HP081: The Great Fire of Rome

HP081: The Great Fire of Rome
Rome Fire

Welcome to history podcast episode 81. Lots of news about the podcast to be covered after the history. Todays subject is The Great Fire of Rome in 64AD. As I am not familiar with this topic please excuse me if I make an mispronunciations and feel free to call me out on them in the forums.

This is a request from Chris Otto from Minneapolis Minnesota.

There is not a lot of information about the Great Fire of 64. I checked out four books from my local library, two of them on Nero who was the emperor at the time and the last two were by Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus.

These two Roman historians only devote a couple pages each to the fire. There was another Roman historian who also wrote about the fire. Cassious Dio, but I could not find any of his works at my local library.

The two books about Nero do a very good job of summarizing what Suetonius and Tacitus report. The first book is Nero by Edward Champlin the second Nero: The end of a Dynasty by Miriam T. Griffin.

Champlin starts by opening the first question, when was the fire. Reports differ as to if it was the night of the 18th or 19th. However, all agree that the fire started in the southeastern section of the Circus Maximus near the Palatine and Caelaian hills. The items in the stores fuled the flames of the fire. The wind drove the fire down the 650 meters of the circus. Then it consumed its way north along the east side of the Palatine through the Colosseum’s Valley to the lower reaches of the Esquiline.

They tore down a number of small buildings so that there was nothing to feed the fire. The plan worked. After six days the fire stopped.

However, soon the fire returned. No mention is given to how much time passed between this fire and the last one. Only that the second fire started before the people had time to recover from the first. The second fire did not cause as much damage and death as the first.

To better understand the timing of the fires Camplin summarizes, “Tactius reports that the fire started on July 18 and burned itself out on the sixth day Suetonius says the disaster raged for six days and seven nights, scholars therefore assume that it started on the night of the 18/19 and burned of the six days of 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 of July and burned itself out during the night of the 24th. Tactius says it broke out again, but doesn’t mention how long the second fire lasted and Suetonius is apparently unaware that it had broke out again. The second fire started North of the Capitoline Hill, but did not spread to the Campus Martius, where the buildings were open to the newly homeless.

As for the extent of the damage Dio says that two-thirds of the city burned and countless people died. Fourteen of the cities regions were undamaged, three burned to the ground, and their were smoking ruins in the other seven. This is as detailed a description as I could find on exactly what burned and where.

Nero had been in Antium, but quickly returned to take control of the situation. He opened the Campus Martius and the buildings of Agrippa for the homeless. And even his own gardens were opened to those who had lost their homes. In addition he made arrangements for temporary housing to be constructed and provided supplies from neighboring municipalities. Suetonius says that the people were driven to take shelter in monuments and tombs. He also lowered the price of grain. As Camplin puts it “Nero’s response to the disaster was magnificent. Prompt relief of misery through temporary housing, emergency supplies, and cheap grain, he launched a careful and comprehensive long-term reconstruction of the city.”

This next quote from Suetonius does not speak well of Nero:

“Nero’s men destroyed not only a vast number of apartment blocks, but mansions which had belonged to famous generals….Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called ‘the beauty of the flames’; then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang The Sack of Ilium from beginning to end. He offered to remove the corpses and rubble free of charge, but allowed nobody to search among the ruins even of his own mansion; he wanted to collect as much loot and spoils as possible himself. Then he opened the fire relief fund and insisted on contributions, which bled the provincials white and practically beggared all private citizens.”

Camplin backs up Suestonious claim that the rich paid for the disaster saying “The cost of the fire fell on the rich, communities outside of Rome.” So was Nero’s magnificent response to the fire worth it?

Yes, that is right it seems that many thought Nero was to blame for the fires. However, Suetonius was unsure. Dio and Tactius were sure of his guilt. Nero blamed a Jewish sect, infamous for its hatred of the human race. Not sure what sect that was. He sacrificed them to the gods. Camplin says, “initially ancient opinion was divided.” as to Nero’s guilt. Some writers (now lost) attributed the Great Fire to accident, some a plot by Nero.

So if Nero did do it why would he? According to Camplin, he is said to have been offended by the ugliness of the ancient buildings and the narrow, winding streets, and a play written shortly after his death made mention that he wanted to take revenge on his people of their support in 62 of his discarded wife, Octavia. Camplin continues, Nero therefore dispatched his agents to destroy the city, though accounts fo the actual arson differ. Dio presents his story as fact, he says, Nero’s men, pretending to be drunk or up to no good, set fire to different buildings in different parts of the city, causing general panic and chaos; later, some of those who should have been extinguishing the flames, soldiers and vigiles (the night watchmen), were seen actually to be kindling them, Suetonious’ account is similar: several ex-consuls discovered Nero’s own personal servants, his cubicularii, on their properties with tow and torches. Cubicularri were slaves who had the care of sleeping and dwelling rooms. Faithful slaves were always selected for this office as they had to a certain extent the care of the master’s person. Tacitus’ story is also similar, but he presents every thing as no more than rumor: rescue efforts were hampered be a number of unnamed people who either prevented the flames from being extinguished or openly hurled torches, shouting that someone had given them orders.

One final comment from Camplin, “Not only did the emperor cause the destruction of this capital, he gloried in it, or –as a seventeenth-century accretion to the legend so memorably phrased it—Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The accounts of what he actually did vary remarkably, as we have seen.”

In Nero’s defense there are three arguments of his innocence. 1. Accidents were far too likely, Rome was overcrowded, poorly constructed, and inadequately protected by fire-fighting forces. It constantly suffered major fires. 2. The moon was full on July 17, so on the 18/19 it was still almost full, making it a bad night for arson, because the arsonist were more likely to have been seen with so much light. 3. Why would Nero put so much effort into recovering from the fire if he had caused it? Wouldn’t have made more sense to demolish whatever he wanted and then rebuild?

What do you think? Visit the new Forums and let me know if you think Nero was innocent or not?

As for the people of Rome, they did not blame Nero, instead they blamed person’s unknown. If they did believe that Nero was to blame they would have made their beliefs known.

If Nero was innocent then what of his henchmen? Did they start the fire and it got out of hand? Or did they find the fire already blazing and contribute to it for their own reasons? Again, a question open for discussion on the new History Podcast forums. Check out the website for more information.

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