House fires were common in Rome. With the city’s closely packed high-rise tenement buildings and mostly narrow, winding streets, once a fire took hold, it quickly spread. Not infrequently, landlords would deliberately start fires that burned down their own buildings. There were no insurance companies in Roman times, but it still paid landlords to burn down old properties so they could eject tenants, build bigger and better properties, and charge higher rents.
Once every ten years or so, a major fire would ravage whole city blocks. But in July A.D. 64, Rome was afflicted by a devastating blaze that came to be called the Great Fire of Rome. Nero was out of town at the time. Now that he had become obsessed with competing in theatrical contests, he had gone down Italy’s western coast to Anzio, where a prestigious annual contest for singers and lyre players was held each year. Anzio was a town favored by the imperial family, and Nero had developed a new port there in A.D. 59. While at Anzio for the contest, Nero stayed at the imperial villa built by Caligula as a vacation place and used as the seaside resort of Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, for many years; it had been from there that Agrippina had sailed to her death five years earlier. There, too, Sabina had given birth to Nero’s daughter.
On July 19, while Nero was playing his lyre and singing onstage at the Anzio singing contest, a fire broke out in shops in an arcade beneath Rome’s massive Circus Maximus, a complex that could seat more than two hundred thousand people. This occurrence was the source of the story that Nero “fiddled” while Rome burned. The fire quickly engulfed the timbers of the huge circus’s stands, the largest wooden structure ever built, then spread through the neighboring part of the city northwest of the Palatine Hill.
The next day, when news of the fire reached Anzio, and Nero learned that the conflagration was raging out of control through the city and approaching his Palatium, he hurried back to the capital. There was nothing the firemen of the City Guard or Night Watch or the troops of the Praetorian Guard could do to stop the advance of the wall of flames. Nero had recently extended the Palatium of Augustus, building a connecting structure called the Domus Transitoria, which linked the Palatine palaces to the Gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill. All of this new construction was engulfed before the flames crept up the Palatine and ravaged the palaces on the slope, including Augustus’s original Old Palatium. Nero was one of the hundreds of thousands of Romans made homeless by the destruction.
As the fire continued to eat its way through one city precinct after another, Nero opened up the Field of Mars and the imperial gardens to the city’s refugees, and had temporary shelters thrown up for the homeless. He also sent for food supplies from Ostia and other nearby towns to feed the population. But while these measures won initial public praise for the emperor, opinions of Nero changed when the rumor spread that when he had been onstage at Anzio he had sung about the fall of Troy, almost as if he had wished for the destruction of Rome.
The fire raged for five days before being brought under control at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But just as everyone was breathing a sigh of relief, the conflagration sprang up anew, in property owned by Praetorian commander Tigellinus. For another several days the flames flew, destroying temples and the homes of the rich. When finally the fire died, every building in three of Rome’s fourteen precincts had been totally destroyed. In another seven precincts only a few half-burned buildings remained. Just four precincts had been left completely untouched by the flames. The loss of life was surprisingly low—the very young and the very old, those unable to flee the flames, had mostly figured among the casualties.
The references in some classical texts including Tacitus’s Annals to Christians subsequently being rounded up and burned alive by Nero as scapegoats for the fire are considered by many scholars to be inventions of later Christian copyists who inserted this paragraph into the copies of theAnnals they made, the only copies that have come down to the present day. The general belief at the time was that the original fire, which began in the circus shops, was accidental, but that the second blaze, five days later, was set by Tigellinus, either on Nero’s orders so he could rebuild Rome to his own design or because Tigellinus wanted to profit by building grander rental properties on his land.
The rebuilding of Rome would take many years. While the restored city would be one of striking splendor, according to Tacitus, there would be old men alive in his day who would remember the historical monuments and buildings, including the palace of the early Roman king Numa, and priceless Greek works of art that could not be replaced.¹ As the rubble was cleared and shipped down the Tiber to fill in the marshes at Ostia, and as the provinces vied with each other to provide money and craftsmen for the task of restoring the capital, reconstruction planning gave Nero the opportunity to redesign the city with regular, wider streets and greater access to running water, at the same time implementing building regulations designed to restrict the spread of house fires, with limits on building heights and building densities. It also permitted the creation of more public open space.
More important to Nero, the vast devastation allowed him to pander to his dream of a palace unlike anything ever before built. From the ashes of the Great Fire rose the new Palatium, Nero’s Golden House. His Domus Aurea would occupy two hundred acres in the heart of Rome, spreading well beyond the Palatine Hill to the surrounding Caelian and Opian Hills, encompassing numerous buildings, gardens, and lakes. One of those lakes would be drained a decade later to create the site for the Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum. A 120-foot-tall marble statue of Nero, known as the “Colossus,” which he installed in the Golden House’s entry vestibule, would by A.D. 80 be relocated to stand outside the Colosseum, giving the famous amphitheater the nickname that has come down to the present day (the Colosseum’s official name was actually the Hunting Theater). Only the massive head of the Neronian statue and one of its huge marble hands would survive through the ages.
While Nero had allowed Seneca to depart Palatium service two years earlier and retire to write what some later authorities would consider to be his best works, Seneca was not yet out of the emperor’s life. Seneca was hated by the new empress, Sabina, because he had opposed her marriage to Nero and had opposed the execution of Octavia. And despite Nero’s invitation to Seneca to come out of retirement at any time to correct him if he felt he was following a wrong course, in truth Nero was not prepared to be lectured by anyone anymore. Seneca now came to learn through his freedman Cleonicus that poison had been prepared on Nero’s command and that Cleonicus had been approached to use it on his master. After this, Seneca existed on a diet of wild fruits and stream water, to avoid being poisoned.
Nero’s ongoing attempts to destroy the lives of leading Romans such as Seneca, combined with the vast amounts of money poured by Nero into the Golden House, and his obsessions with chariots and the stage, together with the brutal activities of his Praetorian commander Tigellinus, made Nero so loathed by Rome’s nobility that several plots to kill him were fomenting by the spring of A.D. 65, just seven months after the Great Fire. One of those plots centered around the distinguished senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso, the same Piso who regularly loaned his Baiae villa to Nero, the villa from which Nero had carried out the murder of his mother.
At the heart of a second plot was a Praetorian Guard tribune, Subrius Flavus, and a Praetorian centurion, Sulpicius Asper. These two men brought several other Praetorian officers into their murder conspiracy, At the same time, and independent of the Praetorian plot, a number of senators and knights conspired with Piso, planning to make him emperor once Nero had been done away with. Tacitus, citing Pliny the Younger as his source, was to write that Piso planned to divorce his wife and marry Claudia Antonia, the emperor Claudius’s last surviving daughter and Germanicus’s niece, to give him a credible claim to the throne.² To bring the Praetorian Guard over to the assassins, the Piso plotters approached Praetorian cocommander Faenius Rufus, who, they hoped and believed, would happily destroy Nero and Tigellinus now that Tigellinus had caused the emperor to virtually sideline Rufus. The senators knew that without the popular Guard commander, and without the Guard, their plot would fail. Rufus agreed to join the plotters, and through him the conspiratorial Praetorian officers Flavus and Asper also were brought into the Piso plot. The two assassination schemes now melded into one.
It was suggested by some conspirators that the assassination should take place when Nero paid one of his visits to Piso’s Baiae villa, but Piso said he had no desire to pollute the place with the tyrant’s blood. Another of the assassination plans being considered involved murdering Nero at sea. With this scenario in mind, Epicharis, a wealthy freedwoman who was part of the general conspiracy, sounded out the naval captain Volusius Proculus, who had been a participant in the murder of Agrippina the Younger. Proculus had privately complained to Epicharis that he felt he had not been well enough recompensed for his role in the murder of the emperor’s mother. But after Epicharis discussed killing Nero while the emperor was aboard a warship on a planned imperial visit to Egypt, Proculus went straight to Nero to inform on her. The freedwoman was arrested and tortured, but she confessed to nothing. With no other witnesses to support Proculus’s claim, the matter was allowed to drop.
The arrest of Epicharis spurred the other conspirators to hurry forward their plot. Now the plan was for Nero to be assassinated while attending April’s Games of Ceres at the Circus Maximus. Nero had lately become very reclusive, and chariot races were the only events that could be guaranteed to bring him out in public. But when April arrived, the revised Piso plot was discovered by the Palatium just days before it was due to be carried out. Its undoing came when one of the conspirators, Flavius Scaevinus, acted so suspiciously that his freedman went to the Palatium to inform on him. The freedman’s suspicions had been raised when Scaevinus instructed him to sharpen a rusty dagger he’d recently had blessed at a temple. Knowing that Scaevinus would be sitting with the emperor at the circus during the Games of Ceres several days later, the freedman had put two and two together. So, too, did Nero.
When Scaevinus was interrogated, he denied everything. But when his freedman was questioned further, he named two men who had recently been in fervent and secret conversations with his master. Both these men were brought in by the Praetorian Guard. Neither of them was the courageous type: threatened with torture, they spilled out all they knew about the plot, naming many more conspirators. One of the first men they implicated was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Nero’s famous former tutor and retired chief secretary. For the moment, Nero seemed not to believe that Seneca was involved, even when Seneca’s nephew Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (known to later generations as the poet Lucan), son of Seneca’s younger brother Lucius Annaeus Mela, confessed to being party to the plot. Lucan had once been a favorite of Nero’s, winning the poetry prize at the Neronian Games of A.D. 60, but had since fallen so much out of imperial favor that he had been banned by Nero from performing his works in public—out of jealousy of his talent, it would seem. Not only did Lucan confess to being involved in the assassination plot, he even implicated his own mother, Atilla. Praetorian Guard troops, augmented by men of the German Guard to ensure that the Praetorians did their duty without fear or favor, ranged throughout the city looking for various named conspirators. For the moment, Seneca was not one of those on the wanted list.
Prisoners by the score were dragged to the Servilian Gardens, where Nero, surrounded by a reinforced bodyguard, with a giant German Guard named Cassius standing at his shoulder, personally questioned each suspect together with the prefect Tigellinus. Among the soldiers gathered around Nero was the Praetorian prefect Faenius Rufus. He was, of course, also a conspirator, but his complicity had yet to be discovered, as no one had so far named him. Rufus, for his part, acted tough with the prisoners as they were brought before the emperor. Beside him stood the Praetorian centurion Subrius Flavus, who also was a member of the conspiracy.
Tacitus tells of how, as Nero and Tigellinus questioned suspects, the centurion Flavus whispered to the prefect Rufus beside him that he only had to give him a sign and he would draw his sword and plunge it into Nero. Rufus looked around at the centurion, who now put his hand on the hilt of his sword. But Rufus’s courage had failed him; shaking his head, he made the centurion remove his hand from his weapon. It would prove to be a fatal mistake—within days, both Rufus and Flavus would be named by other conspirators during the continuing interrogations and confessions, and both would ultimately lose their heads.³ Two of the Praetorian Guard’s ten tribunes also would be accused and would pay with their lives. Three other Praetorian tribunes whose loyalty was suspect would be removed from their posts by Tigellinus.
Following Flavus’s arrest, Nero asked him why he had plotted against him, in contravention to his sacred oath of allegiance. Flavus’s excuse was that he had grown to hate Nero. Tacitus says the centurion declared: “No soldier was more loyal to you than I was, while you deserved to be loved. I started to hate you when you murdered your mother, and your wife, and when you became a charioteer, an actor, and an arsonist.”⁴
While a number of plotters met the executioner’s sword, some conspirators had time to commit suicide by opening their veins, among them Piso, central figure of the plot, along with the consul-elect Atticus Vestinus, and Seneca’s nephew Lucan, who recited his latest unpublished poem, about a dying soldier, to friends as his life ebbed away. As for Seneca himself, Nero wanted him dead, but he was not entirely sure how to proceed with him. Seneca had been named by only a single conspirator, and even then the accusation was not entirely damning. So Nero sent a Praetorian tribune, Gavius Silvanus, to question Seneca, accompanied by a detachment of Praetorian troops. The tribune found the former chief secretary at the house of one of Seneca’s friends, Novius Priscus, four miles outside Rome. Seneca was staying overnight at the villa of Priscus after having only that day arrived from his own country estate in Campania.
In the early evening, the tribune Silvanus surrounded the house with Praetorian soldiers, then went inside and confronted Seneca just as he was commencing dinner. With Seneca were two close friends and his second wife, Pompeia Paulina. She was, while much younger than Seneca, devoted to her husband. Independently wealthy, Paulina came from a leading family. She was the daughter of an ex-consul who had been an energetic governor of Lower Germany and was now one of the three commissioners of Rome’s public revenues appointed by Nero. He would have received that appointment on Seneca’s recommendation.
One of the two friends with the childless couple this night was Seneca’s doctor, Statius Annaeus, who was probably a former slave freed by Seneca. Doctors in Roman times were almost exclusively Greek slaves or freedmen. When a slave was freed, he generally took part of his former master’s name; Statius may well have been a slave who took the Annaeus family name on receiving manumission. Seneca’s other friend and dinner companion would have been the house’s owner, Novius Priscus. Seneca himself, now sixty-eight, had grown thin and scrawny as a result of his frugal diet over the past few years. He had also recently suffered from an illness that had weakened him for a time. But he had since regained much of his strength, and his bearing was as regal as it always had been.
A little embarrassed, the tribune formally informed Seneca that Antonius Natalis, an admitted conspirator and one of the two friends of Scaevinus who had been the first to confess to involvement in the plot, had given Seneca’s name to Nero. Under questioning, Natalis had claimed he had been sent to Seneca by conspiracy ringleader Piso to discuss Seneca’s support for Nero’s assassination. In his confession, Natalis had told the emperor that he had admonished Seneca for refusing to see Piso personally, and in response Seneca had said that it would not be to the benefit of either Seneca or Piso if they were known to be meeting regularly; with Seneca deliberately leading a secluded life, such meetings would have been likely to raise suspicions at the Palatium. Natalis’s implication that Seneca knew all about the plot was further supported by a comment that Natalis alleged Seneca had made to him. According to Natalis, Seneca had said, “My own life depends on Piso’s continued safety.”⁵ This could be taken to suggest that Seneca was counting on Piso to eliminate Nero.
When the tribune Silvanus repeated these accusations to Seneca and asked what he had to say about them, Seneca denied any involvement in or knowledge of the plot. He said he had refused to see Piso when he wished to call on him simply because he had been determined to lead the life of a private person, not for any furtive or clandestine reason. Silvanus returned to the Palatium, leaving his troops in position around the Priscus villa.
At the palace, the tribune gave Seneca’s answer to Nero in the presence of the empress Sabina and the Praetorian prefect Tigellinus. Nero asked whether Seneca had seemed ready to commit suicide. Silvanus replied that Seneca had appeared quite calm and composed, and certainly showed neither fear nor regret. In short, he was not acting like a guilty man. Despite this, urged by his wife and chief adviser, Nero sent the tribune back to announce that the emperor was convinced that Seneca had either been involved in or had been aware of the murder plot, and he therefore sentenced Seneca to die.
Later, as the Praetorian Guard officers involved in the plot were exposed one by one and testified to what they knew, Nero was to receive confirmation that Seneca, while not an active participant in the plot to kill him, had certainly known all about it. More than that, Seneca also had stood to gain by it, for it emerged that the centurion Flavus had told other centurions of the Guard that the intent of the Praetorian officers was that once Nero had been murdered by Piso’s associates, the officers would then kill Piso, whom they considered effeminate and weak, and would then make Seneca, a man they respected, their new emperor. This aspect of the plan—making Seneca emperor—was, Flavus had told his comrades, known to Seneca in advance.⁶
Silvanus did not return directly to Priscus’s villa after he left Nero’s Golden House. Silvanus, it turns out, also was involved in the plot and apparently had communicated with Seneca about it prior to the whole affair unraveling, acting as the middleman between the conspiratorial officers and Seneca. And this was how the tribune had known exactly where to find Seneca—who, as he would have planned with the officers, had come up from Campania a few days prior to the Games of Ceres, to stay with his friend just outside Rome and wait for the news that Nero was dead before he entered Rome to be acclaimed emperor by the troops at the Praetorian barracks. Instead of going straight back to Seneca with the death sentence from Nero, a troubled tribune Silvanus went to his commander, Rufus. The fact that the Praetorian prefect, like the tribune, was one of the conspirators had not to that point become known to the Palatium.
Silvanus told Rufus that he had been ordered by Nero to deliver a sentence of death to Seneca, and asked him what he should do. Seneca’s fate was now in the hands of Rufus. But Rufus, seeing the assassination conspiracy crumbling around him, was by this time only thinking about his own neck. Gripped by fear, and holding on to an unrealistic hope that he would escape being named by the other conspirators, Rufus, says Tacitus, angrily told the tribune to carry out the emperor’s orders. So with a heavy heart, Silvanus returned to the villa of Priscus, arriving late in the evening.⁷
Unable to look Seneca in the eye, and terrified of the prospect of Seneca dragging him down with him, Silvanus sent one of his centurions into the house to pass on the emperor’s sentence. Seneca calmly received this news and, resolved to his fate, asked the centurion if he could have some wax writing tablets so he could write a revised last will and testament. When the dour centurion refused the request, Seneca, with a sigh, turned to his wife and friends and said, “As I’m forbidden to reward you, I bequeath you the only, but the noblest, possession that is still mine—the pattern of my life. If you keep that safe in your memory, you will earn a reputation for moral goodness and unshakable friendship.”⁸
Seneca’s friends and his wife, Paulina, all burst into tears, but he rebuked them for it. And he rebuked himself. “Where, Seneca,” he now asked himself, “are your philosophical maxims? Why weren’t you prepared for this evil day by years of study? Who of us was unaware of how cruel Nero could be? After murdering his mother and his brother [Britannicus], all that now remains for him to do is destroy his guardian and tutor.”⁹ He then embraced his wife, whom he had loved dearly since their marriage some fifteen years before. “I beg you, and implore you, spare yourself from a future of endless grief. Console yourself with my loss by remembering that yours has been a life that has been virtuously spent.”¹⁰
With tears running down her cheeks, Paulina declared, “I will die with you.” She turned to the waiting centurion. “You must also execute me.”
Proudly, Seneca beheld his wife. “I have taught you well. You have chosen a glorious death.” To his mind, such an end would be far preferable to the life of insults Paulina could expect as the widow of the condemned traitor Lucius Annaeus Seneca. “I will not prevent you from setting such a noble example. We will both face the end with courage, but yours will be a more famous death than mine.”¹¹
Knowing that the centurion would permit them to commit suicide as long as they wasted no time about it, Seneca had his wife lie beside him on the dining couch. With both of them holding a dagger, they slit the arteries of their arms in one motion. When Seneca’s blood merely dripped from the wound, he also severed the veins of his spindly legs and knees. The centurion was satisfied by this and withdrew. Outside, the centurion reported to his tribune, Silvanus, who ordered him to go to Rome to inform the emperor that both Seneca and his wife had chosen to take their own lives and had slit their veins. The centurion mounted his horse and headed for the Palatium.
Back inside the villa, Seneca was becoming distressed by the sight of his wife bleeding to death beside him. He worried, too, that, seeing his distress, she might not go through with their pact to both die in this way, and would instead have her wound bound up. So he convinced her to go into another room to die. His chief freedman, Cleonicus, had Seneca’s slaves carry her away. Seneca himself was still remarkably mentally strong, so he called in his freedman secretaries, and, while his blood flowed before their eyes, he dictated several documents for posterity. One, we learn from Tacitus, was a testament to his innocence in the plot to murder Nero—an untruthful testament, as it turned out—and a description of what he considered was the noble way in which both he and his wife were ending their lives.¹²
Dio would say that in his last hours Seneca actually revised a book on which he had been working.¹³ Perhaps this was an autobiography, and the reference to his end and Paulina’s end comprised the revision referred to by Dio. Suetonius would make reference to a nonfiction work of history by Seneca that may have been an autobiography, which he himself was able to read thirty years later.¹⁴ According to Dio, Seneca then gave this book and other books from his pen to friends, to prevent them from falling into Nero’s hands and being destroyed.¹⁵ It is probable that most of these other books contained Seneca’s philosophical treatises and plays.
While Seneca was dictating, the Praetorian centurion arrived at Nero’s Golden House in Rome and reported what was going on at the Priscus house. The emperor was pleased enough to hear that Seneca was taking the honorable way out, but he had no quarrel with Seneca’s wife. Living by a sometimes baffling code of honor, Nero ordered that Paulina’s life be preserved. The centurion galloped back to the Priscus villa and Paulina’s servants were ordered to bind up her wound, which they did. Tacitus indicates that she was unconscious by that point, for she did not resist as the bandages were wound around her arm.¹⁶ She would in fact recover, and live for several more years, although looking very pale.
It is unclear whether Seneca, in a separate room, knew that his wife’s life had been spared. He certainly would not have been happy had he been aware of it, so intent had he been on Paulina making a statement with her courageous suicide. Impatient for his own life to end now, and with the bloodletting taking far too long, he asked his friend Statius the physician to do him a favor. Tacitus says that Seneca asked the doctor to produce a poison for him “which he [Seneca] had some time previously provided for himself.” This poison, says Tacitus, was “the same drug used to end the lives of those who were condemned to death in the public courts of Athens”—probably either hemlock or belladonna.¹⁷
Statius, like all Roman physicians, traveled with a medicine chest whose contents included various poisons, which doctors of the time used in small doses as purgatives in the treatment of various ailments. Statius left the dining room and went to the guest room where he was staying, where he unlocked his medicine chest. The doctor soon returned with the poison, mixed in a cup with water. Without hesitating, Seneca drank this draft straight down. Seneca quickly felt his arms and legs become chilled and without sensation, but still he did not die. For safety’s sake, the physician traveled with only a small quantity of the poison, and it turned out that the dose was simply not strong enough to kill.
Seneca knew that if he was not dead soon the centurion would return and finish him off by lopping off his head. To do this, the centurion would use his gladius short sword. The blade would be sharp, but it was less than two feet long, and, unless wielded with substantial weight behind it, decapitation using a gladius sometimes required two or three blows—or “one and a half” blows, as a Praetorian officer executing one of the Piso conspirators reported to Nero after completing his assignment. This sustained hacking at the neck could entail a painful death for the victim.
Anxious to avoid that possibility, Seneca had himself carried by his servants to the villa’s bathhouse. Roman bathhouses contained three baths—one cold, one warm, one hot. A warm bath was known to make the blood flow freely, just as an icy bath could stop blood from hemorrhaging. Seneca slipped into the water of the warm bath. Splashing water on the servants lining the edge of the bath, Seneca, only a mildly religious man—he was a loose adherent to the Stoic philosophy, which accepted that our fates are predetermined—made a joke of it, saying he was offering the water as a libation to the principal Roman god, Jupiter, in his incarnation as the Deliverer.
But when the warm water seemed to be having no effect, Seneca had himself carried to the hot bath. With steam rising all around him, he was lowered into the hot water. And there Seneca died, suffocating in the dense steam. In a codicil of his old will, he had required that his corpse be burned immediately after his death, without any funeral rites. Once the Praetorian officers who’d been waiting outside the villa had come into the bathhouse and satisfied themselves that he truly was dead, Seneca’s body was removed from the bath and cremated on the villa grounds that same night, as he had wished.