Rome is Burning by Anthony A. Barrett

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The title of this authoritative work suggests that the author’s subject will be the specific fire of 64 C.E. that burned down large portions of Nero’s Rome. This turns out to be the case except it’s a ‘friends with benefits’ situation. We learn a great deal about that specific fire together with other conflagrations such as the fires that accompanied the sack of Rome in 390 BC and the fire that destroyed much of contemporary Rome in 80 C.E.

Barrett cautions his readers against ascribing too much specific detail to fires in ancient times as reliable records were almost universally unavailable before the fourth century of the modern era. To understand something of ‘Nero’s fire’, recourse has to be made to three unsatisfactory sources – Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio – a narrow selection that modern scholars of more current events would never accept as a sufficient basis from which to draw conclusions.  With events as remote in time as 64 C.E. one takes whatever one can get.

Barrett’s book is constructed with care. He begins with an account in general terms and proceeds to particular events. Chapter One focuses on the background of Nero as emperor, on what sources of information tell us about him and about the fire that impacted his reign with such calamitous force. The chapter concludes with an essay on the city itself. The next chapter places the fire of 64 C.E. within the known record and considers the practices that authorities adopted to deal with fire. Barrett then provides a reconstruction of the Great Fire before moving on to the case against Nero. Two chapters follow, the first dealing with the persecution of Christians, the next with the architectural transformations of Rome. An assessment of the fire’s contribution to the subsequent historical development of Rome follows.

In the Prologue Barrett introduces a concept that does not sit easy with me. This is ‘inevitability’ (4). He claims “all ruling dynasties have inevitably…[ended]…Nero’s premature death and the end of the Julio-Claudian line may both have been inevitable, but they happened when they did as a consequence of the aftermath of the Great Fire. Their ultimate historical inevitability does not make that event any less of a turning point” (4). It is odd to be arguing that Nero’s suicide was inevitable i.e. an action resulting from a human decision is inevitable? I’m most uncomfortable with the notion of ‘historical inevitability’ and remember that it was debated extensively in the 1980s (?) and discredited. Barrett never refers openly to the notion again and is a minor point in his major thesis.

Barrett offers a comprehensive examination, as far as our limited source material will allow, of the occurrence of fires in the ancient world, as distinct from specific events. He does not hesitate to include the Great Fire of London in 1666 as illustrative material. He makes clear that, to understand phenomena that occurred long ago, scholars must examine literary sources relevant to the time together with archaeological evidence. With both sources of information there are difficulties.

The chief literary sources are barely adequate. Tacitus (55 – 120?) had advantages both in being a historian and in accessing the Naturalis Historiae of Pliny. However, he provides little specific detail about the Great Fire and his antipathy towards Nero is palpable. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a biographer who, while capable of serious research, was as likely to accept folk tales as truth and report to suit purposes other than historical fact. His goal seems to be swayed towards reporting contentious issues at the expense of the mundane but true. Finally, Cassius Dio Cocceianus, born long after the Neronian Period, arranges his History of Rome annalistically but suffers from a penchant for reporting gossip and introducing distortion. Dio is hostile to Nero for not altogether plausible reasons.

Archaeological sources are of little value for our understanding of the Great Fire. Nero undertook a major building program that saw much of the debris transported by ship and dumped as fill for the swamps at the mouth of the Tiber, the remainder levelled to make space for Nero’s Golden House. To complicate matters Rome has been subject to other fires over the centuries. Barrett mentions fires that did extensive damage as occurring in 213 B.C., 80 C.E. and cites Dio who writes about a huge fire under Commodus in 192 C.E. The point is that Rome burned many times and to distinguish the remains of one from others is very difficult.

A point Barrett makes had never occurred to me but is important. Not only do we not know the name of a single individual who perished in the fire, we do not even know how many people died. We can only guess at the number of people living in Rome. Barrett supplies figures that give an estimate of Roman citizens but many were not. We can estimate from Barrett’s third chapter the extent of the fire, how many days it burned, where it began, and its destructive power vis-à-vis the fire of 80 C.E. We have a much clearer idea from Barrett’s fourth chapter who had to wear the responsibility for the event. It is fascinating to understand that Nero was not explicitly accused until 96 C.E. Chapter Five is a long section on The New Rome and, with Barrett’s pen, we learn of Nero’s abilities as an administrator, builder, and leader of men.

Barrett explains the significance for Rome of the Great Fire. There was extensive physical damage but much, much more. Chapter Seven discusses the reasons why 64 C.E. has had such significance to Romans ever since. The Epilogue follows the idea of Nero as the Anti-Christ and then follows the depiction of his character through the centuries to modern times. Barrett writes at his best in this segment and, given that his communication skills are of a high level at all times, that is high praise indeed. The man is articulate, clear in his thinking, and writes with fluidity and interest.

Rome is Burning: Nero and the Fire that Ended a Dynasty


By Anthony A. Barrett

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 9780691172316

$US29.95; 368 pp 

Hardback | Jan 2021 | Princeton University Press | 9780691172316 | 368pp | 235x155mm | GEN | AUD$49.99, NZD$59.99


🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?