Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome was an urban fire that occurred in July of 64 AD.[1] The fire began in the merchant shops around Rome's chariot stadium, Circus Maximus, on the night of July 19. After six days the fire was brought under control, and before the damage could be measured, 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] Historians Brent Shaw, a Princeton classicist, and Richard Carrier have cast doubt on the traditional view that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire.[4][5]



Nero was proclaimed emperor in 54 AD at the age of 16.[6] His rule has commonly been associated with impulsiveness and tyranny. Early in his rule, 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 64 AD, it was rumored that Nero ordered the fire in order to clear space for a new palace.[7]


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 56 or 57 AD. His two main works, the Annals and the Histories, covered the history of the empire between 14 AD and 96 AD. However, much of the work has been lost, including the books covering events after 70 AD. 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.[8]

Outbreak and progress of fire

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. The fire stopped after six days of continuous burning. However, it soon reignited and burned for another three days.[9]

Christians may have regarded the fire as the beginning of the Last Judgement, which they were expecting imminently, and may therefore have avoided interfering with its progress, and joined those who menaced the firemen, as Tacitus describes.[10]


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.[11] 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 fire destroyed mostly everything it came in contact with due to poorly built and maintained timber-framed homes. The Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals, and Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were destroyed. Also destroyed in the fire was the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked. However, the open mall in the middle of the Forum remained and became a commercial centre.[12] The accusations of Nero having started the fire were further exacerbated by his quickness to rebuild burned neighborhoods in the Greek style and to launch construction of his new palace. The new palace, known as Golden House, would have been massive, covering a third of Rome.[13]

Varying 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, Marcus Cluvius Rufus and Pliny the Elder, do not survive. At least six separate stories circulate regarding Nero and the fire:

  • Nero sent men acting drunk to start the fires.[14]
  • Nero was motivated to destroy the city so he would be able to bypass the senate and rebuild Rome in his image.[15]
  • Nero quite openly sent out men to set fire to the city. Nero watched from the Tower of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill singing.[16]
  • Nero sent out men to set fire to the city. There were unconfirmed rumors that Nero sang from a private stage during the fire.[17]
  • The fire was an accident that occurred while Nero was in Antium.[18]
  • 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.[19]

See also

Notes and references

  1. Society, National Geographic (2014-06-18). "Great Fire of Rome". National Geographic Society. Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  2. "The Great Fire of Rome | Background | Secrets of the Dead | PBS". Secrets of the Dead. 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  3. Dando-Collins, Stephen (September 2010). The Great Fire of Rome. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81890-5.
  4. Shaw, Brent (2015-08-14). "The Myth of the Neronian Persecution". The Journal of Roman Studies. 105: 73–100. doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982.
  5. Carrier, Richard (2014-07-02). "The prospect of a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44". Vigiliae Christianae. 68 (3): 264–283. doi:10.1163/15700720-12341171.
  6. "The Great Fire of Rome | Background | Secrets of the Dead | PBS". Secrets of the Dead. 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  7. Freeman, Charles, 1947- (March 2014). Egypt, Greece, and Rome : civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean (Third ed.). Oxford. ISBN 9780199651917. OCLC 868077503.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. "Tacitus | Roman historian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  9. Tacitus, Publius. The Annals.
  10. Hulsen, Ch. (1909). "The Burning of Rome under Nero". American Journal of Archaeology. JSTOR. 13 (1): 45–48. doi:10.2307/496880. ISSN 0002-9114. JSTOR 496880.
  11. "The Great Fire of Rome | History Today". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  12. "The Great Fire of Rome | Clues and Evidence | Secrets of the Dead | PBS". Secrets of the Dead. 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  13. "Nero | Biography & Accomplishments". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  14. Cassius Dio,
  15. "The Great Fire of Rome | Background | Secrets of the Dead | PBS". Secrets of the Dead. 2014-05-29. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  16. Suetonius. "Life of Nero". Lives of Twelve Caesars.
  17. Tacitus, Annal XV.38–44
  18. Tacitus, Annals XV.38–9
  19. Tacitus, Annals XV.44


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