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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Great Fire at Rome, and Nero’s Accusation of the Christians
By Tacitus (56–c. 120 A.D.)
 
From the ‘Annals’: 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 which adjoins the Palatine and Cælian hills, where amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out, and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the Circus. For here there were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay. 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. Often while they looked behind them, they were intercepted by flames on their side or in their face. Or if they reached a refuge close at hand, when this too was seized by the fire they found that even places which they had imagined to be remote were involved in the same calamity. 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.  1
  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.
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  Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek a means of propitiating the gods; and recourse was had to the Sibylline Books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno too was entreated by the matrons; first in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. 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. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus; and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished; or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired.  3
  Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the Circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer, or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.  4
 
 
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