Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

Rome Swept by Flames

Nero, the cruel coward under whom Rome for its sins was made to suffer, could scarcely devise follies and atrocities enough to please his profligate fancy. He offended the pride and sense of decorum of Rome by forcing senators and women of the highest rank to appear as gladiators in the arena. He exposed himself to ridicule by appearing as an actor in the theatre at Naples, which theatre, as soon as the audience dispersed, tumbled to pieces,—a little late so far as Nero himself was concerned. Returning to Rome, he indulged in every species of vice and folly, lavishing the wealth of the state with the utmost prodigality. On the lake of Agrippa he had a pavilion erected on a great floating platform, which was moved from point to point by the aid of boats superbly decorated with gold and ivory, while to furnish the banquet here given, animals of the chase were sought in the whole country round, and fish were brought from every sea and even from the distant ocean. When night descended a sudden illumination burst forth from all sides, and music resounded from every grove. These are the mentionable parts of the festival. Vile scenes were exhibited of which nothing can be said.

Finally, at a loss in what deeper excess of vice and ostentation to indulge, the crowned reprobate set fire to Rome that he might enjoy the spectacle of an unlimited conflagration. This wickedness, it is true, is doubted by some historians, but we are told that during the prevalence of the flames a crew of incendiaries threatened any one with death who should seek to extinguish them, and flung flaming torches into the dwellings, crying that they acted under orders.

In all the history of Rome this fire was far the most violent and destructive. Breaking out in a number of shops stored with combustible goods, and driven by the winds, it raged with the utmost fury, neither the thick walls of the houses nor the enclosures of the temples sufficing to stay its frightful progress. The form of the streets, long, narrow, and winding, added to the mischief; and the flames swiftly sped alike through the humblest and the stateliest quarters of the mighty capital.

"The shrieks and lamentations of women, the infirmities of age, and the weakness of the young and tender," says Tacitus, "added misery to the dreadful scene. Some endeavored to provide for themselves, others to save their friends, in one part dragging along the lame and impotent, in another waiting to receive the tardy, or expecting relief themselves; they hurried, they lingered, they obstructed one another; they looked behind, and the fire broke out in front; they escaped from the flames, and in their place of refuge found no safety; the fire raged in every quarter; all were involved in one general conflagration.

"The unhappy wretches fled to places remote, and thought themselves secure, but soon perceived the flames raging round them. Which way to turn, what to avoid, or what to seek, no one could tell. They crowded the streets; they full prostrate on the ground; they lay stretched in the fields, in consternation and dismay resigned to their fate. Numbers lost their whole substance, even the tools and implements by which they gained their livelihood, and in that distress, did not wish to survive. Others, wild with affliction for their friends and relations whom they could not save, embraced voluntary death, and perished in the flames."

The story goes that, while the city was in its intensest blaze, Nero watched it with high enjoyment from a tower in the house of Mæcenas, and finally went to his own theatre, where in his scenic dress he mounted the stage, tuned his harp, and sang the destruction of Troy.

How far Nero was guilty and to what extent the stories told of him were true will never be known, but he was destined to fuel the calamity himself; for in time the devouring flames reached the imperial palace, and laid it with all its treasures and surrounding buildings in ruins. For six days the fire raged uncontrolled, and then, when it seemed subdued, a new conflagration broke out and burned with all the old fury, spreading still more widely the area of ruin and devastation.

The number of buildings destroyed cannot be ascertained. Not only dwellings and shops, but temples, porticos, and other public buildings, were destroyed, among them the most venerable monuments of antiquity, which the worship of ages had rendered sacred; and with these the trophies of uncounted victories, the inimitable works of the great artists of Greece, and precious monuments of literature and ancient genius, were irrecoverably lost.

Whether or not this fire took place through Nero's orders, and was played to by him on the harp, he showed more feeling for the people and more good sense in the rebuilding of the city than could have been expected from one of his weak and vicious character. By his orders the Field of Mars, the magnificent buildings erected by Agrippa, and even the imperial gardens were thrown open to the houseless people, and sheds for their shelter were erected with all possible haste. Household utensils and all kinds of useful implements were brought from Ostia and other neighboring cities, and the price of grain was reduced. But all this failed to gain the good will of the people, who were exasperated by the story that Nero had exulted in the grandeur of the flames, and harped over burning Rome.

When the fire was at length subdued, of the fourteen quarters of Rome only four were left entire; the remainder presented more or less utter ruin. The conflagration in the time of the Gauls had been little more complete, while the wealth now consumed was incomparably greater. The whole world had been robbed of its treasures to feed the flames of Rome. But the haste and ill-judged confusion with which the city was rebuilt after the irruption of the Gauls was not now repeated. A regular plan was formed; the new streets were made wide and straight; the elevation of the houses was defined, and each was given an open area before the door, and was adorned with porticos. The expense of these porticos Nero took upon himself. He ordered also that the new houses should not be contiguous, but that each should be surrounded by its own enclosure; and, in order to hurry the work, he offered rewards to those who should finish their buildings in a fixed period. As for the refuse of the fire, it was removed at Nero's expense to the marshes of Ostia in the ships that brought corn up the Tiber.

These regulations, while they must have made much confusion among the rival claimants of building sites, added greatly to the beauty and comfort of the new city, and the Rome which rose from the ruins was far more stately and handsome than the Rome which had vanished in ashes and smoke. But Nero, while showing some passing feeling for the people and some wisdom in the rebuilding of the city, did not hesitate to use a generous portion of the devastated space for his own advantage. His palace had been destroyed, and he built a new and most magnificent one on the Palatine Hill, the famous "golden house," which after-ages beheld with unstinted admiration.

But he did not confine his ostentation to the palace itself. A great space around it was converted into pleasure-grounds for his amusement, in which, as Tacitus says, "expansive lakes and fields of vast extent were intermixed with pleasing variety; woods and forests stretched to an immeasurable length, presenting gloom and solitude amid scenes of open space, where the eye wandered with surprise over an unbounded prospect."

But nothing that Nero could do sufficed to remove from men's minds the belief that on him rested the infamy of the fire. This public sentiment troubled and frightened him, and to remove it he sought to lay the burden of guilt on others. It was now the year 64 A.D., and for at least thirty years the new sect of the Christians had been spreading in Rome, where it had gained many adherents among the humbler and more moral section of the population. The Christians were far from popular. They were accused of secret and evil practices and debasing superstitions, and on this despised sect Nero determined to turn the fury of the populace.

With his usual artifice he induced a number of abandoned wretches to confess themselves guilty, and on their purchased evidence numbers of the Christians were seized and convicted, mainly on the plea of their sullen hatred of the whole human race. A frightful persecution followed, Nero perhaps hoping, by an exhibition of human suffering, so dear to the rabble of Rome, to turn the thoughts of the people from their own losses.

The captives were put to death with every cruelty the emperor could devise, and to their sufferings he added mockery and derision. Many were nailed to the cross; others were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and left to be devoured by dogs; numbers were burned alive, many of these, covered with inflammable matter, being set on fire to serve as torches during the night. That the public might see this tragic spectacle with the more satisfaction, it was given in the imperial gardens. The sports of the circus were added to the tortures of the victims, Nero himself driving his chariot in the races, or mingling with the rabble in his coachman's dress. These cruel proceedings continued until even the hardened Roman heart became softened with compassion, spectators failed to come, and Nero felt obliged to yield to a general demand that the persecutions should cease.

Hadrian's tomb


While all this went on at Rome, the people of the whole empire suffered with those of the capital city. Italy was ravaged and the provinces plundered to supply the demand for the rebuilding of the city and palace and the unbounded prodigality of the emperor. The very gods were taxed, their temples being robbed of golden treasures which had been gathering for ages through the gifts of pious devotees; while in Greece and Asia not alone the treasures of the temples but the statues of the deities were seized. Nero was preparing for himself a load of infamy worthy of the most frightful retribution, and which would not fail soon to reap its fitting reward.