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The Great Fire of Rome

Gregory DiPippo

During the night between July 18 and 19 of the year 64 A.D., there broke out the great fire of Rome, which would eventually wipe out 10 of the city’s 14 districts. On June 30, we described how this fire let to the first persecution of the Christians in Rome, whom the Emperor Nero scapegoated for setting the fire which many believe he had set himself. In the wake of it, Nero would also build the infamous Golden House, which in turn led indirectly to the building of one of Rome’s greatest monuments, the Colosseum. Here is the historian Tacitus’ account of the outbreak fire, one of the most dramatic passage of his Annals. (15, 38)

Sequitur clades, forte an dolo principis incertum (nam utrumque auctores prodidere), sed omnibus, quae huic urbi per violentiam ignium acciderunt, gravior atque atrocior. initium in ea parte circi ortum, quae Palatino Caelioque montibus contigua est, ubi per tabernas, quibus id mercimonium inerat, quo flamma alitur, simul coeptus ignis et statim validus ac vento citus longitudinem circi conripuit. Neque enim domus munimentis saeptae vel templa muris cincta aut quid aliud morae interiacebat. impetus pervagatum incendium plana primum, deinde in edita adsurgens et rursus inferiora populando anteiit remedia velocitate mali et obnoxia urbe artis itineribus hucque et illuc flexis atque enoribus vicis, qualis vetus Roman fuit. ad hoc lamenta paventium feminarum, fessa aetate aut rudis pueritiae [aetas], quique sibi quique aliis consulebat, dum trahunt invalidos aut opperiuntur, pars mora, pars festinans, cuncta impediebant. et saepe, dum in tergum respectant, lateribus aut fronte circumveniebantur, vel si in proxima evaserant, illis quoque igni correptis, etiam quae longinqua crediderant in eodem casu reperiebant. postremo, quid vitarent quid peterent ambigui, complere vias, sterni per agros; quidam amissis omnibus fortunis, diurni quoque victus, alii caritate suorum, quos eripere nequiverant, quamvis patente effugio interiere. nec quisquam defendere audebat, crebris multorum minis restinguere prohibentium, et quia alii palam facies iaciebant atque esse sibi auctorem vociferabantur, sive ut raptus licentius exercerent seu iussu.

(A visually evocative but completely fanciful representation of The Burning of Rome, 1785, by the French painter Hubert Robert (1733-1808). The Pantheon was not yet built in 64 AD, and stands much further from both the Colosseum in the background, also not yet built, and the Tiber in the foreground. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

“There followed a disaster, whether due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign is uncertain — for each version has its sponsors — but graver and more terrible than any other which has  befallen this city by the ravages of fire. It took its rise in the part of the Circus touching the Palatine and Caelian Hills; where, among the shops packed with inflammable goods, the conflagration broke out, gathered strength in the same moment, and, impelled by the wind, swept the full length of the Circus: for there were neither mansions screened by boundary walls, nor temples surrounded by stone enclosures, nor obstructions of any description, to bar its progress. 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. Often, while they glanced back to the rear, they were attacked on the flanks or in front; or, if they had made their escape into a neighboring quarter, that also was involved in the flames, and even districts which they had believed remote from danger were found to be in the same plight. At last, irresolute what to avoid or what to seek, they crowded into the roads or threw themselves down in the fields: some who had lost the whole of their means — their daily bread included — chose to die, though the way of escape was open, and were followed by others, through love for the relatives whom they had proved unable to rescue. None ventured to combat the fire, as there were  reiterated threats from a large number of persons who forbade extinction, and others were openly throwing firebrands and shouting that “they had their authority” — possibly in order to have a freer hand in looting, possibly from orders received.”

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