Heat and draught, fires — humans have certainly had quite a bit of that
this summer. But these current events got me to thinking about other
unfortunate conflagrations — historical and at least at present somewhat
more infamous.

Besides the burning of Persepolis by Alexander (on purpose or by
accident) and the fire which destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria,
the first great documented fire of note in the West was the Great Fire
of Rome in 64 A.D.

Rather than quote or paraphrase Wikipedia, I thought that in this case
I would let the ancient sources themselves tell the story. There were
two things the Roman populace feared more than any other — a rise in
the price of bread, and fire. Both hit them where they lived. According
to Lindsey Davis, a contemporary novelist who I think does her research
well, most of Rome at that time wasn't marble buildings or well-constructed
upper-class villas. Most of Rome was made up of what we might consider
today tenements, poorly constructed buildings made of wood rising sometimes
to six stories. They were tinderboxes waiting to go off. Thus, the fear
of fire.

My own thought on the matter, which is speculative, is that angered by
the Great Fire that the populace of Rome sought to lay the blame on
someone. And Nero, already detested, was a logical target. Other familiar
targets where Christians, who back then were looked upon with suspicion
in the same way that we today tend to view any secretive organization.
But in the end, we will probably never know the true agents of the fire.

Tacitus, Annals, XV.38-40.

[38] A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously
contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both
accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever
happened to this city by the violence of fire. 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. For here there
were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by
walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay. The blaze in its fury
ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills,
while it again devastated every place below them, it outstripped all
preventive measures; so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its
mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets,
which characterised old Rome. Added to this were the wailings of terror-
stricken women, the feebleness of age, the helpless inexperience of
childhood, the crowds who sought to save themselves or others, dragging
out the infirm or waiting for them, and by their hurry in the one case,
by their delay in the other, aggravating the confusion. Often, while they
looked behind them, they were intercepted by flames on their side or in
their face. Or if they reached a refuge close at hand, when this too was
seized by the fire they found that even places which they had imagined
to be remote were involved in the same calamity. At last, doubting what
they should avoid or whither betake themselves, they crowded the streets
or flung themselves down in the fields, while some who had lost their all,
even their very daily bread, and others out of love for their kinsfolk,
whom they had been unable to rescue, perished, though escape was open to
them. And no one dared to stop the mischief, because of incessant menaces
from a number of persons who forbade the extinguishing of the flames,
because again others openly hurled brands, and kept shouting that there
was one who gave them authority, either seeking to plunder more freely,
or obeying orders.

[39] Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome
until the fire approached his house, which he had built to connect the
palace with the gardens of Maecenas. It could not, however, be stopped
from devouring the palace, the house, and everything around it. However,
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. Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring
towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck. These
acts, though popular, produced no effect, since a rumour had gone forth
everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the emperor
appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing
present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity.

[40] At last, after five days, an end was put to the conflagration at
the foot of the Esquiline hill, by the destruction of all buildings on a
vast space, so that the violence of the fire was met by clear ground and
an open sky. But before people had laid aside their fears, the flames
returned, with no less fury this second time, and especially in the
spacious districts of the city. Consequently, though there was less loss
of life, the temples of the gods, and the porticoes which were devoted
to enjoyment, fell in a yet more widespread ruin. And to this conflagration
there attached the greater infamy because it broke out on the Aemilian
property of Tigellinus, and it seemed that Nero was aiming at the glory
of founding a new city and calling it by his name. Rome, indeed, is
divided into fourteen districts, four of which remained uninjured, three
were levelled to the ground, while in the other seven were left only a
few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses.

[Tacitus was a "historian's historian" and his account is in my view
probably the most reliable.]

Suetonius, The Twelve Ceasars, VI.38.

[38] But he showed no greater mercy to the people or the walls of his
capital. When someone in a general conversation said: "When I am dead,
be earth consumed by fire," he rejoined "Nay, rather while I live," and
his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the
ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set
fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to
lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates
with tow and fire-brands, while some granaries near the Golden House,
whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war
and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days
and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for
shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense
number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still
adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed
and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars,
and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity.
Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting,
as he said, in "the beauty of the flames," he sang the whole of the
"Sack of Ilium" in his regular stage costume. Furthermore, to gain
from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising
the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no
one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions
which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the
provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.

Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXI.16-18.

[16] After this Nero set his heart on accomplishing what had doubtless
always been his desire, namely to make an end of the whole city and
realm during his lifetime. At all events, he, like others before him,
used to call Priam wonderfully fortunate in that he had seen his country
and his throne destroyed together. Accordingly he secretly sent out men
who pretended to be drunk or engaged in other kinds of mischief, and
caused them at first to set fire to one or two or even several buildings
in different parts of the city, so that people were at their wits end,
not being able to find any beginning of the trouble nor to put an end
to it, though they constantly were aware of many strange sights and
sounds. For there was naught to be seen but many fires, as in a camp,
and naught to be heard from the talk of the people except such
exclamations as "This or that is afire," "Where?" "How did it happen?"
"Who kindled it?" "Help?" Extraordinary excitement laid hold on all
the citizens in all parts of the city, and they ran about, some in one
direction and some in another, as if distracted. Here men while
assisting their neighbours would learn that their own premises were
afire; there others, before reached them that their own houses had
caught fire, would be told that they were destroyed. Those who were
inside their houses would run out into the narrow streets thinking that
they could save them from the outside, while people in the streets would
rush into the dwellings in the hope of accomplishing something inside.
There was shouting and wailing without end, of children, women, men, and
the aged all together, so that no one could see thing or understand what
was said by reason of the smoke and the shouting; and for this reason
some might be seen standing speechless, as if they were dumb. Meanwhile
many who were carrying out their goods and many, too, who were stealing
the property of others, kept running into one another and falling over
their burdens. It was not possible to go forward nor yet to stand still,
but people pushed and were pushed in turn, upset others and were
themselves upset. Many were suffocated, many were trampled underfoot;
in a word, no evil that can possibly happen to people in such a crisis
failed to befall to them. They could not even escape anywhere easily;
and if anybody did save himself from the immediate danger, he would fall
into another and perish.

[17] Now this did not all take place on a single day, but it lasted for
several days and nights alike. Many houses were destroyed for want of
anyone to help save them, and many others were set on fire by the same
men who came to lend assistance; for the soldiers, including the night
watch, having an eye to plunder, instead of putting out fires, kindled
new ones.

[18] While such scenes were occurring at various points, a wind caught up
the flames and carried them indiscriminately against all the buildings
that were left. Consequently no one concerned himself any longer about
goods or houses, but all the survivors, standing where they thought they
were safe, gazed upon what appeared to be a number of scattered islands
on fire or many cities all burning at the same time. There was no longer
any grieving over personal losses, but they lamented the public calamity,
recalling how once before most of the city had been thus laid waste by the
Gauls. While the whole population was in this state of mind and many,
crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, 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. The calamity
which the city then experienced has no parallel before or since, except
in the Gallic invasion. The whole Palatine hill, the theatre of Taurus,
and nearly two-thirds of the remainder of the city were burned, and
countless persons perished. There was no curse that the populace did not
invoke upon Nero, though they did not mention his name, but simply cursed
in general terms those who had set the city on fire. And they were disturbed
above all by recalling the oracle which once in the time of Tiberius had
been on everybody's lips. It ran thus: "Thrice three hundred years having
run their course of fulfillment, Rome by the strife of her people shall

[Contemporary historians tend to be sceptical about Nero's involvement.
Nevertheless both Suetonius and Cassius both seem to agree on many
facts, which might strengthen any argument for their accuracy. It should
be noted too, however, that both were secondary sources who did not
witness the event themselves, and may have simply shared information
from common primary sources (now lost). If so, this would give the
accounts a great deal of concurrence without necessarily proving that
Nero was responsible.]

Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories, XVII.1.

[1] I would here add, that [these trees] were in existence down to the
period when the Emperor Nero set fire to the City, one hundred and
eighty years after the time of Crassus, being still green and with all
the freshness of youth upon them, had not that prince thought fit to
hasten the death of even the very trees.

[Pliny was a scientist. And though he was involved with politics he
seemed rather stoic in the service of such and during Nero's imperium
kept his writings to the most neutral aspects of rhetoric. He was alive
in 64 A.D. and thus should perhaps be considered a primary source. I
have not been able to discover though whether he was in Rome at the time
of the fire, or what reports he himself may have been given if he was
not. Nevertheless I think it is good to end the narratives with him —
the death of trees, nature, life…]