Most of Rome, the Capital of the Roman Empire, was destroyed by fire in 64
On July 19, 64, the same date four and a half centuries earlier when the Gauls set fire to Rome, a fire broke out near the Circus Maximus and quickly spread all over the city of Rome. Large numbers of people lived in timber-framed tenements and, in the warmer weather of July, these readily provided the needed fuel for a fire. Over a period of six days, and then after a short lull, bursting into flames again for a further three days, the flames destroyed 70 percent of the city. Many of the most important buildings were destroyed and thousands lost their lives. One archeologist, examining the ground twenty feet below present levels, found nails that were partly melted by the heat before they fell from burning timber. Coins too were found in the same area, remnants of the possessions of the hapless victims that could not escape the fire.
The aristocrats lived on the higher ground of Rome and once a few tenements were ablaze, firestorms swept upward to higher and higher ground and burned their mansions. Experiments by archeologists trying to reconstruct the scene from 64 discovered that temperatures quickly rose beyond a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. This level of heat readily creates a vortex of swirling flames that reach higher and higher in order to find oxygen, to places like Capitoline Hill where the larger homes were. Attempts to put out the fire were hampered by the terrified cries of the many people who had nowhere to go. The speed of the flames soon caught up with them as they ran away from burning buildings. The emperor, Nero, was away in the eastern part of the empire at this time and he quickly returned as soon as news of the tragedy reached him.
Emperor Nero opened the Field of Mars and the Vatican Gardens to refugees and arranged food and shelter for them. Supplies were brought in from neighboring towns and the price of corn was cut back for a time to a small fraction of its normal price. Roman society attached great importance to anniversaries of any kind and on this occasion, because it was such a vivid reminder of the earlier malicious attack by the Gauls, the people wondered if this, the worst fire in the history of the city, was an omen of good or a harbinger of evil. In spite of his generosity to survivors, it was not long before rumors began to circulate that Nero was responsible for all that had happened. Had he started the fire, people asked, in order to make space for another building he wanted to erect? This kind of thinking was typical of the times. When news was good the ruler is praised. When a disaster occurs, the ruler is blamed. Furthermore, it was generally known that Nero had grandiose ideas about the city, wanting to demolish the older tenements in favor of elegant buildings that fitted the greatness of Rome.
Nevertheless, historians were doubtful about Nero’s involvement because his palace was a victim of the fire. This building, the Domus Transitoria was a magnificent structure that stretched from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. It was also noted that Nero was in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the fire. Fires were commonplace in Rome. Dozens broke out every day. Roman historian Tacitus was one person who was convinced that Nero was responsible but many Romans thought it had been triggered accidentally. In the course of the conflagration some people were seen to be spreading the fire while others prevented attempts to extinguish it. Was this the work of people acting under orders or were they just looters taking advantage of the chaotic situation? They were neither but rather were gangs of irresponsible people wandering the streets looking for anything they could steal. When the fire finally burned out only four of the city’s fourteen districts had been untouched by the fire. Lost in the flames were all kinds of art works, both Greek and Roman, and many of the temples were also destroyed including Vesta and Jupiter Stator.
Firefighting at the time of Nero was sharply contrasted to everything we know today about fighting fires. The people involved were slaves. They were the losers in the military campaigns that Roman generals waged around the empire and they were brought back to Rome to serve the city by doing the jobs that no one else wanted. These fire-fighting slaves had been organized into seven groups, each responsible for two of Rome’s districts. Each group was given buckets for use in case of fire. Whenever they were called to deal with a fire they formed bucket lines through which water was passed by hand to the fire where it was squirted on to the flames with a hand-held device that served this purpose. As soon as the fire stopped, Nero closed off the devastated places so that the debris could be removed. Even those who were owners of homes or renters were prevented from returning. They had to fend for themselves in areas outside the city, finding food and shelter as best they could, wondering if and where they might ever again have a place within the city. All of this added to Nero’s already poor reputation among the lower classes.
As soon as the old sites were cleared, Nero began the reconstruction. He had a number of triumphal arches erected throughout the city and he rebuilt the temples of Vesta and Jupiter Stator and other places of importance that had been destroyed. His tendency to be extravagant soon became evident in these new buildings as the new Rome took shape. Each building was bigger and more ornate than the one that had been lost in the fire. Nero added a huge arena close to the site of the present Vatican City. When he came to rebuild his former palace, Domus Transitoria, Nero’s megalomania became obvious. In the new palace, which he named the Golden House because of all the gold, precious stones, and ivory that it contained, he envisioned an imperial residence, something far beyond the former palace. He added numerous pavilions, each linked to another with covered walkways, forming a small city within the larger one. Additionally, there were temples, baths, gardens, fountains, and a large artificial lake covering 200 acres that later became the site of the Roman Coliseum. To top off all this madness Nero had a bronze statue of himself erected close to the palace’s entrance. It stood more than a hundred feet high and could be seen from any part of Rome.