July 18, 64 AD: The Great Fire of Rome, Nero Blames Christians!

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A Brief History

On July 18, 64 AD, the center of Western Civilization, city of Rome, capital of the Roman Empire, suffered an enormous fire that devastated the city and burned for 6 days.  Contrary to popular myth, Emperor Nero could not have been fiddling during this event as the violin was not invented until the 1500’s!

Digging Deeper

Actually, Nero’s enemies accused him of sending out teams of agents pretending to be drunk to start fires around the city, and then as the story goes, Nero calmly played the Lyre (an old time stringed instrument) while the fires raged.  Other stories have Nero openly sending out minions to burn the city, and singing while playing the Lyre, possibly watching the spectacle from a tower, while still other accounts have Christians as the culprits, apparently setting the fires in protest of repression by Roman authorities.  Of course, Nero blamed the Christians, an easy target at the time.  The persecution of Christians because of the fire started about 250 years of Roman persecution of Christians, a practice finally ended in 313 AD when Emperor Constantine legalized the Christian religion with the Edict of Milan.

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert (1785)

The Great Fire is believed to have started in the area of the Circus where shops had all manner of combustibles stocked.  Citizens fled to other, non-burning parts of the city, and then were forced into open fields as other neighborhoods caught fire.  Windy weather and looters may have helped spread the blazes, with reports of arsonists throwing torches into buildings to spread the fire, perhaps to facilitate looting.

Nero was probably in Antium, away from Rome, when the fire started, and he was summoned to return to orchestrate relief measures (food and shelter) for displaced people.  The 14 districts of Rome suffered greatly, with 3 districts burned to the ground and only 4 untouched by the fire.  Even Nero’s own palace was partially burned down, and temples and arcades burned with the rest of the buildings.  An unknown number of people died from the fires, though the amount probably numbered in the hundreds.  Certainly many thousands were made homeless.

Coin showing Nero distributing charity to a citizen. c. 64–66.

The common myth that Nero wanted the fire to clear the way for him to build a grander palace is mostly debunked by historians.  The new palace that he did build after the fire was largely similar to the burned one.  Another factor counting against the purposeful arson theory is the almost full moon that was present at the start of the fire, the idea being that arsonists would want the cover of darkness from a moonless night.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think the real cause of the Great Fire of Rome was?  Was Nero somehow complicit?  Share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below this article.

Nero playing the lyre while Rome burns.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Charles River Editors.  The Great Fire of Rome: The Story of the Most Famous Fire in Roman History.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

Dando-Collins, Stephen.  The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City.  Da Capo Press, 2010.

The featured image in this article, Nero’s Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.