Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Great Fire of Rome



In A.D. 64, when Nero had been about ten years on the throne, Rome was visited by a calamity which surpassed, by common consent, all previous disasters, the capture and destruction of the city by the Gauls alone excepted. A fire broke out on the night of the 20th of July, the very day, as the curious in such matters noted, on which, about four centuries and a half before, the Gauls had entered the city. It lasted five days, not reckoning a smaller and less fatal conflagration which followed shortly afterwards, and before any attempts at rebuilding had been made.

The fire began in the shops which had grown up round the south-eastern end of the great Circus, in the low ground which there divided the Caelian and the Aventine Hills. Tacitus says that these shops contained "goods by which flames are fed," a dignified periphrasis, the commentators tell us, for oil, pitch, resin, sulphur, and the like. There was a strong wind blowing at the time, and in a few minutes the whole length of the Circus was in flames. It was a neighbourhood entirely consisting of poor houses, and the conflagration swept over it like a storm. If there had been a temple in the way, or even a solidly built stone house, the progress of the fire would have been arrested for a time. As it was, it rushed on without a pause, and before anything could be done to check it, had reached proportions with which it was impossible to grapple.

Tacitus does not tell us what direction the flames took; but we may gather that, at least at first, it was northwesterly. But he tells us how much of the city was destroyed. Something less than a third (four out of the fourteen districts) was uninjured; somewhat more than a fifth (three districts) was utterly destroyed; in the remaining seven, something, but not much was left. Tacitus mentions some of the buildings that were destroyed. The list, both from what it gives and what it omits, helps us in a certain degree to find out what perished and what escaped. Old Rome was destroyed, the Rome, that is, of the kings, and the legendary period that went before the kings. The Temple of Vesta and the glories of the Forum perished. On the other hand, we may infer, as no mention is made of it, that the Capitol escaped. The Palatine Hill was swept bare by the flames. This, apparently, was one of the last regions to be devastated. Nero was at Antium when the fire broke out, and did not return till he heard that his own palace was in danger. Nothing, it would seem, could be done to save it. But the conflagration had now almost exhausted itself. The Villa of Maecenas, which had been, in a way, taken into the Imperial residence, was burnt. This was on the Esquiline Hill. But it was at the foot of this hill, probably the foot on the opposite side to the Palatine, that the fire was finally checked. A vast number of houses were pulled down, and the rest of the city, including parts of the Viminal and Quirinal Hills, was thus saved.

The distress caused by this calamity was wide-spread and deep. The suddenness of the outbreak paralysed not only all efforts to arrest the flames, but, often, the energy to escape. There was barely time for the able-bodied to rescue the weak, the helpless, the sick. The narrow and winding streets, built up, as we know they often were, to an enormous height, made it very difficult to save property or even life. Sometimes the fugitives would seek refuge in a locality that they fondly imagined to be safe, and would find themselves overtaken a second time. Not a few, in a despair at having lost their all, or broken-hearted at not having been able to rescue children or parents, made no efforts to escape from the flames, and actually perished where they sat.

Nero was not wanting in his duties as a ruler. The buildings in the Field of Mars, especially the splendid structures erected by Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, his colonnades, baths, and terraced gardens, were thrown open to the homeless and destitute multitude. Temporary buildings were erected for the same purpose of sheltering the victims of the fire in the Emperor's own gardens. Provisions were brought in abundance from Ostia, the port of Rome, and from the neighbouring towns. A public edict lowered the price of wheat to sixpence the peck, the Government, it is to be supposed, reimbursing the dealers for the difference between this and the market price.

The people received his bounty with but little thankfulness. The fact was that dark suspicions were abroad about the origin of the fire. The Emperor himself, so it was whispered, had commanded it. He wanted to have the glory of building a new Rome, that was to be constructed on his plans, and of which he was to be the Second Founder. Suetonius, who was not born till some seven or eight years after the event, speaks with confidence on the point. He writes:—"Displeased, it would seem, at the unsightliness of the old buildings, and the narrow, winding streets, he set the city on fire. This was so notorious, that when some of his personal attendants were found with torches and lighted tow in houses that belonged to him, their captors, though men of the highest rank, did not apprehend them. Certain houses that surrounded his Golden House, the site of which he particularly desired to secure, were actually battered with large engines—they were built with stone walls—and then burnt." Dion Cassius, who was a century later, is equally positive as to the Emperor's guilt, but ascribes a different motive, which, indeed, Suetonius also mentions. This was a frantic desire to destroy the city and the Empire itself. "Happy Priam!" he was wont to exclaim, "who saw Troy and his own dominion perishing together!" Dion tells us of emissaries sent to kindle fires in various places, and gives us a graphic story of the perplexity of the inhabitants, who did not know where the trouble with which they had to contend began or ended. "The flames were everywhere," he says, "like the fires in a camp." Tacitus speaks distinctly of men who threatened violence against all who attempted to extinguish the flames, and of others who were seen throwing about lighted brands, and who cried out that they had been told to do so. "Either," he goes on, "they wanted larger opportunities for plunder, or they were acting by order." Dion expressly charges the soldiers and watchmen with not only neglecting to extinguish, but actually spreading the fire, "for plunder's sake," he adds.

There is another matter in which Suetonius and Dion agree in making a positive assertion, while Tacitus, who, it must be remembered, had all the hatred of an aristocrat for the imperial system, speaks cautiously of "report." "Nero," says Suetonius, "looked at the conflagration from the tower of the villa of Maecenas. The magnificence of the flames so delighted him, to use his own words, that he put on his theatrical robes, and sang to the harp 'The Burning of Troy.' " Tacitus contents himself with saying that the Emperor's munificence was but little appreciated because of the rumour about the singing. He says nothing of the tower, but mentions the stage in the Palace, from which, of course, there could have been no view of the burning city. It is as well to imitate the caution of the contemporary historian. Nero had such a passion for the monstrous that he was capable of anything, but there is no necessity for supposing his guilt. In a city so circumstanced, a great fire was only too possible. And wherever any such catastrophe has occurred, the popular belief always turns to some particular culprit. The great fire of London was long attributed to the machinations of the Romanists. An inscription on the monument which was erected to commemorate it expressly charged them with the crime. Others said that the Dutch, then our chief rivals in commerce and for the supremacy of the seas, were the incendiaries.

Nero certainly availed himself of the opportunity, however obtained, of building a new city. The most splendid erection was the new Palace; but even this was less marvellous than the gardens and park which surrounded it, and this, it must be remembered, in the very centre of Rome. "It was not the jewels and the gold, long familiar objects," says Tacitus, "quite vulgarised by our extravagance, that were so wonderful; it was rather the fields and lakes, with woods on one side to resemble a wilderness, and, on the other, open spaces and extensive views."

The rest of the city, "whatever was not occupied by his mansion," says the historian significantly, was built on the most improved plan; not as it had been after the burning by the Gauls, without any regularity or in any fashion, but with rows of streets built according to measurement, with broad thoroughfares, and with a restriction on the height of the houses, with open spaces, and the further addition of colonnades.

The Emperor spared no expense in making everything as perfect as he could. But the money that he spent came, after all, out of the pockets of the people, and the dissatisfaction, if not loudly expressed (for the time for open rebellion had not yet come) was strong and deep. To direct the popular hatred from himself, he had recourse to a strange device. "All the lavish gifts of the Emperor," writes Tacitus, "all the propitiations of the gods did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt, and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their odious crimes, to whom the populace gave the name of Christians. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the penalty of death during the reign of Tiberius, at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where, indeed, all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of setting fire to the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every cause was added to their deaths. They were covered with the skins of beasts, and in this guise torn to pieces by dogs, or they were nailed to crosses, or finally burnt, serving as a nightly illumination when daylight failed."

In this strange fashion began the long contest that for nearly three centuries was waged between the Empire and the Church. Nero found in the professors of the New Faith nothing but a set of obscure fanatics, and Tacitus echoes faithfully enough the common prejudice of his day. The most important point in what he says is his testimony to the vast numbers of those who were touched by the "new superstition." Paul was still alive, and already a "vast multitude" was convicted of the "crime" of believing in the Master whom he preached.