The Great Fire of Rome
( ) was a large fire which
struck ancient Rome
in 64 AD.
to the historian Tacitus, the fire started
on the night of 18 July, among the shops
clustered around the Circus Maximus.
As many Romans lived in wood houses without
masonry, the fire spread quickly through these areas. The fire was
almost contained after five days before regaining strength. The
claims the fire burned
for six days and seven nights in total. The fire destroyed three of
fourteen Roman districts and severely damaged seven, while leaving
only four undamaged. Also destroyed were Nero's palace, the Temple of Jupiter
Stator and the hearth in the Temple of Vesta.
The fire and Rome's reconstruction
According to Tacitus
, it spread quickly and
burnt for five and a half days. Four of the fourteen districts of
Rome escaped the fire; three districts were completely destroyed
and another seven suffered serious damage. The only other
contemporaneous historian to mention the fire was Pliny the Elder
who wrote about it in
passing. Other historians who lived through the period (including
make no mention of it. The only other account on the size of fire
is an interpolation in a forged Christian letter from Seneca to
: "A hundred and thirty-two
houses and four blocks (insulae
have been burnt in six days; the seventh brought a pause". This
account implies less than a tenth of the city was burnt. Rome
contained about 1,700 private houses and 47,000 insulae
It was said by Cassius Dio
sang the "Sack of Ilium
" in stage
costume as the city burned. However, Tacitus' account has Nero in
Antium at the time of the fire.
Tacitus said that
Nero's playing his lyre
and singing while the
city burned was only a rumor. Popular legend remembers Nero playing
while Rome burned, but this is an
as the instrument was
invented a thousand years later.
According to Tacitus, upon hearing news of the fire, Nero rushed
back to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from
his own funds. After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide
shelter for the homeless, and arranged for food supplies to be
delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors. In
the wake of the fire, he made a new urban development plan. Houses
after the fire were spaced out, built in brick, and faced by
porticos on wide roads. Nero also built a new palace complex known as
Aurea in an area cleared by the fire.
The size of
this complex is debated (from 100 to 300 acres). To find the
necessary funds for the reconstruction, tributes were imposed on
the provinces of the empire.
Rumors of arson and the persecution of Christians
It is uncertain who or what actually caused the fire—whether
accident or arson
. According to Tacitus, some
in the population held Nero responsible. To diffuse blame, Nero
targeted the Christians
confessed to the crime, but it is unknown if these were false
confessions induced by torture. Also, the passage is unclear what
the Christians confessed to—being arsonists or Christians.
Suetonius and Cassius Dio favor Nero as the arsonist
with an insane desire to destroy the city as
his motive. However, major accidental fires were common in ancient
Rome. In fact, Rome burned again under Vitellius
in 69 and under Titus
According to Tacitus, Nero ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs,
while others were crucified or burned to serve as lights.He
describes the event as follows:
The varying historical accounts of the event come from three
secondary sources — Cassius Dio
. The primary accounts, which possibly
included histories written by Fabius
, Cluvius Rufus
Pliny the Elder
, did not survive.
These primary accounts are described as contradictory and gross
exaggerations. At least five separate stories circulated regarding
Nero and 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
- Motivated by an insane whim, Nero quite openly sent out men to
set fire to the city. Nero watched from the Tower of Maecenas on
the Esquiline Hill singing and playing the lyre.
- Nero sent out men to set fire to the city. Nero sang and played
his lyre from a private stage.
- The fire was an accident. Nero was in Antium.
- The fire was caused by Christians.
It is, however, to be noted that one of the near contemporary
sources, Suetonius (who was born shortly after the fire and may
have seen the reconstruction during his childhood) specifically
excludes any persecution, quite apart from anything on the scale
suggested by Tacitus, and went so far as to say that Nero never
tried to trace the perpetrators and gave instructions that the
members of the only list presented to the Senate were to be let off
Modern scholars tend to agree with Tacitus and believe that Nero
probably did not cause the fire. If the fire had been intentionally started
to create room for Nero's Domus Aurea, it is strange that the fire started 0.62 miles (1
km) away from the site where this palace would later be built, on
the other side of the Palatine Hill.
Moreover, the fire destroyed parts of
Nero's own palace, the Domus
. It seems unlikely that Nero wanted to destroy
this palace since he actually salvaged some of the marble
decoration and integrated it into the new Domus Aurea.
Even the paintings and wall decorations of
the new palace were similar to the ones that had been burned.
Lastly, the fire started just two days after a full moon, a time
which presumably would not have been chosen by arsonists who would
not have wished to be observed.