The Great Fire of Rome - Clues and Evidence

Archaeologist Andrea Carandini provides the most convincing evidence to corroborate the implication of Tacitus — that Nero circumvented the senate by burning Rome so he could build his palace. Carandini, who has been digging in Rome for twenty years, has examined the ancient layers of ash left behind by the fire. “Everything was destroyed,” he says. “There was not one single house standing.” Specifically, Carandini explains that fire destroyed the portion of the Forum where the senators lived and worked. “All these houses were destroyed, so the aristocracy didn’t have a proper place to live,” he says. The open mall in the middle of the Forum remained, but it became a sort of shopping mall, a commercial center “built on the top of aristocratic Rome … so it’s the end, in a way, of the power of the aristocracy in Rome.”

The Great Fire of Rome: Clues and Evidence

The ruins of the ancient Roman Forum.

Not everyone agrees that Nero is to blame. Art historian Eric Varner says “It seems unlikely that Nero would have started the great fire of AD 64, because it destroyed his palace, the Domus Transitoria … a huge, villa-like complex that stretched from the Palatine to the Esqualine.” Historian Henry Hurst feels the fire most likely began as an accident. As many as 100 minor fires broke out in Rome every day, so it’s quite feasible that such a fire evolved into the one that leveled the city. Accounts of Nero’s reaction to news of the fire portray him as rushing back to the city from Antium and personally joining in with the efforts of the fire brigades, in stark contrast to the image conjured by Tacitus.

A large portion of ancient Rome consisted of slums: poorly built and maintained timber-framed tenements. Tacitus claims that the only explanation for how the fire spread from these kindling hovels to the sturdy stone houses of the senators is arson. Yet modern technology seems to prove otherwise. Inside a fire chamber, fire specialists created a replica of an aristocrat’s home in the hope of determining whether such an abode could have been set ablaze by a small, wood-fueled fire. After a small flame was lit in a corner of the replica, the fire spread to the furniture and soon had consumed the miniature home. Temperatures rose to 1,100 degrees and part of the ceiling collapsed before the fire was extinguished for safety purposes. The re-creation suggests that the fire could easily have spread from the tenements to the stone homes in the Forum.

The Great Fire of Rome: Clues and Evidence

Before they become too intense, flames burning the replica of a Roman senator’s home are extinguished.

Recent excavations have provided further evidence to corroborate the notion that this great fire was raging by the time it spread to the Forum. Twenty feet below the surface of Rome, archaeologist Clementina Panella discovered the remains of nails that had fallen off roofs and melted. She found a charred gate and part of its surrounding masonry that had collapsed from the force of the fire. A large number of coins found in the Forum — the apparent pocket change of hapless victims of the flames — suggest that the fire moved in quickly, leaving little time for pedestrians to flee the area.

Tacitus states that the fire was driven by a southeasterly wind. He describes the fire as moving both south up the Aventine Hill and north up the Palatine, implying that this apparently unnatural pattern was due to arson. Today we know that the larger a fire becomes, the more updraft it creates — breezes that interfere with prevailing winds and allow the fire to spread out in search of oxygen, especially up a hill like the Palatine.

Certainly, it’s hard to know whether to trust the allegations in the writings of Tacitus. What about the explanation offered by Nero, that the Christians were to blame? At least one scholar believes Nero was on the mark. Professor Gerhard Baudy of the University of Konstanz in Germany has spent 15 years studying ancient apocalyptic prophecies. He has learned that in the poor districts of Rome, Christians were circulating vengeful texts predicting that a raging inferno would reduce the city to ashes. “In all of these oracles, the destruction of Rome by fire is prophesied,” Baudy explains. “That is the constant theme: Rome must burn. This was the long-desired objective of all the people who felt subjugated by Rome.”

Moreover, the Book of Revelation, written a mere 30 years later, seems to equate evil with Rome. The Whore of Babylon, the source of this evil according to Revelations, is described as having seven heads. “The seven heads are seven mountains,” Revelations says. Rome, of course, is famously known as the city of seven hills. What’s more, an ancient Egyptian prophecy that would have been well known in the Christian quarters of Rome foretold the fall of the great evil city on the day that the dog star, Sirius, rises. In 64 A.D., Sirius rose on July 19, the very day the great fire of Rome began. Baudy believes that, bearing this prophetic date in mind, some of the Christians, maltreated and embittered, may have started the fire — or perhaps lit additional fires, adding fuel to the larger conflagration — in hopes of realizing their prophecies.

Regardless, over 200 years would pass before the Christians escaped the kind of persecution they endured under Nero. In the meantime, Nero’s reign soon crumbled. Four years after the fire, as the senate and the army turned against him, Nero was forced to flee Rome. Aided by a secretary, he stabbed himself to death with an iron blade.