Sunday 19 July 2009

The Great Fire of Rome

On this day….1,945 years ago, one of the worst fires in history devastated Rome. Flames first appeared in a row of shops at the Circus Maximus, the main stadium for chariot races. Fanned by the wind, they quickly swept through the closely packed wooden buildings that made up most of the city. Some people managed to escape into the countryside, but many were overtaken by the flames.

When I was at school, I was told the famous story that the emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. It could not have been true, because the violin was not invented until the sixteenth century, but stories swept Rome that he had sung or played the lyre while his capital burned.

The story gained credence from two things. First, it was known that Nero hated the slums and haphazard layout of the city and would have loved the chance to rebuild it. The second was that mysterious gangs of thugs roamed the streets preventing fire fighters from tackling the blaze, and using torches to keep it going, though, of course they may just have been looters who wanted to profit from the disorder.

It was nine days before the flames were extinguished. Of Rome’s 14 districts, three were levelled to the ground, and another seven were, in the words of the great historian Tacitus “reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.” Thousands of people had lost their lives.

Nero had actually played an energetic part in fighting the fire, and provided generously for the tens of thousands made homeless, but suspicion still clung to him. His excesses grew more and more extreme, and four years after the Great Fire, he slit his own throat. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

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