The great fire of Rome breaks out on 18th July and destroys much of the city on this day in the year 64. Despite the well-known stories, there is no evidence that the Roman emperor, Nero, either started the fire or played the fiddle while it burned. Still, he did use the disaster to further his political agenda. The fire began in the slums of a district south of the legendary Palatine Hill. The area’s homes burned very quickly and the fire spread north, fueled by high winds. During the chaos of the fire, there were reports of heavy looting. The fire ended up raging out of control for nearly three days. Three of Rome’s 14 districts were completely wiped out; only four were untouched by the tremendous conflagration. Hundreds of people died in the fire and many thousands were left homeless.
Although popular legend holds that Emperor Nero fiddled while the city burned, this account is wrong on several accounts. First, the fiddle did not even exist at the time. Instead, Nero was well known for his talent on the lyre; he often composed his own music. More importantly, Nero was actually 35 miles away in Antium when the fire broke out. He rushed to Rome and ran about the city all that first night without his guards directing efforts to quell the blaze. For the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Legend has long blamed Nero for a couple of reasons. Nero did not like the aesthetics of the city and used the devastation of the fire in order to change much of it and institute new building codes throughout the city. Nero also used the fire to clamp down on the growing influence of Christians in Rome. He arrested, tortured and executed hundreds of Christians on the pretext that they had something to do with the fire.
From the ashes of the fire rose a more spectacular Rome. A city made of marble and stone with wide streets, pedestrian arcades and ample supplies of water to quell any future blaze. The debris from the fire was used to fill the malaria-ridden marshes that had plagued the city for generations.