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Great fire in Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A great fire in Rome (Magnum Incendium Romae) broke out on July 19, 64 CE, when it consumed a large part of the city of Rome. Tacitus mentions the rapid spread of fire, which lasted five and a half days, until July 24. The spark was to appear in one of the stores with a flammable substance1. Only four of the fourteen districts of Rome at that time avoided destruction, three were completely destroyed by fire, and another seven were severely damaged.

Despotism Nero caused growing dissatisfaction among the society. When a fire broke out in 64 CE, people began to spread rumors about the Emperor’s involvement in the arson. Saving his skin, he blamed all irrelevant Christians.

Another scale of destruction is given by a source from the fourth century CE claiming that only 136 houses were burned. At that time, the city consisted of about 1,700 private houses and 47,000 rent houses and tenement houses, so the size of the fire did not seem so great. The differences in the descriptions may be due to the fact that the fires of Rome were not unusual during this period. The city burned again in 69 CE during the reign of Emperor Vitellius, and then in 80 CE during the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius. A lot of legends and versions of history have grown up around the event, most of which are unlikely or false.

This event took place during the reign of Emperor Nero, who at that time was no longer boasting a good reputation among the Romans, especially among patricians. It is the messages of Roman historians from this social layer that are our only source of knowledge about the fire. There is no certainty as to how the fire occurred, whether it was an accident or intentional swing. Among the historians of the time, the fire is mentioned only by Pliny the Elder, who writes about him in the margins. Others, including Dion Chrysostom, Plutarch or Epictetus , remain silent on this subject. Modern knowledge about the fire comes mainly from three secondary sources, written by Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius. Tacitus reports that some residents have accused Nero of arson. Living over a century later, the Roman historianCassius Dio claims that the emperor’s people, pretending to be drunk, deliberately set fire to the city. During this time, Nero watched the fire from his Palatine Palace, singing “Burning of Troy” on stage and playing the lyre. However, according to Tacitus, it was a rumor, and Nero was in Anzio at the time. Similar to Cassius Dion, the story is written by the writer Suetonius. In his version, the emperor watched the burning city from the tower on Volkswagen. They both suggest that Nero wanted to destroy Rome and then rebuild it according to his plan. Even after the fire, Nero ordered the construction of his residence, the so-called Golden House of Nero (Domus Aurea), on the slopes of the Palatine, where previously the villas were aristocracy. Primary sources, which were the messages of Fabius Rusticus , Marcus Cluvius Rufus and Pliny the Elder, have not survived to the present day. According to Tacitus, they were contradictory and very exaggerated.

In our time, the belief that Christians were accused of arson by the Christians when he was to be the initiator of the tragedy was established. In this way he wanted to find a scapegoat, let’s add to this society disliked by the public, for his ridiculous and irrational plans to rebuild the capital of the empire. This version has become extremely popular in our current society, thanks to the Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz and his work “Quo vadis “. However, the situation is shown differently by Tacitus:

So far, the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the sea-shore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess. Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.

Tacitus, Annals, XV 44

Torches of Nero, Henryk Siemiradzki (the picture does not depict the fire of Rome, but the persecution of Christians for Nero)

Christians were monotheists and Romans were polytheists, and that was already strange for them. In addition, they worshiped Christ who was a Jew. The Romans didn’t like Jews much, but the biggest crime was that they didn’t worship the emperor, which they thought was the biggest crime. Christians in those days lived in silence, but not as we understand it today. They were calm and gentle in serving God, and they did not meddle in matters that did not concern them. Christians in the early centuries CE were not isolated and were not mysterious. Their main task was to preach the good news of Christ and God’s Kingdom, so they could not isolate themselves. They were widely known wherever they appeared. Although they did not participate in the social life of the Romans, it is difficult to call it isolation or mystery. The rest is pure propaganda. Enemies and guilty of fire had to be found, and because there were people on hand who appeared as “weirdos”, the situation was used.

Nero was the first Roman emperor to start persecuting Christians (still a young religion). The first wave of persecution of Christians is connected with the fire of Rome in 64 CE, which was set on fire by the emperor Nero accused of these Christians. As a result of the persecution that lasted until the death of the ruler in 68 CE, many Roman Christians (the campaign did not take over the province) suffered a cruel death thrown in the arenas to wild animals or burned alive. Tacitus writes that the accused Christians were thrown to the dogs to be eaten and crucified and set on fire. They were not, however, mass and massive murders, as was believed and universally claimed.

With the outbreak of the fire, public mood clearly deteriorated. The people who did not like the ruler anyway began to give rise to a series of rumors and rumors that the tragedy was attributed to Nero. To remove all suspicion of the people, he decided to find ascapegoat. They were supposed to be Jews, but at the instigation of his wife Sabina Poppei, who had long been sympathetic to Jews, a scapegoat was made to their handful – one of the subversive Jewish sects that preached end of the world through the fire of damnation. In fact, the persecution of Christians began by accident.

Interestingly, the later historian Suetonius says nothing about the persecution, and enumerates Nero’s merits for restoring order in the city after the fire:

The sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.

Suetonius, Nero, VI 16

According to Tacitus, however, Nero quickly returned to Rome to hear about the fire, to organize humanitarian aid, for which he spent money from his own funds. Immediately after the fire, the emperor opened his palace for firefighters and provided food supplies. After the fire, he also created a new city development plan, in which it was stated that burned houses were to be demolished, and new ones built in their place – made of brick, at a greater distance from the road. In addition, Nero built a palace complex at the site of the fire, mentioned Domus Aurea, with an area of ​​40 to 120 ha. The funds needed to rebuild the city were collected from special levies imposed on the Roman provinces.

But back to the actual reasons for the fire. The fire was probably accidental. Rome had its gates closed at night and those who did not make it to the city before closing the gates, stayed outside the walls. They made fires to keep warm, and the wind carried sparks from these fires over the walls to the city, and this could be the cause of the fire. The reason for the fire in the city could also have been the weather (lightning, drought) and unnaturally high density of people and buildings, which only facilitated the heating of buildings and further arson. Rome was full of wooden buildings that could easily be ignited by a spark. The fire started with a small ignition in the merchant district, but quickly got out of control because of these adverse factors.

To sum up, modern historians are quite unanimous that Nero did not deliberately cause a fire. Thesis about Nero’s desire to create a place for the palace Domus Aurea refutes his later, distant from location of the fire, location on the other side of the Palatine. In addition, part of another emperor’s palace – Domus Transitoria – burned down. Nero is unlikely to want to destroy this palace, especially since even the paintings and decorations in the new palace were similar to those burned. In addition, the fire broke out two days before the full moon, when the arsonists could be clearly seen and detected.

Although Nero did not cause a fire, he did go down in history as the first persecutor of Christians. As a result of growing rumors, in a bitter society, of his involvement in the tragedy, he accused the isolating and mysterious Christians of arson and ordered persecution. However, what is worth noting they certainly did not have such sizes, as presented to us by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

  1. Tacitus, Annals, XV, 38–39
  • Duda Sebastian, Kto podpalił Rzym, "Gazeta Wyborcza", 8 July 2012
  • Suetonius, Nero
  • Tacitus, Annals

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