I awoke in the milky dawn, that opalescent hour outside time. For an instant I did not know where I was. Thus it must feel to be newborn, unclaimed.
A sweet breeze was stealing across me as I lay quietly. A sea breeze. I was on a shore somewhere. I raised my head and at once I was back in the world I knew. I was at Antium. I was in my villa bedroom that opened out onto the sea itself.
In the stillness, I arose and left Poppaea sleeping, her lips curved in a smile as she dreamed of something pleasurable. Pleasurable . . . our stay here in Antium had been pleasurable. Far enough from Rome to put thoughts of it aside, to live secluded here by the sea. For a brief time.
Quietly I walked over to the window and pushed back the filmy curtains. The horizon outside was white, making it impossible to see where the sky ended and the sea began. A pale moon was sinking, caught in the clouds. Last night it had been bright, penetrating, high. Now, still full but setting, it faded and became indistinct.
Last night . . . how exultant I had been, performing at last my epic on the Fall of Troy, on the stage here. The hard work of composing it had taken over a year, but with a furious burst the last few days, and now it had shown its face to the world, and I had all the joy of an artist who has birthed a creation after a very long labor.
It was fitting that it had taken place here in Antium, where I myself had been born twenty-six years ago. And after a likewise long and difficult labor, for I had been born feet first—an evil omen, some said. At the same time there had been other favorable omens, so which to heed? Clearly the favorable ones had prevailed, for I had been emperor now for nine years, having assumed the purple at an absurdly young age. There had been significant achievements in my reign already, most notably a peace settlement with Parthia, our historic enemy, achieved finally through diplomacy rather than arms. I had gifted the city of Rome with magnificent baths, a theater, and a covered market, and had instituted engineering works that improved harbors and aimed to protect shipping routes. What I most wanted, though, was to give Rome the greatest gift of all—a conversion to the Greek sensibilities and aesthetics. That was much harder than building buildings and digging canals. But it was coming. I knew it.
The audience last night was proof of that. Many people had traveled from Rome to hear me perform on the cithara. It is a virtuoso instrument, from Greece. Apollo himself played it. Yes! Their eyes would be opened and they would learn to embrace these cultural treasures.
I looked fondly at my cithara, now propped up against the wall, resting from its labors last night. It was, of course, the finest that could be made, and I had the finest instructor, Terpnus, who had borne with me and taught me patiently. I was always reluctant to leave him behind in Rome, and knowing I was returning to him made it easier to go back.
Rome. In the growing light, I saw the message cylinders resting on the table. They had been delivered yesterday, sent by my trusted right-hand man and Praetorian prefect, Tigellinus. But I could not bring myself to look at them then. The day was too perfect to spoil with petty business about import duties or aqueduct repairs or cart traffic in the city. If you imagine that everything an emperor has to deal with is lofty and critical, I can assure you that it is not. It is a hundred tax questions to one diplomatic treaty or one war strategy decision.
I would look at the messages a little later. I had to. But this morning would be for relaxation, and planning for the inevitable return to Rome.
I had retreated here to escape the hot days in the city, but duty required me to preside over the Feriae Augusti in two weeks, the celebration beginning on August first that culminated on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth, commemorating Roman victories over Dalmatia, Actium, and Egypt. As the celebrations featured horse races, the only bright spot was that perhaps then I would be cleared by my trainers to do something I had longed to do: race chariots competitively.
Oh, I had driven chariots, but never in a real public race. It was deemed too dangerous, and it is true, chariot racing has a high accident rate. But it was also the most exciting thing a person could do. My grandfather had been a successful chariot racer, and I liked to believe I had inherited his skill.
“Begging your pardon, Caesar,” my trainer had said, “if a celebrated charioteer dies in a race, his family and fans mourn him. But if an emperor dies in one, the entire empire is bereft.”
Tigellinus was more blunt. “It’s irresponsible of you to think of taking such chances.” He paused. “Especially as you have no heir. Do you want to spark a civil war, like we had after Julius Caesar was killed?”
No heir. Oh, the pain of that. I had had a daughter, but she died a baby. And none since.
“No,” I admitted. I would not make Rome endure such agony again. But I still wanted to race chariots, calling upon the gods to protect me. Had they not done that so far?
But then there was the nagging thought of a disturbing prophecy I had been given by the sibyl I had visited at Cumae. Fire will be your undoing, she had said. When pressed further, she had added, Flames will consume your dreams and your dreams are yourself. But there were no fires at chariot races. So did that assure me that I was safe to embark on that activity?
As for fires, we had a very capable fire brigade in Rome. But perhaps the fire she spoke of was somewhere else? Or it was a metaphorical fire? People spoke of the fire of anger, the fire of lust, the fire of ambition. I was on fire about my art. Did she mean that would destroy me?
I shook my head. Put it out of your thoughts, I told myself. Think only of this fair day before you, a day to walk beside the water, to drink chilled juice of Persian peaches with the wife who is the dearest thing under heaven to you, to wait for the moon to rise upon you once again.
I left her to sleep while I walked outside to see the pearly sky lighten, promising a fair, tranquil day.
It was late morning before Poppaea stirred. I had finished reading the Rome dispatches—they were as dull as I had feared—and reread a portion of my Troy epic with a mind to revisions, when she rose from the bed, trailing silk behind her like clouds of glory. Encircling her neck was the glittering gold collar I had gifted her with last night. She had worn it to bed and now she ran her hands over it lovingly.
“They say cold metal is a sad thing to lavish love on,” I said. “But on you it looks worthy of love.” It was studded with gems betokening the planets, moon, and sun, crafted from an Indian design I had commissioned.
“Gold is easy to sleep with,” she said. “In fact, it helped me to dream.”
“Ah, such dreams as gold gives.” I rose and embraced her, the body-warmed gold indistinguishable from her own temperature. “And it is cold no longer.”
The sun was midway in the sky, burnishing the waves outside the window.
“Shall we go to the grotto today? We haven’t visited it yet.” The ancient grotto, down at the far end of the quays, was a large one extending quite far into the hillside. Grottoes held a fascination for me, as so many stories of the gods placed them there. They reeked of the supernatural.
She stretched, raising her arms over her head, shaking her shining amber hair. “I suppose we should. We do not have that much more time here.” But she did not sound enthusiastic. “But in the late afternoon,” she said. “How do you have the energy, after last night?”
I could never explain to her that performing invigorated me; it was idleness that drained me. “I will meet you on the terrace,” I said. I was eager to get outside, to breath in the fresh air.
Later that day, we sat out on the shaded terrace and watched the horizon. It was soothing and still. And I relished the mindlessness. No thinking. No thinking. Just sit with closed eyes and drift, reliving the night before.
Attendants brought us food, placing the trays down on a stand—platters of cold ham and mullet, sage honey from Crete, bread, eggs, olives, and cherries, with juice or Tarentinum wine to wash it down. Lazily I reached out and took a handful of cherries.
Under her scarf Poppaea still wore the necklace. “For I can’t take it off just yet,” she admitted.
If only the other people I showered with gifts showed their appreciation so openly, I thought.
I was just passing her the platter of eggs and olives when our idyll was interrupted by a panting, dusty, sweaty messenger who hurried out to us, flanked by two of the villa guards. His face was set in a grimace, matched by the expression on the guards’ faces. I stood up, the perfect day suddenly shattered.
“Caesar, Caesar!” he cried, falling to his knees and clasping his hands piteously. “I come from Rome, from Tigellinus.” His voice was a croak.
“Well, what is it?”
“Rome is on fire! Rome is on fire!” he shrieked. “It is burning out of control!”
I rose, unable to take in his words. “On fire?”
“Yes, yes! It started in the Circus Maximus, in one of the shops at the far end.”
By this time, my wife had risen, too, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her gripping the gold necklace, but no longer languidly. I could sense the alarm and dread that was filling me transferring itself to her as she stared at the messenger.
“Night before last—and the northerly wind fanned the flames so they swept fast, down the length of the Circus. Then it started climbing the hills around it.”
Rome was a fire trap, and we had had many fires in our history. To guard against this, Augustus had created his fire brigade of seven thousand men, the Vigiles Urbani, now under the command of Nymphidius Sabinus, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Caligula in looks. Whether true or a coincidence, this allowed him to claim he was Caligula’s natural son. But what mattered that now?
“What of the firefighters? Are they out?”
“Yes, but helpless to stop it. The fire is spreading faster than they can contain it. The sparks jump over roofs and fields and flare up in new places. It was starting to climb the Palatine when I left!”
I turned to Poppaea. I felt numb, not even able to truly believe what I was hearing. “I must go,” I said. Then I turned to the messenger. “We’ll ride together. A fresh horse for you.”
It was midday when we set out, trailed by two guards, but darkness had fallen before we approached Rome. All along the ride I felt myself becoming more and more agitated, hoping that the messenger had exaggerated, or that the fire was already contained, or that it had not destroyed much besides the shops in the Circus.
Calm, calm, Nero, you must keep calm, think clearly.
But inside another picture was emerging—of Rome destroyed, people dead or destitute, historical treasures lost forever, all when I was emperor, all happening while I was responsible for the safety of my people.
Rome was ruined under Nero, the city incinerated, nothing left but ashes.
As we neared the top of a hill near Rome, before we could see the city itself, a lurid color stained the night sky, orange and red and yellow, ugly fingers reaching up into the heavens, pulsating. Then we crested the hill and I gazed down on the city aflame. Clouds of smoke roiled upward, and spurts of color, clouds of sparks, and bursts of exploding stone and wood punctuated the darkness. The brisk wind blew ashes in my face, carrying the stench of burning cloth, garbage, and things unnamable.
It was true, all true.
“It’s worse!” the messenger cried. “It’s still spreading! It’s much bigger than when I left. Look, it’s engulfed the hills!”
Rome was being devoured. Suddenly I remembered the time when I had visited the Temple of Vesta and been overcome with a strange weakness and trembling, and rendered helpless. I was puzzled by it then, but now I knew it meant I was powerless to protect the sacred flame of Rome. And I understood the meaning of the sibyl and her prophecy that fire would be my doom.
I stood at the turning point of my life. This was my battlefield, the battlefield I had wondered if I would ever face. My ancestor Antony had faced his twice: at the battle of Philippi, when he crushed the assassins of Caesar, and the battle of Actium, when he himself was crushed by Octavian.
Either Rome and I perished together, or we survived together.
But no matter the outcome, there was only one choice: to go forward, to wade into battle.
“Come,” I said, urging my horse forward. “Rome awaits.”
And we descended the hill, heading into the maelstrom.
The hill was not steep but it was treacherous with winding paths, rocks and tree roots studded everywhere. The moonlight made it possible for us to see, and the increasing glow from the fire added more illumination.
My heart was thudding as if I had just run a stadion, and my head was swirling. The air was hot, muggy, and stifling, and the acrid smell of fire made it torture to breathe. We should have been attacked by swarms of insects, but the smoke and soot had banished them. The fire was still too far away for us to feel the heat directly, but I imagined I could anyway. From this distance the city looked as if it were just one mass; I could not discern the individual areas yet.
I stopped. “You say it is bigger now?” I asked the messenger.
“Yes! When I left, it was contained in one area, and from a distance, looked like one campfire. Now it has ignited new sites all around itself.”
“It will be light before we get there,” I said. And by then, who knew what we would see?
We continued our ride downhill, picking our way slowly. Ahead of us, the demonic glow drew closer.
Fire. What did I know about fire? Very little, to be honest. I had never personally experienced one, not even a house fire; the only fire I knew was the imaginary one at Troy hundreds of years ago. But I had been generous in equipping the Vigiles with whatever they needed, and it was expensive: horse-drawn fire wagons with water pumps, hundreds of buckets, picks, axes, hooks, and even catapults for knocking down houses to create fire breaks. Surely such a trained and equipped force could contain the fire.
But if that was so, why was it spreading? If they could not put it out when it was small, what chance did they have of stopping it as it grew larger?
The wind suddenly shifted, and as it did, I saw a burst of fire in a new place as it ignited there. A column shot up toward the sky, sending embers swirling in a cloud that vanished quickly.
On we went; the moon began dipping toward the west, and a very faint hint of light appeared on the eastern horizon. But it was still very dark, except for the lurid throbbing red ahead of us. We climbed another hill and the city disappeared, but as we reached the summit, we were suddenly close, and the first heat of the fire reached my face. The horses sensed it and began to shy. It was hard to hold them. But I calmed mine and he obeyed. If only I could calm myself. My hands gripped the reins so tightly the leather was biting into my palms.
“We will have to enter the city from the east,” I said. From where we stood, it looked as if the center of the city was not safe, and the fire came up to the Tiber on the west. “Where is Tigellinus? Where is Nymphidius?”
“They were moving to the Esquiline to direct operations from there,” the messenger said. “They had to vacate the Palatine and the Forum.”
We swung around toward the east, as day finally broke. Now we could see. Clouds of thick black smoke were sending plumes up into the sky, and the fire was roaring, growling like a beast. We got onto the Via Praenestina and immediately were in a sea of fleeing people, tumbling out of the city, carrying their goods on their shoulders, crying and panting.
“Don’t go in there!” a family shrieked. “Only a madman would go toward a fire. Run, run!”
“It’s the emperor!” another man yelled.
“Save us, save us!” they began to wail.
I stared at them. They truly thought I could save them, somehow command the fire to stop.
“Help, help!” A woman flung herself against the side of my horse.
“I am going to help,” I said. “I will direct the firefighters. We will put it out.”
Oh, how sure I sounded. What a lie.
More people were pouring out of the city, flooding the road. Donkeys, pushcarts, bags and bundles, screaming children. Slowly we made our way through the crowd, trying to reassure them. We approached the city walls, where the Esquiline gate loomed ahead, jammed with people trying to fit themselves through the narrow opening on the way out. Only when the guards recognized me as emperor did they hold back the crowd to let me in.
I entered the city, and suddenly I was in the arena with the fire. What had been a distant enemy was now facing me. The smoke was much thicker here, and in spite of the sunrise, it cast a dark pall.
“Turn right!” I said, seeking the spot on the Esquiline where Tigellinus would have set up shop. There was a watching post near the Gardens of Maecenas that overlooked the city.
The Gardens of Maecenas! Part of my new palace, the Domus Transitoria, was there! But no, it was safe, it was too far away from the fire.
Too far? It was not so far that it was impossible to link the Domus Transitoria to the old Palatine palace of Tiberius. I had done it, had I not? It was only a mile between them. And the Palatine had had to be evacuated.
I glanced over toward the Domus Transitoria but could not see any damage; it looked intact. This whole area was intact.
At last we reached the top of the Esquiline and I rushed to the stone house that served as watching post even in tranquil times. Now it was swarming with men, soldiers and firefighters.
I saw Nymphidius, standing beside the door, charts in his hand. His usually placid face was a puckered in a grimace. He was conferring with several men, stabbing at a spot on a chart. He glanced up and saw me.
“Caesar! Thank the gods you are here!”
As if I myself were a god. Well, I would have to act like one, hope that somehow for this brief time I could be transformed into something more than myself. “I came as quickly as possible,” I said. “Tell me the extent of the fire. Tell me everything.”
He pivoted to face the city below us. From this height I saw with horror what looked like a hundred separate fires, each sending up its dark plume, with one massive fire in the middle.
“It started at the end of the Circus where the starting gates are. We think some flammable goods in one of the shops caught fire—they keep oils there to cook snacks for the crowds. It spread immediately to shops next door that store wood, clothes, and such. The shopkeepers, who were sleeping in the quarters above the shops, got out in time, but couldn’t do anything but run. A strong wind swept the flames down the sides of the Circus, catching the wooden stands, and from there—” He gave an anguished sigh.
“This was at night?”
“Dead night. There was a full moon, though.”
The beautiful full moon I had admired at Antium, a benign presence there.
“Who sounded the alarm?”
“The cohort of Vigiles stationed nearest the fire—Cohort Seven.” He pointed to its place on the map.
“That’s far away, across the Tiber!”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Our bad luck.”
“Very bad luck.”
“By the time the firefighters were roused and equipped, the fire had spread. The flames were roaring through the stands of the Circus, now on both sides. With the wide open space, there was nothing to stop the spread, and the strong wind fanned it.”
A strong wind. More bad luck.
“It leapt up the Palatine hillside on the south side, then fell back down again. Getting the fire wagons in place didn’t help; the hoses could not send water that far. So the men fell back, and we called the other cohorts to help. And all this was taking place at night.”
A gust of wind flung ashes in our faces, stinging and burning.
“Here.” Nymphidius handed me a soaked handkerchief to shield my nose and mouth. I breathed in the cooled air.
“And all the next day?”
“It spread. We were powerless to stop it. The fire seemed to burst out by magic in places far from the source, so we were unable to pull down houses to create an open space. Neighbors helped neighbors fight fire, handing the buckets back and forth, and then would turn and see that their own house was on fire. Some people ran back inside, hiding from the fire, and had to be pulled out, fighting all the way, having lost their senses with fright. We tried dousing the houses with acetum, water mixed with vinegar, that fire doesn’t like, but there was too little, and we couldn’t reach the upper stories.”
“By this time, the end of the first day, where was the fire?”
“It was spreading around the Palatine and the Capitoline. Then night fell. We soaked blankets and mattresses so we could lay them out beneath the insulae in the adjoining regions. It was just a matter of time before the fire reached those apartments, and anyone trapped inside would need to jump. We ran through the streets ordering people to evacuate. But some resisted. Denial mixed with fear.”
Always. Denial and fear run hand in hand to doom. “The next morning?”
“We had to change shifts, bring in fresh men. We had regrouped here on the Esquiline. The seven cohorts pooled their equipment and men. I ordered the ballistae—the catapults—to be brought out and made ready. We had to find a place to create a firebreak. But every place we selected had already been hit by flying embers, and so we had to keep pulling back. At that point we sent the messenger to you. We should have sent him sooner, but even for us it was hard to admit how serious it was.”
“Now we are up to yesterday. What did you find when daylight returned?”
“The Palatine and Capitoline had been encircled on the east and west sides, with only the north, the Forum, still safe.”
“And now?” Never had I regretted my poor eyesight more. I could not pick out the individual areas that were on fire.
“We will have to go into the areas to find out,” Nymphidius said. “And to do that we need to be prepared. Wet clothes, masks, hooks and buckets and axes. And the fire engines must be refilled with fresh water.”
“We must go immediately!” I said.
He looked at me. “Caesar, you have been up all night. You need rest. Do not join the ranks of the panicked citizens. You need all your strength of mind before confronting the fire.”
I did not feel tired. But I did not feel normal, either. “Very well. Where should I go?”
“We have makeshift quarters up here.” He motioned to an aide. ‘Take the emperor to a place where he can rest,” he ordered him. “Stay there until the afternoon,” he told me. “I will come for you. We will go out together.”
The young soldier led me away to a large tent erected on the summit. Inside, on camp beds, exhausted firefighters slept in rows. In the middle a table supplied aid workers with water and food, and physicians were tending to burns.
“In here,” the soldier directed me. There was a screened area with private beds. The light was dim, filtered through the canvas walls, and the beds were ready with blankets and pillows. I gladly fell on the nearest one, and the soldier kindly pulled off my sandals and covered me with a blanket. Sleep enveloped me immediately, as my utter fatigue overcame even my horror, and I fell into a dark vortex, as dark as the smoke above the city.
I awoke before Nymphidius came in. The last time I had awakened, yesterday at Antium, I had had a moment of disorientation; and so it was here also. I stared up at a dull canvas overhead. I shifted on a narrow cot. I heard odd noises outside, the sound of faraway crowds, and nearby groans. Then I knew. I was in Rome, and Rome was on fire.
I sat bolt upright. I looked down at my dirty hands, streaked with grime and blistered from the long ride. My tunic was filthy, coated with ash and briars. My grit-filled sandals were arranged neatly under the cot. I hastily put them on and ventured out into the tent, where row upon row of beds stretched out in the dim light. Young men, some bandaged and moaning, others unconscious, lay upon them. Casualties of the fire already.
Attendants and nurses were busy and barely glanced at me. That was just as well. I needed to think. Think, Nero, think! But my mind was sluggish, stunned.
The areas of Rome—what was in the path of the fire? Here on the Esquiline we were northeast of the city center, more than a mile from where the fire had started. But fire could run faster than a horse, and it could gallop through the city speedily. How ironic that it had started at a racetrack. Were the gods teasing us?
The Palatine was right next to it. Nymphidius had said the fire had started to climb one side of the hill but then had halted. If it reached the Palatine, all the treasures there would be lost. Historic things, not just luxury goods. Shrines commemorating the foundation of Rome, and—O gods! The sacred laurel grove at Augustus’s house. The laurels that foretold the death of an emperor! My laurel!
Fire will be your undoing.
Then there were the sacred temples on the Capitoline, and the official buildings in the Forum, and beyond that, closer to us, the Subura where many people lived, many poor, but the wealthy as well in neighboring regions.
Where people lived . . . where did Apollonius, my athletic trainer, live? I knew only it was in the city. What of the genius citharoede, Terpnus? What of Appius, my voice teacher? What of Paris, my actor friend? And the freedmen who served me—Epaphroditus, Phaon? And my childhood nurses, Ecloge and Alexandra, still serving in my household more as friends than servants? And the writers—Lucan, Petronius, and Spiculus? And my friends Piso and Senecio and Vitellius. And . . . and . . . the list went on and on, people dear to me, from all walks of life. For unlike previous emperors, I had sought out people of other classes to mingle with, much to the disapproval of the Senate. There was no part of the city that would not harbor people I was personally connected to. And for the others, I was their emperor, and should be their protector, their shield against misfortune.
But the fire . . . the fire . . . it made the beasts faced by Hercules in his Twelve Labors weak and gentle in comparison.
My questions to the firefighters about where my staff and friends had gone were met with shrugs and the admission that no one knew. People had fled when the fire crept close, leaving no word behind.
Just then Tigellinus entered the tent, looking for me. His muscular arms were smeared with soot, his face shiny with sweat. He strode over, grimacing. “You are here,” he stated. “Good. Nymphidius says you want to come out with the firefighters. I would advise against that.”
“It is too dangerous,” he said.
“Like the chariot racing? You would forbid me anything not as safe as a covered carriage trundling out on the Appian Way on a feast day.”
“Why do you insist on doing things that are such a risk? It is—”
“Yes, I know. Irresponsible. But the most irresponsible thing an emperor can do is abandon his people in a crisis.”
“You don’t need to go in person to battle the flames to take care of your people. Someone has to stay safe to direct operations. I am not down there, I am up here, organizing.”
“I will go out, and see it firsthand. I must do that.”
He started to say I forbid it. But I was emperor, and no one had the authority to forbid me anything. No one.
“I will wait for Nymphidius. He was going to return to the city in the early afternoon. I will accompany him.”
I left the tent and stood outside, looking down the hill, seeing the bright rays of sunlight falter and fade as they hit the clouds of smoke hanging over the city. I was on the very summit of the hill. I remembered the day Poppaea and I had come here, walking through the still-unfinished Domus Transitoria linking the old palace of Tiberius on the Palatine to the Gardens of Maecenas here. Its entrance lay farther down the slope. I walked to it; a few nervous slaves were still at their posts guarding the door. I passed them to descend into the tunnel-like passageway that snaked through the lower part of the city to emerge at the base of the Palatine palace.
Together Poppaea and I had selected the ornamentation of the Domus Transitoria; the ceiling was white stucco embedded with gems and sparkling glass. The artist who had done it—where was he? Was he safe?
The passageway was quiet and cool. One would never know conditions were anything but ordinary. But as I walked farther in, I smelled it, faint but distinctive: smoke. Smoke was in the corridor. That meant there was fire at the other end, in the new part where the smell of fresh paint should still linger, but now was replaced by ash and smoke.
I scrambled out and rushed up the hill. My palace was on fire!
When I reached the top, Nymphidius had returned and was standing surrounded by his men. A pile of clothing and equipment was heaped nearby.
“There’s smoke in the Domus Transitoria!” I gasped. “That means it’s on fire in the Palatine portion!”
“The fire is reaching its arms around the Palatine, then,” he said. “Are you still determined to go with us?”
“Yes. I cannot stay here!”
Tigellinus joined us just in time to hear my words. “He is stubborn,” he told Nymphidius. “I have tried to persuade him otherwise.” He could not say he had tried to order me.
“We will be careful. And it starts with putting on protective clothing.” Nymphidius pointed to the pile. “I have soaked all this with water, mixed with vinegar. It will stink, but better stink than burn.”
I, along with some thirty men, dug out the clothing and put it on: tunic, cloak with arms, high boots, and a close-fitting leather helmet. It was clammy and heavy.
“Now take your equipment,” said Nymphidius. “An axe, a grappling hook, a bucket. At the base of the hill the fire engines are waiting, filled and ready, and another wagon with the wet blankets and mattresses to spread out for jumpers. Long before we get to the area of the fire we will encounter crowds. We must stick together and push through them and not get separated. For this I am issuing wide white bracelets. Put them on your left arm. Hold up your arm if you feel you are losing us, so we can spot you.”
At his signal, we descended the hill. His instructions had been so spare. He had not told us what to do if we encountered a blaze, if people caught fire, if stones or wood were flying through the air. Perhaps there was nothing we could do but dodge. At the base of the hill the wagons were waiting, as he had told us. I was impressed with his organization and control. The fire engines, filled with water, had hand-turned pumps. The hoses were coiled and waiting, but I doubted they could reach very high. No man had the strength to supply enough power to propel the water higher than about twenty feet.
“Onward!” Nymphidius cried, holding up his left hand with the bracelet. The wagons rumbled forward, and we followed, en masse. As we traversed the streets, everything was still intact, but as Nymphidius had predicted, we were almost swept away by the sea of surging people fleeing the city, out into the fields of the countryside. Ahead of us, the ominous cloud of smoke hung over the city.
But as we came closer to the Forum, passing into the crowded center of the city, the Subura, we suddenly entered an area aflame. We first realized it when swirls of embers began landing on us, sizzling as they were extinguished by our wet clothes. “It’s in Region Eight!” yelled Nymphidius, and that was the last thing I heard before the roar of the fires and the screams of the people drowned him out.
Houses were ablaze—but not all of them. One house afire might have houses on either side still safe—but not for long. I saw a stream of water from our hoses directed at one of the houses, but it was puny and had little effect on the fire. The heat was intense, and the heavy clothes I was wearing made it almost unbearable. But I could not discard them—I would roast directly.
Flying pieces of wood glowing with sparks burst out of the houses, landing on people, and crushing some. At my feet a child was felled beneath a wayward beam, and I managed to kick it off, but the child was dead. I looked up at the blazing houses, with yellow writhing tendrils of flame coming from the windows, like a living thing. Then the windows burst outward, exploding in a ball of fire. Screams from within the house stopped as the floors collapsed.
Then I heard Nymphidius again. “This way! The insulae!” And we pushed our way through toward that area. But on the way I was blocked by a group of menacing men. These were not panicked citizens but purposeful agents carrying buckets of tar and sticks and lighted brands. Deliberately they cast them into the houses that were not on fire.
“Stop that!” I cried, grabbing the forearm of one. He flung me off easily.
“Shut up!” he spat. His companions kept dipping their sticks into their tar buckets, igniting them, and tossing them into houses.
“Stop it!” I ordered them, again to no effect. Then I realized they had no idea who I was, disguised as I was by the fire-prevention clothes. Just then I saw them hindering some of Nymphidius’s firefighters as they attempted to put out fires.
They held up threatening hands to me. “We do this under authority!” they said.
“Whose authority?” I demanded.
“One whom we obey,” they said.
“I am the emperor!” I cried. “I have power over anyone who is ordering you to do this. Stop, if you value your lives!” I commanded them.
The men merely laughed, not believing me. Or perhaps not caring, knowing I could never identify them. But the people around us heard, and misunderstood. “It’s the emperor! He’s telling them to start fires!”
“No!” I cried. “I am not with these men!”
“Yes you are,” yelled a woman. “You are with them. Why else are you standing talking to them? And in secret, with none of your royal guards around? Where are the Praetorians? You have slipped away from them on purpose.”
Then another house began to sway and fall, and everyone scattered. Everyone but two men who stood, praising their god.
“Oh, great and glorious name of Jesus! It is the beginning. The beginning of the end, the end you promised.” One of them bent down and grabbed the end of a glowing stick. “It’s the Day of the Lord at last! And we are given the gift of speeding its coming!” He flung the flaming brand into a house. “Thank you, Lord!”
Their thanks was short-lived; as if in answer, the house collapsed and buried them under it.
I had entered a nightmare. I swerved around the collapsed house, hunting for Nymphidius and the other men, but I had lost them. No matter. I knew how to get to the insulae. But I was shaken by the brazen looters I now saw rushing into houses, emerging with armloads of stolen goods, and the religious fanatics who were exploiting the fire for their own ends. I had not anticipated this, but I should have. There is no tragedy that evil men do not repurpose.
Suddenly a river of fire poured out the door of a house; it rippled and shimmered like a real river but this was pure fire. From inside came a growl, like a monstrous animal, followed by another vomit of fire. I was pummeled and squeezed by the tight-packed crowds fleeing it and carried in a direction I had no control over.
Now I was at the insulae, those tall apartment buildings that were the most dangerous of all. They could be five or six stories, of wood or mud brick, rickety and more flimsy the higher they were. I found Nymphidius by spotting the fire engines and wagons, lined up outside one building. The men were spreading the blankets and mattresses out, and I joined them, hauling the heavy material out of the wagons. The side of the building was a sheet of red-yellow flames already, and people were hanging out the windows, terrified.
Nymphidius gestured to them as soon as the blankets and mattresses were in place. “Jump! Jump!” he yelled. Some obeyed, and the ones in the lower floors landed safely. But the ones in the higher floors hit hard, and not everyone survived.
We stood looking at the dead people, mangled upon the blankets. There were some very small children. They had hit the hardest. I felt sick. One of the firemen beside me said, “It is a kinder death than fire.” He was right. But the fire was the true cause of it.
Just then one of the insulae next to us, seemingly untouched, shot out sparks and then suddenly exploded with no warning. Flying debris went everywhere, bodies along with beams and stones and furniture. Charred bodies rained down around us, blackened and unrecognizable as people except for the shoes that were still on the carbonized skeletal feet. Now I did get sick, and pulled off my heavy, stifling helmet to kneel on the pavement. But as I straightened up, wiping my mouth, cinders singed my hair and I only saved myself from catching fire by smothering it, clapping my helmet back on my head. Inside the helmet I felt the heat of the embers trying to kill me before they slowly died out, their mission extinguished along with them.
“It is a monster,” said Nymphidius. “Have you seen enough? I told you that you should have stayed back at the camp.”
“Like a coward?” I said. “I have to see it, have to know what we are facing.”
“A fire is a living thing,” said Nymphidius. “The apartment building looked safe. But it harbored the enemy inside, an enemy that was feeding, breathing, hiding, waiting, growing strong. Only then did it reveal itself. When it was too late for us to stop it.”
“I am not sure we have the power to stop it, only to slow it and to rescue its victims. And even in that we are pitifully weak, outflanked by the enemy.” That was the horrible truth of it.
“I need to refill the fire engines,” he said. “And my men need to rest, rotate shifts. We must retreat, back to the Esquiline and Region Four.”
“I need to see the Palatine,” I said. “I have to go on.”
Nymphidius did not bother to try to dissuade me. “Not alone. Take one of the Praetorian tribunes with you. Subrius Flavus is by the wagons. I’ll call him.”
I did not want to return to the wagons and the blankets with their grisly spread. I would wait. Soon Subrius appeared. He was one of those men who looked wide, with a broad face and torso, although he wasn’t fat. But under all the protective clothes it was impossible to see what anyone really looked like.
“I will accompany you, Caesar,” he said. “Where do you wish to go next?”
I knew without hesitation. “The Forum. And the Palatine.”
He frowned. “That is heading into the heart of the fire,” he said.
“I have to see where it has spread,” I said. I dreaded the sight, but I had to see it. I had to know.
He gave an almost imperceptible sigh and pointed. “This way, then.”
We fought our way against the tide of frantic people and past more burning buildings. The noise of the fire grew greater, louder, sucking the air. The smoke became denser and I had to cover my nose and mouth with a handkerchief. My eyes, uncovered, were stinging and aching. In the artificial darkness created by the smoke, I could not see very far in front of me, but still I could discern the stumbling people, some helping others, carrying invalids and the helpless, others ruthlessly pushing everyone aside and trampling them. Some people were carrying bundles of their own belongings; others were thieves laden with stolen booty.
Then suddenly we were out into the Forum, in the open spaces there. It was intact. It had not caught fire yet. The marble buildings, and the space between them, would retard the fire. But the fire was creeping closer to it, and suddenly I saw a flame shoot up through the open roof of the Temple of Vesta, and knew it was not the sacred flame.
I stood still and watched. This was the very essence, the heart of Rome, and it was succumbing to ruin. This was the center of the Rome I was responsible for, the Rome I was supposed to protect. I alone knew the sacred secret name of Rome, as Pontifex Maximus, the head priest of the state religion. It was not written down anywhere, only whispered from one Pontifex to his successor. As long as that sacred name was known, Rome could continue, could reconstitute herself. But if something happened to me—if I perished right here—Rome would perish along with me. Tigellinus had been right to try to keep me from danger, but there was danger everywhere. A quiet night alone in the palace could also be dangerous. It was nobler to die on my feet fighting a huge evil than to be ignominiously murdered in a corridor, like Caligula.
I turned from the heartrending sight. “Down here!” I told Subrius, and headed toward the Capitoline end of the Forum. We passed the Temple of the Divine Julius, the arch of Augustus, the Rostra, the Curia, all standing proud and serene as their marble grew darkened by soot and ash.
The Capitoline Hill ahead of us looked safe. To our left was the Palatine, and I pointed to the steep path leading up it. Subrius shook his head.
“Stay here, then,” I said. He made as if to stop me but knew he did not have the authority. “Wait for me.”
Before he could protest, I turned and hurried up the pavement, although it was very hard to breathe now. But I had to see. I had to. This side was still quiet, but the other side of the Palatine faced the origin of the fire, which was still roaring and spreading. I reached the top and there it was—a hideous, hot, bellowing fire on the other side, its flames so high they bested the top of the Palatine. The waves of heat drove me back, staggering. It was impossible to approach any closer. Crackles and groans rose from the dying buildings. A writhing column of flame undulated on the rim, twisting and turning like a dancer. I stood hypnotized, a captive of its strange beauty. A puff of wind blew the curtain of smoke away and I saw my Domus Transitoria on fire, hissing and spitting. The place where I had sat with my poet friends and had enjoyed long leisurely meetings, with a fountain splashing gently behind us, was now consumed with fire, the fountain turned to steam, the columns blistered and swaying. Then, mercifully, the veil of smoke fell again and hid the sight from me.
I must retreat. At any moment the fire would spread farther up here, racing from tight-packed building to building. I would be trapped. I rushed down, the heat searing my back, pursued by the demon that laughed behind me.
Subrius was standing impatiently as I joined him. “It’s starting to go,” I said. “It will ignite completely soon. Let us retreat across the river to my house at the Vatican Fields. I will stay there tonight.”
Taking great care to skirt the burning areas, which meant going far afield through the Campus Martius, which looked unharmed, we finally crossed the Tiber across from my Vatican properties. My residence there was safe, and it was unlikely the fire would jump the river and come here.
“Stay here and eat,” I told Subrius. “Then return to the Esquiline and give a report to Nymphidius. Tell him I will return in the morning.”
The slaves quickly prepared a meal for us, and I was able to tell them what I had seen, and assure them they were safe. Subrius said little. Perhaps he was always quiet, or perhaps what we had seen today drained all talk from us. I appreciated his silence as we ate slowly.
It was still light on this side of the river when I sent him on his way. I did not need to tell him to stay far north of the city.
“Thank you,” I said.
He nodded and took his leave.
Wearily I sought out my bedchamber, after asking for something to eat. When the food came—just bread and some dried figs, all that was on hand—I found I had no appetite at all.
I took to my bed, having washed off the soot, sweat, and dirt. In spite of the protective clothes, my arms and legs were red and blistered from the heat, and my hair badly singed. But that was immaterial. My city was being destroyed and I was powerless to stop it, beyond small measures. Only the gods could stop it now. And this day had taught me that between literature and real life lay a chasm. It was one thing to sing of Troy and imagine Priam’s anguish, the suffering of the people of Troy, but quite another to behold it actually happening, to have the dead and destitute be people I could touch and smell—my own people.