The Great Fire of Rome: what happened?

Dominic Sandbrook explores what happened in Rome on 19 July AD 64

The Fire of Rome, by Hubert Robert (1733-1808).

Nobody knew how the Great Fire of Rome started. Some blamed arsonists, others the strange new religious sect from the Levant. Some even pointed the finger at the emperor himself. But decades later, the historian Tacitus thought that the blaze broke out in the gigantic Circus Maximus, beneath the Palatine Hill.

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There had been problems with fires in the stadium complex before: during the reign of Tiberius, a fire had broken out in a basket-weaver’s shop underneath the south stand, sweeping through the wooden workshops. At the time, the emperor had compensated the local businessmen for their losses. But this time the damage was much greater. “Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus,” wrote Tacitus. “There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it.”

Half a century earlier, the first emperor, Augustus, had quipped that he had found Rome a city of bricks and left it one of marble. But that was not quite true: much of the city still consisted of ramshackle wooden buildings packed into narrow, winding lanes. It was the worst possible place for a fire to break out, and fear turned into outright panic.

“Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion,” Tacitus wrote. “When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighbouring quarter, the fire followed, and even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die… Nobody dared fight the flames.”

In many ways the fire showed Rome at its worst. Looting was widespread, and the chronicler noted that armed gangs not only prevented people from fighting the flames, but even threw torches into the conflagration.

All in all, the blaze lasted for six days. Temples, pleasure arcades, homes and workshops were all destroyed or badly damaged; hundreds were left homeless. The emperor, the 26-year-old Nero, was relaxing at his seaside villa in Antium. To popular grumbling, he returned to the city only when his own mansion was threatened. “Nevertheless,” conceded Tacitus, “for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sestercius a pound.”

For all Nero’s efforts, however, the mood was ugly. In drinking dens throughout the city, men told the story that while Rome had burned, the emperor had gone up to the roof of his palace to watch the flames, even playing a song on his lyre comparing the disaster with the sack of Troy. Some even claimed that Nero had started the fire himself so that he would have an excuse for his pet building project, the gorgeous imperial Golden House. Nero had supposedly sent out men “with tow and fire-brands,” wrote the scurrilous chronicler Suetonius, “while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone”.

These rumours were almost certainly false. To Nero, however, they represented a genuine threat. And so his gaze fell on a little sect from the east, much disliked by their neighbours. To quell the rumours, the emperor blamed “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their abominations”. Scores were arrested and charged not merely with starting the fire but “hating the human race”.

Sentenced to death, the Christians were “covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights”. Nero was said to have watched some of the executions with conspicuous enjoyment. But Tacitus thought that his policy backfired. “A feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers,” he wrote, “because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”

Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review

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This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine