The Burning of Rome; the contrasting accounts of Suetonius and Tacitus

Suetonius writes about Nero and the Fire of Rome in the chapter entitled ‘Life of Nero’ in The Twelve Caesars. Published in 121 A.D, 53 years after the death of Nero and 57 years after the Burning of Rome, Suetonius explicitly condemns Nero as the perpetrator, yet tamely informs the reader of the consequences. Contrastively, Tacitus’ account of the Burning of Rome focuses on the effects of the fire, and not so much about the origins of it, although, a rumour of the Emperor’s joy encircled Rome just as the fire did. One can assume that as Tacitus’ was around nine years of age when Nero ‘set fire to Rome’, he experienced the sights and the horrors of the fire first hand – however, as a nine-year old the validity of his experience can be hugely questioned.

As Tacitus’ work was published a few years before Suetonius, we can assume as there is very limited information of the rule of the Roman Emperors, Suetonius must have referred to Tacitus’ work and used it to help form his own opinions of the incident. It is also important to note that Suetonius was working as Emperor Hadrian’s secretary at the time of publication and it is possible that as Hadrian was part of the Nervan-Antonian dynasty, he used Suetonius’ authorship to be able to shame Nero and the Julio-Claudian dynasty. When reading both accounts of the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Suetonius immediately starts by addressing Nero as the villain, and that he unmercifully ‘spared…neither the people of Rome, nor the capital of the country.’ However, the first sentence of Tacitus’ account addresses both Nero and then draws the attention away to the ‘violence of fire’.

Although Suetonius appears to implicate Nero, he only does so half-heartedly; by excluding the horrific scenes of the fires in Rome, the grieving families, the ruined architecture, temples and stately homes of the Romans, he automatically loses the imaginations of readers. For example, ‘a vast number of stately buildings, the houses of generals celebrated in former times, and even then still decorated with the spoils of war, were laid in ashes’. There is a positive spin to this sentence until you get to the last four words – why did Suetonius not completely try to denounce Nero? Possibly because if he had tried to do so in a way that connected with the reader, for example, the tragedies of the then homeless Romans, it would have become too similar to the works of Tacitus, therefore he had to draw on the Emperor’s reactions.

The lexis of Suetonius’ account is very mild and timid compared to that of Tacitus. His language is very much an undertone of the passage, appearing to try to let the words tell the story and have the story of Nero’s treachery speak volumes. Whereas Tacitus’ account includes a lexicon of violence and creates a much more vivid picture of the effect of Nero’s suggested ‘disgust with the old buildings’ which lead to him ordering Rome to be set on fire, according to Suetonius. This literature, at the time of publish, would have been enlightening to the people of Rome, and to those whom read of Nero’s wrongdoings – mainly because there were very few stories which told otherwise. It is clear when forming an opinion on Nero from the main sources such as Suetonius and Tacitus, that you cannot ever make that opinion final; you must learn to question the reliability of what is written on the page, but also the context in which it was written.

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