Taken from Writer’s Almanac – 18 July
The great fire of Rome began in the late evening hours of this day in 64 A.D. The fire raged for six days, during which time Emperor Nero either acted heroically to contain the fire and provide for his people, or played his lyre and watched the city burn – depending on whose version you believe. There are no surviving primary accounts of the fire, so we have to base everything we know on hearsay.
Most modern scholars tend to believe the account of Tacitus, a historian writing in the year 116. In Tacitus’ version, the fire began in a dry goods store near the Circus Maximus. Since it was very windy and dry that night, the fire spread quickly through the closely built wooden apartment buildings. Tacitus also reported that looters encouraged the fire, but whether they were acting under orders from Nero or just taking advantage of the situation, he couldn’t say with certainty. Far from setting the fire, Nero rushed back to Rome from his palace in Antium to rescue treasures from his mansion in the city. He opened his private gardens so evacuees would have a place to escape the flames, ordered the construction of temporary shelters, and brought in food from neighboring regions.
But people still wanted someone to blame, and Nero was, at the end of the day, still a politician. He pointed the finger at a relatively obscure but troublesome religious sect known as Christians and publicly tortured them to death in Rome’s only surviving amphitheater. He also took the opportunity to rebuild the city in an architectural style that he preferred.