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Incendiary Memories: The Intermediality of Nero in Flavian Poetics and Politics

Virginia Closs

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

In the years following Nero’s death, authors and leaders alike were intent on advancing a set of images and narratives designed to further tarnish Nero’s memory, even as they laid claim to the purported ideals of Augustus, his dynasty’s founder. Evidence from multiple forms of representation suggests the totalizing and intermedial nature of this project. To give only the most iconic example, the vituperation of Nero’s memory and renewal of Augustan-style civic building was implicitly suggested by the Flavian Amphitheater, built on the outline of Nero’s private lake; it found further and more explicit expression, however, in Martial’s Spect. 2 (Coleman; Rimell; Roman). In this paper, I explore the intermediality inherent in Flavian-era commemorations of Nero’s most salient failure in leadership (at least, as hostile Flavian rhetoric would have it): the Great Fire of 64 CE.

Under the Flavians, a new vision of Rome’s urban fabric arose around its inhabitants; this new city was, in essence, a monument to the catastrophes of the past, since this Nova Roma was in all likelihood built according to the regulations Nero had laid out after 64 (Mart. Ep. 5.7.3; cf. the description in Tac. Ann. 15.43 and see Closs). At the same time, the Great Fire seems to have generated a field of contested aetiologies. Some of these blame Nero for starting the blaze with various explanations of his motivations. Others address the ongoing problem of fire more indirectly, suggesting that subsequent rulers who experience disasters may become, as it were, “tarred with Nero’s brush.”

In the historical drama Octavia, the range of incendiary metaphors used to illustrate Nero’s collapsing dynasty fuse together with the proleptic anticipation of his signature catastrophe (Kragelund 1982 and 2016; Smith; Ginsberg). Uniquely in the Neronian tradition, this play asserts that the decision to burn Rome was actually made in 62 CE; at the play’s conclusion (Oct. 831-57), Nero devises the plan as revenge against the people for their short-lived resistance to his plans to divorce his dynastic bride Octavia and marry Poppaea. As I argue, such a motivation is much less easily dismissed than the megalomaniacal mytho-poeticizing ambitions of a dead emperor (the most frequent interpretation of Nero’s alleged arson). Instead, the Octavia suggests that the 64 fire was the result of a confrontation between the emperor and his people, an ongoing source of risk and unease for ruler and ruled alike in imperial Rome.

In the fabric of the city, the so-called Arae Incendii Neroniani, a presumed set of monumental altars dedicated to Vulcan in fulfillment of a vow dating back to the Neronian Fire, reaffirm Julio-Claudian notions of civic identity, collective memory, and the ruler’ s privileged relationship with the gods. These structures constitute a conspicuous form of posthumous reproach to Nero as well as, perhaps, diverting blame for more recent misfortunes such as the Fire of 80 CE. Likewise, Martial’s Ep. 5.7, which presents Rome as a phoenix rising from the ashes, is easily read as a reference to the Domitian’s restoration of the cityscape after the fire of 80 CE. Yet in a broader sense, both Martial’s poem and Domitian’s altars provide a reflection of Rome’s transformation under the Flavians, in which Julio-Claudian notions of identity, eternity and the leader’s privileged relationship with the gods are all acknowledged and adjusted.

Together, these examples sketch a portrait of a city that, even as it recovers under the Flavians, continues to be haunted by Nero’s legacy as much as by threat of renewed destruction. Thus, the newly minted historical narratives concerning Nero’s incendiary reign worked in concert with the physical realities of urban life to produce a potent blend of politics and poetics.

Session/Panel Title

The Writing on the Wall: The Intersection of Flavian Literary and Material Culture

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