The Great Fire of Rome (Latin: incendium magnum Romae), was an urban fire that occurred in July, 64 AD. The fire began in the merchant shops around Rome's chariot stadium, Circus Maximus, on the night of July 19. After six days, the fire was brought under control, but before the damage could be assessed, the fire reignited and burned for another three days. In the aftermath of the fire, two thirds of Rome had been destroyed.
According to Tacitus and later Christian tradition, Emperor Nero blamed the devastation on the Christian community in the city, initiating the empire's first persecution against the Christians. However, some modern historians, including the Princeton classicist Brent Shaw, have cast doubt on the traditional view that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire.
Previous recorded fires in Rome
Fires in Rome were common, especially in houses but fires that had occurred previously in Rome and destroyed parts of major buildings include:
- AD 6, which lead to the introduction of the Cohortes Vigiles
- AD 12 which destroyed the Basilica Julia
- AD 14 at the Basilica Aemilia
- AD 22 at the Campus Martius
- AD 26 at Caelian Hill
- AD 36 at the Circus Maximus
Nero was proclaimed emperor in 54 AD at the age of 17. His rule has commonly been associated with impulsiveness and tyranny. Early in his rule, he was heavily advised, but he slowly became more independent. In 59 AD, encouraged by his mistress Poppaea, Nero murdered his mother. His leading adviser, Seneca, was discharged and forced to commit suicide. After the Great Fire of Rome occurred in 64 AD, it was rumored that Nero ordered the fire to clear space for a new palace. At the time of the fire, Nero was not in the city.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and historian of the Roman Empire. His exact birth date is unknown, but most sources place it in either 56 or 57 AD. His two main works, the Annals and the Histories, covered the history of the empire between 14 AD and 96 AD. However, much of the work has been lost, including the books covering events after 70 AD. He was only 8 years old at the time of the fire, but he was able to use public records and reports to write an accurate account.
After the fire in AD 6, the Cohortes Vigiles was introduced by Augustus. The Cohortes Vigiles, run by freedmen, were tasked with guarding Rome at night while the Cohortes Urbanus were tasked with guarding Rome during the day. By the time of the Great Fire of Rome, there were thousands of Vigiles in the city and they had gone to work trying to stop the flames by pouring buckets of water into buildings, trying to move flammable material from the fire's path, and even demolish buildings to attempt to make a fire break. In 22 BCE Augustus funded a fire brigade.
Rome's water system
Before the fire, Rome's water was brought in by nine aqueducts which were not set up with equipment to fight fires. Repairs to the aqueducts was an ongoing task by the water commissioner of Rome. Rome's Water commissioner was also in charge of investigations into those who were illegally piping water away without paying a license fee to the state. Firefighters relied on blankets, buckets of water, vinegar, and demolition of buildings to put fires out.
Outbreak and progress of fire
According to Tacitus, the fire began in shops where flammable goods were stored, in the region of the Circus neighboring the Caelian and Palatine Hills of Rome. The night was a windy one and the flames rapidly spread along the full length of the Circus. The fire expanded through an area of narrow, twisting streets and closely located apartment blocks. In this lower area of ancient Rome there were no large buildings such as temples, or open areas of ground, to impede the conflagration. It then spread along the Palatine and Caelian slopes. The population fled first to areas unaffected by the fire and then to the open fields and rural roads outside the city. Looters and arsonists were reported to have spread the flames by throwing torches or, acting in groups, hindering measures being made to halt or slow the progress of the flames. Some groups responsible for throwing torches and stopping those from fighting the fire were reported to have claimed they were under orders to do so. The fire stopped after six days of continuous burning. However, it soon reignited and burned for another three days.
Tests into how fires spread have shown that large fires are able to create their own wind and this, combined with embers being blown to new buildings, could have caused the fire to spread further and could account for witnesses claiming that random fires started in houses that were away from the flames. As well as wind playing a factor in fire spread, those who had claimed to be under orders to stop people from fighting the fires never named the one who ordered them and they were also reported to have looted buildings.
According to Tacitus, Nero was away from Rome, in Antium, when the fire broke out. Nero returned to the city and took measures to bring in food supplies and open gardens and public buildings to accommodate refugees. Of Rome's 14 districts, 3 were completely devastated, 7 more were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins and only 4 completely escaped damage. The fire destroyed mostly everything it came in contact with due to poorly built and maintained timber-framed homes. The Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals, and Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were destroyed. Also destroyed in the fire was the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked. However, the open mall in the middle of the Forum remained and became a commercial centre. The accusations of Nero having started the fire were further exacerbated by his quickness to rebuild burned neighborhoods in the Greek style and to launch construction of his new palace. The new palace, known as Golden House, would have been massive, covering a third of Rome.
Debris from the fire was used as fill for the nearby malaria-infested marshes.
Varying historical accounts
The varying historical accounts of the event come from three secondary sources—Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Tacitus. The primary accounts, which possibly included histories written by Fabius Rusticus, Marcus Cluvius Rufus and Pliny the Elder, do not survive. At least six separate stories circulate regarding Nero and the fire:
- Motivated by a desire to destroy the city, Nero secretly sent out men pretending to be drunk to set fire to the city. Nero watched from his palace on the Palatine Hill singing and playing the lyre.
- Nero was motivated to destroy the city so he would be able to bypass the senate and rebuild Rome in his image.
- Nero quite openly sent out men to set fire to the city. Nero watched from the Tower of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill singing.
- Nero sent out men to set fire to the city. There were unconfirmed rumors that Nero sang from a private stage during the fire.
- The fire was an accident that occurred while Nero was in Antium.
- Rumor had it that Nero had started the fire. Therefore, to blame someone else for it (and thus exonerate Nero from blame), the fire was said to have been caused by the already unpopular Christians.
- Henryk Sienkiewicz's historical fiction Quo Vadis heavily implies that Nero ordered Tigellinus to set fire to Rome. In the novel, Nero repeatedly complains of Rome's smell, expresses a desire to replace its squalid neighborhoods with a more beautiful city, and seeks inspiration to write a poem or song that would outdo the works of Homer or Vergil describing the burning of Troy.
- In the 4th episode of the 1965 Doctor Who serial The Romans the Doctor accidentally ignites Nero's plans for a new Rome, giving Nero the idea to burn Rome so that the Senate would be forced to rebuild Rome his way.
- The computer program for optical disc authoring, Nero Burning ROM, was named in reference to Nero and his association with the Great Fire of Rome.
- The Norwegian band Ulver released an album entitled The Assassination of Julius Caesar in 2017, which opened with a song called "Nemoralia", about the Great Fire of Rome. The lyrics include, "Nero lights up the night/18th to 19th of July, AD 64", among other references to this historical event, though the word "fire" is never explicitly mentioned.
- The first track of Blackened Death Metal band Behemoth album The Apostasy is named "Rome 64 C.E." as a reference to the event, while the second track is named "Slaying the Prophets ov Isa", referencing the persecution of christians in which Peter the Apostle was allegedly killed. Isa is the arabic name of Jesus.
- In chapter 5 of Rick Riordan’s The Tower of Nero, while trying to figure out a way to avoid being caught by Nero and his men, the god Apollo implies that Nero would burn down New York to get what he wants, just as he had done with Ancient Rome.