The Great Fire of Rome

Brief overview of the events surrounding the Great Fire of Rome

In a hot July summer of 64 A.D., a fire broke out near the Capena Gate (the marketplace near the Circus Maximus) and spread quickly across the entire Circus, and finally it was completely out of control, the fire destroyed nearly half of Rome.

The Roman historian Tacitus records the event:

"First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills-but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. . . Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike--all heightened the confusion."

As the fire blaze out of control some citizens tried every measure to put out the flames. It is told that the citizens were stopped. Also some of the mob lit torches and threw them into the flames to feed the fire. Tacitus make an interesting note about these arsonists who had claimed "they acted under orders. Perhaps they had ... or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered."

Nero heard the news from his Palace at Antium and rushed to Rome just in time to see the Palatine Palace in flames. His newly built mansion, the Domus Transitoria, was nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes. Nero immediately organized a team of firefighters and provided shelter for the panic stricken people who had been left homeless. The fire burned for nine days, leaving 10 out of its 14 regions in ruins, with the loss of many lives.

Nero decided that he would place the blame on scapegoats, because there was a dangerous rumor that Nero himself had ordered the fire in order to vandalize the capital city, and to free up space for his new building plans. It is recorded that later he indeed take advantage of the situation and begin planning and building his Golden House. His scapegoats were none other than the Christians, who were already being accused in one way or another within Roman pagan society. This was officially the time that the active persecution of the Christian Church began. At some point soon after it became a crime to bear the name "Christian" and the suppression of the church became state policy. This persecution would last, off and on, for almost three centuries.