Rome’s Darkest Hour: Tacitus Chronicles the Unforgettable Horror of the Great Fire
“Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded onto the country roads or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die.“Tacitus 64 AD Rome
Very few events resonate as profoundly as the catastrophic fire that engulfed ancient Rome in the summer of 64 AD. The chilling narrative provided by the esteemed historian Tacitus shows readers just how disastrous these fatal hours were and reminds us all how precarious life can truly be, yet somehow, Tacitus is able to highlight the unique ability humans have to hold fast and come together in a time of tragedy. The compassion and strength of community are never to be underestimated, not even in ancient Rome.
Rome was a grand city brimming with life leading up to the cataclysmic event, standing as a powerhouse of architectural marvels, encompassing the grandeur of the Palatine, and the vibrancy of the Circus, an ancient chariot-racing stadium and mass entertainment venue in Rome. The long narrow, winding streets weaved effortlessly through a city that epitomized civilization itself. The year 64 AD marked a significant chapter in Rome’s rich history, with the city at the zenith of its influence under the infamous Emperor Nero.
However, amidst the splendor, the seeds of disaster lay dormant only to come to life with a single spark that would ignite Rome’s darkest hour. The Great Fire began in the Circus stadium, near the junction of the Palatine and Caelian hills. The inferno, fueled by strong winds and flammable goods, erupted into an unstoppable force that nobody saw coming. Flames rose up to swiftly consume everything in their path. Tacitus, with unparalleled detail, captures the horror as the flames danced and devoured the heart of the city.
“The flames of Rome have started, and we can only watch as it burns to the ground.”
Tacitus Describes the Nightmarish Scenes of Rome’s Cataclysmic Blaze
In the midst of Rome’s darkest hour, a young boy and a member of the Roman elite becomes our guide through the dreadful horror. Tacitus was born around 56 or 57 AD to a wealthy and prestigious family. Tacitus grew up to be an astute historian, offering insights into the highs and lows of an empire. His meticulous observations and dedication to truth provide a unique lens through which we get to witness the unimaginable scenes of panic, desperation, and chaos that unfolded in the ancient streets of his home.
Throughout his lifetime he moved up the ladder of various important political roles, from orator to an acclaimed lawyer, to reaching the position of praetor, he also became a quindecimvir, part of a group of priests overseeing special religious celebrations and ceremonies. Known for being good at law and speaking in public, it’s interesting that his nickname, Tacitus, means “silent” in Latin.
Tacitus unveils not just the physical destruction created by the great fire of 64 AD but also the emotional toll exacted on the people of Rome—terrified women, helpless elderly, and citizens torn between self-preservation and aiding their loved ones being forced into horrendous choices. Gangs, taking advantage of the chaos, hinder all efforts to combat the disaster, adding a fearfully sinister layer to the unfolding tragedy from surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals (Latin: Annales) and the Histories (Latin: Historiae):
“…Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces.
Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress. Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved.
Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.
Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace.
Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude.
For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy. By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill.
But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus’ estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself.
Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.”
Did Nero Really Fiddle While Rome Burned? A Tacitus Insight
As we navigate the harrowing accounts of Rome’s Great Fire through Tacitus’ keen eyes, the flames that once engulfed the ancient city reveal more than just destruction. Amidst the chaos, whispers of Emperor Nero’s alleged fiddling while Rome burned have echoed throughout history. Yet, Tacitus, the meticulous chronicler, provides us with answers to separate fact from fiction.
The question lingers: Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Tacitus, in his comprehensive account, offers a resounding insight into the events of 64 AD. The alleged fiddling, a symbol of Nero’s indifference, appears to be more fiction than fact. Tacitus, with his attention to detail and dedication to historical accuracy, guides us through the labyrinth of possibilities, dispelling the notion that Nero played a musical instrument while his city faced an unprecedented catastrophe.
“Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built… Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude.”
Nero’s absence from Rome during the initial outbreak of the fire and his subsequent efforts to provide relief contradict the image of a callous emperor. Tacitus paints a nuanced picture, acknowledging Nero’s return to the city, albeit after the flames had reached his palace on the Palatine. The emperor’s actions, including opening the Field of Mars for the homeless and providing emergency accommodation, underscore a commitment to aiding the distraught populace.
The Great Fire was a tragic chapter in Rome’s history, shaped by factors beyond the control of any single individual. Nero’s involvement in the chaos, as depicted by history, appears to be a distortion, and Tacitus’ meticulous account encourages us to question prevailing narratives, challenging us to seek a more accurate understanding of this ancient tragedy.
BOOK PICK OF THE DAY
Peril was everywhere in ancient Rome, but the Great Fire of 64 CE was unlike anything the city had ever experienced. No building, no neighborhood, no person was safe from conflagration. When the fire finally subsided―after burning for nine days straight―vast swaths of Rome were in ruins. The greatest city of the ancient world had endured its greatest blow.
In The Great Fire of Rome, Joseph J. Walsh tells the true story of this deadly episode in Rome’s history. He explains why Rome was such a vulnerable tinderbox, outlines the difficulties of life in that exciting and dangerous city, and recounts the fire’s aftermath and legacy―a legacy that includes the transformation of much of ancient Rome into a modern city. Situating the fire within the context of other perils that residents of Rome faced, including frequent flooding, pollution, crime, and dangerously shoddy construction, he highlights the firefighting technology of the period and examines the ways in which the city’s architecture and planning contributed to the severity of the blaze.
Introducing readers to the grim realities of life in that overwhelming and overwhelmed city while chronicling its later glories, The Great Fire of Rome is grounded in the latest scholarship on fire analysis and forensics. Walsh’s multifaceted analysis, balanced insights, and concise, accessible prose make this book a versatile teaching tool. Readers interested in ancient (and modern) Rome, urban life, and civic disasters, among other things, will be fascinated by this book.
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