Princeton (2020) h/b 347pp £25.00 (ISBN 9780691172316)

AD 64 always has been, and will continue to be, all about the Great Fire of Rome. That is thanks to the historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius, but especially to the figure of Nero. Even at this distance it is possible to hear the anti-Neronian axes grinding away.

But what else could one expect of ancient historiography? We all know of Tacitus’ anti-Nero agenda, though there is a point at which he thoroughly confuses us (and possibly himself—were Christians responsible, or are we dealing with a late [c. 5th C +] opportunistic interpolation in the text?). The point is that ancient historiography does not do forensics. It does rhetoric, and subsequent historians and poets have their own emperors to keep happy, at the expense of Nero. The exception to the non-forensic rule is Tacitus’ date for the start of the Great Fire, July 19th. But then, was that not the date the Gauls captured and burned Rome in the 4th C BC? That’s rhetoric for you.

So B. seeks out the archaeological evidence. This lies amongst ground levels that have suffered repeated fires, been cleared or just flattened, and contain materials covering a huge age range; levels which have been cut through to a considerable depth to provide foundations for what’s to follow. But B. tackles this with evidence from the most recent French, Italian and American digs. He chases the fire from the Circus Maximus around the Caelian, Palatine and Esquiline hills, shooting across to the Suburra and on to the edge of the Campus Martius, and presents the scholarly consensus of ten of fourteen districts burned out. Whatever the real extent of the destruction—and there’s a big gap between the consensus and the ancient historians—this will always be the Great Fire.

What of the responses to the disaster? In the histories there is a tangible sense of the suffering it entailed for the populace, but when the embers had cooled, something had to be done, and it seems pretty inescapable that Nero was the man to do it. For the record, it was Peter Ustinov who fiddled as the city burned, not Nero. He was seen amongst firefighters, had survivors put up in public and private buildings in the Campus Martius, paid for the clearance work and the retrieval of bodies out of his own pocket, and planned a modern, effective and regulated city with some innovative engineering techniques. Though, as Augustus knew, and as we know, regulation and compliance might not be the same thing.

But didn’t he do all this just to create space for his megalomaniac phantasy, the Golden House? Of course, it will always stay in the memory as a memorial to his treachery, but does the idea stand up? After all, would you seek to clear, by fire, an area for a (partial) new build, in the heart of a city that knows the sirocco and has a history of going up like tinder—and so close to the posh houses where the people who can actually hurt you live? And incur costs that you couldn’t meet without further antagonising the powerful? Certainly he earned the hatred of the wealthy elite, but the great populist seems not to have upset many of his plebeian fans. Perhaps they thought the Golden House might be an amenity for all?

His outrageous colossus stood intact for years in a society very prone to a little iconoclasm. He certainly kept his constituency sweet, but the elite bore the brunt of reconstruction, and were taxed until the pips squeaked. Not only that, Nero would only accept new, undamaged, high value currency, while what you got back was a denarius of poor quality and devalued by 20% of silver content. He did try to restore the value of the currency towards the end of his reign, but the slide had started and there was no way back. By the time of Septimius Severus it is 50% silver, and by the third quarter of the 3rd C, it’s one percent. At times when money is money and has value in itself, unlike the promissory notes and digital figments we deal in, that matters. Soldiers in particular get twitchy about that sort of thing. So, farewell Julio-Claudians and hail the army favourites. Nothing would be the same again.

Rome is Burning is the second in the Princeton series ‘Turning Points in Ancient History’. B.’s job was to show that AD 64 truly was a turning point, and he has achieved that by bringing together wide-ranging and up to date evidence to present the state-of-the-art view of the fire of 64, and its reception down the millennia in film and ballet etc., that will satisfy both scholar and interested layman.

Adrian Spooner