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The Great Fire of Rome.
The Great Fire of Rome ( ) was a large fire which struck ancient Rome in 64 AD. According to the historian Tacitus, the fire started on the night of 18 July, among the shops clustered around the Circus Maximusmarker. 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 historian Suetonius 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 Vestamarker.

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 Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch and Epictetus) 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 Paul: "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 or tenement blocks.

It was said by Cassius Dio that Nero sang the "Sack of Ilium" in stage costume as the city burned. However, Tacitus' account has Nero in Antiummarker 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 the fiddle while Rome burned, but this is an anachronism 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 the Domus Aureamarker 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. 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 in 80.

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:

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, Cluvius Rufus and 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 the lyre.
  • 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 lightly.

Modern scholarship

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 Aureamarker, 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 Hillmarker. Moreover, the fire destroyed parts of Nero's own palace, the Domus Transitoria. 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 Aureamarker. 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.



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