Great Fire of Rome · 18th July 64 · Nero & the persecution of Christians

grosse Brand von Rom 64 Nero

At the time of Emperor Nero, there was the biggest fire in Rome ever. The fire broke out on the night of July 18, 64 in the stalls of the Circus Maximus, where flammable material was stored.

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The role of Emperor Nero

The great fire of Rome, painting by Karl Theodor von Piloty
The great fire of Rome, painting by Karl Theodor von Piloty

Nero ingratiated himself with the public offering games and perks, but he despised the Senate. For the senators, on the other hand, it was a sacrilege that the emperor appeared in public singing and making music. Victims of conspiracy against him were his mother, his first wife and his adviser Seneca, as well as numerous nobles and Christians.

Immediately, rumor had it that Nero was to blame for the fire and that during the fire he would have sung about the fall of Troy. Probably that’s malicious gossip. Fires were not uncommon in ancient Rome. Many buildings were built of wood. For cooking and lighting, open fire was used.

Today it is known that Nero had taken effective fire-fighting measures and that he had taken appropriate measures to help the homeless population.

How the fire developed

The great fire of Rome Circus Maximus
The great fire in the Circus Maximus

Tacitus describes in his annals 50 years later the fire as follows:

“A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire.

It had its beginning in that part of the circus which adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills, where, amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the circus. For here there were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay.

The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them, it outstripped all preventive measures; so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets, which characterised old Rome.

Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his house, which he had built to connect the palace with the gardens of Maecenas. It could not, however, be stopped from devouring the palace, the house, and everything around it.”

The extent of the great fire of Rome

Division of Rome into 14 Regions by Augustus
Division of Rome into 14 Regions by Augustus Credit: Wikipedia

Of the 14 quarters of the city, three were completely destroyed, namely the Oppius Hill, the Palatine and the Circus Maximus. Only a few relicts remained in seven quarters, while four quarters were undamaged. There were thousands of dead and around 200,000 homeless people.

On the Palatine, the palace of Nero, the Domus Transitoria, was destroyed. The name Transitoria comes from the fact that it connected the palace on the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas on the Oppius Hill. A remnant of the gardens is the Temple of Maecenas on Via Merulana, in front of the delicatessen bakery Panella.

Relics of the Domus Transitoria can be viewed with the SUPER Ticket, provided that no physical safeguarding measures are carried out. The SUPER Ticket (Seven Unique Places to Experience Rome) allows you to visit archaeological highlights on the Palatine.

Fire cause and persecution of Christians

Whether the fire was an accident or whether arson was the cause can not be determined. In any case, Nero rejected all guilt and accused the Christians of arson. The Christians were generally despised at that time. One version states that a group of fanatics wanted to boost an Egyptian apocalyptic prophecy. But it could also have been members of the Roman Senate,or it was a misfortune.

It is possible that Christians were sentenced to death on the basis of Roman laws as punishment for the many casualties caused by the fire. Whether it came ever to persecution of Christians after the fire or whether later writers have added the story to the Tacitus, is also not sure.

In the aftermath of the fire, the apostles Peter and Paul became martyrs. It is supposed, that Peter was crucified in the Circus of Nero on the Vatican Hill while Paul was beheaded outside Rome. There, today, on Via Laurentina, stands the Abbey of Tre Fontane. The head of Paul is said to have been beaten three times to the ground after beheading and there were three wells.

The reconstruction of the palace of Nero

Tacitus describes the reconstruction of the palace of Nero as follows:

“Nero meanwhile availed himself of his country’s desolation, and erected a mansion in which the jewels and gold, long familiar objects, quite vulgarised by our extravagance, were not so marvellous as the fields and lakes, with woods on one side to resemble a wilderness, and, on the other, open spaces and extensive views. The directors and contrivers of the work were Severus and Celer, who had the genius and the audacity to attempt by art even what nature had refused, and to fool away an emperor’s resources.”

Domus Aurea, hypothetical reconstruction
Domus Aurea, hypothetical reconstruction, Credit: Dr. Ing. Heinz-Juergen Beste, DAI

So Nero built a large villa in the middle of the city. This was considered an extraordinary waste by the Romans. Such villas were built only in the countryside, where there was enough space.

When Nero committed suicide in year 68, the palace was not quite finished and you can imagine the place as a huge construction site. It was then decided to fill up the palace on Oppius hill and build thermal baths on it. In the valley between Palatine and Oppio was an artificial pond and on this site the Amphitheater Flavium was built. The current name Colosseum probably comes from a colossal statue of Nero, which stood at the entrance to his Domus Aurea.

Area of the Domus Aurea
Area of the Domus Aurea, location of the excavations Credit: Dr. Ing. Heinz-Juergen Beste, DAI

The Domus Aurea was accidentally rediscovered in the 15th century. Today, part of the Domus Aurea can be visited on weekends, while during the week excavation and security work is carried out.

Tickets for the visit of the Domus Aurea

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