The Burning of Rome

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According to the Roman historian Tacitus three of the 14 city districts were completely burned down, in seven districts only debris and rubble was left from the former buildings, and only 4 districts were not affected. Almost 70 percent of the entire city was destroyed. Despite the well-known stories, there is no evidence that Nero, either started the fire or played the fiddle while it burned.

Still, he did use the disaster to further his political agenda and created a more spectacular Rome, a city made of marble and stone with wide streets, pedestrian arcades and ample supplies of water.


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It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. 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. Of course this is Hollywood, inspired by the novel from Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz , who by the way had received the Nobel Prize in literature.

But, its only literature.

4 thoughts on “Magnum incendium Romae (the Burning of Rome, 64 AD) – Nero the Arsonist on screen”

During the night of July 18, 64 AD, fire broke out in the merchant area of the city of Rome. Fanned by summer winds, the flames quickly spread through the dry, wooden structures of the Imperial City.


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  6. Soon the fire took on a life of its own consuming all in its path for six days and seven nights. We have two original accounts from contemporary historians, such as Tacitus and Pliny the Elder. Only Pliny the elder holds as a primary account, but unfortunately the sources got lost.


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    8. He was only 8 years old at the time of the fire, but he was able to use public records and reports to write an accurate account. According to Tacitus, the fire began in shops where flammable goods were stored, in the region of the Circus neighboring the Caelian and Palatine Hills of Rome. The night was a windy one and the flames rapidly spread along the full length of the Circus. The fire expanded through an area of narrow, twisting streets and closely located apartment blocks. In this lower area of ancient Rome there were no large buildings such as temples, or open areas of ground, to impede the conflagration.

      Magnum incendium Romae (the Burning of Rome, 64 AD) – Nero the Arsonist on screen

      It then spread along the Palatine and Caelian slopes. The population fled first to areas unaffected by the fire and then to the open fields and rural roads outside the city. Looters and arsonists were reported to have spread the flames by throwing torches or, acting in groups, hindering measures being made to halt or slow the progress of the flames. The fire stopped after six days of continuous burning. However, it soon reignited and burned for another three days.

      The Burning of Rome, 64 AD

      Christians may have regarded the fire as the beginning of the Last Judgement , which they were expecting imminently, and may therefore have avoided interfering with its progress, and joined those who menaced the firemen, as Tacitus describes. According to Tacitus, Nero was away from Rome, in Antium , when the fire broke out.

      Nero returned to the city and took measures to bring in food supplies and open gardens and public buildings to accommodate refugees. The fire destroyed mostly everything it came in contact with due to poorly built and maintained timber-framed homes. Also destroyed in the fire was the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked. However, the open mall in the middle of the Forum remained and became a commercial centre.

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      Ancient Rome was a city of more than two million people, with thousands living in slum s. These slums were filled with poorly construct ed wooden apartment buildings. A fire in one apartment could quickly engulf the entire block. More Dates in History January.

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