Ancient Rome

 

Burning Of Rome Under Nero

Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)

 

"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war."

 

Book:        By Henry Sienkiewicz

Author:      Sienkiewicz, Henryk

 

A.D. 64

 

Introduction

 

     Nero when a youth was placed under charge of the philosopher Seneca, who

carefully attended to his education.  During Nero's nonage he was persevering

in his studies and made great progress in Greek.  By a subterfuge of his

mother's he was proclaimed emperor in the place of Britannicus, the real heir

to the throne.  In the early part of his reign public affairs were wisely

conducted, but the private life of Nero was given up to vice and profligacy.

His love for Poppaea led him into the crime of matricide, for she, wishing to

share the imperial throne, and knowing it was impossible while his mother,

Agrippina, lived, induced him to authorize her assassination.  Strange that

Seneca and Burrhus should have approved of this, yet Tacitus admits that such

was the case.  In the eighth year of his reign Nero divorced his wife,

Octavia, and married Poppaea.

 

     Nero was an accomplished musician and sang verses composed by himself.

He eagerly sought the plaudits of the multitude by reciting his compositions

in public.  Historians are divided in opinion as to whether Nero was the

cause of the burning of Rome.  During the conflagration, to court popularity

he ordered temporary shelters to be provided for the houseless; yet the

people did not acclaim this deed, as it was reported that Nero, at "the very

time Rome was in flames," sang the destruction of Troy in his private

theatre, likening the present disaster to that ancient catastrophe.  In order

to divert the masses from what they believed the true origin of the fire,

Nero charged it upon the Christians, many hundreds of whom were sacrificed to

his fury.  He was the last of the Caesars, and died by his own hand amid

universal execrations, in June, A.D. 68, four years after the destruction of

Rome.

 

Text

 

     The fire began at the Circus Maximus, in that section which touches the

Palatine and Caelian hill; it rushed on with inconceivable rapidity and

fastened upon the whole centre of Rome.  Since the time of Brennus never had

the city witnessed such an awful catastrophe.

 

     A freedman of Caesar's, Phaon by name, ran panting into Nero's presence,

shrieking: "Rome is in flames! the conflagration is great."

 

     All Caesar's guests arose from their recumbent attitude.  "Ye gods!  I

shall see a burning city; now can I finish the Troyade," exclaimed Nero,

placing his lute aside.  "If I go at once, can I view the fire?"

 

     "My lord, the whole city is as a sea of flame; the smoke is

suffocatingly heavy and is destroying the people.  The inhabitants faint away

or rashly cast themselves into the fire, maddened with terror.  All Rome

perishes."  And Nero raised his hands and cried, "Woe, woe to thee, thou

sacred city of Priam!"

 

     Fires were frequent enough in Rome; during these conflagrations violence

and robbery were rampant, particularly so in those sections of the city

inhabited by needy half-barbarian peoples, a folk comprising rabble from

every part of the world.  The fear of servile rebellion was like a nightmare,

which had stifled Rome for many years.  It was believed that hundreds of

thousands of those people were thinking of the times of Spartacus, and merely

waiting for a favorable moment to seize arms against their oppressors and

Rome.  Now the moment had come!  Perhaps war and slaughter were raging in the

city together with fire.

 

     It was possible even that the praetorians had hurled themselves on the

city and were slaughtering at command of Caesar.  And that moment the hair

rose on Vinicius' head from terror.  He recalled all the conversations about

burning cities which for some time had been repeated at Caesar's court with

wonderful persistence; well he recalled Caesar's complaints that he was

forced to describe a burning city without having seen an actual fire; his

contemptuous answer to Tigellinus, who offered to burn Antium or an

artificial wooden city; finally, his complaints against Rome, and the

pestilential alleys of the Subura.

 

     Yes; truly Caesar has commanded the burning of the city!  Only he could

give such a command, as Tigellinus alone could accomplish it.  But if Rome is

burning at command of Caesar, who can be sure that the population will not be

slaughtered at his command?  The monster is capable of just such a

deed.  Conflagration, a servile revolt, and slaughter!  What a horrible

chaos, what a letting loose of destructive elements and horrid, universal

frenzy!

 

     The night had paled long since, the dawn had passed into light, and on

all the nearer summits golden, rosy gleams were shining, which might come

either from burning Rome or the rising daylight.  Vinicius ran to the hill,

the summit was reached, and then a terrible sight struck his eyes.

 

     All the lower region was covered with smoke, forming, as it were, one

gigantic cloud lying close to the earth.  In this cloud towns, aqueducts,

villas, trees, disappeared; but farther beyond this gray, ghastly plain the

city was burning on the hills.  The conflagration had not the form of a

pillar of fire, as happens when a single building is burning, even when of

the greatest size.  That was a long belt, rather, shaped like the belt of

dawn.  Above this belt rose a wave of smoke, in places entirely black, in

places looking rose-colored, in places like blood, in places turning in on

itself, in some places inflated, in others squeezed and squirming, like a

serpent which is unwinding and extending.

 

     That monstrous wave seemed at times to cover even the belt of fire,

which became then as narrow as a ribbon; but later this ribbon illuminated

the smoke from beneath, changing its lower rolls into waves of flame.  The

two extended from one side of the sky to the other, hiding its lower part, as

at times a stretch of forest hides the horizon.  The Sabine hills were not

visible in the least.

 

     It seemed at the first glance of the eye that not only the city was

burning, but the whole world, and that no living being could save itself from

that ocean of flame and smoke.  The wind blew with increasing strength from

the region of the fire, bringing the smell of burnt things and of smoke,

which began to hide even nearer objects.  Clear daylight had come, and the

sun lighted up the summits surrounding the Alban Lake.

 

     But the bright golden rays of the morning appeared reddish and sickly

through the haze.  Vinicius, while descending toward Albanum, entered smoke

which was denser, less and less transparent.  The town itself was buried in

it thoroughly.  The alarmed citizens had moved out to the street.  It was a

terror to think of what might be in Rome, when it was difficult to breathe in

Albanum.

 

     He met increasing numbers of people, who had deserted the city and were

going to the Alban hills; they had escaped the fire and wished to go beyond

the line of smoke.  Before he had reached Ustrinum he had to slacken his pace

because of the throng.  Besides pedestrians with bundles on their backs he

met horses with packs, mules and vehicles laden with effects, and finally

litters in which slaves were bearing the wealthier citizens.  The town of

Ustrinum was so thronged with fugitives from Rome that it was difficult to

push through the crowd.  On the market square, under temple porticos, and on

the streets were swarms of fugitives.

 

     Here and there people were erecting tents under which whole families

were to find shelter.  Others settled down under the naked sky, shouting,

calling on the gods, or cursing the Fates.  In the general terror it was

difficult to inquire about anything.  New crowds of men, women, and children

arrived from the direction of Rome every moment; these increased the disorder

and outcry.  Some, gone astray in the throng, sought desperately those whom

they had lost; others fought for a camping place.

 

     Half-crazy shepherds from the Campania crowded to the town to hear news,

or find profit in plunder made easy by the uproar.  Here and there crowds of

slaves of every nationality and gladiators fell to robbing houses and villas

in the town, and to fighting with the soldiers who appeared in defence of the

citizens.

 

     Junius, a friend of Vinicius, said, after a moment's hesitation, in a

low voice: "I know that thou wilt not betray me, so I will tell thee that

this is no common fire.  People were not permitted to save the Circus.  When

houses began to burn in every direction, I myself heard thousands of voices

exclaiming, 'Death to those who save!'  Certain people ran through the city

and hurled burning torches into buildings.

 

     "On the other hand, people are revolting and crying that the city is

burning at command.  I can say nothing more.  Woe to the city, woe to us all

and to me!  The tongue of man cannot tell what is happening there.  People

are perishing in flames or slaying one another in the throng.  This is the

end of Rome!"

 

     Vinicius, nearing the walls, found it easier to reach Rome than

penetrate to the middle of the city.  It was difficult to push along the

Appian Way, because of the throng of people.  Houses, cemeteries, fields,

gardens, and temples, lying on both sides of it, were turned into camping

places.  In the temple of Mars, which stood near the Porta Appia, the crowd

had thrown down the doors, so as to find a refuge within during night hours.

In the cemeteries the larger monuments were seized, and battles fought in

defence of them, which were carried to bloodshed.  Ustrinum with its disorder

gave barely a slight foretaste of that which was happening beneath the walls

of the capital.

 

     All regard for the dignity of law, for family ties, for difference of

position, had ceased.  Gladiators drunk with wine seized in the Emporium,

gathered in crowds and ran with wild shouts through the neighboring squares,

trampling, scattering, and robbing the people.  A multitude of barbarian

slaves, exposed for sale in the city, escaped from the booths.  For them the

burning and ruin of Rome were at once the end of slavery and the hour of

revenge; so that when the permanent inhabitants, who had lost all they owned

in the fire, stretched their hands to the gods in despair, calling for

rescue, these slaves with howls of delight scattered the crowds, dragged

clothing from people's backs, and bore away the younger women.  They were

joined by other slaves serving in the city from of old, wretches who had

nothing on their bodies save woollen girdles around their hips, dreadful

figures from the alleys, who were hardly ever seen on the streets in the

daytime, and whose existence in Rome it was difficult to suspect.

 

     Men of this wild and unrestrained crowd - Asiatics, Africans, Greeks,

Thracians, Germans, Britons - howling in every language of the earth, raged,

thinking that the hour had come in which they were free to reward themselves

for years of misery and suffering.  In the midst of that surging throng of

humanity, in the glitter of day and of fire, shone the helmets of

praetorians, under whose protection the more peaceable population had taken

refuge, and who in hand-to-hand battle had to meet the raging multitude in

many places.  Vinicius had seen captured cities, but never had his eyes

beheld a spectacle in which despair, tears, pain, groans, wild delight,

madness, rage, and license were mingled together in such immeasurable chaos.

Above this heaving, mad human multitude roared the fire, surging up to the

hill-tops of the greatest city on earth, sending into the whirling throng its

fiery breath, and covering it with smoke, through which it was impossible to

see the blue sky.

 

     The young tribune with supreme effort, and exposing his life every

moment, forced his way at last to the Appian Gate; but there he saw that he

could not reach the city through the division of the Porta Capena, not merely

because of the throng, but also because of the terrible heat from which the

whole atmosphere was quivering inside the gate.  Besides, the bridge at the

Porta Trigenia, opposite the temple of the Bona Dea, did not exist yet, hence

those who wished to go beyond the Tiber had to pass through to the Pons

Sublicius - that is, to pass around the Aventine through a part of the city

covered now with one sea of flame.  That was an impossibility.  Vinicius

understood that he must return toward Ustrinum, turn from the Appian Way,

cross the river below the city, and go to the Via Portuensis, which led

straight to the Trans-Tiber.

 

     That was not easy because of the increasing disorder on the Appian Way.

At the fountain of Mercury, however, he saw a centurion who was known to him.

This man, at the head of a few tens of soldiers, was defending the precinct

of the temple; he commanded him to follow.  Recognizing a tribune and an

Augustian, the centurion did not dare to disobey the order.

 

     He and his men were followed by curses and a shower of stones; but to

these he gave no heed, caring only to reach freer spaces at the earliest.

Still he advanced with the greatest effort.  People who had encamped would

not move, and heaped loud curses on Caesar and the praetorians.  The throng

assumed in places a threatening aspect.  Thousands of voices accused Nero of

burning the city.  He and Poppaea were threatened with death.  Shouts of

"Buffoon, actor, matricide!" were heard round about.  Some shouted to drag

him to the Tiber; others that Rome had shown patience enough.  It was clear

that were a leader found these threats could be changed into open rebellion

which might break out any moment.

 

     Meanwhile the rage and despair of the crowd turned against the

praetorians, who for another reason could not make their way out of the

crowd: the road was blocked by piles of goods, borne from the fire

previously, boxes, barrels of provisions, furniture the most costly, vessels,

infants' cradles, beds, carts, hand-packs.  Here and there they fought

hand-to-hand; but the praetorians conquered the weaponless multitude easily.

After they had ridden with difficulty across the Viae Latina, Numitia, Ardea,

Lavinia, and Ostia, and passed around villas, gardens, cemeteries, and

temples, Vinicius reached at last a village called Vicus Alexandri, beyond

which he crossed the Tiber.  There was more open space at this spot and less

smoke.  From fugitives, of whom there was no lack even there, he learned that

only certain alleys of the Trans-Tiber were burning, but that surely nothing

could resist the fury of the conflagration, since people were spreading the

fire purposely, and permitted no one to quench it, declaring that they acted

at command.

 

     The young tribune had not the least doubt then that Caesar had given

command to burn Rome; and the vengeance which people demanded seemed to him

just and proper.  What more could Mithradates or any of Rome's most

inveterate enemies have done?  The measure had been exceeded; his madness had

grown to be too enormous, and the existence of people too difficult because

of him.  All believed that Nero's hour had struck, that those ruins into

which the city was falling should and must overwhelm the monstrous buffoon

together with all those crimes of his.  Should a man be found of courage

sufficient to stand at the head of the despairing people, that might happen

in a few hours.  Here vengeful and daring thoughts began to fly through his

head.  But if he should do that?

 

     The family of Vinicius, which till recent times counted a whole series

of consuls, was known throughout Rome.  The crowds needed only a name.  Once,

when four hundred slaves of the prefect Pedanius Secundus were sentenced,

Rome reached the verge of rebellion and civil war.  What would happen to-day

in view of a dreadful calamity surpassing almost everything which Rome had

undergone in the course of eight centuries?  Whoever calls the quirites to

arms, thought Vinicius, will overthrow Nero undoubtedly, and clothe himself

in purple.

 

     The Trans-Tiber was full of smoke, and crowds of fugitives made it more

difficult to reach the interior of the place, since people, having more time

there, had saved greater quantities of goods.  The main street itself was in

many parts filled completely, and around the Naumachia Augusta great heaps

were piled up.  Narrow alleys, in which smoke had collected more densely,

were simply impassable.  The inhabitants were fleeing in thousands.  On the

way Vinicius saw wonderful sights.  More than once two rivers of people,

flowing in opposite directions, met in a narrow passage, stopped each other,

men fought hand-to-hand, struck and trampled one another.  Families lost one

another in the uproar; mothers called on their children despairingly.  The

young tribune's hair stood on end at thought of what must happen nearer the

fire.

 

     Amid shouts and howls it was difficult to inquire about anything or

understand what was said.  At times new columns of smoke from beyond the

river rolled toward them, smoke black and so heavy that it moved near the

ground, hiding houses, people, and every object, just as night does.  The

fervor of a July day, increased by the heat of the burning parts of the city,

became uneudurable.  Smoke pained the eyes; breath failed in men's breasts.

Even the inhabitants who, hoping that the fire would not cross the river, had

remained in their houses so far, began to leave them, and the throng

increased hourly.  The praetorians accompanying Vinicius were in the rear.

In the crush some one wounded his horse with a hammer; the beast threw up its

bloody head, reared, and refused obedience.  The crowd recognized in Vinicius

an Augustian by his rich tunic, and at once cries were raised round about,

"Death to Nero and his incendiaries!"  This was a moment of terrible danger;

hundreds of hands were stretched toward Vinicius; but his frightened horse

bore him away, trampling people as he went, and the next moment a new wave of

black smoke rolled in and filled the street with darkness.  Vinicius, seeing

that he could not ride past, sprang to the earth and rushed forward on foot,

slipping along walls, and at times waiting till the fleeing multitude passed

him.  He said to himself in spirit that these were vain efforts.

 

     At times he stopped and rubbed his eyes.  Tearing off the edge of his

tunic, he covered his nose and mouth with it and ran on.  As he approached

the river the heat increased terribly.  Vinicius, knowing that the fire had

begun at the Circus Maximus, thought at first that that heat came from its

cinders and from the Forum Boarium and the Velabrum, which, situated near by,

must be also in flames.  But the heat was growing unendurable.  One old man

on crutches and fleeing, the last whom Vinicius noticed, cried: "Go not near

the bridge of Cestius!  The whole island is on fire!"  It was, indeed,

impossible to be deceived any longer.  At the turn toward the Vicus Judaeorum

the young tribune was flames amid clouds of smoke.  Not only the island was

burning, but the Trans-Tiber and the other end of the street on which he ran.

 

     The thunder of the flames was more terrible than the roar of wild

beasts, and the hour had come now in which he must think of his own safety,

for the river of fire was flowing nearer and nearer from the direction of the

island, and rolls of smoke covered the alley almost completely.  The taper

which he carried was quenched from the current of air.  Vinicius rushed to

the street, and ran at full speed toward the Via Portuensis, whence he had

come; the fire seemed to pursue him with burning breath, now surrounding him

with fresh clouds of smoke, now covering him with sparks, which fell on his

hair, neck, and clothing.  The tunic began to smoulder on him in places; he

cared not, but ran forward lest he might be stifled from smoke.  He had the

taste of soot and burning in his mouth; his throat and lungs were as if on

fire.  The blood rushed to his head, and at moments all things, even the

smoke itself, seemed red to him.

 

     Then he thought: "This is living fire!  Better throw myself upon the

ground and quickly perish."  The running tortured him more and more.  His

head, neck, and shoulders were streaming with sweat, which scalded like

boiling water.

 

     But he ran on as if drunk, staggering from one side of the street to the

other.  Meanwhile something changed in that monstrous conflagration which had

embraced the giant city.  Everything which till then had only glimmered,

burst forth visibly into one sea of flame; the wind had ceased to bring

smoke.  That smoke which had collected in the streets was borne away by a mad

whirl of heated air.  That whirl drove with it millions of sparks, so that

Vinicius was running in a fiery cloud, as it were.  But he was able to see

before him all the better, and in a moment, almost when he was ready to fall,

he saw the end of the street.  That sight gave him fresh strength.  Passing

the corner, he found himself in a street which led to the Via Portuensis and

the Codetan Field.  The sparks ceased to drive him.  He understood that if he

could run to the Via Portuensis he was safe, even were he to faint on it.

 

     At the end of the street he saw again a cloud, as it seemed, which

stopped the exit.  "If that is smoke," thought he, "I cannot pass."  He ran

with the remnant of his strength.  On the way he threw off his tunic, which,

on fire from the sparks, was burning him like the shirt of Nessus, having

only a capitium around his head and before his mouth.  When he had run

farther, he saw that what he had taken for smoke was dust, from which rose a

multitude of cries and voices.

 

     "The rabble are plundering houses," thought Vinicius.  But he ran toward

the voices.  In any case people were there; they might assist him.  In this

hope he shouted for aid with all his might before he reached them.  But this

was his last effort.  It grew redder still in his eyes, breath failed his

lungs, strength failed his bones; he fell.

 

     They heard him, however, or rather saw him.  Two men ran with gourds

full of water.  Vinicius, who had fallen from exhaustion, but had not lost

consciousness, seized a gourd with both hands and emptied one-half of it.

 

     "Thanks," said he; "place me on my feet; I can walk on alone."

 

     The other laborer poured water on his head; the two not only placed him

on his feet, but raised him from the ground and carried him to the others,

who surrounded him and asked if he had suffered seriously.  This tenderness

astonished Vinicius.

 

     "People, who are ye?" asked he.

 

     "We are breaking down houses, so that the fire may not reach the Via

Portuensis," answered one of the laborers.

 

     "Ye came to my aid when I had fallen.  Thanks to you."

 

     "We are not permitted to refuse aid," answered a number of voices.

 

     Vinicius, who from early morning had seen brutal crowds slaying and

robbing, looked with more attention on the faces around him and said:

 

     "May Christ reward you."

 

     "Praise to his name!" exclaimed a whole chorus of voices.

 

     It was evening, but one could see as in daylight, for the conflagration

had increased.  It seemed that not single parts of the city were burning, but

the whole city through the length and the breadth of it.  The sky was red as

far as the eye could see it, and that night in the world was a red night.

 

     The light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could

reach.  The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and, inflamed

at once by the glare, took on the color of heated brass.  It seemed to look

with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing.  In the

rose-colored abysses of heaven rose-colored stars were glittering; but in

distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens.  Rome,

like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania.

 

     In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples,

monuments, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent

hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people who had gathered there for

safety or to gaze at the burning.  Meanwhile the dreadful element was

embracing new divisions of the city.  It was impossible to doubt that

criminal hands were spreading the fire, since new conflagrations were

breaking out all the time in places remote from the principal fire.

 

     From the heights on which Rome was founded the flames  flowed like waves

of the sea into the valleys densely occupied by houses - houses of five and

six stories, full of shops, booths, movable wooden amphitheatres, built to

accommodate various spectacles; and finally storehouses of wood, olives,

grain, nuts, pine cones, the kernels of which nourished the more needy

population, and clothing, which through Caesar's favor was distributed from

time to time among the rabble huddled into narrow alleys.  In those places

the fire, finding abundance of inflammable materials, became almost a series

of explosions, and took possession of whole streets with unheard-of rapidity.

People encamping outside the city or standing on the aqueducts knew from the

color of the flame what was burning.  The furious power of the wind carried

forth from the fiery gulf thousands and millions of burning shells of walnuts

and almonds, which, shooting suddenly into the sky, like countless flocks of

bright butterflies, burst with a crackling, or, driven by the wind, fell in

other parts of the city, on aqueducts and fields beyond Rome.

 

     All thought of rescue seemed out of place; confusion increased every

moment, for on one side the population of the city was fleeing through every

gate to places outside; on the other the fire had lured in thousands of

people from the neighborhood, such as dwellers in small towns, peasants, and

half-wild shepherds of the Campania brought in by hope of plunder.  The

shout, "Rome is perishing!" did not leave the lips of the crowd; the ruin of

the city seemed at that time to end every rule and loosen all bonds which

hitherto had joined people in a single integrity.  The mob, in which slaves

were more numerous, cared nothing for the lordship of Rome.  Destruction of

the city could only free them; hence here and there they assumed a

threatening attitude.

 

     Violence and robbery were extending.  It seemed that only the spectacle

of the perishing city arrested attention, and restrained for the moment an

outburst of slaughter, which would begin as soon as the city was turned into

ruins.  Hundreds of thousands of slaves, forgetting that Rome, besides

temples and walls, possessed some tens of legions in all parts of the world,

appeared merely waiting for a watchword and a leader.  People began to

mention the name of Spartacus; but Spartacus was not alive.  Meanwhile

citizens assembled and armed themselves each with what he could.  The most

monstrous reports were current at all the gates.  Some declared that Vulcan,

commanded by Jupiter, was destroying the city with fire from beneath the

earth; others that Vesta was taking vengeance for Rubria.  People with these

convictions did not care to save anything, but, besieging the temples,

implored mercy of the gods.  It was repeated most generally, however, that

Caesar had given command to burn Rome, so as to free himself from odors which

rose from the Subura, and build a new city under the name of Neronia.  Rage

seized the populace at thought of this; and if, as Vinicius believed, a

leader had taken advantage of that outburst of hatred, Nero's hour would have

struck whole years before it did.

 

     It was said also that Ceasar had gone mad, that he would command

praetorians and gladiators to fall upon the people and make a general

slaughter.  Others swore by the gods that wild beasts had been let out of all

the vivaria at Bronzebeard's command.  Men had seen on the streets lions with

burning manes, and mad elephants and bisons, trampling down people in crowds.

There was even some truth in this; for in certain places elephants, at sight

of the approaching fire, had burst the vivaria, and, gaining their freedom,

rushed away from the fire in wild fright, destroying everything before them

like a tempest.  Public report estimated at tens of thousands the number of

persons who had perished in the conflagration.  In truth a great number had

perished.  There were people who, losing all their property, or those dearest

their hearts, threw themselves willingly into the flames from despair.

Others were suffocated by smoke.  In the middle of the city, between the

Capitol on one side, and the Quirinal, the Viminal, and the Esquiline on the

other, as also between the Palatine and the Caelian hill, where the streets

were most densely occupied, the fire began in so many places at once that

whole crowds of people, while fleeing in one direction, struck unexpectedly

on a new wall of fire in front of them, and died a dreadful death in a deluge

of flame.

 

     In terror, in distraction and bewilderment, people knew not where to

flee.  The streets were obstructed with goods and in many narrow places were

simply closed.  Those who took refuge in those markets and squares of the

city where the Flavian Amphitheatre stood afterward, near the temple of the

Earth, near the Portico of Silvia, and higher up, at the temples of Juno and

Lucinia, between the Clivus Virbius and the old Esquiline gate, perished from

heat, surrounded by a sea of fire.  In places not reached by the flames were

found afterward hundreds of bodies burned to a crisp, though here and there

unfortunates tore up flat stones and half buried themselves in defence

against the heat.  Hardly a family inhabiting the centre of the city survived

din full; hence along the walls, at the gates, on all roads were heard howls

of despairing women, calling on the dear names of those who had perished in

the throng or the fire.

 

     And so, while some were imploring the gods, others blasphemed them

because of this awful catastrophe.  Old men were seen coming from the temple

of Jupiter Liberator, stretching forth their hands and crying, "If thou be a

liberator, save thy altars and the city!"  But despair turned mainly against

the old Roman gods, who, in the minds of the populace, were bound to watch

over the city more carefully than others.  They had proved themselves

powerless; hence were insulted.  On the other hand, it happened on the Via

Asinaria that when a company of Egyptian priests appeared conducting a statue

of Isis, which they had saved from the temple near the Porta Caelimontana, a

crowd of people rushed among the priests, attached themselves to the chariot,

which they drew to the Appian gate, and seizing the statue placed it in the

temple of Mars, overwhelming the priests of that deity who dared to resist

them.

 

     In other places people invoked Serapis, Baal, or Jehovah, whose

adherents, swarming out of the alleys in the neighborhood of the Subura and

the Trans-Tiber, filled with shouts and uproar the fields near the walls.  In

their cries were heard tones as if of triumph; when, therefore, some of the

citizens joined the chorus and glorified "the Lord of the World," others,

indignant at this glad shouting, strove to repress it by violence.  Here and

there hymns were heard, sung by men in the bloom of life, by old men, by

women and children - hymns wonderful and solemn, whose meaning they

understood not, but in which were repeated from moment to moment the words

"Behold the Judge cometh in the day of wrath and disaster."  Thus this deluge

of restless and sleepless people encircled the burning city, like a

tempest-driven sea.  But neither despair nor blasphemy nor hymn helped in any

way.

 

     The destruction seemed as irresistible, perfect, and pitiless

as Predestination itself.  Around Pompey's Amphitheatre stores of hemp caught

fire, and ropes used in circuses, arenas, and every kind of machine at the

games, and with them the adjoining buildings containing barrels of pitch with

which ropes were smeared.  In a few hours all that part of the city beyond

which lay the Campus Martius was so lighted by bright yellow flames that for

a time it seemed to the spectators, only half conscious from terror, that in

the general ruin the order of night and day had been lost, and that they were

looking at sunshine.  But later a monstrous bloody gleam extinguished all

other colors of flame.  From the sea of fire shot up to the heated sky

gigantic fountains, and pillars of flame spreading at their summits into

fiery branches and feathers; then the wind bore them away, turned them into

golden threads, into hair, into sparks, and swept them on over the Campania

toward the Alban hills.  The night became brighter; the air itself seemed

penetrated, not only with light, but with flame.  The Tiber flowed on as

living fire.  The hapless city was turned into one pandemonium.  The

conflagration seized more and more space, took hills by storm, flooded level

places, drowned valleys, raged, roared, and thundered.

 

     The city burned on.  The Circus Maximus had fallen in ruins.  Entire

streets and alleys in parts which began to burn first were falling in turn.

After every fall pillars of flame rose for a time to the very sky.  The wind

had changed, and blew now with mighty force from the sea, bearing toward the

Caelian, the Esquiline, and the Viminal rivers of flame, brands, and cinders.

Still the authorities provided for rescue.  At command of Tigellinus, who had

hastened from Antium the third day before, houses on the Esquiline were torn

down so that the fire, reaching empty spaces, died of itself.  That was,

however, undertaken solely to save a remnant of the city; to save that which

was burning was not to be thought of.  There was need also to guard against

further results of the ruin.  Incalculable wealth had perished in Rome; all

the property of its citizens had vanished; hundreds of thousands of people

were wandering in utter want outside the walls.  Hunger had begun to pinch

this throng the second day, for the immense stores of provisions in the city

had burned with it.  In the universal disorder and in the destruction of

authority no one had thought of furnishing new supplies.  Only after the

arrival of Tigellinus were proper orders sent to Ostia; but meanwhile the

people had grown more threatening.

 

     Besides flour, as much baked bread as possible was brought at his

command, not only from Ostia, but from all towns and neighboring villages.

When the first instalment came at night to the Emporium, the people broke the

chief gate toward the Aventine, seized all supplies in the twinkle of an eye,

and caused terrible disturbance.  In the light of the conflagration they

fought for loaves, and trampled many of them into the earth.  Flour from torn

bags whitened like snow the whole space from the granary to the arches of

Drusus and Germanicus.  The uproar continued till soldiers seized the

building and dispersed the crowd with arrows and missiles.

 

     Never since the invasion by the Gauls under Brennus had Rome beheld such

disaster.  People in despair compared the two conflagrations.  But in the

time of Brennus the Capitol remained.  Now the Capitol was encircled by a

dreadful wreath of flame.  The marbles, it is true, were not blazing; but at

night, when the wind swept the flames aside for a moment, rows of columns in

the lofty sanctuary of Jove were visible, red as glowing coals.  In the days

of Brennus, moreover, Rome had a disciplined integral people, attached to the

city and its altars; but now crowds of a many-tongued populace roamed

nomad-like around the walls of burning Rome, people composed for the greater

part of slaves and freedmen, excited, disorderly, and ready, under the

pressure of want, to turn against authority and the city.

 

     But the very immensity of the fire which terrified every heart disarmed

the crowd in a certain measure.  After fire might come famine and disease;

and to complete the misfortune the terrible heat of July had appeared.  It

was impossible to breathe air inflamed both by fire and the sun.  Night

brought no relief; on the contrary, it presented a hell.  During daylight an

awful and ominous spectacle met the eye.  In the centre a giant city on

heights was turned into a roaring volcano; round about as far as the Alban

hills was one boundless camp, formed of sheds, tents, huts, vehicles, bales,

packs, stands, fires, and all covered with smoke and dust, lighted by sun

rays reddened by passing through smoke - everything filled with roars,

shouts, threats, hatred, and terror, a monstrous swarm of men, women, and

children.  Mingled with quirites were Greeks, shaggy men from the North with

blue eyes, Africans, and Asiatics; among citizens were slaves, freedmen,

gladiators, merchants, mechanics, servants, and soldiers - a real sea of

people, flowing around the island of fire.

 

     Various reports moved this sea as wind does a real one.  These reports

were favorable and unfavorable.  People told of immense supplies of wheat and

clothing to be brought to the Emporium and distributed gratis.  It was said,

too, that provinces in Asia and Africa would be stripped of their wealth at

Caesar's command, and the treasures thus gained be given to the inhabitants

of Rome, so that each man might build his own dwelling.

 

     But it was noised about also that water in the aqueducts had been

poisoned; that Nero intended to annihilate the city, destroy the inhabitants

to the last person, then move to Greece or to Egypt, and rule the world from

a new place.  Each report ran with lightning speed, and each found belief

among the rabble, causing outbursts of hope, anger, terror, or rage.  Finally

a kind of fever mastered those nomadic thousands.  The belief of Christians

that the end of the world by fire was at hand spread even among adherents of

the gods and extended daily.  People fell into torpor or madness.  In clouds

lighted by the burning, gods were seen gazing down on the ruin; hands were

stretched toward those gods then to implore pity or send them curses.

 

     Meanwhile soldiers, aided by a certain number of inhabitants, continued

to tear down houses on the Esquiline and the Caelian, as also in the

Trans-Tiber; these divisions were saved therefore in considerable part.  But

in the city itself were destroyed incalculable treasures accumulated through

centuries of conquest - priceless works of art, splendid temples, the most

precious monuments of Rome's past and Rome's glory.  They foresaw that of all

Rome there would remain barely a few parts on the edges, and that hundreds of

thousands of people would be without a roof.  Some spread reports that the

soldiers were tearing down houses, not to stop the fire, but to prevent any

part of the city from being saved.  Tigellinus sent courier after courier to

Antium, imploring Caesar in each letter to come and calm the despairing

people with his presence.  But Nero moved only when fire had seized the domus

transitoria and he hurried so as not to miss the moment in which the

conflagration should be at its highest.

 

     Meanwhile fire had reached the Via Nomentana, but turned from it at once

with a change of wind toward the Via Lata and the Tiber.  It surrounded the

Capitol, spread along the Forum Boarium, destroyed everything which it had

spared before, and approached the Palatine a second time.

 

     Tigellinus, assembling all the praetorian forces, despatched courier

after courier to Caesar with an announcement that he would lose nothing of

the grandeur of the spectacle, for the fire had increased.

 

     But Nero, who was on the road, wished to come at night, so as to sate

himself all the better with a view of the perishing capital.  Therefore he

halted, in the neighborhood of Aqua Albana, and, summoning to his tent the

tragedian Aliturus, decided with his aid on posture, look, and expression;

learned fitting gestures, disputing with the actor stubbornly whether at the

words, "O sacred city, which seemed more enduring than Ida," he was to raise

both hands, or, holding in one the forminga, drop it by his side, and raise

only the other.  This question seemed to him then more important than all

others.  Starting at last about nightfall, he took counsel of Petronius also

whether to the lines describing the catastrophe he might add a few

magnificent blasphemies against the gods, and whether, considered from the

standpoint of art, they would not have rushed spontaneously from the mouth of

a man in such a position, a man who was losing his birthplace.

 

     At length he approached the walls about midnight with his numerous

court, composed of whole detachments of nobles, senators, knights, freedmen,

slaves, women, and children.  Sixteen thousand praetorians, arranged in line

of battle along the road, guarded the peace and safety of his entrance, and

held the excited populace at a proper distance.  The people cursed, shouted,

and hissed on seeing the retinue, but dared not attack it.  In many places,

however, applause was given by the rabble, which, owning nothing, had lost

nothing in the fire, and which hoped for a more bountiful distribution than

usual of wheat, olives, clothing, and money.  Finally, shouts, hissing, and

applause were drowned in the blare of horns and trumpets, which Tigellinus

had caused to be sounded.

 

     Nero, on arriving at the Ostian gate, halted, and said: "Houseless

ruler of a houseless people, where shall I lay my unfortunate head for the

night?"

 

     After he had passed the Clivus Delphini, he ascended the Appian aqueduct

on steps prepared purposely.  After him followed the Augustians and a choir

of singers, bearing citharae, lutes, and other musical instruments.

 

     And all held the breath in their breasts, waiting to learn if he would

say some great words, which for their own safety they ought to remember.  But

he stood solemn, silent, in a purple mantle and a wreath of golden laurels,

gazing at the raging might of the flames.

 

     When Terpnos gave him a golden lute, he raised his eyes to the sky,

filled with the conflagration, as if he were waiting for inspiration.  The

people pointed at him from afar as he stood in the bloody gleam.  In the

distance fiery serpents were hissing.  The ancient and most sacred edifices

were in flames; the temple of Hercules, reared by Evander, was burning; the

temple of Jupiter Stator was burning, the temple of Luna, built by Servius

Tullius, the house of Numa Pompilius, the sanctuary of Vesta with the penates

of the Roman people; through waving flames the Capitol appeared at intervals;

the past and the spirit of Rome were burning.  But Caesar was there with a

lute in his hand and a theatrical expression on his face, not thinking of his

perishing country, but of his posture and the prophetic words with which he

might describe best the greatness of the catastrophe, rouse most admiration,

and receive the warmest plaudits.

 

     He detested that city, he detested its inhabitants, he loved only his

own songs and verses; hence he rejoiced in heart that at last he saw a

tragedy like that which he was writing.  The poet was happy, the declaimer

felt inspired, the seeker for emotions was delighted at the awful sight, and

thought with rapture that even the destruction of Troy was as nothing if

compared with the destruction of that giant city.  What more could he desire?

There was world-ruling Rome in flames, and he, standing on the arches of the

aqueduct with a golden lute, conspicuous, purple, admired, magnificent, and

poetic.  Down below, somewhere in the darkness, the people are muttering and

storming; let them mutter!  Ages will elapse, thousands of years will pass,

but mankind will remember and glorify the poet who that night sang the fall

and the burning of Troy.  What was Homer compared with him?  What Apollo

himself with his hollowed-out lute?

 

     Here he raised his hands, and, striking the strings, with an exaggerated

theatrical gesture pronounced the words of Priam:

 

     "O nest of my fathers, O dear cradle!"  His voice in the open air, with

the roar of the conflagration, and the distant murmur of crowding thousands,

seemed marvellously weak, uncertain, and low, and the sound of the

accompaniment like the buzzing of insects.  But senators, dignitaries, and

Augustians, assembled on the aqueduct, bowed their heads and listened in

silent rapture.  He sang long, and his motive was ever sadder.  At moments,

when he stopped to catch breath, the chorus of singers repeated the last

verse; then Nero cast the tragic syrma from his shoulder with a gesture

learned from Aliturus, struck the lute, and sang on.  When he had finished

the lines composed, he improvised, using grandiose comparisons in the

spectacle unfolded before him.  His face began to change.  He was not moved,

it is true, by the destruction of his country's capital; but he was delighted

and moved with the pathos of his own words to such a degree that his eyes

filled with tears on a sudden.

 

     At last he dropped the lute to his feet with a clatter, and, wrapping

himself in the syrma, stood as if petrified, like one of those statues of

Niobe which ornamented the courtyard of the Palatine.  Soon a storm of

applause broke the silence.  But in the distance this was answered by the

howling of multitudes.  No one doubted then that Caesar had given command to

burn the city, so as to afford himself a spectacle and sing a song at it.

Main Page

World History Center

* Because we believe primary sources of history far surpass secondary sources, most of the lives of the following individuals are taken from ancient historians such as Plutarch, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus