BMCR 2020.07.06

The great fire of Rome: life and death in the ancient city

Joseph J. Walsh, The great fire of Rome: life and death in the ancient city. Witness to ancient history . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. 174 p.. ISBN 9781421433714 $19.95 (pb).


Readers of BMCR will have no trouble recognizing the focus of this book, the great fire that, in July of AD 64, broke out in the valley of the Circus Maximus in Rome, spread rapidly, and over the course of nine days destroyed a good part of the city. We know about the fire from Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and scattered references in other authors, as well as from archaeological evidence and a few inscriptions. In the five fast-paced chapters of this book, Joseph Walsh gathers and assesses the evidence, assembles a history of the fire and its consequences, and sets out those materials in a way that will be useful for classicists and readily comprehensible to non-classicists.

Walsh arranges his material chronologically. First, he describes the nature of life in Rome, the city’s crowded streets, packed dwellings, and consequent dangers (Chapter 1). Chapter 2, “Inferno,” is primarily an attempt to trace the path(s) of the fire and to depict the pandemonium as people tried to resist it or flee. Nero appears, quickly taking center stage: there is no fiddle here, but Nero dresses for the stage and, while the fire rages on, sings of the fall of Troy. In Chapter 3, we turn to events after the fire.  A massive cleanup can be assumed, but we soon move on to the big question: did Nero start the fire? Walsh presents arguments for and against in agonistic fashion, alternating between “Prosecution” and “Defense.” In the end, he is agnostic: “no judgment can be made.” But others could be, and were, suspected: the Christians, whom Nero managed to turn into scapegoats. Chapter 4 deals with the rebuilding of Rome, focusing primarily on Nero’s plans for a new, rebuilt, city, and above all his new palace, the Domus Aurea. And finally, in Chapter 5, we turn to longer-term consequences of the fire, from the building projects of the Flavian and later emperors to the persecution of Christians, martyrdoms, and the location of martyrs’ tombs. Walsh’s basic narrative is supported by endnotes, three maps of the fire, two appendices (“Sources” and “Proposed Timeline of the Great Fire”), and suggestions for further reading (not a formal bibliography).

Various thematic elements run through all or most of the chapters, coming into view from time to time, then disappearing for some or many pages. We may take a look at the obvious ones.

First, the fire itself. There are three principal descriptions of the fire: in the Prologue; most of Chapter 2, “Inferno”; and Appendix B, a timeline of the fire. In reconstructing the path of the fire and the timeline, Walsh has wisely relied on the careful work of Clementina Panella.[1] In describing the scenes on the streets, as people reacted to the flames and their danger, he adopts the metaphorical language of Tacitus—above all, the fire as a hungry beast—to create a dramatic but credible narrative. The maps Walsh provides are clear, but it would be useful to have a catalog of the places in Rome where archaeologists have uncovered traces or hints of the fire,[2] and to have those places indicated on the maps. They would help establish the extent of the fire, though not its development through time.

Every bit as pervasive as the fire itself is Nero. In Walsh’s book, he appears first within the description of the fire in Chapter 2, and once introduced he is never far from the action for long. Walsh surveys Nero’s new regulations that were intended to mitigate the damage of the fire and protect against future fires, and then turns to a consideration of the charges made against Nero. Some thought he was responsible for the fire. When the Christians instead were blamed and then executed in grotesque ways, Nero was closely involved, dressing as a charioteer and strolling about. Walsh argues that Nero’s actions were intended as performance—a spectaculum—and that they conveyed Nero’s conception of life as performance.

A third recurring element, the “Great Fire’s extraordinary aftermath and legacy” (p. 1), provides the subject matter for the final three chapters. Many aspects of that legacy are, not surprisingly, associated directly with Nero. It was he who conceived of a “new Rome,” which Suetonius tells us was to be called Neropolis. This new city would include rational city planning, new rules and structures, and, above all, the Domus Aurea, a new palace for the emperor. Walsh provides a useful summary of what we know of this palace, including relatively recent excavations, and links its various parts to Nero’s known tastes; it provided a fitting stage for the emperor’s performative life. It was also Nero who shifted the blame for the fire from himself and onto the Christian community in Rome, and that in turn set in motion a series of events that by now constitute a very substantial legacy.

Walsh identifies several long-term aspects of the aftermath of the fire. Subsequent emperors took advantage of the open space created by the fire to raise their own structures, including the Colosseum, the Temple of Peace, the Baths of Titus (not mentioned by Walsh), and the Baths of Trajan.[3] Walsh tackles the vexed question of the legal basis of the execution of Christians in the time of Nero; this seems to result in another verdict of uncertainty, but the Neronian executions certainly provided precedents—a legacy—for subsequent persecutions. Within the context of church history, Walsh argues that these Neronian and later executions produced martyrs; that the reverence for martyrs led to veneration of the places of martyrs’ executions; and that such veneration led, among other things, to the siting of St. Peter’s basilica on the spot where Peter was crucified. None of this is surprising, but Walsh here provides a clear summary of the controversies involved, and of the relevant modern scholarship.

It is worthwhile to recall Walsh’s subtitle: “Life and Death in the Ancient City.” While his focus is clearly on the fire, aspects of ordinary life appear again and again. All of Chapter 1 serves as a brief introduction to the daily life of the Romans. The reader is introduced to floods and fires, collapsing buildings, loud noises and offensive odors, but also to spectacles and shows, races and art. Mythological references appear: Aeneas, Actaeon, Apollo, and the Danaids in their portico. So do theaters, amphitheaters, and the performances in them; the low social standing of actors; five venerable structures that were associated with the origins of Rome and its earlier greatness, but were destroyed in the fire; Livy’s “Preface”; and shops, shopkeepers, and ordinary people. Most of these topics emerge from and are relevant to the narrative of the fire and Nero’s actions, but Walsh is willing to digress and set things in broader contexts where necessary. Occasionally, he introduces an unjustifiable generalization, as on page 19, where he states, “Apparently, Romans poisoned each other at an alarming rate,” but in general his facts are reliable.

Prior to March of 2020, it would have been possible to read about the great fire with a certain degree of detachment, looking at it as an event that affected other people, in other times and places. The coronavirus crisis has to some extent changed that, as Walsh’s book makes clear. Here and there the reader of this book, one who lived through the virus months, will find disquieting similarities in the two crises, echoes back and forth between the two disasters. Such reminiscences were not designed by Walsh, who published the book months before the coronavirus crisis began. Rather, they are inherent in the nature of disasters and the human reactions to them. Readers will have their own personal reactions; in the aggregate, these reminiscences will deepen the reader’s understanding of both Walsh’s text and the event, and will encourage the reader’s empathy for those caught in the great fire. The fire thus has yet another distant legacy.

The Great Fire of Rome is not a work of original scholarship addressed to specialists. It does not make available new materials or sources. It lacks a conventional bibliography, although Walsh is fully aware of, and employs, much recent scholarship. It is, however, a useful and balanced account of the fire of AD 64 and its consequences. Walsh’s prose style is clear, his tone light. He likes to introduce contemporary references.[4] I can imagine this book being used to good effect in college-level history courses, where Walsh’s interest in and assessment of sources would illustrate methodology and encourage careful analysis. The book will also serve as a handy introduction to the great fire and to the secondary literature on it.


[1] “Nerone e il grande incendio del 64 D.C.,” in Nerone, edited by M.A. Tomei and R. Rea (Electa, 2011), 79-91.

[2] For a preliminary such list, see Panella, “Nerone e il grande incendio,” 84.

[3] Less well known are a series of altars to Vulcan, vowed by Nero but not built and dedicated until the time of Domitian.  For these, see V. Closs, “Neronianis Temporibus: the So-Called ‘Arae Incendii Neroniani’ and the Fire of A.D. 64 in Rome’s Monumental Landscape,” JRS 106 (2016) 102-123. Walsh chose not to discuss these altars, but provided a reference, p. 158, n.1.

[4] We learn, for example, that the father of Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd fame) died at Anzio in World War Two (144, n. 25).