The Great Fire of Rome
- July 18/19 64AD -
‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ is a well-known phrase. It has a double meaning. Firstly that Nero was wholly ineffectual as a leader but he also played music and lived a decadent lifestyle whist the people he ruled led miserable lives. It also refers to the Great Fire of 64AD that was to destroy over 70% of the largest city in the world at the time, with a population of over two million.
There were rumours, never substantiated, that Nero torched the city so that he could get his own way with his elaborate and expensive plan for re-building the city. Whilst the city was on fire, it is said, he was playing his lyre, or fiddle, on the Palatine Hill. In actual fact he was away in his palace in Antium and when he heard about the conflagration he hurried to the city and set about taking control of the efforts to put it out – without even having his security guards.
Nero, or as he is properly called, Lucius Domitius Ahenbarbus, was a very unpopular leader indeed. With his mother, Agrippina, a Lady Macbeth like figure, he was banished from Rome by the Emperor Caligula. However when Claudius took the Imperial title not only did Agrippina convince him to let them return but also to marry her and make Nero his heir. In 54AD Claudius was murdered. Rumour has it that he was poisoned by a dish of mushrooms fed to him by the scheming Agrippina. Thus at the age of 16 Nero was Emperor of Rome and set about designing a plan to pull down 1/3 of Rome and build a series of palaces and villas, which he wanted to call the Neropolis. The Senate objected strongly and the plan was put on hold.
A short time later, on the night of 18th July, a fire broke out in the merchant quarter of the city in some shops adjacent to the massive Circus Maximus – the chariot-racing stadium. Fires were not unusual but this one was savage and raged for six days. It then re-ignited and burned for a further three. The 800-year-old Temple of Jupiter and the Atrium Vestae, hearth of the Vestal Virgins, were both destroyed. Ten of the fourteen districts had gone up in smoke.
While some blamed the Emperor Nero set about looking for a scapegoat of his own and found it in the form of an obscure religious sect - called Christians. They were fed to lions in the remaining amphitheatre and it is also said that Nero lit his garden parties with the carcasses of Christian human torches.
A new, more spectacular, Rome emerged from the ashes. Marble and stone was used to rebuild the city. There were wider streets and the marshes around Rome, that had caused malaria for centuries, were filled in with the debris of the old city. Extravagant pedestrian arcades were established and there was access to lots of water to quell any future fire. Nero built his own area – the Domus Aurea – with spectacular villas and pavilions set around a large man-made lake. It would have been impossible pre-fire to have built this area so centrally giving rise to the speculation that Nero had circumnavigated the refusal of the Senate by creating the fire.
An eyewitness to the fire was a young boy called Tacitus. He wrote a number of books about Imperial Rome and he referred to the fire in one of his last books, The Annals of Imperial Rome, around the year 116. Tacitus became one of the most important historians of Ancient Rome. This is what he said:
"...Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills - but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city's narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.
Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike - all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed - even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything - even their food for the day - could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.
Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa's public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.
By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus' estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself.
Of Rome's fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins."
There are parallels with the Great Fire of London, 1666. A dry summer, narrow streets, buildings made of wood and a leader, the Mayor of London, who was buzzing around trying, in an ineffective way, trying to put it out. Like Rome London emerged as a more impressive, cleaner and healthier city as a result with a fire brigade more equipped to cope. There is no suggestion, however, that either the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, or the King, Charles II, caused the fire, but a more impressive city rose as a result.