18 July 64: Great Fire of Rome

In 54 AD, one of the Roman Empire’s most controversial emperors ascended the throne. Nero, the adopted son of Claudius, rapidly became notorious for murdering both his stepbrother and his mother, while his spending on entertainment drained the Treasury.

But the most controversial aspect of his reign was his alleged role in the fire of Rome, which destroyed large parts of the city in July 64 AD, and burned for over a week before being put out.

The causes are disputed. The historian Tacitus (who was nine at the time) merely states that gangs of people were seen deliberately spreading the fire. There was also a popular rumour that Nero had been seen playing the lyre, after returning from his villa in Antium.

The archeological evidence for Nero’s involvement is ambiguous, but he certainly had a motive (more on that in a moment) and he also quickly moved to scapegoat Christians, viciously persecuting them.

After the fire, Nero spent fortunes rebuilding Rome. Some of the changes were for the better: he improved the water supply, and filled in a nearby marsh. But he also took advantage of the devastation to build himself a new palace (which he named the Domus Aurea), a project which had been strongly opposed by the Roman senate.

To pay for it, he reduced the amount of gold in the coins, raised taxes on the provinces and forced Roman citizens to pay in to a “voluntary” fund.

This greed eventually led to his downfall. Discontent with the tax burden sparked a popular revolt. It was put down, but the army and the senate turned against Nero, forcing him to leave office and commit suicide in 68 AD.

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