Finding the truth in our history is like trying to solve a crime after arriving at the scene 2,000 years too late. We analyze the evidence left behind, we listen to the witnesses, and we make our best guess—but we rarely know for sure what really happened.
There are few better examples of just how murky the truth can get than the Great Fire of Rome. We have a handful of stories and a few half-melted coins still buried in the ashes of old Rome, and we have to pick through them to find the truth.
It’s difficult to know who started the Great Fire of Rome and what fallout ensued. Every group had an interest in this story, and every version of it comes with a political agenda attached. There are a lot of different versions of the story, and no one knows for sure who was telling the truth.
10 Nero Started The Fire
According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, Nero had always wanted to see Rome burn. He claimed that Nero would say that a king who sees his country and throne destroyed together would be “wonderfully fortunate.”
“He secretly sent out men who pretended to be drunk,” Dio says, “and caused them at first to set fire to one or two or even several buildings.” The fire spread faster than anyone could deal with, and the people broke into a panic. “Here men while assisting their neighbors would learn that their own premises were afire; then others, before reached them that their own houses had caught fire, would be told that they were destroyed.”
Most of the early Roman historians agree with Dio. Pliny the Elder, who experienced the fire firsthand, called it “Emperor Nero’s conflagration,” and an unknown playwright, sometimes thought to be Nero’s advisor Seneca, wrote a play about Nero’s life, which depicts Nero promising that “the city’s buildings must fall to flames set by me.”
Suetonius, another Roman historian, takes it even further. He says that Nero didn’t even bother hiding that he was behind it. Nero just gave the excuse that he didn’t like “the ugliness of the old buildings” and openly burned the city down. He even brought out siege weapons, Suetonius says, and smashed down any buildings that wouldn’t burn.
9 It Was An Accident
“It seems unlikely that Nero would have started the great fire,” says historian Eric Varner. After all, “It destroyed his palace.”
The Roman historian Tacitus seems to have agreed. He claims that the fire started in a shop. “It had its beginning in that part of the circus which adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills, where, amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the circus.” From there, the fire got worse, spread on by a poorly designed city.
Some modern historians agree with Tacitus. One, Henry Hurst, claims that “as many as 100 minor fires broke out in Rome every day,” making it no stretch of the imagination to conceive that one of those fires might have gotten out of control.
This theory, though, starts with Tacitus—and he makes it clear that he isn’t fully convinced, himself. Whether the fire was “accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor,” Hurst concludes, “is uncertain.”
8 Christian Extremists Started The Fire
When the fire was over, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians. Most people believe that he was just using them as a scapegoat, but one historian, Gerhard Baudy, thinks Nero might have been telling the truth.
Before the fire, Baudy claims, Christians were passing around pamphlets promising that Rome would be reduced to ashes. “That is the constant theme: Rome must burn,” Baudy says. “This was the long-desired objective of all people who felt subjugated by Rome.”
Baudy can’t prove that pamphlets promising to burn Rome existed, but he thinks the idea fits the trend. He argues that there are Biblical verses, especially in Revelations, condemning Rome and promising destruction through fire, which show that this was a common theme in early Christian writing. He believes that a forgotten Christian prophet promised that July 19 would be the “day of the Lord,” timed to fit an ancient Egyptian prophecy that Rome would fall when the star Sirius rose into the sky—which happened on the day the fire started.
Baudy believes that the Christians knew the prophecy and started the fire, determined to make sure it came true.
7 It Was A Controlled Fire Meant To Build A New City
Archaeologist Andrea Carandini writes off every attempt to take the blame off Nero as historical revisionism. He says, “This rehabilitation—this process of a small group of historians trying to transform aristocrats into gentlemen—seems quite stupid to me.”
Carandini sides with a rumor that Tacitus mentions was going around Rome at the time: “Nero was aiming at the glory of founding a new city and calling it by his name.” He points to the sheer level of destruction, believing Nero was burning the homes of the wealthy. “All these houses were destroyed, so the aristocracy didn’t have a proper place to live,” Carandini argues. “It’s the end, in a way, of the power of aristocracy in Rome.”
Nero is the one who benefited from it. “How could he build the Domus Aurea without the fire?” Carandini asks. “Whether or not he started the fire, he certainly profited from it.”
6 Nero Played The Lyre While Rome Burned
One of the most popular stories about the fire is that while Rome burned, Nero simply played his lyre and sang. Cassius Dio gives the most detailed version of the story. While the city burned, he says, “Nero ascended to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the lyre-player’s garb, he sang the ‘Capture of Troy,’ as he styled the song himself, though to the enemies of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome.”
Suetonius backs him up, although he changes a few little details. He puts Nero on a tower on a different hill, and he has him singing the “Sack of Ilium” instead.
Enough modern historians have disputed the lyre story that it tends to show up in articles about historical misconceptions, but the account shows up in every single early version of the story of the fire. That doesn’t necessarily prove it really happened—but it means that a lot of Romans were willing to believe it did.
5 Nero Was Out Of Town And Sent A Relief Party
According to Tacitus, however, Nero couldn’t have played the lyre. He wasn’t even in Rome when the fire happened. He was at Antium, Tacitus claims, and rushed to Rome as soon as he heard. By the time he’d made it, though, his palace—the place where Dio claims he played the lyre—had already been destroyed.
Afterward, Nero set up a relief effort. “To relieve the people, driven out homeless as they were, he threw open to them the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude,” Tacitus claims. “Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck.”
All his efforts to help his people, though, didn’t win him anyone’s love. According to Tacitus, the rumor that Nero had been playing the lyre while Rome burned had already spread. By the time he’d arrived, the people had already turned against him.
4 Nero’s Relief Party Just Started More Fires
Cassius Dio doesn’t agree that Nero was so helpful. Nero sent out relief parties, he says, but they didn’t help anybody. They just made the fire worse.
“Many [houses] were set on fire by the same men who came to lend assistance,” Dio claims. Nero’s men, he claims, ran through the town, setting buildings on fire. “The soldiers, including the night watch, having an eye to plunder, instead of putting out fires, kindled new ones.”
Tacitus actually backs up Dio’s claim that people were making the fires worse, but he isn’t as sure that Nero sent them. “No one dared to stop the mischief, because of incessant menaces from a number of persons who forbade the extinguishing of the flames,” he claims. Tacitus isn’t sure who sent them, but these men, he says, “kept shouting that there was one who gave them authority, either seeking to plunder more freely, or obeying orders.”
3 Nero Blamed It On The Christians
When the fire was over, Tacitus claims, Nero needed a scapegoat. Everyone was blaming the fire on him, and to deflect it, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”
This, Tacitus says, was the beginning of the persecution of Christianity. “An arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty,” he says. “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
Other Romans talk about the persecution of Christians, although they don’t specifically connect it to the fire like Tacitus does. Suetonius praises Nero for torturing them, writing, “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
Also, a letter still exists, written by Pliny the Younger to the Roman emperor Trajan, asking how he should deal with Christians. Should he punish every Christian, he asks, “even without offenses” or “only the offenses associated with the name?”
2 Christians Were Never Persecuted By Nero
Some modern historians, though, don’t believe that any of that really happened. One, Gordon Stein, thinks that Tacitus didn’t actually write the part about Christians being used as scapegoats. He believes it was added by later Christian writers.
“The term ‘Christian’ was not in common use in the first century,” Stein claims. The word choice in this passage, Stein believes, is out-of-character for both Tacitus and the time he was alive. “Tacitus does not use the name Jesus, and writes as if the reader would know the name Pontius Pilate, two things which show that Tacitus was not working from official records or writing for non-Christian audiences.”
Instead, Stein claims it was pulled from another source. “It is present almost word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (died in 403 A.D.), where it is mixed in with obviously false tales.” Stein thinks that this passage was added hundreds of years after the Great Fire. “Copyists working in the Dark Ages,” he claims, “copied the passage from Sulpicius into the manuscript of Tacitus.”
1 The Truth Is Unknowable
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote a short history of Nero, but he didn’t even touch on the Great Fire of Rome. “I omit any further discourse about these affairs,” Josephus wrote. The life of Nero, he felt, was too murky to be worth stepping into.
“There have been a great many who have composed the history of Nero,” he wrote, “some of which have departed from the truth of facts out of favour, as having received benefits from him; while others, out of hatred to him, and the great ill-will which they bare him, have so impudently raved against him with their lies.”
The history of Nero, Josephus seems to believe, is so full of bias and lies that it’s impossible to tell the truth, and it’s no longer worth writing about. “These that have no regard for truth,” Josephus says, “they may write as they please.”