July 18 – The Great Fire of Rome

Posted on July 18, 2015

It's always sad when disaster strikes, and fires have destroyed too many cities too many times over the course of human history. On this date in the year 64, one of the oldest fires we know about broke out:

The Great Fire of Rome.

It started in an area called Circus Maximus, an area chock-full shops. Unfortunately, the fire spread quickly to other areas, and it burned for days! It ended up utterly destroying 3 of the 14 districts of Rome, and 7 more were badly damaged. What a tragedy!

It's interesting to note that, although even ancient historians were unsure about how the fire started, the emperor Nero got a bum rap then that has lingered to this day.

How many times I have heard someone allude to (or even seen drawings of) Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned! Even though I knew that the word “fiddle” wasn't quite right here – the Roman emperor played a stringed instrument called a cithara, which is like a harp or lyre, not a fiddle – plus fiddles weren't even invented until the 1500s! – I DID assume that the story was based on Nero being either incompetent or uncaring about the disaster.

In actual fact, the ancient historian Tacitus (who was nine years old at the time of the fire) wrote that Nero was away from Rome, in his palace in Antium (now called Anzio, which is located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) when the fire broke out. When he got news of the blaze, Tacitus went on to say, Nero hurried back to Rome to organize the fight against the flames and the search for and rescue of victims. The emperor himself spent days searching the debris. He even paid for the relief of victims from his own funds, he opened his palaces to the homeless, and he arranged for food supplies to be delivered.

I'm not sure what more people could have wanted their emperor to do!

Still, the rumors of Nero actually causing the fire and then singing in costume while the city burned started right away. It's pretty obvious that at least some people in Rome despised their emperor; in their eyes, he was pretty much always to blame, for everything.

(Actually, I know people who are like that these days, too – always going for a simple answer, a single person or force that they can blame EVERYTHING on.)

From what I read about Nero, he sounds like he was a good leader in some ways but a tyrant in other ways. Some modern historians have questioned the reliability of the ancient sources that have painted Nero as a monster, but it's certain that he was hated by some. A few years after the fire, Nero was forced off the throne. He was declared a public enemy destined to be executed, but he chose to commit suicide instead.

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