This article on the Great Fire of Rome will take a stepped approach:
- the more traditional approach considering the information we have about the event, the circumstances and impact of the fire and the inevitable debate of whether Nero did it or not.
- Did he really play his lyre?
- To what extent is the bad press also mixed in with political fake news?
- Certainly he seemed to try to find someone to blame such as the Christians.
- We take the opportunity to consider some recent world events, drawing interesting parallels between Nero’s great fire of Rome in 64AD and the fires, lootings and uprisings in London during August 2011.
Fires in Rome were relatively frequent: It was a city with booming urbanisation levels where multi-storey apartment blocks were built very close to one another, often propping each other up with common walls. Very narrow streets between them were disorderly and insufficient to provide a barrier against the fire spreading. For this very reason emperor Augustus had set up the first fire brigade corps of the city which was steadily strengthened by successive Roman emperors.
To add insult to injury the great fire of Rome of 64AD wasn’t the last either, in spite of a large number of urban reforms and regulations set in place by Nero in order to reduce future peril.
- There was another significant fire in 69AD just after Nero’s death under Emperor Vitellius (the year of the four Emperors)
- and again in AD80 under emperor Titus.
The great fire of Rome in AD 64 is perhaps the event for which Emperor Nero is best and most popularly remembered for together with his vicious persecution of the Christians which followed it. To this day there are contradictory stories as to how it started and whether it might have been accidental or a consequence of arson. In the latter case who might have been responsible?
Nero’s Alibi – he wasn’t in the city and arranged for support of the citizens
It seems Nero himself was out of the city, enjoying the fresh air of the coast to the south of Rome because of the suffocating summer heat which was making life in the city uncomfortable. As soon as he was informed of the tragedy he is said to have immediately arranged for shelter in his own grounds, on the Vatican hill (where he had built a circus – completing one by Caligula) and at other places around the city.
Over 200,000 people were left homeless and without food, for which he provided through the port of Ostia and imposed a lower price on grain. However, the rumours against him accumulated as did the witnesses for all camps, pro and against the emperor, pro and against the early Christians and others.
Hindsight suggests a number of certain details and outcomes:
Accident or Arsony?
It seems certain that whilst the fire had started through accidental causes there were also a number of arsonists about and indeed people who were actively preventing the actions of those who might attempt to put the fire out. There could have been many motives; just as an example it was not unknown for “developers” to provoke fires in order to burn buildings down then buy the remains to rebuild them and resell at a high margin. Of course once the fire was started there would have been many who would have taken advantage of the situation even for their own particular interests, for looting or simple religious or socio-political motive: this sort of behavior is clearly visible even in modern disaster situations.
A grave impact on the economy of Ancient Rome
Nero went to great lengths to help the population with aid.
He also spent vast amounts on rebuilding the city, but this time with a new, structured, urban planning approach which included mandatory safety measures to reduce the risks of fire and simplify the ease of fire-fighting measures.
It provided Nero with access to real estate and land on which he could realize his dream palace. But this gravely impacted Nero’s image and provide fuel to his detractors. He tried to combat this by shifting blame for the fire on the Christians, which he gravely persecuted as being the chief arsonists.
The huge debt left behind by these events seriously affected the Roman economy. Nero’s devaluation of Roman coinage was the beginning of a continuing landslide through to the fall of the Roman empire.
The very contrasting viewpoints regarding Nero’s role are a percolated result of history: written by the likes of Suetonius and Tacitus both of whom were clearly against Nero, not to mention the Christians who took over the empire in its dying stages and clearly didn’t have a great love for the emperor.
The popular myth of Nero’s return
Furthermore Nero lived on in popular Roman myth as a leader who would return, interpreted by Christians as the expected return of the antichrist: not the sort of character you would want to portray in a positive light.
So did Nero cause the great fire of Rome?
The answer to the question is “probably no” because of the following 4 reasons:
- It would also seem Nero was not at Rome at the time, but was staying at Antium, though clearly being the emperor that is hardly an alibi since orders could have been given to others to physically light the fire whilst he be away. It does suggest however that he was unlikely to be sitting at home watching the fire and playing his lyre (and he certainly wasn’t playing the fiddle since fiddles didn’t exist at the time).
- it started relatively far away, almost a mile from where Nero wanted to build his golden house and
- he would have likely done it in such a way as to avoid burning his own palace from which he salvaged much artwork and precious materials for the new palace.
- Could it have been arsonists or pyromaniacs? Possibly. Though it wasn’t the most ideal night on which to do it given that the moon was strong and would have given visibility. Nevertheless once rumours were spread against Nero, the emperor preferred to pursue the arson line of thinking by blaming it on the Christians who had already been persecuted under emperor Tiberius but whom during his reign had enjoyed relative freedom to preach.
It was most probably an accident, a fire like those which frequently occurred in the city: a simple torch or oil lamp left alight in a workshop. In fact other great fires occurred later in Rome’s history, after Nero: once on the year of Nero’s death in AD69 (year of the four Emperors) under Vitellius and then again in AD80 under emperor Titus. Though the emperors didn’t get the blame these times round.
What happened and how did the Great fire of Rome evolve?
The fire burst during a summer night, out in the area of the Campus Martius and Circus Maximus, possibly in some shops containing flammable materials or the grain stores of the area. It raged for six continuous days until the flames were suffocated under the city’s charred ruins. The worst hit quarters were those where the plebeians and lower classes lived, packed close to one another, making it difficult to access the fire or to get water supplied. The summer dryness and wind did the rest. From the Circus Maximus it spread quickly up the Palatine hill, across the Esquiline and into the lower class “suburra” (a sort of Soho for those who know London or Amsterdam red light district).
Only 4 out of the city’s 14 districts were left relatively intact including the Roman Forum and part of the Capitoline hill but otherwise almost ¾ of ancient Rome, it’s palaces, Roman temples and public buildings had all been hit by raging fire.
A quick comparison of the great fire of Rome and the more recent London riots
At the time of writing this article (shortly after the surprising events in London in 2011), experts, police and reporters are unable to pinpoint a single clear cause for the actions of so many people. In spite of the availability of copious video camera footage and live reporting it is difficult to determine whether the sudden “rave” atmosphere where youths who would normally have been law-abiding citizens repeatedly assembled to disseminate destruction, incendiary attacks and looting.
A news article on the Financial Times on Aug 11th was aptly titled: “MIXED PICTURE EMERGES OF WHO RIOTERS ARE”. It outlines a scenario of:
- Criminal gangs
- Many participants who had no prior criminal record including children as young as 11 and 12
- Not linked to any particular race
- Few mentioned grievances, such as the abolition of some educational allowances
- An “underclass driven to looting because of economic despair”
The London quotes were also interesting:
- “It’s us versus them, the police, the system…”
- “This is purely acquisitive – it’s not social and economic but moral and cultural….”
- “We have to admit this is a new cultural phenomenon about which we know very little”
The London events were triggered by an isolated event where a police control of a local person from a relatively poor area of the city degenerated into a gunfight and the person was shot dead. The riots which followed however though initially inspired by the peaceful demonstration mounted by the local population itself degenerated into a series of actions which had little to do with the initial event.
Comparing the London riots with the great fire of Rome:
Whilst we certainly cannot say that the great fire of Rome in AD64 followed the same set of mechanics as modern London it is fair to wonder whether similar mechanisms may have been at work. Let’s imagine the following hypothesis: The fire breaks out by accident in a workshop, the city is ill-suited to fire control and after all, we already know that fires were extremely common in ancient Rome so a disaster was waiting to happen. However, social and economic conditions by the time of Nero had evolved to an extent that a sharp divide was generated between the wealthy and the poorer social classes. (Incidentally this would fit with Nero’s fixation on policies to assist the poorer end of society).
As might be ascribed to London or to the Paris “banlieau” fires and indeed the spreading uprisings across northern Africa in 2010-2011 not to mention the large yet peaceful movement of “indignados” in Spain, we can imagine a broad section of society which has been reduced to a degree of poverty and loss of hope for the future such that they undertake collective action in a sometimes irrational and violent attempt to change their situation or at any rate a violent reaction. In the London case it exploded into an outbreak of materialism where the concept of legality was suspended in favour of personal material gain (looting).
Might something similar have occurred in Rome? Might it be that disaffected, abandoned portions of Roman society had by then reached such a degree of poverty that selling themselves into slavery might be their only option for a future and that therefore would care little but to take advantage of a blaze in order to wreak further destruction and looting of shops and property?
The situation was almost uncontrollable in London where, in the end, 16000 police were brought in, the equivalent of a Roman legion. At the time of Nero such an enormous policing force was likely not available and certainly not trained and equipped to control such a situation. We can therefore imagine the subsequent blaming and finger-pointing whilst in the background, one of the many parties at play, the Christians were chiming and cheering “we told you so! God is punishing your evil pagan and materialistic ways! You deserve all you got”. Guess who got persecuted.