Vintage: Great Fire of Rome, now the capital of Italy
The Great Fire of Rome (Latin: incendium magnum Romae) was an urban fire that occurred in July AD 64. The fire began in the merchant shops around Rome's chariot stadium, Circus Maximus, on the night of 19 July. After six days, the fire was brought under control but before the damage could be assessed, the fire reignited and burned for another three days. In the aftermath of the fire, two thirds of Rome had been destroyed.
According to Tacitus, the fire began in shops where flammable goods were stored, in the region of the Circus neighbouring the Caelian and Palatine Hills of Rome. The night was a windy one and the flames rapidly spread along the full length of the Circus. The fire expanded through an area of narrow, twisting streets and closely located apartment blocks. In this lower area of ancient Rome there were no large buildings such as temples, or open areas of ground, to impede the conflagration. It then spread along the Palatine and Caelian slopes. The population fled first to areas unaffected by the fire and then to the open fields and rural roads outside the city. Looters and arsonists were reported to have spread the flames by throwing torches or, acting in groups, hindering measures being made to halt or slow the progress of the flames. Some groups responsible for throwing torches and stopping those from fighting the fire were reported to have claimed they were under orders to do so. The fire stopped after six days of continuous burning. However, it soon reignited and burned for another three days.
Tests into how fires spread have shown that large fires are able to create their own wind and this, combined with embers being blown to new buildings, could have caused the fire to spread further and could account for witnesses claiming that random fires started in houses that were away from the flames. As well as wind playing a factor in fire spread, those who had claimed to be under orders to stop people from fighting the fires never named the one who ordered them and they were also reported to have looted buildings.
Rome's water system
Before the fire, Rome's water was brought in by nine aqueducts, which were not set up with equipment to fight fires. Carrying out repairs to the aqueducts was an ongoing task for the Water Commissioner of Rome. Rome's Water Commissioner was also in charge of investigations into those who were illegally piping water away without paying a license fee to the state. Fire fighters relied on blankets, buckets of water, vinegar and demolition of buildings to put fires out.
According to Tacitus, Nero was away from Rome, in Antium, when the fire broke out. Nero returned to the city and took measures to bring in food supplies and open gardens and public buildings to accommodate refugees. Of Rome's 14 districts, three were completely devastated, seven more were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins and only four completely escaped damage. The Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals and Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were damaged or destroyed. Also destroyed in the fire was the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked. However, the open space in the middle of the Forum remained a shopping/meeting centre. The accusations of Nero having started the fire were further exacerbated by his quickness to rebuild burned neighbourhoods in the Greek style and to launch construction of his new palace.
For the city's reconstruction, Nero dictated new and far-sighted building rules, intended to curb the excesses of speculation and trace a new urban plan, which still can be discerned from the city layout today. He rebuilt much of the destroyed area and had the ostentatious building complex known as Domus Aurea (Golden House) built, his personal residence (replacing the Domus Transitoria and including an extension of about 2,5 km2), which came to include the Palatine, the slopes of the Esquiline (Opium) and part of the Celio. This cannot have been a possible motive for the fire, as he could have requisitioned the necessary land anyway and most was already in his possession.
To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, Nero's government increased taxation. In particular heavy tributes were imposed on the provinces of the empire. To meet at least a proportion of the costs, Nero devalued the Roman currency, increasing inflationary pressure for the first time in the Empire's history.
Debris from the fire was used as fill for the nearby malaria-infested marshes.
After the fire in AD 6, the Vigiles ("cohorts of the watchmen") were introduced by Augustus. The cohortes vigilum, run by freedmen, were tasked with guarding Rome at night while the cohortes urbanae were tasked with guarding Rome during the day. By the time of the Great Fire of Rome, there were thousands of Vigiles in the city and they had gone to work trying to stop the flames by pouring buckets of water into buildings, trying to move flammable material from the fire's path and even demolishing buildings to attempt to make a fire break. In 22 BC Augustus funded a fire brigade.
Source: Wikipedia, National Geographic