ may have been inserted by a later writer (the text makes good sense if these are excised). Barrett remains on the fence as to which is more likely, but he’s convinced, as are other recent commentators, that the tale of the dog-hunted, crucified and torch-fired Christians has no historical basis.
That fiction, however, was undetected until modern times, long after it had left its stain on Nero’s reputation. Jews and early Christians came to regard Nero as an arch-villain, even as the Antichrist (the number of the Beast in Revelations, 666, is derived by some from the numeric value of the Hebrew letters for Neron Caesar). He was held responsible for the deaths of both Peter and Paul, either or both of whom were said, in various texts and traditions, to have perished in the post-fire persecutions. The fire itself became grafted onto eschatological notions about the End of Days and the Last Judgment. All of these associations may have taken shape without the help of the Tacitean passage, but its tone and authority added fuel to the flames, as it were.
In a final discussion of Nero’s reputation, Barrett makes the important point that while Roman elites may have despised him, and subsequent Flavian rulers did their best to put his legacy aside, the masses seem never to have rejected Nero, despite the disaster of the fire and the obscenity of the Domus Aurea. Indeed three Nero impostors surfaced in subsequent decades, playing on lingering public adoration. The very callousness and indifference conveyed by his image may have held a perverse appeal, as a measure of the emperor’s distance from mortal concerns and obligations. That disturbing phenomenon seems familiar today.