While Rome Burned: Fire, Leadership, and Urban Disaster in the Roman Cultural Imagination

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Classical Studies
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Images of urban conflagration had a powerful hold on the ancient Roman literary imagination. This phenomenon represents a unique confluence between literary tradition and urban reality: Greco-Roman literature offers a wide array of poetic, philosophical and historiographic reflections of cities destroyed by fire, yet daily life in ancient Rome was haunted by the very real fear of conflagration. The major investigative goal of this project is the exploration of the ways in which Romans authors used powerful images of fiery destruction, often drawn from the broader literary tradition, to address contemporary moments of political crisis in the early imperial period. In three chapters, I follow the intersection of urban fires and claims to power, as expressed both in urban space and in the literary city of Rome, during three critical periods from early imperial history: Augustan, Neronian, and post-Neronian Rome. In each period, a distinct set of fire-related problems arose for the current leader: in the aftermath of disaster, each leader in different ways, attempted to configure himself as protector of and provider for the urban population, with varying outcomes. Augustus faced the task of renewing Rome after the defining rupture of the triumviral conflicts and the fall of the republic; Nero came to power after generations of jeopardized successions and often-violent transitions had produced significant civic anxiety and suspicion of new leadership, a precarious dynamic even before the unprecedented destruction of 64 CE; and Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, came to power in 69 CE, after Rome had been ravaged by the violent (and incendiary) Year of Four Emperors. Each ruler, in his own way, worked to equate his restoration of Rome after disaster, which included efforts to prevent future fires, with his larger claims to political control and even mastery of the cosmos. Likewise, authors working in an increasingly repressive environment found in images of urban destruction a productive set of metaphors and figures for addressing the fears and tensions attached to contemporary ideology.

James Ker
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