Rome had experienced devastating fires before, but nothing like the conflagration that started beneath the Circus Maximus on the summer’s night of July 19, AD 64. Fanned by strong winds, the blaze first consumed the stadium, largest wooden construction in history, then spread to nearby suburbs. Seven days later, only four of the city’s fourteen administrative regions remained untouched.
Twenty-six-year-old Nero, emperor of Rome, was on Italy’s west coast at the time, competing in a singing contest. Far from fiddling while Rome burned, he hurried back to organize food and shelter for the hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Nero set up a disaster fund and swiftly commenced clearing and reconstruction, introducing Rome’s first building regulations and providing incentives for private landowners to rebuild. After Rome’s water-delivery system failed to provide water to her 7,000 firemen on the first night of the blaze, Nero updated the water supply. For all this, Nero was widely praised.
Yet, within weeks, Nero’s enemies were accusing him of setting the fire. Within a year, a plot to assassinate him was exposed. Within four years, Nero would meet a bloody end. That end had its beginnings in the Great Fire.
Jewish resistance fighter Josephus railed against those historians who told ‘impudent lies’ about Nero. First century writer Dio Chrysostum was convinced the truth about Nero’s end never came out. That truth, about the two great fires of Rome – one that destroyed the city, the other that destroyed an emperor – is more bizarre, and bloodier, than fiction.
About the author: Stephen Dando Collins is the author of The Great Fire of Rome (Da Capo Press, September 2010).