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Great fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome erupted on the night of 18 July, in the year 64, among the shops clustered around the Circus Maximus. The fire quickly spread throughout densely populated areas of the city, with their ancient winding lanes, due to the fact that many Romans lived in insulae, flammable apartment buildings of three to five floors, with wooden floors and partitions. These conditions allowed the fire to rage for six days before coming under control; then the fire reignited and burned for another three. The ancient Temple of Jupiter Stator and the hearth of the Vestal Virgins were both gone. Two thirds of Rome had been destroyed.

The Roman Emperor Nero was away at Antium when the conflagration started. It is the disapproving aristocrat Tacitus (Annals, 15.38ff) who has kept alive the rumour that Nero stood on the private stage in his palace and extemporized verses comparing the present disaster to the Fall of Troy, accompanying himself on the lyre, while he watched the fire burn from a safe distance at his villa on the Quirinal Hill. Nero himself was even suspected of causing the fire in order to clear room for his planned palace. The wind that day was from the southeast, but the fire also advanced from the opposite direction, causing suspicions of arson to people who were unfamiliar with the convection physics of a firestorm. The great Fire burned hot enough to melt nails in the roofs: the remains have been recovered from the fire's ash layer, which lies buried under Imperial and modern Rome.

However, historians from Tacitus on have doubted these allegations that Nero "fiddled while Rome burned," believing them rumours given life by Nero's unpopularity. (Suetonius and Dio Cassius repeat the story without qualification; Tacitus describes it as a "rumour" which arose during the fire.) Nero, possibly to avoid blame for the incident, accused the Christian sect— already "hated for their abominations" (per flagitia invisos) according to Tacitus—for starting the fire and embarked on the earliest persecutions of Christians in Rome. Edward Champlin , in his Nero, favored the idea that Nero was actually the cause behind the burning of Rome; Gerhard Baudy , in his Die Brände Roms : Ein apokalyptisches Motiv in der antiken Historiographie, suggested that the Christians set the fire in order to fulfill eschatological prophecies about the burning of Rome. However, there is no hard evidence of who or what actually caused it, and it is worth pointing out that fires were very common in Rome at the time.

Rome was rebuilt after the fire and Nero played a large role in the reconstruction; it was then that the building of his famous Domus Aurea palace began.

Accounts of the fire are found in the Annals of Tacitus (15.38ff), in Suetonius' Life of Nero (ch. 38), and in the Roman History of Dio Cassius (ch. 62).

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Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13