Most historians charge Nero with having caused the great fire that nearly
destroyed Rome in 64 CE. Modern criticism makes it very doubtful whether the Emperor
really caused the fire; although his life was so iniquitous that people readily believed
that he was guilty. The city of Rome was, for the most part, composed of very ill-built
and inflammable insulae (tenement houses), and a blaze once under headway was almost
impossible to check. In any case, the burning of Rome was one of the famous events of the
age; and it is likely enough that thugs and bandits pretended they had the Emperor's
orders, when they spread the flames in the hope of getting new chances for plunder.
Dio Cassius (c.155-235 CE): Roman History,
Nero had the wish---or rather it had always been a fixed purpose of his---to make an
end of the whole city in his lifetime. Priam he deemed wonderfully happy in that he had
seen Troy perish at the same moment his authority over her ended. Accordingly, Nero sent
out by different ways men feigning to be drunk, or engaged in some kind of mischief, and
at first had a few fires kindled quietly and in different quarters; people, naturally,
were thrown into extreme confusion, not being able to find either the cause of the trouble
nor to end it; and meantime met with many strange sights and sounds. They ran about as if
distracted, and some rushed one way, some another. In the midst of helping their
neighbors, men would learn that their own homes were blazing. Others learned, for the
first time, that their property was on fire, by being told it was burned down. People
would run from their houses into the lanes, with a hope of helping from the outside, or
again would rush into the houses from the streets seeming to imagine they could do
something from the inside. The shouting and screaming of children, women, men, and gray
beards mingled together unceasingly; and betwixt the combined smoke and shouting no one
could make out anything.
All this time many who were carrying away their own goods, and many more who were
stealing what belonged to others kept encountering one another and falling over the
merchandise. It was impossible to get anywhere; equally impossible to stand still. Men
thrust, and were thrust back, upset others, and were upset themselves, many were
suffocated or crushed; in short, no possible calamity at such a disaster failed to befall.
This state of things lasted not one day, but several days and nights running. Many
houses were destroyed through lack of defenders; and many were actually fired in more
places by professed rescuers. For the soldiers (including the night watch) with a keen eye
for plunder, instead of quenching the conflagration, kindled it the more. While similar
scenes were taking place at various points, a sudden wind caught the fire and swept it
over what remained. As a result nobody troubled longer about goods or homes, but all the
survivors, from a place of safety, gazed on what appeared to be many islands and cities in
flames. No longer was there any grief for private loss, public lamentation swallowed up
this---as men reminded each other how once before the bulk of the city had been even thus
laid desolate by the Gauls.
While the whole people was in this state of excitement, and many driven mad by calamity
were leaping into the blaze, Nero mounted upon the roof of the palace, where almost the
whole conflagration was commanded by a sweeping glance, put on the professional harpist's
garb, and sang "The Taking of Troy" (so he asserted), although to common minds,
it seemed to be "The Taking of Rome."
The disaster which the city then underwent, had no parallel save in the Gallic
invasion. The whole Palatine hill, the theater of Taurus, and nearly two thirds of the
rest of the city were burned. Countless persons perished. The populace invoked curses upon
Nero without intermission, not uttering his name, but simply cursing "those who set
the fire"; and this all the more because they were disturbed by the recollection of
the oracle recited in Tiberius's time, to this effect,
"After three times three hundred rolling years
In civil strife Rome's Empire disappears."
And when Nero to encourage them declared these verses were nowhere to be discovered,
they changed and began to repeat another oracle---alleged to be a genuine one of the
"When the matricide reigns in Rome,
Then ends the race of Aeneas."
And thus it actually turned out, whether this was really revealed in advance by some
divination, or whether the populace now for the first time gave it the form of a sacred
utterance merely adapted to the circumstances. For Nero was indeed the last of the Julian
line, descended from Aeneas.
Nero now began to collect vast sums both from individuals and nations, sometimes using
downright compulsion, with the conflagration as his excuse, and sometimes obtaining funds
by "voluntary" offers. As for the mass of the Romans they had the fund for their
food supply withdrawn.