Rome, as the saying goes, was not built in a day. But 18 July 64 AD, the date on which the Great Fire of Rome broke out, can certainly be remembered as a day on which centuries of building were undone.
A mad despot
In 64 AD, Rome was the imperial capital of an immense empire, stuffed full of the spoils and ornaments of victory and with Nero, the last of the descendants of Julius Caesar, on the throne.
A mad despot in the classic tradition of Roman emperors, Nero was in the midst of planning the building of an immense new palace in the city when, on that hot July night, a devastating fire broke out in a shop selling flammable goods.
The breeze coming off the river Tiber carried the fire through the city quickly and, soon, much of lower Rome was ablaze.
These mainly civilian parts of the city were an unplanned rabbit warren of hastily-constructed apartment blocks and narrow winding streets, and there were no open spaces to halt the fire’s spread – the wide temple complexes and impressive marble buildings that the city was famous for all being located on the central hills, where the rich and powerful lived.
Only four of Rome’s 17 districts were unaffected when the fire was finally quenched after six days, and the fields outside the city became home to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Was Nero to blame?
For millennia, the fire 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 begun 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 that when he returned he was committed and energetic in organising 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 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 17-18 July 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 the Great Fire of 64 had important and even era-defining consequences. When Nero looked for a scapegoat, his eyes came to rest on the new and distrusted secretive sect of the Christians.
Nero’s resulting persecution of the Christians put them on the pages of mainstream history for the first time and the subsequent suffering of thousands of Christian martyrs thrust the new religion into a spotlight that saw it gain millions more devotees over the following centuries.