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Was Nero Responsible for the Great Fire of Rome?

Image | Fire in Rome by Hubert Robert.

On the night of 18 July 64 AD, a fire broke out and swept across Rome, ravaging the city for over six days. It would become known as the Great Fire of Rome and legend states the decadent and unpopular emperor Nero ‘fiddled’ whilst his city burned before him. Being accused of doing nothing is bad enough but what if Nero was actually the architect of those fires? Is there any truth in this historical theory?

The traditional view has Nero laying the blame for the fire at the door of the Christians, beginning nearly three centuries of Roman persecution against them. No primary sources about the fire survive, instead, we rely on the secondary accounts by Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Tacitus, our main ancient source on the subject, documented his account around sixty years after the event itself as did Suetonius whilst Cassius Dio wrote over a hundred years later. Their accounts differ in a variety of ways, leaving the truth of the fire up for historical debate. 

The fire was said to have started in merchant shops selling what Tacitus described as ‘flammable goods’. The shops were located near the chariot racing stadium known as the Circus Maximus and it spread quickly due to several factors. Firstly, there was a strong wind at the time fanning the flames. Known as the Lo Scirocco, this dry arid wind born from the Sahara sweeps across Italy during the hot summer months. Secondly, a lot of the civilian houses close to where the fire broke out were packed together, badly constructed and timber-framed, providing ample fuel for the fire to burn through during the dry summer conditions. 

Tacitus documented that efforts to douse the fire were hindered by gangs of looters and arsonists, who menaced the firemen and encouraged the blaze to spread. When the fire was finally contained, three out of Rome’s fourteen districts had been completely devastated and a further seven had been burnt to near destruction. The fire had lit up two-thirds of Rome, killed hundreds, left thousands more homeless and destroyed some of Rome's greatest architecture including The Temple of Jupiter Stator and the House of the Vestals.

Burning down Rome does not seem beyond the pale for the 'impulsive' and 'corrupt' Nero

As for Nero, Tacitus claimed the emperor was away from Rome at the time, staying in the coastal city of Antium. Although Tacitus implied the looters, who aided the spread of the fire, might have been doing so under orders, he does not directly state where those orders could have come from. However, Suetonius and Cassius Dio do. They believed that Nero was responsible for the fire, as he wanted to burn down parts of the city he disliked so that he could build a lavish palace in their place. 

Burning down Rome does not seem beyond the pale for the 'impulsive' and 'corrupt' Nero, the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Although some modern historians have recently begun to paint him in a more favourable light, he’s often remembered as the epitome of the decadence and debauchery of Ancient Rome. The emperor apparently slept with his mother, had her murdered, along with a number of his wives and his brother.

Indeed, even as the fires still burnt rumours ran rampant through the city that Nero had been behind it all. Certainly, the facts don't look good for him. Before the event, Nero had hoped to knock down a third of Rome in the hope of erecting a series of palaces and elaborate gardens adorned with monuments. He hoped to call the complex ‘the Neropolis’, Rome was to be rebuilt in his image. The Senate rejected his plans, seemingly providing the tyrannical Nero with a motive to start the fire.

When the fire started, Nero didn’t return to the city until it threatened his property, a house he'd built to connect his palace with the gardens of Maecenas. The fire couldn't be stopped in time and consumed both the house and palace. Seemingly to his credit, Nero then supposedly turned his attention to his people and went to aid them in their plight. 

To rebuff the accusations of conspiracy Nero blamed the Christians.

He threw open to them (the homeless) the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude,’ Tacitus wrote. ‘Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck. These acts, though popular, produced no effect, since a rumour had gone forth everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity.’

The rumour mill again went into overdrive when Nero had a new palace built on the ashes of the burnt down buildings. Known as his ‘Golden House’, the Domus Aurea included a 98ft bronze statue of Nero, landscaped gardens, vineyards and even an artificial lake.

To rebuff the accusations of conspiracy Nero blamed the Christians, according to Tacitus, who at the time were a vulnerable minority. ‘To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace,’ Tacitus wrote. ‘Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired’.

Tacitus acknowledged the Christians were scapegoats; certainly, they were an easy target. Historians have suggested that the early Christians in Rome believed the city to be an 'evil place' since they regarded the majority of its citizens to be pagan. They prophesied the city would be set ablaze by a 'great inferno'. When the inferno seemingly did come, many Christians might have regarded it as the start of this ‘Last Judgement’ and therefore refrained from helping to put it out. It could be easy to see why Nero could then place the blame upon them. However, it is not known whether Nero targeted the Christians to deflect the blame of the fire or whether he used the tragedy to start his persecution of them.

For those who argue the fire couldn’t possibly have been Nero’s doing, the evidence, or lack of, is somewhat weighted in their favour. The history books contain no direct link that categorically confirms Nero ordered the fire; all we have is hearsay and rumour. 

Fires in the capital city were not uncommon during the summer months and not only did Nero lose his palace during the fire but he threw his doors open to the masses in the wake of it. His new urban development plan constructed new houses made of brick and spaced them out to prevent another similar tragedy. This would explain his popularity with the ordinary people of Rome; the great dislike and distrust of the emperor coming mainly from the higher classes and ruling elite. 

It is without question though that Nero benefited from the fire, whether by stroke of evil or stroke of luck, he was able to take advantage of the situation to further his political agenda and to bring his vision of a new Rome to life.