On the night of July 19, 64 A.D., a fire broke out among the shops lining the Circus Maximus, Rome’s mammoth chariot stadium. In a city of two million, there was nothing unusual about such a fire — the sweltering summer heat kindled conflagrations around Rome on a regular basis, particularly in the slums that covered much of the city. Knowing this, Nero himself was miles away in the cooler coastal resort of Antium. Yet this was no ordinary fire. The flames raged for six days before coming under control; then the fire reignited and burned for another three. When the smoke cleared, 10 of Rome’s 14 districts were in ruin. The 800-year-old Temple of Jupiter Stator and the Atrium Vestae, the hearth of the Vestal Virgins, were gone. Two thirds of Rome had been destroyed.History has blamed Nero for the disaster, implying that he started the fire so that he could bypass the senate and rebuild Rome to his liking. Much of what is known about the great fire of Rome comes from the aristocrat and historian Tacitus, who claimed that Nero watched Rome burn while merrily playing his fiddle. Gangs of thugs prevented citizens from fighting the fire with threats of torture, Tacitus wrote. There is some support for the theory that Nero leveled the city on purpose: the Domus Aurea, Nero’s majestic series of villas and pavilions set upon a landscaped park and a man-made lake, was built in the wake of the fire.
“It would have been seen as very inappropriate on the part of the elite in Rome,” says art historian Eric Varner. “They would have been happy if Nero had built the Domus Aurea out in the country, but to do it here in the city really was an extraordinary kind of statement.”
Tacitus was a member of this Roman elite, and whether there is a bias in his writing is difficult to know. Indeed, Tacitus was still a boy at the time of the fire, and he would have been a young teenager in 68 A.D., when Nero died. Nero himself blamed the fire on an obscure new Jewish religious sect called the Christians, whom he indiscriminately and mercilessly crucified. During gladiator matches he would feed Christians to lions, and he often lit his garden parties with the burning carcasses of Christian human torches. Yet there is evidence that, in 64 A.D., many Roman Christians believed in prophecies predicting that Rome would soon be destroyed by fire. Perhaps the fire was set off by someone hoping to make the prediction come true.
Twenty centuries later, is there a way to establish who or what started one of antiquity’s most destructive conflagrations? Is there any truth to Tacitus’s insinuation? Or to Nero’s? Archaeologists, historians, and contemporary fire investigators try to pinpoint the cause of this monumental tragedy of the ancient world.