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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
* 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