History for the Rest of Us

Great Fire of Rome

Great Fire of Rome

Jul 13, 2013

On July 19, 64 AD the Great Fire of Rome began in the merchant area of the city and burned for six days. Three of Rome’s fourteen districts were ‘leveled to the ground’ and seven others were reduced ‘to a few scorched and mangled ruins’ according to Tacitus. There are contradictory accounts explaining the cause of the fire. Rumors were rampant that Nero had sent men into the city to set it on fire, while he sang songs of the destruction of Troy and played on his lyre. The following verse, orally conveyed or posted on a city wall at the time, expresses the sentiment of residents of the city:

Though Nero may pluck the cords of a lyre,

And the Parthian King the string of a bow,

He who chants to the lyre with heavenly fire

Is Apollo as much as his far-darting foe.

Suetonius indicated that ‘Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called the “beauty of the flames”; then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang The Sack of Ilium from beginning to end’. Some believed that the fire was an accident. Tacitus says that Nero wasn’t in Rome when the fire started but was in Antium, returning only when the fire threatened a mansion he had built. Many inhabitants of the city were further convinced that the fires should be attributed to Nero when he decided to build the ‘Domus Aurea’, his ‘Golden House’, a massive palace complex, on the site. Nero placed blame on the Christians as indicated by Tacitus. ‘…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’.

Related Stories:
Temple of Mars Ultor Nerva Forum of Nerva Trajan's Forum Belly Button of Rome
Temple of Mars Ultor Nerva Forum of Nerva Forum of Trajan Belly Button of Rome

Elsewhere on the Web:

Yale Courses:Notorious Nero and his Amazing Architectural Legacy

Items from the Creating History Store: