Nero and the Burning of Rome

Nero and the Burning of Rome by Brian HaughtonNero was also extravagant with public funds, embarking on ambitious and costly building projects; even planning we are told, to pull down a third of Rome in order to construct a series of palaces that would be known as Neropolis. In 62 Seneca retired from public affairs after facing embezzlement charges, and Burrus died from an unknown illness, to be replaced by the ruthlessly devoted Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus.

The Burning of Rome

On the night of July 18, AD 64, one of the worst disasters ever to hit the city of Rome occurred.  Beginning in the southeastern part of the Circus Maximus (a large open-air venue used for public events) close to the Palatine and Caelian Hills a great fire ignited. Fanned by summer winds, the blaze spread through the shops filled with inflammable goods clustered in the area and rapidly onwards destroying a vast swathe of the ancient city.

We have very little in the way of eye-witness reports of the catastrophe, but In The Annals (Book XV Chapters 33‑47); written around AD 116, Roman historian Tacitus (who was nine at the time of the fire) describes the scene –

The flames, which in full career overran the level districts first, then shot up to the heights, and sank again to harry the lower parts, kept ahead of all remedial measures, the mischief travelling fast, and the town being an easy prey owing to the narrow, twisting lanes and formless streets typical of old Rome. In addition, shrieking and terrified women; fugitives stricken or immature in years; men consulting their own safety or the safety of others, as they dragged the infirm along or paused to wait for them, combined by their dilatoriness or their haste to impede everything. . .
(Annals, 15.38)

Tacitus informs us that it was not until the fire had been raging for six days that it was brought under control, by demolishing numerous buildings and clearing a vast area of open land, thus leaving nothing to feed the fire. However, according to Tacitus, this was not to be the end of the terrible blaze

But fear had not yet been laid aside, nor had hope yet returned to the people, when the fire resumed its ravages; in the less congested parts of the city, however; so that, while the toll of human life was not so great, the destruction of temples and of porticoes dedicated to pleasure was on a wider scale.
(Annals, 15.40)

After the flames finally subsided a large part of the city had been destroyed, though accounts vary as to the extent of the damage. Tacitus writes that the fire completely destroyed four out of the fourteen Roman districts and seriously damaged seven.

Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned?

Other accounts state that ten districts were left in ruins by the fire, about 70% of the city. Nero’s palace – the Domus Transitoria on the Palatine Hill, the Temple of Jupiter Stator and the hearth in the Temple of Vesta were all gone. Hundreds of people were dead and thousands were left homeless. Although popular legend holds that Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned, there is in fact no truth behind this.

Firstly, violins were not invented until around the 1520s. Tacitus does repeat the story that during the fire Nero “mounted his private stage and, reflecting present disasters in ancient calamities, sang about the destruction of Troy” (Annals, 15.39). But he takes care to state that it was only a rumour. More significantly, at the time the fire started Tacitus describes Nero as being 35 miles away at his summer palace in Antium (modern Anzio).

According to Tacitus, upon hearing news of the fire Nero rushed to Rome and immediately organized a relief effort, which included a team of firefighters and food and shelter for the survivors of the blaze. The Emperor also began an ambitious rebuilding project for the city which included widening the roads, reducing the height of tenement blocks, and the construction of a new villa complex for himself, the ‘Golden House’ (Domus Aurea), which still survives today.

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