The Great Fire of Rome: of fake news, conspiracy, and social disruption

There is perhaps no other reason to write about Nero than the fact that the Great Fire of Rome occurred in July, starting on July 18th to be precise, and ending on July 27th, 64 A.D., once little or nothing was left of the built environment in ten out of fourteen districts of what was then the largest city on earth, with close to a million inhabitants. A lot has been written about this fire, so that there is no reason to dwell upon it. Apart from archeology, our main sources about this event are Tacitus’s Annals, Suetonius’s Life of the Twelve Ceasars, and Cassius Dio’s Roman History. These three major Roman historians wrote about the Fire from hearsay or from documents, not as witnesses; only Tacitus was already born, but eight years old at the time of the event. Cluvius Rufus was most probably his primary source for the reigns of Claudius and Nero, although nothing remains of his writings.  

Suffice it to say that most of the city was built in wood, with modest people sleeping on straw couches, that streets were very narrow in a generally chaotic, unplanned urban environment, that running water was unavailable in most places, and that all the lighting and cooking was from live fire. Although many fires occurred regularly, it is a miracle that the city had not been burnt to the ground at an earlier date. In his wisdom, emperor Augustus had created the first ever permanent firemen squad, the cohortes vigiles, after a great fire which occurred in 6 A.D.; the cohortes reached 7000 men, mostly freed slaves (“liberti”), during the second century A.D., and were organized in cohorts of a thousand men each under military-like discipline. They had a standard equipment which included axes, ropes, buckets and rudimentary pumps (siphones), of little use once the fire had passed a modest dimension. Vigiles also acted as night-guards.

What is known from Tacitus is that the fire started in the eastern part of the Circus Maximus, in one of the innumerable shops and warehouses that constituted in practice a giant supermarket and surrounded the arena below the wooden stands. It was then propagated towards the north-east by a strong wind, most probably the south-westerly Libeccio which can blow at any time of the year.

As is well known, this fire was attributed to Nero himself, who would have wanted it perhaps to rebuild the city according to his own, megalomaniac fantasy.

Let us now read a few words from Cassius Dio’s (155 – 235 A.D.) Roman History (book 62,16-18) : “Nero had the wish—or rather it had always been a fixed purpose of his—to make an end of the whole city in his lifetime. Priam he deemed wonderfully happy in that he had seen Troy perish at the same moment his authority over her ended. Accordingly, Nero sent out by different ways men feigning to be drunk, or engaged in some kind of mischief, and at first had a few fires kindled quietly and in different quarters; people, naturally, were thrown into extreme confusion, not being able to find either the cause of the trouble nor to end it; and meantime met with many strange sights and sounds. They ran about as if distracted, and some rushed one way, some another… This state of things lasted not one day, but several days and nights running. Many houses were destroyed through lack of defenders; and many were actually fired in more places by professed rescuers… While the whole people was in this state of excitement, and many driven mad by calamity were leaping into the blaze, Nero mounted upon the roof of the palace, where almost the whole conflagration was commanded by a sweeping glance, put on the professional harpist’s garb, and sang « The Sack of Troy » (so he asserted), although to common minds, it seemed to be « The Sack of Rome. » The disaster which the city then underwent, had no parallel save in the Gallic invasion.”

Let us now read Suetonius (c.70 – c. 122 A.D.), from his Life of the Twelve Ceasars published in 121 A.D.:

For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and fire-brands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in « the beauty of the flames, » he sang the whole of the « Sack of Ilium, » in his regular stage costume.”

Let us now read the earliest of the three accounts, the one written by Tacitus, who actually lived at the time of the fire (Annals XV,38) (Translation of Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb): “A disaster followed—whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts; worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. It had its beginning in that part of the Circus …. The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them; it outstripped all preventive measures, so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets which characterized old Rome. Added to this were the wailings of terror-stricken women, the feebleness of age, the helpless inexperience of childhood; the crowds who sought to save themselves or others, dragging out the infirm or waiting for them, and by their hurry in the one case, by their delay in the other, aggravating the confusion…. At last, doubting what they should avoid or whither to betake themselves, they crowded the streets or flung themselves down in the fields; while some who had lost their all, even their very daily bread, and others out of love for the kinsfolk whom they had been unable to rescue, perished, though escape was open to them. And no one dared to stop the mischief, because of incessant menaces from a number of persons who forbade the extinguishing of the flames; or because again others openly hurled brands and kept shouting that there was one who gave them authority, either seeking to plunder more freely, or obeying orders. Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his house, which he had built to connect the palace with the gardens of Mæcenas. It could not however be stopped from devouring the palace, the house, and everything around it. However, to relieve the people, driven out homeless as they were, he threw open to them the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens; and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude. Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck. These acts, though popular, produced no effect; since a rumor had gone forth everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the Emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity.”

What can be inferred from these writings is that the later ones have tended to borrow from the previous ones, with Tacitus admitting that “authors have given both accounts” and mentioning “rumors”. History in those days had obviously not developed its current methodology, a methodology ignored still today by most people making reference to history for political or ideological motives. History was a narrative, borrowing often in equal manner from facts, documents, stories, hearsay, and legend. Despite his qualifications, Tacitus nevertheless gives the impression that there might be something about these rumors which make Nero the devilish will behind the disaster. A version fully endorsed by Suetonius and Cassius Dio, and which played a decisive role in the story of Nero setting aflame the city for his own enjoyment, while playing the lyre and singing dressed as if on a stage. In a sense, one of the earliest and best know “fake news” in history.

Nero made extraordinary efforts, and indeed took fast and appropriate measures to relieve the population and to rebuild the city in such a manner as to greatly reduce the repetition of such a risk: “Of Rome meanwhile, so much as was left unoccupied by his mansion, was not built up, as it had been after its burning by the Gauls, without any regularity or in any fashion, but with rows of streets according to measurement, with broad thoroughfares, with a restriction on the height of houses, with open spaces, and the further addition of colonnades, as a protection to the frontage of the blocks of tenements. These colonnades Nero promised to erect at his own expense, and to hand over the open spaces, when cleared of the débris, to the ground landlords. He also offered rewards proportioned to each person’s position and property… The buildings themselves, to a certain height, were to be solidly constructed, without wooden beams…” (Annals, XV, 43). Despite all of these efforts, there was no way to quench the conviction among large segments of the population that a disaster of such magnitude could only be the result of somebody’s decision, and who could that be in a regime where the Emperor was all-powerful, and viewed himself as a semi-god, but Cesar himself? Tacitus again: “But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” (Annals, XV, 44).

Let us step back a little, and consider why such a rumor was credible in the first place. Nero, a nephew of Caligula, was raised as a child by such people as Chaeremon of Alexandria, a sacred scribe, Babilus, a reputed astrologer fascinated by Egypt, and of course Seneca who had lived in Egypt. Egypt fascinated the Romans, and since Egypt had become a part of the Roman Republic in 30 B.C., the Roman Cesar was also a successor of the pharaohs, and assimilated to the sun-god. Seneca insisted a lot on the idea of a ruler designated by divine providence and governing according to universal reason.

Suetonius hints at this designation by the Sun-God when he writes: “Nero was born at Antium nine months after the death of Tiberius… just as the sun rose, so that he was touched by its rays almost before he could be laid upon the ground”. Nero will always be dominated by this feeling; he will, for instance, entertain a relationship to gold which is directly derived from the Egyptians’ assimilation of this sacred metal to the sun-god. Hence his building of the extravagant Domus Aurea, covered in gold sheet, or the games where Nero appeared dressed as Apollo, the god who drives the chariot of the sun… This “oriental” religious and deeply superstitious mentality is key to understand Nero’s drift towards absolute power and megalomaniac attitudes, and as a consequence, the perception by the general population that he was capable of anything he might fancy.

After having had his son Britannicus assassinated in 55 A.D., for fear that he might aspire to replace him with the complicity of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, after having Agrippina assassinated in March 59, after having his virtuous and repudiated wife Octavia, the daughter of the extravagant Messalina, assassinated on 9th June 62, after the “purges” which followed the first treason trials of his reign in 62, one could be forgiven to assume that the Emperor was capable of anything, and he certainly was, despite six or seven years of highly successful and prudent government, until the dismissal of Seneca and the (natural) death of Burrus in 62 A.D.: “The death of Burrus was a blow to Seneca’s power, for virtue had not the same strength when one of its companions, so to say, was removed, and Nero too began to lean on worse advisers”. (Annals, XIV, 52).

Nero indulged more and more in an extravagant behaviour, inspired by his oriental fantasies and solar mythology, and kept stepping onto the stage, singing, acting, participating in chariot races and other games of the circus. His behaviour, though odd, cannot be considered as entirely irrational. Similarly to Caligula, he kept humiliating the upper classes; let us read Suetonius: “At the gladiatorial show, which he gave in a wooden amphitheater, erected in the district of the Campus Martius within the space of a single year, he had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena.”  This mix of games, amorality, permanent expression of exuberance and abasing of the nobility brought him popularity, helped him bypass the Senate, and constituted in a sense an ancient equivalent of today’s “populism”. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who attempted to harmonize the Torah with Stoic philosophy, conducted an embassy to Caligula in 38 A.D.; he later described a fairly egalitarian state of affairs under that emperor, where “the wealthy did not go past the poor, nor celebrities past the obscure…circumstances provided equality”. Caligula went too far in his ruinous initiatives and “personality cult”, just as Nero would a few years later. Rome was not ready for an Oriental monarchy, so radically opposed to its values and traditions.

No historian believes today that Nero was responsible for the Great Fire of 64 A.D., in which he lost immense art collections which were dear to him, risked a popularity that was an important base of his power, and ultimately gave propaganda weapons to his enemies. Nero’s efforts to address the disaster from all possible angles demonstrate a rational, timely and competent reaction, as admitted by Tacitus himself. As for the accounts of Suetonius and Cassius Dio, they are written more than sixty years later under a different regime, that of the Flavians, when the memory of Nero had long since become indefensible for anyone with any ambition. None of the reasons invoked for Nero to order the fire makes much sense: an aesthetic pleasure, to recreate “live” the great fire that destroyed Troy after the victory of the Greeks; the will to reconstruct Rome in accordance with his grandiose plans; the will to eliminate the Christians, who were accused of having set the fire. The former is a romantic fantasy; the other motives could have been achieved by mere acts of government, and the Christians were still at that time an irrelevant minority in Rome. It is rather the reverse that makes sense: the ruling classes that had been so humiliated and sidelined by Nero found an opportunity to get rid of him, and indeed the year after the fire, a first plot was organized. It failed miserably, ending up in the direct or indirect murder of much of the “intellectuals” of the time, from Lucan to Thrasea Paetus to Seneca. It would be another three years until a plot would lead to Nero’s death by “unavoidable suicide” in 68 A.D.  

Another paradoxical beneficiary of the event – although through martyrdom – was the Christian community, still quite small at the time of Nero, and hardly distinguished from the Jews in general by the Romans. This community was profoundly disliked by the elites as it obviously did not accept to acknowledge, even by paying lip service, the “divinity” of the Emperor, and it viewed all men as being of equal dignity, which implicitly questioned the legitimacy of slavery, a basis of the economy during the whole Antiquity, while representing a powerful potential for rebellion of the masses. Suetonius in particular had harsh words about “the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition”. Although they suffered greatly under the first persecution, martyrdom would represent in the long run a powerful cement for the community, and numerous models of sanctity to be admired and imitated.

The powerful image of Nero watching Rome burn while he sings on his terrace has endured for centuries, however, reinforced first by a current of romantic paintings, and in the first half of the 20th century by the  cinema, which could not resist such an exciting story, for what is more exciting than a mix of disaster, decadence, injustice and death in the circus ? Decadence and demonic malevolence are irresistible forces, they need no proof, other than repetition, because they are deemed inherent to individuals of power. They must be admired or loathed, there is no middle ground when real power is at stake. Any hint is sufficient to build the case against them, in the times of Nero as today. A lot of the conspiracy theories which have flooded social networks on the occasion of the recent pandemic have similar roots and mechanisms as those at work in 64 A.D., though circumstances and ideologies obviously differ: when a crisis hits, malevolence is immediately associated to power because something deeply rooted in our cultures relates power and destruction. Physical power is fore and foremost the power to constrain, to destroy, to defeat, to overcome, this is the power of the hero on the battlefield of Troy. Chance, or a complex combination of causes and effects, are often discarded as explanations: humans need to accuse, they need a scapegoat. We are at the heart of the mechanism so brilliantly described in the works of René Girard.

Literature has contributed to reinforcing this ancient “fake news”; one of best-known examples is of course Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1896), a love story between a Christian woman and a Roman patrician set in Rome Acts of Peter, as quo vadis, Domine ? are the words uttered by Saint Peter when he meets the resurrected Christ met on the Appian way. Let us read a few lines at the end of chapter XLI: “Pardon, divine Imperator,” said Phaon, with panting voice, “there is a conflagration in Rome! The greater part of the city is in flames!” At this news all sprang from their seats. “O gods! I shall see a burning city and finish the Troyad,” said Nero, setting aside his lute. Then he turned to the consul,—“If I go at once, shall I see the fire?” “Lord,” answered Lecanius, as pale as a wall, “the whole city is one sea of flame; smoke is suffocating the inhabitants, and people faint, or cast themselves into the fire from delirium. Rome is perishing, lord.” A moment of silence followed, which was broken by the cry of Vinicius,— “Væ misero mihi!” And the young man, casting his toga aside, rushed forth in his tunic. Nero raised his hands and exclaimed,— “Woe to thee, sacred city of Priam!”.

This novel was adapted at least five times to the cinema, starting by Quo Vadis ? by Lucien Longuet and Ferdinand Zecca in 1901, Quo Vadis ? by Enrico Guazzoni in 1913 and Quo Vadis ? by Gabriellino d’Annunzio and Georg Jacoby in 1924, before the Hollywoodian Quo Vadis ? by Mervin LeRoy with Peter Ustinov in 1951, and more recently Quo Vadis ? by Jerzy Kawalerowicz in 2001. One can notice en passant that ideology and film-making are close brothers: in the last 70 years, the only adaptation of this major novel with a pro-Christian underlying message is by a Polish director…

The other unmissable peplum movie made around the Great Fire of Rome is The Sign of the Cross by Cecil B. DeMille in 1932, starring the charming Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea. In all of these, and other films, the responsibility of Nero in fomenting the fire is rather clearly suggested. So that literature and the cinema could not resist, and who would blame them for this, a good story of dubious reality. A good story stands a much better chance at blossoming than a more banal one; chance is a boring character.

The attitude attributed to Nero combines some very powerful characteristics when producing an image. Contrast is an obvious one: the contrast between a disaster as Rome had not seen since the Gallic invasion four centuries before, and its ruler singing a poem while watching the fire, as if death and destruction were a mere spectacle. Such a contrast represents an ethical monstrosity, it immediately speaks to our feelings, bypassing rationality. Viciousness strikes more powerfully the mind than goodness, at least as an image. A second characteristic of such an image is that the story can be told by merely coupling the two sides of the drama: the fire, with its warm colours on one side, and the emperor indulging in his undisturbed, cynical and solipsistic act of voyeurism on the other side: a story easy to synthetise visually. It also invites a visual structure whereby the means of the theater are in a way redoubled: the Emperor looks at the scene from his terrace or some other viewpoint, and we look at the Emperor looking at the scene, as if we were ourselves part of this voyeuristic system. Cinema posters will abundantly use this easy scenography. Last but not least, we have the angle of persecutions, a favourite of romantic imagery.

Last but not least, there is a second voyeuristic angle to the event, and that is the persecution ordered by Nero in the aftermath of the fire to try and quell the unpleasant rumor, a remedy which – as so often in such circumstances – could also look as if it were a distraction or a remedy, thus reinforcing the likelihood of the rumor in the eyes of those who were already half convinced.

Martyrdom, and cruelty more generally, has a magnificent quality which is to mesmerize; this is why it was performed in the circus in the first place: violence, suspense, screaming (even if only assumed) and horror, all seen from the relative tranquility of the stands, all generate a myriad of images from which it is hard to look away. When looking at the image which depicts such a scene, we are ourselves on the stands, perhaps just on the other side of the arena, in even greater tranquility. Little wonder that one of the very first films ever, and the first “peplum movie” for sure, is a fifty seconds film titled Nero trying poisons on a slave by George Hatot, produced by the Lumière brothers, and shot in 1896… A film to be followed by The Execution of Joan of Arch, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise and The Death of Marat. Death sells, from the very first days of the cinema. Not only is adrenaline released by the spectacle of violence, which is a fairly basic response of evolution, but the sight of death or suffering through the mediation of an image, rather than the real thing which can be off-putting, invites attention irrespective of its aesthetic qualities and its underlying message. And what is an image for, if it does not invite to see?  

Nero trying poisons on a slave (1896)

One can have a quick look at some of the paintings which have been inspired by the Great Fire “fake”. They are basically divided in two groups: the ones which focus on the enjoyment or perversity of the tyrant during the event, and the ones which focus on the aftermath, the persecution of the Christians: two sides of the same coin, perhaps, but with different ideological motivations and “messages” as the former insist on the outrageousness of tyranny and are therefore “republican” by implication, with Reason as the natural safeguard, while the latter insist on sacrifice in the face of the malignity of paganism, and view Christianity as the safeguard.

The extraordinary canvas painted by Hubert Robert in 1771 is a masterpiece in combining the awful and the sublime. The choice of painting the fire at night provides a dramatic intensity which is enhanced by the back-lit effect of the fire behind the bridge. Ruins are of course a synecdoche for civilization, the apparent eternity of stone belied by the violence of history. The statue on top of the bridge – probably the statue of Nero himself – unequivocally symbolizes the fall of the ancient world, a prophetic vision eighteen years before the French Revolution. Hubert Robert only represents female characters fleeing from the blaze, one with her child: this is life continuing, a new world to be built and which the small boat on the forefront lets us foresee. In the 18th century, drama was not held in great esteem, as it fits poorly with the steadfastness and valour which were always dominant values for any aristocracy. One needs wait the romantic eruption in order to express visually the full potential of the story from Tacitus and Suetonius.

Hubert Robert – The Fire of Rome (1771)

Let us consider three examples of that rendering of the subject in chronological order. The first one is by Karl Theodor von Piloty (1826 – 1886), a German artist who painted in 1861 Nero in the Ruins of Rome, a scene where Nero strolls among the fuming ruins, very much like a cinema poster of the 1950s. His being held responsible for the fire can be deducted from the observation that the group of people on the forefront is moving away from him with hardly a glance at him, their features as if closed in reprobation, while the two young children in the background look at him in terror: this is a reversal of the norm, where the emperor is the centre of all attentions, and people stand still, prostrating themselves in front of the supreme authority. A subtle allusion to guilt, and a very precise reading of the words of Tacitus.

Theodor von Piloty – Nero in the Ruins of Rome (1861)

Pietro Aldi (1852 – 1888) is an academic painter, hardly relevant to art history; what is of interest in his Nero Contemplates the Fire of Rome (1887), which was never finished, is the combination of an imagery of decadence with the original story. In 64 A.D., Rome was still a formidable and ascending power, very far from its decadence as popularized – and largely fantasized – by Edward Gibbon a century earlier. But Nero was known for its debauchery and amorality, just as Caligula who was thought to sleep with his sisters, in Ptolemaic fashion. So that decadence was symbolized with sex, forbidden or not, and sex with a sign of indifference to the fate of the masses. In Aldi’s unfinished canvas, Nero’s naked hetaerae are the only characters already in colour…

Pietro Aldi – Nero Contemplates the Fire of Rome (1887)

In the 19th century, decadence became an ideal pretext to paint exciting naked women. The Romans in their Decadence (1847), by Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879), is a perfect example of an early association of morality with political fate, an association which can be observed in most contemporary democracies, as if morality were a proxy for statesmanship… If we look at Couture’s canvas, we can distinguish two levels: below, a kind of orgy with its inevitable mix of sex and drinking. Above, the marble statues of the great rulers and the grand architecture of Rome at the time of its pinnacle. Marble above, flesh below. Order above, confusion below. Straight, perpendicular lines above, an interlacing of bodily curves below. People standing above, reclining below. Eternity suggested above, death suggested below, with the central female character seemingly in agony. Presented at the Salon in 1847, one year before the definitive fall of the French monarchy, The Romans in their Decadence seemed to refer to the corrupt moors of the ruling classes, and foreshadow their demise.

Thomas Couture – The Romans in their Decadence (1847)

The lines of the poet Juvenal, a contemporary of Tacitus, « Crueller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world« , were quoted by Couture as an comment on his work. Although still of a neo-classical style, the ongoing orgy points at the origins of the demise of this great empire. If Rome burnt, it was because the austere, traditional, uncorrupted values of the Roman Republic had been disregarded. The flames are a punishment brought upon Rome for its treason of the Republic.

In Aldi’s work, painted fifty years after Couture’s giant canvas, neoclassicism is gone. The girls on the foreground definitely look like naked girls, not some abstract concept of debauchery, a lot like in Eduard Buchler’s Great Fire of Rome, an otherwise mediocre canvas; both painters loosely borrow – from the perspective of composition – from Raffaello’s School of Athens (1508 – 1512), in one of the four Stanze in the Vatican, which is a counterpoint to the image of decadence as it represents a “portrait” of an idealized humanity.

Jan Styka’s Nero at Baiae (1900) employs different means, as instead of narrating the scene, he draws the lesson in a symbolic manner: the Emperor looks at the scene from his marble throne, but a scene which we do not see. We understand the subject exclusively from the strange redness of the sky. A tiger rests his head on Nero’s lap: a symbol of power and bestiality that acts as an emblem of the tyrant, whose mood and thoughts remain impenetrable. His face betrays no emotions whatsoever: he is a man without a soul. Therefore, he must be guilty.    

Jan Styka – Nero at Baiae (1900)

As mentioned, the “other side” of the Great Fire is the first of the five great persecutions of the Christians in ancient Rome, and the one which saw the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul, although it remains unclear if, on this first occasion, the Christians were persecuted because of their faith or because they were the easiest scapegoat under the circumstances. It was to be followed by the ones of Domitian (81 – 96), Trajan (98 – 117), Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180) and Septimius Severus (193 – 211).

Two works by the Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 – 1902) are particularly relevant in this regard: A Christian Dirce (1897), and of course Nero’s Torches (1882). He did study under Karl von Piloty in Munich, but greatly exceeds his professor in terms of technical ability, complexity of the composition, and overall conception of the work; the Greek-Roman Antiquity and the New Testament were his main sources inspiration. In Nero’s Torches, we are faced with the chilling spectacle of Christians of all ages about to be set aflame, precisely as torches, in front of Nero, his court, servants and hetaera all sitting as if in a theatre. The association between monstrosity, decadence and Empire could not be stronger… By an interesting coincidence, Siemiradzki was working on sketches of Nero’s Torches at the same time as Sienkiewicz was  starting to write Quo Vadis

Henryk Siemiradzki – Nero’s Torches (1882)

As for A Christian Dirce (1897), it was painted the year after the publication of Quo Vadis as a novel (1896), and can be thought of as an illustration of one of its episodes. The painting reinterprets the Greek myth of Dirce who was killed attached to the horns of a bull, a scene that will have a quasi-immediate posterity on the screen as it appears in the silent film Quo Vadis in 1913.

Nero watches with some satisfaction the body of a dead naked woman, still tied with flowery bonds to a dead black bull, lying on the sand of the arena. The Emperor is sadistic, depraved, draped in vain glory. The young woman has a very pale skin, draped in a white cloth: a symbol of purity. The bull is as black as can be: he represents the forces of chaos, blind violence, the netherworld. A lyre is presented to the Emperor: perhaps this scene will inspire him to sing. But why did he come in his sedan chair down into the arena, to watch this dead young woman? Is it not because he is the ultimate murderer, and because his intuition tells him that the sacrifice of this Dirce will bring down his reign ? The perplexity of the other onlookers, whatever their social rank, seems to make this statement.

Henryk Siemiradzki – A Christian Dirce (1897)

Again, it is because of the whiteness and nakedness of the woman’s body that one’s eye is initially attracted, as this clarity exposed on the immediate foreground contrasts with all the surroundings, and because of the contrast between this fragile beauty and the strong, massive bull cannot remain unnoticed. All but three characters watch her body, and their eyes lead our own to the same object. We then see Nero, and despite his embroidered toga he seems deprived of his glory by the martyr. Just as the episodes of the Old Testament were interpreted in Christian theology as foretelling what would be revealed in the New Testament, it would seem that the Christian martyrdom was foretelling, and hastening, the fall of Rome. The Great Fire could be read in retrospect as a symbol of the fall of Rome, but it most certainly was felt the same way in 64 B.C. because of the enduring memory of the Gauls of Brennus setting the city on fire in 390 B.C.: Tacitus cannot help remembering it (Annals XV, 43) four centuries after the fact. The retribution for the persecution caused by the Fire would be the Fall. Fire and Fall cannot be separated, and sacrifice – or martyrdom – is what mysteriously, supernaturally binds them, according to such images. Thomas Cole, in his famous painting The Course of Empire, Destruction (1836), captures better than most this idea: the giant statue of Roman history is headless, the Eternal City in flames. Innumerable desperate people are attempting to flee.  The sky itself seems in a state of wrath: it is Apocalypse made history.

Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire, Destruction (1836)

It is easy to draw a parallel between the accusations held against Nero and today’s “fake news”; rumor and calumny are as old as humanity. The same could be said of conspiracy theories, which the Jews and other minorities – the Christians in the case of Nero’s fabrication – have been familiar with for centuries at their detriment. One needs only an appearance of rationality to start it. Actually, in the case of the Great Fire, the public opinion seems to have first held the Jews responsible because the Jewish borough, on the other side of the Tiber, had not been damaged at all. How, why, and by whom the Christians ended up being accused, we do not know.   

What is of more interest perhaps is the nature of the narrative that is required for an interpretation to take ground and endure. It does require a number of prerequisites, such as the deemed malevolence of those in power, which in the case of Nero was prepared, so to speak, by his acts of cruelty and extravagance. It also requires an image, something that the imagination can immediately grasp and “work on”. By bringing together Nero’s cruelty, megalomania, and immoderate love for music and poetry, three well-grounded facts, the image of the emperor singing while watching the city being consumed became possible, and even plausible. Never mind the fact that Nero was at Antium, some sixty kilometers away, when the fire started: it could have been a trick to pretend that he had no part in it. The principle of that “image”, whether presented in words or picture, is association.

Cinema posters tend to capture particularly well the key principles at work, and are particularly good at association. One only need look at the poster for the 1951 peplum, pictured below, as recently restored by the great illustrator Cyrus Rouhani.

While in the case of martyrdom, the principle is expectation: we are terrified by what is about to happen, because through some inevitable empathy brought about by the picture, the state of mind of the person expecting torment with certainty verges on the unbearable, and empathy makes us share some of this state of mind. But implicit also in the paintings with persecutions as their subject is a reversal of Thomas Couture’s rhetoric : Nero and its group are the decadents, the ones about to disappear, while the heroes, the victors, the ascending ones are the Christians. Couture, Aldi, Buchler have shown us the ones on their way down, Siemiradzki the ones on their way up. Death is the path to a new life, a new order, with the Great Fire of Rome the symbolic catalyst of this renewal. The fake accusation turns into the unintended transformer of society.

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