Is it true that Nero burned Rome? Perhaps the fire of 64 AD was accidental

The great fire of Rome in 64 AD It was one of the most important events destructive in the history of the ancient Romans. The ancient roman historians they have always considered the emperor Nero as the main person responsible for the catastrophe, which contributed to making him considered a madman for centuries to come. The sovereign’s aim would have been to clear out the existing buildings and thus be able to start his building projects (in particular to build the Domus Aurea). But there is no evidence that it was Nero who burned Rome on that occasion.

The fire of Rome in 64 AD

The fire broke out during the night between July 18th and 19th of 64 ADunder the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68 AD). In ancient cities, the fires were much more common than you might imagine: most of the buildings were built in wood and they were often used for cooking and lighting open flames that could spiral out of control.

However, the fire of 64 AD was much more devastating than normal: a quarter of the entire city area came completely razed to the groundwhile another half was badly damagedIt is estimated that several thousand people diedWhile 200,000 lost their homesout of a total population of approximately one million inhabitants.

Overall, the fire lasted until July 27thbeing divided into two phases. During the first phase (19-24 July) there were more victims. The flames began to spread in the area of ​​the shops near the Circus Maximus and they expanded a lot quickly. Little by little, a large area of ​​Rome was engulfed in flames. According to the historian Tacitone of the main sources for reconstructing what happened, the flames stopped only when Nero had buildings on the slopes of the Esquiline demolishedto prevent the fire from spreading. In the second phase (24-27 July) a series of minor fires It spread across various areas of the city, contributing to the chaos and destruction caused by the main fire.

In the aftermath of the fire, Emperor Nero established a series of substantial government subsidies to provide for the reconstruction of Rome. According to ancient historians, Tacitus primarilyThe princeps I try to to pass the blame on Christianswhich at the time were nothing more than a small Jewish sect viewed with suspicion. Some Christians were persecuted or condemned for this reason. However, according to Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio and other Latin historians the real responsible Nero himself was the cause of the fire. Let’s see why.

Why Nero was blamed for the fire of Rome

In Roman historiography, Nero has always been one of the emperors described with the most animosity And partiality. Ancient historians have handed down to us a great deal of information regarding its odditiesher manias and its decadents vices. Some have not hesitated to define it as a crazy. In this he is not described differently than emperors such as Caligula (37-41 AD) or Heliogabalus (218-222 AD), and to a lesser extent Tiberius (14-37 AD), Domitian (81-96 AD) and Commodus (180-192 AD). One of the most famous scenes that have entered the collective imagination is that of Nero singing the Fall of Troy inspired by the flames of his city. Ancient historians unanimously accuse the emperor of having been the responsible of the great fire, so that in the area destroyed by the fire the Domus Aureathe immense imperial residence.

To date, there are no real clues to hold Nero directly responsible for the fire, which probably had an origin randomlike the many fires that devastated ancient cities, but we can understand why the emperor came accused. Like all emperors described as “mad” by historiography, there is a basis political conflict. Virtually all the ancient Latin historians were exponents of the senatorial classthat is, that social group which more than any other found itself in conflict with the imperial power. At the time of the republicit was the Senate that managed the state, but with the advent of the empire, with August (31 BC – 14 AD), the princeps naturally became the most prominent figure important.


Some emperors ruled according to with the Senate, and in fact they are remembered with favor And admirationwhile those who chose instead oppose to the senatorial class and to seek support in popular classes earned the hatred of many historians, who came from the highest levels of Roman society. For example, Caligula financed the construction of public Works and organized games and food distributions. Nero, following the fire, took great pains to organize the rescue And rebuild the city.

The great power that figures like Caligula and Nero wanted to wield, naturally went in contrast with the agreement of the Senate. The famous story of Caligula naming his senator horse It does not so much symbolize the emperor’s madness, as the contempt that he had towards the senatorial class, and how much he sought support and consensus among the popular classes. As for Nero, on the other hand, his reign was characterised by peace And innovationsand was remembered by ordinary citizens with favor And gratitude.

short biography octavian augustus first emperor rome