In the summer of 69 A.D., Emperor Nero left Rome to go to his palace in Anzio. Summers in Rome were unbearable hot, and Anzio seemed like another country. On July 19th, Nero and his entourage were enjoying themselves, when a messenger came to inform Nero that a fire broke out.
This wasn’t big news. Rome had a chronic problem with fires.
In fact, just a century and a half prior, the Roman firefighting force, the Vigiles , were not even a concept. In fact, one of the members of the first Triumvirate, Crassus, had a made a fortune by filling this void with a private firefighting corps. Crassus’s men would show up at the scene of a fire, then , instead of putting it out right away, they would bargain for an acceptable price for their services. If no price was agreed upon , the fire was allowed to burn the buildings to the ground.
Augusts Caesar improved upon this idea with the creation of the Vigiles in 6 A.D. This force would patrol the streets for fires and crime. In the event of a fire, the Vigiles would put it out with bucket brigades (so long as there was water) or dismantle buildings with poles and hooks to stop the advance of the flames.
It’s great that they had responders. But this was only because Rome had serious enough problems where fire was a constant threat. The city was filthy and most buildings made from cheap, easily flammable material. This problem would only get worse in the summer heat.
This was to be no ordinary fire. Starting somewhere around the Circus Maximus, the great stadium which by this point was made of cheap, low quality wood, the fire soon spread to the neighboring shops and warehouses, which fueled the flames further.
The fire didn’t discriminate either. The rampaged the chic Esquiline district, which housed much of the patrician class and Senators. The fire hit the poorest neighborhoods hardest though. These neighborhoods were also home to many immigrants. The sound of buildings crashing down, and screams of terror in many languages made effective communication impossible for Vigiles.
After 1 or 2 more messengers, Nero realized the city was in danger. He quickly gathered up his entourage and returned to Rome, where he was actually very heroic. Day after day, unescorted, Nero went to decimated districts to help in the response. He joined searches for missing, transported victims out of the city, provided food and shelter, and even opened his private garden to refugees, Also, he promised to take care and to rebuild Rome (nearly 70% of the city was destroyed), which he started almost immediately. He included fire preparedness features in his designs, such as setting height restrictions for tenement buildings, widening the streets (a number of people were trampled), and installed water reservoirs for the Vigiles. He also reimbursed landowners who had to build the expensive porticoes in front of their buildings and rewarded expedient builders.
Contrary to popular belief, Nero didn’t play violin while Rome burned. If not for the simple fact that violin wasn’t invented yet (but Nero did love to play lute) then because Nero was unpopular enough that such rumors were easy to spread. Nero’s popularity and public image issues were already damaged by a number of factors.
First, Nero wanted to rebuild Rome before the fire. Fire was such a problem, and the city was so filthy, that Nero was ashamed that he didn’t reside in a sleek, safe, modern city. Efforts had been made in the past to fix the cities fire problem.
Half a century earlier , Augustus Caesar had decreed that buildings shouldn’t exceed 70 feet, due to the threat they posed during fires.. During fires, buildings came tumbling to the ground, and the dense populations and state of such buildings created additional hazards. Due to a rapidly growing population, the decree was forgotten or blatantly skirted by landlords. As the population swelled into the millions, greedy landlords built 7 to 8 story buildings, which were poorly constructed eyesores that lacked basic amenities like access to water. They were bunched close together, and the fire could hop from building to building quite quickly.
Nero wanted a new city, but the Senate said no. Many senators had made money as landlords, and they saw these changes as targeting them. The Senator who were landlords were afraid they would be expected to share the cost. The Senate’s veto was publicly known, and it fed a dirty rumor that Nero started the fire to get a city.
Also, the Emperor seemed like the kind of guy who would play lute during the fire. He was a patron of the arts, and saw himself as a great artist. He also seemed like a man who would start the fire. He had come to the throne by killing his stepbrother. He had banished and executed his first wife. He even killed his mother.
Plus, history hasn’t been kind to Nero, and historians were biased by his sheer unpopularity. The Great Fire was well documented by Tacitus who was only 9 at time of fire) and Suetonius who was born several years after the fire) and both show a clear bias against Nero. There are accounts of Nero taking a music break while fighting the fires though.
The Emperor’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t control his own public image, and he wasn’t above spreading false information. Accurate information is vital during disasters, and false info, whether spread maliciously or accidentally can be damaging. I’m reminded of 2011 Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, when tweets for assistance were repeated even after the victims were rescued, causing confusion for first responders.
When rumors of his role in the fire finally reached Nero, he panicked and had a major public info flub by passing the buck onto someone else. In this case, the Christians. Nearly 1000 Christians would be executed after the false accusation of starting the fire. Nero was a poor judge of mood of his people. Despite being a disliked minority, Romans were disgusted by the grotesque executions.
Nero handled the turn in public opinion poorly, mainly by nearly bankrupting the city in rebuilding his palace. He also went on vacation to Greece when the city was almost on the verge of famine due to the bankruptcy. The public rioted. The provinces refused to recognize his authority. The Senate, generals, and the Praetorian Guard were prepared for a coup. All the while, Nero was performing in Greek plays and pretending to be a great artist in Greece. The role of government no longer concerned him.
Nero would eventually commit suicide to avoid being murdered. Let his death serve as a warning to those who don’t cultivate good channels of communication during disasters. Although he was heroic during the response to the fire, and advocated fixing the structural hazards in town, he was a bloody and arrogant man, who was not concerned with being (or at least appearing as ) a good governor. Still, he leaves a legacy in the sleek and clean new city which can still be seen in modern Rome.