July 19, 64 AD: Rome begins to burn. There are no primary accounts surviving so we need to refer to secondary sources. Cassius Dio, Seutonius, and Tacitus refer to previous histories but they all admit that the primary accounts which may have been written by Fabius Rusticus, Cluvius Rufus, and Pliny the Elder were not in agreement as to the events. There were at least five different stories circulating about Nero and his behavior during the fire. Nero was Emperor of Rome from 54 to 68 AD, a period of 13 years. His early rule was a time of diplomacy, increased trade, and improvement of cultural life throughout the Empire. He conducted successful wars with the help of his general, Corbulo. The end of his reign wasn’t as wonderful and as he was denounced as a public enemy and in danger of execution, he committed suicide to end his reign in 68 AD.
At this point in time, he was already not well liked. He either sent men out to start the fires, was insane and started the fires himself, sang and played the lyre while the city burned, blamed the new sect – Christians, or was not even in Rome and was in Antium and the fire was an accident. Tacitus claimed the fires started in an area where flammable goods were stored near the Circus and Palatine hills of Rome. The night was windy and the fire easily spread through the crowded city. The narrow twisting streets worked as wind tunnels and carried the fires to rickety apartment houses crowded together. Without large spaces for things like temples or open areas, the blaze spread quickly.
People ran for their lives but as in desperate situations even today, looters stayed behind to see what they could amass. They may have helped to spread the fire in their hope of gaining more time to loot. Tacitus was one of the authors who claimed Nero was out of town. He was said to have returned and helped to bring food to the masses congregating outside the city walls. He opened gardens and public buildings not ablaze so the displaced people could be sheltered. It took six days to bring the blaze at least partially under control. There were 14 districts in Rome at the time. Three were completely destroyed and only four were completely unharmed.
Modern scholars do not believe that Nero was responsible for the fire. Speculators thought he might have wanted to clear land for his own building projects but it should be noted that his own palace was partially destroyed. If he was hoping to build a new palace he would not have worked so hard to save the one on fire. He saved much of the decorative aspects and when constructing the Domus Aurea, built it to similar specifications and opulence to the palace which was damaged in the fires. It is also unlikely that arsonists would have started the fires as it was just two days after a full moon. With the night sky so bright, they would have risked detection and capture. That is the same if they were arsonists in the employ of the Emperor or Christians trying to burn down Rome for unknown reasons.
The people love Nero. He inspires in them both affection and respect. There is a reason for this which Tacitus omits. One can discern the reason for this popular feeling: Nero oppressed the great and never burdened the ordinary people. – Napoleon Bonaparte
The absolute ruler may be a Nero, but he is sometimes Titus or Marcus Aurelius; the people is often Nero, and never Marcus Aurelius. – Antoine de Rivarol
I wish I could not write. – Nero
What an artist dies in me! – Nero
Also on this day: Tennis, Anyone? – In 1877, Wimbledon championships were first held.
SS Great Britain – In 1843, the largest sailing vessel in the world was launched.
First Teacher – In 1985, Christa McAuliffe was selected to be the first teacher in space.
Raining Rocks – In 1912, Holbrook, AZ was pelted with the fall out of an exploded meteorite.
Three All Alone – In 1909, the first triple play was made by Neal Ball.