Did Nero Really Fiddle While Rome Burned?

Authored by Daniel T. Murphy

Today is the anniversary of the great Roman fire of July 19, 64 A.D.  For two millennia the Roman Emperor Nero’s role in the Fire has been debated by ancient and modern historians alike.1  The fire started in the area south of the Palatine Hill near the Circus Maximus and spread along the Palatine to the Esquiline.  A second fire started north of the Capitoline and spread in the direction of the Campus Martius.  In six days the fire destroyed three of Rome’s fourteen regions and damaged seven others.

Did Nero really burn down the city?  We will likely never know for certain.  But, there were probably quite a few Romans who would have wanted to burn the city and start from scratch. Rome was a filthy place in 64 A.D.  Yet, architectural innovations, which had occurred during the years of the Early Empire, offered opportunities for a massive rebuilding of the city.

Rome, before the fire of 64 A.D. during the reign of Nero, was far removed from Martial’s “rus-in-urbe” (rural city).2  Historian J.B. Ward-Perkins said “Archaic Rome had shared with its Etruscan and Italic neighbors the early advantages and subsequent disadvantages of an organic, unplanned growth which made the older quarters of the classical city a byword for all that a city should not be.”3  In fact, due to its haphazard growth over more than eight hundred years, 64 A.D. Rome was probably one of the most disagreeable cities in the Empire.  The streets were crooked, narrow, and unsanitary.  Plutarch described the fire-hazardous neighborhoods of the city and Cicero compared the well-planned Campanian cities like Capua with the terrible roads and narrow alleys of Rome.  Varro described the co-existence of monuments and shanty houses on the Campus Martius.  According to Tacitus, the city’s narrow, winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged the progress of the fire.4

According to tradition, Rome was planned and developed like the Latin colonies founded after the 4th century B.C. (e.g., Alba Fucens, Carseoli, and Fregellae).  Colonists volunteered or were drafted and a forma urbis was drawn.  They dug a mundus and filled it with fruit.  Then they plowed a pomerium around the city perimeter with a bronze plow yoked to a cow and a bull.  The Decumanus Maximus, the Kardo Maximus, and the remaining streets were lined up at right angles.  The process was called centuriation.  Magistrates and augurs were appointed, and a constitution was inscribed in bronze.

In reality, there was probably some simple city-planning in Rome during the expansion of the city under the Etruscan kings and throughout the Republican and early Julio-Claudian period.  However, there is no archaeological evidence supporting centuriation, comprehensive pre-Neronian city-planning, an organized Roma Quadrata, or a circular plan, which is sometimes mentioned in the oral tradition.5

As Romans gained greater exposure to the cities of the East during Late Republican and Early Imperial times, they began using centuriate grid street plans, first in their military camps, and then in their colonies.  According to Frontinus, Romans were exposed to military camp planning during the Pyrrhic wars and that it led to city planning.6  T.G. Tucker contrasted the ad-hoc layout of Rome with Antioch and Alexandria, which “were the creations of monarchs who began with a clear field and a consistent scheme.”7  From the third century B.C. onward, all Roman colonies were regularly laid out on a centuriate grid.8  They had specific commercial, residential and military quarters, and areas designated for the later incorporation of large-scale building programs.9

Romans presumably would have wanted urban life in the capitol to equal if not exceed the cities they had founded and conquered.  Like statesmen throughout history, Roman statesmen wanted their names associated with large-scale building programs like baths, theaters, and markets.  However, it was likely not very easy to purchase land in the over-crowded capitol.  For that reason, they may very well have caused, enhanced the disaster.

Architectural innovations which occurred during the Julio-Claudian Period provided Nero’s administration the capability and initiative for a massive rebuilding of the city after the fire.  The Neronian revolution in city-building included restrictions on building height, employment of fire resistant stone, rules against shared walls and wooden construction, wider and more regular streets, courtyards, and street porticoes.10  Builders developed the insulae (apartment buildings) and tabernae (shops) on a scale much more grandiose, consistent, and attentive to safety than ever before.11  As evidence, archaeologists point to the marble Severan Plan, also called the Forma Urbis (street plan), which shows a commercial quarter depicted, showing regular, colonnaded streets with uniform commercial establishments, street porticoes, and baths.  Nearby is an ad-hoc assemblege of structures and streets, which may reflect a survival from the pre-Neronian era.12  The new trends in architecture can be seen vividly in the archaeological remains of Nero’s Domus Transitoria palace, and even more so, in his Domus Aurea palace.13  The Domus Aurea’s mixture of trees, lawns, lakes, open spaces, architectural innovation, and exotic character was an example of the well-ordered rus-in-urbe that the emperor wanted to share with the Roman people.14

In 69 A.D. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate.  He escaped from the city with four attendants and committed suicide, leaving his rebuilding program to be completed by his successors.15



1. Suetonius, Dio, and Pliny the Elder accused Nero of setting the fire.  Dio 62.16.1; Suet. Nero 38; Pliny NH 17.5; Tac. Ann. 15.37.

2. Martial xii.57.21

3. J.B. Ward-Perkins, Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy: Planning in Classical Antiquity, G. Braziller, NY, 1974.

4. Plut. Crassus; Cic. De lege agraria, 2.96; Varro, On Agr. 3.2.6; Tac. Ann. 15.37

5. See Plut. Romulus 9; Dion. H.1.88; Archaeology indicates Etruscan town plans were equally as ad-hoc.

6. Frontinus, Strat. iv.I.14.

7. T.G. Tucker, Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul, MacMillan, NY, 1910.130; The chessboard pattern of Macedonian cities may have evolved from military camp planning and had its origin in the layout of the cities of Mesopotamia like Babylon, Nineveh, and Asshur: M.S. Briggs, The Architect in History, Oxford, 1929.18.

8. Cf Ward-Perkins, 1974; F. Castagnoli, Orthogonal Town Planning in Antiquity, Cambridge, MA and London, 1972

9. “Quoi qu’il en soit, le plan rectangulaire théorique ne se retrouve que dans un petit nombre de villes Romaines… Mais le plus souvent, la configuaration du terrain, la préexistence d’un establissement indigéne imposaient des servitudes empêchaient de costruire une ville parfaitement régulière.” P. Grimal, La civilisation romaine, Arthaud, Paris, 1960.337.

10. Tac. Ann. 15.43; Dio 62.17.

11. Even with new safety restrictions, the insula was still dark, cramped, noisy, and lacked privacy.  An insula in Rome, alongside the Capitoline has a row of tabernae on the ground level, large apartments with a balcony on the second floor, and small dark apartments on the third and fourth floors. There are no identifiable kitchens or latrines. J. Stambaugh, The Ancient Roman City, Johns-Hopkins, 1988.176-178; See also C. Pavolini, La vita quotidiana a Ostia, Editori Laterza 1986 and Martial 12.57.3-17.

12. G. Carettoni, La pianta marmorea di Roma antica, Rome, 1960.

13. Suet. Nero; A. Böethius, The Golden House of Nero, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1960 and H.P. L’Orange, Domus Aurea, der Sonnenpalast, Oslo, 1942.

14. M. T. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT 1984.139-40.

15. Suet. Nero 49; Dio 63.29

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy 2012.