The Great Fire of Rome

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Brief overview of the events surrounding the Great Fire of Rome

In a hot July summer of 64 A.D., a fire broke out near the Capena Gate (the marketplace near the Circus Maximus) and spread quickly across the entire Circus, and finally it was completely out of control, the fire destroyed nearly half of Rome.

The Roman historian Tacitus records the event:

"First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills-but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. . . Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike--all heightened the confusion."

As the fire blaze out of control some citizens tried every measure to put out the flames. It is told that the citizens were stopped. Also some of the mob lit torches and threw them into the flames to feed the fire. Tacitus make an interesting note about these arsonists who had claimed "they acted under orders. Perhaps they had ... or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered."

Nero heard the news from his Palace at Antium and rushed to Rome just in time to see the Palatine Palace in flames. His newly built mansion, the Domus Transitoria, was nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes. Nero immediately organized a team of firefighters and provided shelter for the panic stricken people who had been left homeless. The fire burned for nine days, leaving 10 out of its 14 regions in ruins, with the loss of many lives.

Nero decided that he would place the blame on scapegoats, because there was a dangerous rumor that Nero himself had ordered the fire in order to vandalize the capital city, and to free up space for his new building plans. It is recorded that later he indeed take advantage of the situation and begin planning and building his Golden House. His scapegoats were none other than the Christians, who were already being accused in one way or another within Roman pagan society. This was officially the time that the active persecution of the Christian Church began. At some point soon after it became a crime to bear the name "Christian" and the suppression of the church became state policy. This persecution would last, off and on, for almost three centuries.

 

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Nero Caesar Emperor

"I began to hate you, when, after murdering mother and wife, you turned out to be a jockey, a mountebank, and an incendiary." (Tacitus ann. 15:67).

Nero - A Devotional Message

Primary Sources for the Study of the Emperor Nero are: Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Christian and Jewish Tradition, and Archaeology.

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The 5th Emperor (Princeps) of Rome (54-68 A.D.)

Map of the Roman Mediterranean

Background

The Roman Empire beyond Italy was divided into about 40 provinces (territories), with each province having its own governor who kept order and collected taxes for Rome. He was either appointed by the emperor or named by the Senate.

During the first century A.D. the Roman Empire was near its peak with a population of 50-60 million. This was more than 1/5 of the world's population at that time. Jesus lived and died during the period known in Roman history as the Pax Romana or the "Peace of Rome".

It was an amazing time in history when the risen Jesus empowered His church to go into all the world to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact the apostles journeyed throughout the Mediterranean world which was part of the Roman Empire. They traveled through Roman cities on Roman roads and everywhere that they traveled they came into contact with Rome.

Julius Caesar had a dream for Rome but he was assassinated before he could see it fulfilled. The big problem was who would become the next emperor after his assassination. Very few had expected the young Octavian (Augustus) to become the chief heir and new emperor after Julius Caesar, but it was Augustus who turned out to be the most important emperor in all of Roman history.

Augustus was very aware of what had happened with Julius Caesar, and desired to avoid the same problems with the Roman Senate. He wanted his stepson Tiberius to be emperor after his death and to make sure that this would happen he began to share his power with Tiberius. When Augustus died in 14 A.D. Tiberius was easily accepted as emperor. In fact this became the new way that emperors would be chosen. Each emperor would choose a successor from among his family or he would adopt someone who he thought would be fit to rule after him.

During the 200 years after the death of Augustus, four dynasties (family lines) ruled the Roman Empire. Some of the emperors in each dynasty were somewhat moral emperors and others were horribly cruel. Each of the four dynasties ended with a violent overthrow of an unfit emperor.

Augustus’ family line ended in disgrace in 68 A.D. with the Emperor Nero, who came to power when he was a young boy at the age of 17. Nero Claudius Caesar was born in December of 37 A.D. at Antium and reigned as the fifth emperor (Princeps) of Rome, from 54-68 A.D. under the political system created by Augustus after Civil War had finally put an end to the Roman Republic.

Throughout the early years of his rule Nero was directed by his tutors (including the famous writer Seneca) and there was peace throughout the Empire. The Emperor Nero loved performing in the Theatre, races and games. He was not respected by the senators or the army. He was criticized by the people of Rome for being more interested in entertaining himself than in governing the empire. However, when his main advisors had either retired, or were dead, Nero revealed his true character. It did not take long for the people to realize that Nero was a tyrant. In 59 A.D. Nero executed his mother, his wife, Claudius’s son Britannicus, and several of his advisors and anyone that opposed him was executed.

In 64 A.D. a devastating fire swept through Rome destroying everything in its path. Everyone thought that Nero had started the fire so that he could rebuild a more beautiful city, including his Golden House. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Nero sang and played the lyre while Rome burned. When Nero felt that the rumor had turned everyone against him he found some scapegoats to bare the blame for the fire, the Christians. He punished them severely and had many of them burned alive or torn apart by wild beasts. It is believed that the apostles Paul and Peter were martyred during this persecution.

There were many who sought Nero’s death and in 68 A.D. his own army rebelled against him and various military commanders attempted to seize the throne. The Emperor Nero was forced to flee from Rome and soon afterward he committed suicide. He was the last emperor who was of the dynasty of Augustus (Julio-Claudian dynasty).


The main people involved in the life of Nero were:

- Nero Himself - Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus

- Agrippina - Nero's dominating mother

- Claudius - The emperor before Nero

- Octavia - Claudius' daughter and Nero's first wife

- Britannicus - Claudius' son and rightful heir to the throne

- Seneca and Burrus - Nero's trusted tutors

- Poppaea - Nero's second wife

- Galba - General in Spain and the next emperor of Rome


Important events that happened during the life of Nero:

- The Great Fire of Rome – 64 A.D.

- The First Imperial 'Persecution' of Christians – 64 A.D.

- The first Jewish Revolt Against Rome – 66 A.D.


The main historical sources about the life of Nero were:


- Tacitus Tacitus Publius Cornelius (55-120 A.D. approx.)

- Suetonius Svetonius Tranquillus (70-140 A.D. approx.)

- Cassius Dio Dion Cassius Cocceianus (155-235 A.D. approx.)

- Jewish and Christian Tradition

- Archaeology: inscriptions, coins, written text.

Bibliography on the Emperor Nero

Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Scarre, 240 Pages, Pub. 2012
 

 

Nero, Emperor of Rome

Bible History Online


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