On a hot summer night in July a great fire broke out and swept across the city of Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. For over six days, the raging inferno consumed everything in its path. When the fire finally ran its course, it left seventy percent of the city a smoldering ruin. It did not take long for rumors to spread, with people accusing the reigning emperor Nero of being the man responsible for the fire.
According to those rumors, Nero observed the calamity from his palace at the summit of the Palatine, while playing his lyre (the infamous fiddle was not yet invented) as flames devoured the great city. This tempting image outlived both the notorious emperor and the Roman Empire. In fact, the tale of the Great Fire of Rome and its architect Nero is still imprinted on our minds. Yet, for all its notoriety, the story is untrue. Join us as we reveal the truth behind the infamous Great Fire of Rome.
The First Spark in the Great Fire of Rome
The Great Fire of Rome (Magnum Incendium Romae) broke out on the night of July 18, 64 CE. Our best source for the calamity, the historian Tacitus, mentions the rapid spread of fire, which ravaged the Roman Empire’s capital for six days and seven nights. Only four of the fourteen districts of Rome remained untouched by the terrible conflagration. Seven were burned to near destruction, and three were utterly ruined.
According to Tacitus, a witness of the unfolding catastrophe, the fire started in the eleventh district, in the area that hosted the Circus Maximus, the great arena for chariot racing. The first flames appeared in merchant shops near the grand structure, selling, in the words of Tacitus, “flammable goods.” Thus, the shops provided the fuel to ignite the initial spark. Soon, the fire swept the whole length of the Circus, destroying the building and advancing further.
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In addition, the city’s haphazard urban planning facilitated the rapid spread of the fire. Half a century earlier, the first Roman emperor Augustus had quipped that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it one of marble. A catchy phrase, but not quite true. During Nero’s reign, much of the imperial capital still consisted of ramshackle wooden buildings packed into narrow winding lanes. It was the worst possible place for a fire to break out.
In fact, the Great Fire of Rome was not the first time the city went up in flames. Fires in ancient Rome were a common occurrence. No less than six fires were recorded in just the first half of the first century. Yet, the Fire of 64 CE was an unprecedented disaster. This was partly due to the hot and dry weather and a strong summer wind coming off the river Tiber, which quickly carried the fire through the city. In a matter of hours, much of lower Rome was ablaze.
No, Nero Was Not Responsible for the Fire
The Great Fire of Rome killed hundreds, left thousands more homeless, and devastated two-thirds of Rome. Some of the city’s greatest architecture was lost in the inferno, including the Temple of Jupiter Stator, located at Campus Martius, and the House of the Vestal Virgins, one of the most sacred sites in the whole of the Empire. The Fire also destroyed the imperial Palace — the Domus Transitoria — located on the Palatine Hill. To make matters worse, the firefighting efforts were hampered by armed gangs and looters, arsonists who started their own fires, fueling the blaze. According to some sources, those men acted under orders, presumably given by Emperor Nero himself.
In fact, Nero was blamed for starting the Great Fire of Rome. While the ancient city burned, the emperor observed the unfolding calamity from his Palace, and played the lyre, and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing the present misfortune with the calamities of antiquity. This scandalous story, although tempting, is untrue. There are several reasons to debunk the myth. To start with, due to its proximity to the origin of the Fire, the royal palace on the Palatine was also one of the first to go up in flames.
We have no contemporary sources from the event. Most of the surviving accounts were written decades after the disaster. In addition, two of our main source writers, who emphasize Nero’s guilt are Suetonius and Cassius Dio — both senators and members of the Roman aristocracy that was in bitter conflict with the emperor. Finally, one must add that both authors were working for the emperors who had to tarnish Nero’s reputation to strengthen their claim to the throne.
The Emperor Played a Crucial Role in Relief Efforts
Even our most reliable source, Tacitus, wrote his Annals — the history of the Roman empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero — around sixty years after the Great Fire of Rome. However, young Tacitus was in Rome during the catastrophe and later managed to collect several eyewitness accounts. Besides the valuable intel on the Great Fire’s origin, Tacitus tells us about Nero’s actual location and the emperor’s own acts, revealing a different story, in which Nero was not an arsonist and cold-hearted ruler, but an emperor who cared about his people and his city.
According to Tacitus, when the Fire started, Nero was not in Rome. The 26-year-old emperor was relaxing at his seaside villa in Antium (modern-day Anzio), 50 km (31 miles) from Rome. As soon as the emperor heard about the fire, he immediately returned to the capital. Once there, Nero personally led the rescue efforts.
Nero even assisted the victims. In the words of Tacitus: “He threw open to them [the homeless] the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude…Supplies of food were brought up from (the port of) Ostia and the neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck.”
As we can see, Nero went above and beyond to help the survivors of the calamity. After the blazing inferno was finally contained, the emperor offered cash incentives to ensure the city’s rapid recovery and passed and enforced new regulations to prevent recurring disasters. Yet, many Romans believed that Nero was to blame for their misfortune.
The Palace Built on the Ashes
Tacitus wrote that despite the emperor’s efforts, a rumor quickly spread through the streets that the burning of Rome was Nero’s work. The rumor mill went into overdrive when Nero began his ambitious building program. The ambitious emperor had a new palace built on the ashes of the burned-down buildings. Covering Rome’s Palatine, Caelian, and Esquiline Hills, the “Golden House,” or the Domus Aurea, was the most lavish palace Rome had ever seen.
In fact, the Domus Aurea was much more than that. It was a huge palatial complex containing many buildings, landscaped gardens, orchards, vineyards, and even an artificial lake. The rooms were covered in gold and decorated with precious stones and gems, ivory ceilings, and special devices that diffused perfumes. The highlight was a circular rotating dining room, a masterpiece of ancient engineering.
While Nero encountered harsh criticism from the outraged senatorial elite, the emperor just followed the pattern established by his predecessors. Except for the first emperor Augustus, who was known for his moderate lifestyle, each successive ruler, from Emperor Caligula to Claudius, wanted to outdo his predecessor. However, the role of the Domus Aurea was not only to be the emperor’s pleasure palace. Recent archaeological excavations suggest that the massive complex was not intended to be a private residence but a public building — a home for the people of Rome and their protector and artist, the emperor.
Several public buildings constructed in Rome during Nero’s reign further confirm such an idea. The emperor commissioned a grand covered market and magnificent public baths. Before Nero, the baths were a luxury to be enjoyed only by the rich. Nero shattered this division. From Nero onwards, these facilities became places for all citizens. Lastly, the emperor erected a wooden amphitheater to satisfy the need for public entertainment. No wonder the emperor enjoyed popularity among the people to such an extent that following Nero’s death, several men appeared, claiming that they were Nero.
The Great Fire of Rome and the Demonization of Emperor Nero, the Antichrist
To quell the rumors and prevent an outbreak of violence among the populace, Nero had to find scapegoats. The emperor found the culprits in a rising sect founded by a carpenter from Palestine a few decades earlier. Yes, we are talking about the Christians, who were already, by Nero’s reign, considered a troublemaker due to their disrespect toward the emperor’s cult, and by extension, the Roman gods. Thus, the Christians were an easy target.
According to Tacitus, the Roman authorities began rounding up members of the sect, punishing them in the cruelest ways possible. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by wild dogs or were nailed to crosses. The “most innovative” method of torture was to tie the Christians to poles and burn them, turning them into human torches that illuminated the night.
While Nero is traditionally considered the first persecutor of the Christians, the reality is (once again) more complex. To start with, Tacitus’ account is a bit dubious, as the term “Christian” was not popular or so widely known in the first century. The writing style of the passage that mentions the persecution also differs from the rest of Tacitus’ work. This part may be a later addition from the period when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Thus, making an already deeply controversial emperor into the very image of the Antichrist was an easy task.
And so, the Great Fire of Rome became an ideal opportunity to demonize the last ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The task of tarnishing Nero’s reputation was facilitated by the rapid downfall and violent death of the emperor, who was involved (if we are to believe ancient historians) in all sorts of transgressions: from murdering both of his wives and his mother Agrippina, to persecuting and torturing innocent Christians. After all, history is written by the winners. In the conflict between the young and reckless Nero and the well-entrenched and powerful senatorial elite, the senators were the ones who wrote the history. And they were the ones who blamed Nero for the Great Fire of Rome.