Nero was an arsonist – the Roman emperor, it seems, can no longer get rid of this label. Responsible for this is primarily the historian Tacitus, who in his “Annals” described in detail the devastating fire that broke out on July 19, 64, devastated large parts of the city of Rome, raged for seven days and caused Nero to shock the public with Christians to present as scapegoats.
Also not to be underestimated is the influence of Peter Ustinov, who played Nero in the US historical film “Quo Vadis” in 1951 so gorgeous that one simply has to consider his vocal performance during the fire in Rome to be historically authentic.
In reality, Nero did not set Rome on fire, and the Christians were not to be blamed either. In Rome it burned again and again, and the fact that a catastrophe could occur in July 64 was due to very unfavorable wind conditions, which allowed the fire that had broken out at the Circus Maximus to spread at breakneck speed.
This is how the renowned ancient historian Anthony A. Barrett, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, describes it very clearly in his latest book. He provides a meticulous representation of the written and above all the archaeological sources.
In addition to the rather general information provided by the ancient authors, this creates a precise and comprehensive picture of the course and effects of the most famous fire of antiquity. In doing so, the competent researcher provides a series of new insights and knowledge about those dramatic days in the summer of 64, both in detail and in relation to the whole.
For Nero, Barrett believes, the fire in Rome marked the decisive turning point in his career. Before that he was “the downright favorite of Rome”, and he lost all sympathy because people were of the opinion that he was responsible – in whatever form – for the catastrophe. Even more: the “irreparable” break between the emperor and the elites, financially shaken by the fire, led to the “extinction” of the ruling dynasty founded by Augustus. Since then, the genealogical connection to Augustus has not been sufficient as proof of qualification for the following emperors.
These conclusions are exaggerated. Nero ruled for another four years after the fire, and the successor dynasty of the Flavians explicitly referred to the Augustus family for their legitimation. One can also be in doubt whether before 64 Nero was actually as popular as the author claims. The upper classes must have had their problems with the artist-emperor from the beginning.
Nevertheless: The book is well worth reading and offers the best presentation and analysis of the fire in Rome and Nero’s alleged entanglement. It is written in an entertaining way and presents archaeological research of the last decades as scientifically sound as it is generally understandable.
Review: Prof. Dr. Holger Saturday
Anthony A. Barrett
Rome is on fire!
Nero and the end of an era
wbg Theiss Verlag, Darmstadt 2021, 400 pages, € 29, –