Rome, as the saying goes, was not built in a day. But one day in history, the 18th of July, can be remembered as the day that centuries of building were undone in terrible fires that gutted the capital. The first was down to one of the worst defeats in Roman history, while the second is harder to pinpoint, but gave rise to one of the most enduring legends and images of ancient history.
In 390 BC Rome was still very much a regional power, confined to the Latin-speaking central part of Italy. To the north lay various other Italian city-states, and beyond them the many tribes of the warlike Gauls. A few years earlier, the Gauls had poured over the Alps and invaded much of northern Italy, shaking up the balance of power in the region. According to ancient chroniclers, Aruns – a young man of the northern Etruscan city of Clusium, called upon these recent invaders to help him oust Lucumo, the King of Clusium, who Aruns claimed had abused his position to rape his wife. When the Gauls appeared before Clusium, however, the inhabitants felt threatened, and called for help in settling the matter from Rome, which lay 83 miles to the south.
The Roman response was to send the three young men of the powerful Fabii family as an impressive deputation. Aware that the threat of the Gauls would only grow if they were allowed through the gates of Clusium, the ambassadors told the Gauls that Rome would fight to defend the town if it was attacked, and demanded that the Gauls stand down. They grudgingly accepted, but only on the condition that the Clusians grant them a generous amount of land. This outraged Lucumo’s people so much that a violent scuffle broke out, and in the random violence one of the Fabii brothers killed a Gallic chieftain – thus violating Rome’s neutrality and breaking the primitive rules of war.
Though the fight was broken up with the brothers unscathed, the Gauls were outraged and withdrew from the city to plan their next move. Once the Fabii returned to Rome, a delegation was sent demanding that they be handed over for justice, but – wary of their powerful family’s influence – the Senate voted them Consular honours instead, which understandably enraged the Gauls still further. After this insult, a huge Gallic army gathered in northern Italy to march on Rome. According to the admittedly semi-legendary accounts of later historians, they soothed the terrified peasants they met along the way by telling them that they had eyes only for Rome and its destruction.
According to the celebrated ancient historian Livy, the Romans were stunned by the swift and confident advance of the Gauls and their chieftain Brennus. As a result, no special measures had been taken to raise extra forces by the time the two armies met at the river Allia, just a few miles north of Rome. A cunning tactician, Brennus exploited weaknesses in the thin Roman line to put their soldiers to flight and win a victory that surpassed his wildest expectations against the Romans – who already had a reputation for military strength. With this defeat, their city lay defenseless.
As the Gauls advanced, the fighting men of the city – as well as the most important senators – took refuge on the fortified Capitoline hill and prepared for a siege. This left the lower city undefended, and it was razed, raped, pillaged and looted by the gleeful attackers. Luckily for the future of Rome, the hill resisted all attempts at a direct assault, and Roman culture escaped complete destruction. Gradually, plague, scorching heat and boredom frustrated the siege of the Capitoline, and the Gauls agreed to go away in return for a huge sum of money, which was paid to them. Rome had just about survived, but the sacking of the city left scars on the Roman psyche – not least a strong fear and hatred of the Gauls – and ushered in a series of military reforms that would power Rome’s expansion beyond Italy.
Over four-hundred years later, in 64 AD Rome looked very different. Not only had it been rebuilt after the battle of Allia, but it had become the imperial capital of an immense empire, stuffed full of the spoils and ornaments of victory. Now ruled by a series of increasingly unhinged absolute rulers, the times had changed since the Fabii’s day. In 64, the last of the descendants of Julius Caesar, Nero, sat on the imperial throne. A mad despot in the classic tradition of Roman Emperors, he was planning the building of an immense new palace in the city when a devastating fire broke out on the hot night of the 18th of July.
The breeze coming off the river Tiber carried the fire through the city quickly after it had broken out in shops that sold flammable goods, and quickly much of the lower city was ablaze – just as it had been when the Gauls had attacked centuries earlier. These mainly civilian parts of the city were an unplanned rabbits warren of hastily-constructed apartment blocks and narrow winding streets, and there were no open spaces to halt its spread – with the wide temple complexes and impressive marble buildings that the city was famous for all being on the central hills, where the rich and powerful lived. Of the 17 districts of Imperial Rome, only 4 were unaffected when the fire was finally quenched after six days, and the fields outside the city now became home to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
For millennia after the fire, it has been blamed on Nero. Historians have claimed that the timing was a little too coincidental with his desire to clear space for a new palace, and the enduring legend of him watching the blaze and playing the lyre from a place of safety on the hills of Rome has become iconic. Recently though, this account has finally began to be questioned. Tacitus, one of ancient Rome’s most famous and reliable historians, claimed that the Emperor was not even in the city at the time, and when he returned he was committed and energetic in organizing accommodation and relief for the refugees. This would certainly help explain Nero’s great and enduring popularity amongst the ordinary people of the empire – for all that he was detested and feared by the ruling elites.
More evidence also supports this idea. Aside from Tacitus’ claims, the fire actually started a considerable distance from where Nero wanted his palace to be built, and it actually damaged the Emperor’s existing palace, from which he tried to salvage expensive art and decorations. The night of the 17th was also one of a very full moon, making it a poor choice for arsonists. Sadly, it seems that the legend of Nero fiddling as Rome burned is probably just that – a legend. One thing that is certain, however, is that like the battle of Allia and the sacking of Rome, the great fire had important and even era-defining consequences. When Nero looked for a scapegoat he found the new, distrusted and secretive (but still small) sect of the Christians. His persecution of them puts them on the pages of mainstream history for the first time, and the subsequent suffering of thousands of martyrs thrust this new religion into a spotlight which allowed it to gain millions more devotees over the following centuries.