BMCR 2022.05.24

While Rome burned: fire, leadership, and urban disaster in the Roman cultural imagination

, While Rome burned: fire, leadership, and urban disaster in the Roman cultural imagination. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. viii, 353. ISBN 9780472131907 $80.00.

If the title of Virginia Closs’ first book immediately conjures an image of Nero fiddling while Rome goes up in flames, you would not be disappointed. But this outstanding monograph covers so much more than the infamous Great Fire of 64 CE. The wealth of fire-related imagery presented in this book clearly suggests that Nero’s fire and the discourse around it is simply the best-known example of a widespread cultural tendency to associate urban conflagration and leadership in a complex web of metaphors, allusions, and meanings.[1] Ranging from Vergil to Tacitus, Closs’ work is a veritable tour de force, offering a comprehensive analysis of the politics and poetics of urban conflagration in imperial Latin literature. I say from Vergil to Tacitus, but from Augustus to Hadrian would be just as accurate, because Closs presents her mostly literary readings of leadership and fire as tightly interwoven with political, and specifically imperial, ideological agendas.

The book aims to show how fire offered a ‘productive set of metaphors and figures for addressing moments of political crisis in images of urban destruction’ (p. 2). As one would expect in a study of the Roman cultural imagination, Closs’ ultimate concern is less with realia than with notions of cultural and collective memory; or, as the author herself puts it, the readings she offers ‘reflect less on specific events than on the infinite replicability and reusability of certain literary and historical models of disaster to advance a range of literary and ideological agendas’ (p. 22). What do those models look like? Closs helpfully identifies several recurring motifs, which, in addition to the chronological organization, structure the book thematically. Among the most dominant motifs are the fall of Troy (the urbs capta motif), the mythological charioteer Phaethon, the phoenix, and the Stoic concept of Ekpyrosis, but several smaller motifs, such as book burning, are discussed as well.

While Rome Burned is divided into five chapters plus introduction and conclusion. Organized chronologically, the chapters set out to show that ‘the ideological structures and metaphors surrounding fire and disaster at Rome were inherently unstable’ from the Augustan period onward (p. 23). This instability stems from fire’s cyclical ability to destroy as well as to renew, ‘a threat to be forestalled and an agent of change’ (p. 207). In Chapter 1, the focus is on Augustus’ largely successful attempt to style himself a master of disaster, a leader who can bring fire under his own control after years of civil war. Deftly interweaving historical, architectural, and literary analysis, Closs shows how urban conflagration was seen as the most tangible expression of political instability. Through such innovations as the establishment of the vigiles (fire-fighters who, Closs asserts, doubled as a paramilitary force) and the widespread distribution of monumental dedications to Stata Mater Augusta (which Closs unpacks semantically as ‘the power to stop fires—Augustus’ power’), Augustus reminded Rome’s residents that they were constantly at risk, and that their ruler was intimately involved in mitigating that risk. At the same time, Latin literature of this period exploits fire as a trope to signify lingering anxieties about one-man leadership. Vergil, for example, associates fire both with destructive tendencies (e.g., Dido, Turnus) and with transformative and regenerative powers (e.g., Iulus and his flames in Aeneid 2, Aeneas quelling the fire consuming the ships in Aeneid 5). Closs concludes that, for Vergil, the mark of good leadership rests not with the avoidance of fires but the response to them.

Chapter 2 offers readings of Ovid, Manilius, and Seneca (the Consolatio ad Marciam) to show how the related motifs of Phaethon, ekpyrosis, and the phoenix are used to express anxiety over imperial succession during the Julio-Claudian reign. As in the first chapter, the close literary readings are preceded by historical analysis (notably, of imperial cremations). Closs argues that Julio-Claudian state funerals sought to ‘activate imagery of fire and death as a mediated spectacle in which order was strictly imposed’ (p. 73). At the same time, urban fires presented the emperors with both liabilities and opportunities. Claudius personally directed the firefighting when the Aemiliana district—with its links to the grain supply—was ablaze. The fraught politics of imperial succession is best captured by the pervasive figure of Phaethon, whom Closs shows acquired new significance, both as a ‘cautionary emblem of failed succession and overblown ambition’ (p. 101) and, especially for Ovid, as a symbol for poetic ambition suppressed by imperial authority.

The third chapter deals with Nero’s Great Fire and effectively reads like the central act of the book. Since the authors in this chapter—Lucan, Seneca, Petronius—are so closely associated with the emperor himself, Closs sees the reign of Nero as the pinnacle of the fusing of historical and literary memory, the politics and poetics of urban conflagration. As to the question whether Nero ‘really’ fiddled while Rome burned, Closs is clearly not interested in positivist history but eager to stress the importance of the fire of 64—and the ‘dubious veracity of this legend’—as a ‘cultural touchstone, bringing urban disaster, leadership and creative expression in a single potent image’ (p. 105). Closs expertly lays out the numerous inconsistencies in the testimonia of Nero’s supposed performance of this infamous song on the fall of Troy; more than simply literary embellishments, she explains these inconsistencies as, in part, the result of the ways in which Nero amplified a mythopoetic self-fashioning (as a new Phaethon, or an Aeneas watching Troy burn) that, in turn, contributes to the blurring of fact and fiction. Closs’ readings of Lucan and Seneca’s Ep. 91 (on the fire at Lugdunum, and, in the absence of Lucan’s lost De incendio urbis, the earliest surviving text after the fire of 64) convincingly show that the vision of a majestic Rome rising from Troy’s ashes as constructed by the Augustan poets is replaced with a view highlighting the failure of leadership, calling into question the supposed permanence of the Augustan Roma aeterna.

Chapters 4 and 5 underscore the centrality of the Great Fire as a turning point in the discourse of leaders and fires at Rome. After 64, ‘to talk about fire was to talk about Nero, and vice versa’ (p. 140). The Flavian impulse to cast Nero himself as the arsonist is found in Statius’ Silvae 2.7, which contains an allusion (vagantes … ignes, lines 60-61) to Lucan’s Phaethon (igne … vago, Luc. BC 1.50). If Statius and the author of the Octavia, a play that Closs discusses with notable enthusiasm (some 15 pages), portray Nero as a disastrous Phaethon, Martial’s Epigram 5.7 employs the phoenix motif to celebrate Domitian’s rebuilding program. Domitian himself, dealing with the aftermath of another devastating fire in the last year of Titus’ rule, used Nero’s memory on the inscriptions of the monumental altars to Vulcan (known as the Arae Incendii Neroniani) to assert the new dynasty’s competence as opposed to Nero’s failed leadership. The final chapter turns to the adoptive emperors, surveying Pliny, Juvenal, and especially Tacitus. Closs is well-attuned to the recent trend in Tacitean scholarship to resist separating the literary from the historical. Marshaling intertexts to view Tacitus’ allusive program of fiery images and vocabulary as a whole, she argues that the account of the Great Fire in Annals 15 presents the virtual Trojanification of Rome, a process begun when Augustus first established the principate. Thus, Closs reads Tacitus’ account as a condemnation neither of Nero nor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but as a metaphorical illustration of the inherently destructive nature of imperial rule.

Closs’ main methodological approach is intertextual and intermedial, citing works by James Clauss, Cynthia Damon, and Catherine Edwards, among others, as influential.[2] Closs herself executes this approach so successfully that her work, too, may soon count as an exemplary study of how to ‘read’ across literary texts and genres, material objects, and ritual activities to construct the Roman imagination. That said, Closs does not seem particularly interested in engaging directly with theory itself; Bachelard, Lakoff, and Lacan are only briefly mentioned, while Barthes and Kristeva are tucked away in the footnotes. These names alone, however, clearly stress the influence of semiotic approaches to literature and culture and the kind of cultural history that these yield (what Closs often refers to as the ‘fusing’ of literary and historical memory, or the ‘intertwining’ of poetics and politics). This matters a great deal, especially if we wish to consider the present work not only as a study of Roman cultural history but also, and specifically, as a study in Roman disaster.

For example, Jerry Toner’s work on Roman disasters (not cited in Closs’ bibliography) draws on sociological disaster theory, mining ancient texts for information rather than reading text as information.[3] The result differs vastly from Closs’ approach, as becomes clear when comparing their respective interpretations of, say, Nero blaming Christians for 64 fire. Toner asserts that, while Nero thought the Christians would be easy scapegoats, the Roman people still blamed Nero himself, and so Toner sees this as an example of ‘the refusal of the Roman people simply to be led by their leadership to whatever conclusion suited the leaders’ agenda’ (p. 77). Closs, on the other hand, reads both the blame Nero received and the suspicion that fell on the city’s Christians as reflecting ‘the larger trends of allusivity that characterized Nero’s reign overall’ (p. 113). Just as Nero was accused of bringing Trojan myth to life (the burning urbs capta motif), so the anticipation of a fiery apocalypse in Christian eschatological literature may have led to the suspicion that some fanatical believers were indeed responsible for the Great Fire. I offer this contrast not as a critique of either approach (although I find Closs’ more compelling), but as an observation about the importance of methodology. Closs’ book, in dealing with how the ‘poetics of catastrophe’ (p. 11, p. 136) play a part in historiographic accounts of disaster, is much more akin to the magisterial The Culture of Disaster by Marie-Hélène Huet.[4] Like Huet, Closs offers readings of how a culture thinks through disaster—something which, I may add, offers meaningful reflections for us today, as indeed Closs hints at in her Conclusion.

The book is meticulously researched and the bibliography is a treasure trove of scholarship. The cover photograph—Colosseum on Fire, an art installation by Pio Diaz and Thyra Hilden—is evocative. I only noticed a few typos and errors that are largely insignificant: read ‘narrative topoi’ for ‘narrative teloi’ (p.8) and ‘ancient’ for ‘anicent’ (p. 145); Favro 1996, cited on p.224, is missing from the bibliography; Euripides’ Phoenissae, quoted on p.16, is missing from the index locorum. I note that Greek texts, including those from the Roman historian Cassius Dio, are never given in the original language; only Latin texts are. Of those Latin texts, Closs’ translations are excellent and even entertaining, while sacrificing neither accuracy nor intelligibility. To give two examples I particularly enjoyed: Closs translates periculosae plenum opus aleae (Hor. Carm. 2.1.6) as ‘a work full of dangerous dicey-ness’ (p.42), which captures the alliteration and meaning of alea nicely; ibat res ad summam nauseam (Petron. Sat. 78) is rendered ‘the situation was reaching its stomach-churning climax’ and ebrietate turpissima gravis becomes ‘who, by the way, was just a sloppy drunk’ (p. 106).


[1] Since the book is limited to urban disasters, other fiery events such as volcanic eruptions or forest fires are not discussed. Thus, Closs does not engage with the burgeoning field of ecocriticism, seeing urban conflagration above all as ‘a human artifact’ (p. 7).

[2] Clauss, J. 1997. “Domestici hostes: The Nausicaa in Medea, the Catiline in Hannibal.” MD 39: 165-85; Damon, C. 2010. “Déjà vu or déjà lu? History as Intertext.” Papers of the Langford Latin Seminar 14: 375–88; Edwards, C. 2007. Death in Ancient Rome. London.

[3] Toner, J. 2013. Roman Disasters. Cambridge.

[4] Huet, M-H. 2012. The Culture of Disaster. Chicago.