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Rome and the Great Fire of 64 AD

On the night of July 18 64 AD (where it is listed on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History) a fire erupted in the commercial section in Rome. The wind was strong then, and the blaze rapidly broadened all over the dried out, wooden buildings of the city. It grew increasingly more out of control and raged a devastating destruction for 6 days. By the time the fire was extinguished, 70% of the city was gone.

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Christian_Persecution_in_Rome
‘The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.’

The historian Tacitus was present when the tragedy occurred. His has written about the occasion and is quoted as follows: “Now started the most terrible and destructive fire that Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure.

The ancient city’s narrow winding streets, and irregular blocks encouraged its progress. Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before t hem or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may have just wanted to plunder unhampered.

Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. The food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. These measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.”

Scapegoat

To quell those accusing Nero of the fire, the emperor turned on the Christians for blame to appease the devastated citizens. He took the people he could accuse and gave them to the lions at huge gatherings in what was left of Rome’s Arena.

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