Rome fires sat at the core of Roman culture as well as at the pole extremes of good and bad: The goddess Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, one of the earliest and most sacred divinities. Her flame was always kept alive in the Forum. At the other extreme fires were a regular threat to the city. The Great fire of Rome in 64AD, at the time of Nero, actually set off an unending slippery slope of inflation. Fire, fire services, and building regulations were enforced. Even now we can see part of the Imperial Forum with fire proof walls on the side towards the fire-prone “suburra” district of the city.
Rome fires were a constant threat to buildings in ancient Rome. Fires were frequent and given the widespread use of flammable materials were highly destructive. Emperor Nero‘s burning of Rome in 64AD is a vivid reminder of this, but many many more fires actually beset the city both before and after Nero.
Rome’s fire measures and Regulations
Emperor Augustus and others before him had already been taking great consideration of measures, legislatin and urban planning which had not kept pace with the high levels of urbanisation. The division of the city into districts, introduction of Fire corps and other measures were significant, but not sufficient to prevent the Great fire of Rome.
The Roman writers Suetonius (Nero, 31. etc), Martial and Tacitus (Annals 15.20-23,33-35), give us insights of the contrasting views regarding the fire, its causes and Emperor Nero’s actions, also including rebuilding the city and his own palace. Regarding fire regulations Tacitus is particularly helpful sharing good insights into the types of legislative, urban and building regulations introduced following the great fire. General measures:
- a good supply of water – improving its flow and greater policing of those stealing it
- fighting fires as soon as they break out
- measures to prevent fires from spreading.
Among the measures he lists:
- dimensis vicorum ordinibus – the alignment of streets
- latis viarum spatiis – the width of the streets (to act as a fire break)
- cohibita aedificiorum altitudine – placing a limit to the height of buildings
- patefactis areis & additis porticibus – the addition of open spaces such as porticos and squares.
- limiting the use of wood instead of fire resistant rock from the quarries at Gabi and Albanum
Furthermore Nero provided:
- public funds – according to your income levels to rebuild the properties within a given period of time.
- use the grain shipping to carry away the rubble
All these measures, also including those regarding open space were considered to favour the general health of the population.
Flammable building materials
Roman building materials were used and combined to enhance their distinct qualities: Brick and mortar was strong but heavy. Similarly to Victorian 19th century buildings, wood was more appropriate for structural trusses, floors and roofs. Internal staircases were often wooden or part wooden also – the high cost of metal made its use prohibitive for staircases.
Wood might be particularly versatile but unsuitable for containing Rome fire hazards.
As apartment blocks were made larger and included increasing numbers of floors we can imagine how the effect of a fire could be similar to a chimney: with air drawn in through doors and windows and blown through the floors and roof.
The mortar had a tendency to crack and crumble under the effect of intense heat, thus allowing walls to fall, bringing down further wooden fuel from above into the fire below.
Fire-proof materials: It is worth mentioning a particular type of volcanic rock then known as “lapis gabinus” – which came from the nearby city of Gabii and another similar type from the Alban hills. Its volcanic composition, with basalt and other inclusions made it particularly resistant to fire. It was very dark and not particularly beautiful but extremely useful as a fire protection in numerous public structures. Buildings using this fire-proof building material include:
- Several Roman bridges such as the Milvian Bridge, Fabricius and Emilius
- Portions of the Cloaca Maxima sewers
- Pompey’s Roman theater
- Portions of Augustus’ temple to Mars Ultor – A huge, high, wall is still visible standing at the back of the temple in the Imperial forum. It acted as a fire break between the Forum and the Suburra area of the city on the other side.
A corps against Rome fires:
Because of this continuous danger a special corps of fire fighters was set up to patrol areas of the city. They were on the lookout for social unrest or other potential causes of fire and to act to the best of their means to put them out.
The poorer areas of the city were built more or less without planning and streets and alleys were tight, uneven and tortuous – at least before the reconstruction of Rome which followed the great fire of Rome in the time of Emperor Nero. The great fire acted as an impulse for legislation regarding urban planning and building techniques aimed at reducing the risk of fire: streets were made wider, fewer flammable materials were to be used in construction and fire prevention corps were set up all over the city.
Fires also acted as an impulse for ancient Roman architecture as buildings which had been burned down had to be rebuilt, not always exactly the same as the original. Simple examples of this are found in some Roman houses excavated in Rome where the Roman mosaics on the floor are distinctly Republican in style whilst the walls were rebuilt and repainted in “more modern” second and third style Roman painting.
Architectural Examples of Rome fires control
The greatest example of the renewal effects brought by fire in ancient Rome is the architecture of the Pantheon in Rome which not only got rebuilt in largely inflammable materials, including its cement dome, but the architecture of the building itself reached unprecedented results which influenced architects of all ages till the present day.
Other buildings and structures showing attention to fire control are the temple of Mars Ultor and its 32metre high wall made of fire resistant rock, separating it from the Suburra district.
Roman bridges had been initially made of wood, though this was clearly prone to fire and destruction. Several of them show the inclusion of fire resistant volcanic rock.