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The Memory of Fire and the Rebuilding of the City

Salvador Bartera

Mississippi State University

The transmission of Tacitus’ text has deprived us of his narrative of Domitian’s principate, which the historian would have handled in the later books of the Histories. Tacitus had first-hand experience of Domitian’s principate, during which his political career excelled: he was both a praetor and quindecimvir sacris faciundis. As quindecimvir, Tacitus probably played an important role in the organization of the ludi saeculares that Domitian celebrated in 88 CE, which he narrated in one of the lost books of the Histories, as we can infer from Ann. 11.11.1, where Tacitus records Claudius’ Secular Games (satis narratas libris quibus res imperatoris Domitiani composui). Not only did Tacitus live through the political vicissitudes of the Flavian Age; he also lived through the physical transformations that the city of Rome witnessed in those years. The ambitious building program of the Flavians, which fell especially upon Domitian to bring to completion, had the symbolic meaning of “re-founding” a city that had been almost destroyed by a civil war. Tacitus could be laconically brief, e.g., with regard to Tiberius’ interventions (6.45.1), or very detailed, as when he recalls Nero’s building program after the Great Fire of 64. But he is never indifferent.

What remains of the Histories has preserved little of the Flavians’ building program, and almost nothing of Domitian’s interventions. But Tacitus’ narrative account of the fire of 69 (3.71-4) provides us with an indication of Tacitus’ attitude towards a symbolic building of Flavian Rome. In December 69, when the Vitellian forces sieged the Capitol, where the young Domitian and his uncle Sabinus were hiding, a fire ensued that destroyed the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Vespasian rebuilt the temple, but it burned again in 80. Domitian was the one who gave it the shape that it retained for centuries. The destruction of the Capitol shares significant similarities with the Great Fire of 64 (Ann. 15.38-44), which in turns recalls the Gallic sack of 390 BCE. But the archetype of these descriptions is ultimately the sack of Troy (Aen. 2). While fire causes destruction, it also triggers reconstruction and rebuilding. Aeneas, Camillus, Nero, and ultimately the Flavians, all contributed to Rome’s founding, or re-founding. Nero and the Flavians, however, may also have been responsible for the destruction that preceded the reconstruction, an ambiguity that did not escape Tacitus (Hist. 3.71.4): hic ambigitur, ignem tectis obpugnatores iniecerint, an obsessi). Nor does Tacitus refrain from highlighting the symbolic significance of the fire (Hist. 3.72.1): Id facinus post conditam urbem luctuosissimum foedissimumque rei publicae populi Romani accidit … sedem Iovis Optimi Maximi auspicato a maioribus pignus imperii conditam, quam non Porsenna dedita urbe neque Galli capta temerare potuissent, furore principum excindi. The fire activates the memory of the past, creating a bridge, as it were, with the present destruction. Past and present, founding and destruction, republic and principate: all these dichotomies are triggered by the fire-narrative. It is obvious that Tacitus’ narrative looks at the past as much as into the future, that is, Domitian’s rebuilding. Domitian was just a youth during the events of 69, but Tacitus did not refrain from recording his cowardice (Hist. 3.74.1; cf. Suet. Dom. 1.2): this is indeed the first real accomplishment of Domitian in the Histories. Domitian later celebrated his ‘role’ in the siege of 69 with a sacellum to Jupiter Conservator and a temple to Jupiter Custos. Tacitus’ account contrasts markedly with the flattery of the Flavian writers (Mart. 9.101, Stat. Silv. 1.1.79, Sil. 3.609). It is perhaps significant that, in Tacitus’ description of the first rebuilding of the Capitol (Hist. 4.53), which he recalls with unusual detail and religious pietas, Domitian stands out for his conspicuous absence.

Session/Panel Title

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

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