In AD 64 Rome was the greatest city in the Western world – the capital of an Empire approaching the height of its power. With nearly a million citizens spread across its seven hills, Rome was accustomed to dealing with serious fires in the hot, dry summers. It had the means, the knowledge, the experience and the perpetual vigilance to cope without batting an imperial eyelid.
The fire that destroyed ancient Rome began by the Circus Maximus, sweeping through the wooden shops and tenements clustered in the warren of streets around the huge stone building. A strong southeast wind drove the flames simultaneously up the Aventine and Palatine hills, faster than anyone could contain them. The fire took on a life of its own, in six days reducing four of Rome’s 14 districts to charred ash and leaving very little upright in seven more. When it looked like burning itself out, it re-ignited – according to the historian Tacitus, with help. Nothing important was spared, including Nero’s favorite palace, the Senate House, the Forum, and the temple of the Vestal Virgins, one of Rome’s oldest and most sacred sanctuaries. It swallowed up 1,700 private houses and 47,000 insulae (literally ‘islands’, meaning multiple-occupancy tenement blocks) and every slum in between.
If the Emperor Nero was directly or indirectly responsible, he got what he wanted – the space in the center of Rome to build his cherished ‘dream city’. But he also made a terrific show of helping to save the citizens, which diminishes the probable myth that he strummed the lyre while crooning a favorite verse-song called ‘The Sack of Ilium’. However, the combination of malicious conspiracy and ostentatious generosity is entirely consistent with Nero’s known instabilities – and frankly, it makes a much better story.
When was the Roman Arson: July 18-27 AD 64
Where was the Roman Arson: Rome, Italy
What was the Roman Arson death toll: Fear and panic caused more death and injury than the fire. Not even the near-contemporary accounts speak of large numbers of casualties from the fire itself. The real death toll came later in the arena of the Coliseum, where Nero sent every Christian the Praetorian Guard could arrest. Christians – then a small but irritatingly vocal evangelistic sect – were convenient scapegoats for the conflagration. After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero derived amusement from holding torch lit dinner parties – using the flaming carcasses of Christians as human torches.
You should know: Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day – but Nero’s new Palace, the 300-acre Domus Aurea, still survives in Rome’s ancient center, exactly where he ‘dreamed’ it would be.