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This Week In History

The Great Fire of Rome. July 19, 64 AD.

The apocryphal image of Nero fiddling as Rome burned has long been burned into our minds, as well, but the lack of historical eyewitnesses has always made this event a controversial matter.

The Great Fire of Rome took place, according to Tacitus, on the night of the 18th to the 19th of July 64 AD (he was only at the time seven years old at the time, but the date is not in dispute). What is known is the fire started in the Circus Maximus in the shops that sold flammable goods like ointments, spreading quickly, and burned for six days.

The only living historiographer of that time who recorded the incident was Pliny the Elder, although he only mentioned it briefly, probably because he considered it “one of many” fires that blighted the city.

Other contemporary writers, included the philosopher Seneca (who was probably not in Rome at the time), Flavius Josephus (residing in Palestine or Egypt) and Plutarch (about 14 years old at the time, although in Rome), make no mention of the fire, even in their books about Nero´s reign. This may explain the little importance they gave to this fire.

Nevertheless, historiographers such as Suetonius and Dio Cassius recorded that Nero danced and sang Iliou persis (about the Sack of Troy). On the other hand, Tacitus wrote that Nero at the time of the fire was in Antium and stated that Nero singing and dancing while Rome was burning was just a rumor, justified by the bad reputation of the emperor.

According to Tacitus, upon receiving the news, Nero returned to Rome and set a rescue and help plan for those affected by the fire, personally bearing the costs. After the fire, Nero opened his palaces and gardens to provide refuge to those left without a home, and organized food supply to avoid hunger among the survivors. Consequently, he started an urban reform, which included a determined distance between the new buildings and the use of brick so that a new fire would not expand and cause so much damage.

Nevertheless, taking advantage of the space left by the fire, Nero built a new palace known as the Domus Aurea (Golden House), designed by architects Severus and Celer, its luxury and size reaching epic dimensions. The size of the palace was, once again, a matter of debate, considered further proof of Nero´s oppressive reign. His successors dismantled the palace and built over it. For instance, the Colosseum was built on a huge lake in the palace´s garden, where Nero´s colossus had been erected. Of course, in order to pay for the Domus Aurea, Nero had to impose new taxes to the imperial provinces.

…”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. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – 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. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.”…

 

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