Great Fire of Rome

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A depiction of the fire burning through the city.
Fire in Rome by Hubert Robert. A painting of the fire burning through Rome.

The Great Fire of Rome (Latin: incendium magnum Romae), was an urban fire that occurred in July AD 64.[1] The fire began in the merchant shops around Rome's chariot stadium, Circus Maximus, on the night of 18 July. 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.[2]

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.[3]


Previous recorded fires in Rome[edit]

Fires in Rome were common, especially in houses,[4] and fires that had occurred previously in Rome and destroyed parts of major buildings include:


Nero was proclaimed emperor in AD 54 at the age of 17.[2] His rule has commonly been associated with impulsiveness and tyranny. Early in his reign 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 July, AD 64, it was rumoured that Nero ordered the fire to clear space for a new palace.[6][page needed] At the time of the fire Nero may not have been in the city but 35 miles away at his villa in Antium,[7] and possibly returned to the city before the fire was out.[8]


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 AD 56 or 57. His two main works, the Annals and the Histories, covered the history of the empire between AD 14 and AD 96. However, much of the work has been lost, including the books covering events after AD 70. 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.[9]


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.[5] 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 demolishing buildings to attempt to make a fire break.[10] In 22 BCE Augustus funded a fire brigade.[11]

Rome's water system[edit]

Before the fire, Rome's water was brought in by nine aqueducts which were not set up with equipment to fight fires. Carrying out repairs to the aqueducts was an ongoing task for 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.[12] Firefighters relied on blankets, buckets of water, vinegar, and demolition of buildings to put fires out.[13]

Outbreak and progress of fire[edit]

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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]


Nero's Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

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.[17] 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 Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals, and Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were damaged or destroyed. Also destroyed in the fire was the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked. However, the open space in the middle of the Forum remained a shopping/meeting centre.[18] The accusations of Nero having started the fire were further exacerbated by his quickness to rebuild burned neighbourhoods in the Greek style and to launch construction of his new palace.

For the city's reconstruction, Nero dictated new and far-sighted building rules,[19] intended to curb the excesses of speculation[clarification needed] (most likely it was the speculators[clarification needed] who caused the fire,[citation needed] perhaps fueling a previous accidental fire[citation needed]) and trace a new urban plan, which still can be discerned from the city layout today.[20] He rebuilt much of the destroyed area, and had the ostentatious building complex known as Domus Aurea (Golden House) built, his personal residence (replacing the Domus Transitoria and including an extension of about 2.5 km2), which came to include the Palatine, the slopes of the Esquiline (Opium) and part of the Celio.[21] This cannot have been a possible motive for the fire, as he could have requisitioned the necessary land anyway and most was already in his possession.[20]

Debris from the fire was used as fill for the nearby malaria-infested marshes.[22]

Varying historical accounts[edit]

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.[23]
  • Nero was motivated to destroy the city so he would be able to bypass the senate and rebuild Rome in his image.[2]
  • Nero quite openly sent out men to set fire to the city. Nero watched from the Tower of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill singing.[24]
  • Nero sent out men to set fire to the city. There were unconfirmed rumors that Nero sang from a private stage during the fire.[25]
  • The fire was an accident that occurred while Nero was in Antium.[26]
  • 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.[27]

Cultural references[edit]

  • 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 Virgil 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.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Society, National Geographic (18 June 2014). "Great Fire of Rome". National Geographic Society. Retrieved 7 April 2019.
  2. ^ a b c "The Great Fire of Rome | Background". Secrets of the Dead. PBS. 29 May 2014. Retrieved 7 April 2019.
  3. ^ Dando-Collins, Stephen (2010). The Great Fire of Rome. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81890-5.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Dando-Collins, Stephen (2010). The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and HIs City. Da Capo Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780306818905.
  5. ^ a b Dando-Collins, Stephen (2010). The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City. Da Capo Press. p. 57. ISBN 9780306818905.
  6. ^ Freeman, Charles (2014). Egypt, Greece, and Rome : civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean (Third ed.). Oxford. ISBN 978-0199651917. OCLC 868077503.
  7. ^ Tacitus XV 39
  8. ^ Suetonius, Nero, 38.2
  9. ^ "Tacitus | Roman historian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 13 April 2019.
  10. ^ Dando-Collins, Stephen (2010). The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City. Da Capo Press. p. 89. ISBN 9780306818905.
  11. ^ Beard, Mary (2015). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation. p. 375. ISBN 9781631492228.
  12. ^ Dando-Collins, Stephen (2010). The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City. Da Capo Press. pp. 54–56. ISBN 9780306818905.
  13. ^ Beard, Mary (2015). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation. p. 463. ISBN 9781631492228.
  14. ^ Tacitus, Publius. The Annals.
  15. ^ Discovery UK. "Is Nero Innocent Of Burning Down Rome? | Blowing Up History - YouTube". Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  16. ^ Dando-Collins, Stephen (2010). The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City. Da Capo Press. p. 90. ISBN 9780306818905.
  17. ^ Publius Cornelius Tacitus. The Annals. Book 15 [15.16]. Archived from the original on 14 April 2009. Retrieved 27 October 2021. Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his houseCS1 maint: location (link)
  18. ^ "The Great Fire of Rome | Clues and Evidence". Secrets of the Dead. PBS. 29 May 2014. Retrieved 7 April 2019.
  19. ^ Tacitus, Annals XV 43
  20. ^ a b Massimo Fini, Nerone: Duemila anni di calunnie, Milano, Mondadori, 1993, ISBN 88-04-38254-6
  21. ^ Svetonius, op. cit. XXXI
  22. ^ "The Burning of Rome, 64 AD", EyeWitness to History (1999)
  23. ^ Dio, Cassius History of Rome LXII. pp. 111-113
  24. ^ Suetonius. "Life of Nero". Lives of Twelve Caesars.
  25. ^ Tacitus, Annal XV.38–44
  26. ^ Tacitus, Annals XV.38–9
  27. ^ Tacitus, Annals XV.44
  28. ^ Riordan, Rick (2020). The Tower of Nero. New York: Disney-Hyperion. p. 52. ISBN 9781484746455.


Further reading[edit]

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