July 18, 2022

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome

July 18, 64 AD. When the Great Fire of Rome reduces two-thirds of the city to ashes, Emperor Nero uses the catastrophe as an excuse to persecute a new religious group: the Christians.


Cold Open

It’s March 23rd, 59 AD.  

On a cool, clear night in Ancient Rome, a woman stands on a balcony looking out over the dark city. Agrippina the Younger is the mother of Rome’s Emperor, Nero; and she’s one of the most powerful people in the Roman Empire. As she stares off into the night… Agrippina hears some commotion down below. She peers over the balcony and sees a group of armed centurions aggressively approach the door of her villa. Agrippina immediately recognizes the man leading the group. It's her son Nero’s brutish enforcer, a former slave named Anicetus. Agrippina watches silently as Anicetus, and his henchmen overpower her guards… and barge inside the building. 

Agrippina slowly turns and walks back inside. She knows exactly why Anicetus is here: her son has sent him to kill her.

When Nero first became Emperor, he was still a boy. In his youth, Agrippina served as Nero’s regent. But now that he’s a man, it seems Nero no longer wants his mother telling him what to do.

Agrippina is hardly surprised by her son’s actions. Nero already tried to assassinate her once and failed. Now, he’s sent his slave to finish the job. But Agrippina is a strong woman. She won't run or hide. She will meet her fate with resolve.

Agrippina can hear the screams of her startled maidservants as the centurions force their way through the house. Then… her door flies open, and the intruders storm inside her bed chamber. Agrippina coldly surveys the armed centurions who threaten her.

And after a moment, Anicetus enters the room and strides right up to Agrippina, his expression grim and resolute. Agrippina straightens her back, opens her mouth to speak, but before she can… Anicetus strikes her with the back of his hand. Agrippina falls to the floor, clutching her face. She looks up, her eyes brimming with fury. Anicetus nods to one of the centurions… who steps forward and unsheathes his sword. But before he can strike the fatal blow… the Emperor’s mother lifts up her dress and points to her exposed stomach. Then, in a firm, loud voice, she says: “strike here, for this womb bore Nero.” The centurion nods. He adjusts his grip and rears back his sword.

Emperor Nero is a tyrannical dictator who’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get what he wants. In 59 AD, he had his own mother murdered to preserve his grip on power. In the wake of his mother’s death, Nero sets out to rebuild Rome in his image; to erect glorious marble buildings where ancient wooden structures once stood. But when members of the Roman Senate stand in his way, Nero is left with a decision: submit to the will of the Senators, or once again, go to extraordinary lengths.

Five years after his mother’s murder, a devastating fire destroys two-thirds of Rome, giving Nero the perfect excuse to move forward with his plans.

At the time, many suspect Nero himself started the blaze in order to achieve his goal. But Nero denies any involvement. Instead, he points the finger of blame at a new religious group, one that’s growing in size and influence: the Christians. Soon, Nero will launch a campaign of persecution against the Christians as payback for the Great Fire of Rome, a deadly - and controversial - inferno that first sparked on July 18th, 64 AD.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 18th, 64 AD: The Great Fire of Rome.

Act One: The Fire

It’s early 64 AD in Rome; several months before the blaze. 

Emperor Nero stands before the Roman Senate. He swaggers pontificating and gesticulating, his crimson toga trailing over the senate floor. 

As he addresses the Senators, Nero demands that the Senate agree to his grand construction projects. Nero wants to demolish two-thirds of Rome, and in its place, build a magnificent complex of palaces, gardens, and temples. He hopes to call this complex “Neropolis”. Perplexed murmurs ripple around the room, as the senators exchange hushed words and furtive glances. Most are thinking a similar thought: Nero can’t be serious.  

Although he’s just 27 years old, Nero has been Emperor for over ten years. He has descended from a long line of Roman Emperors. And his life has been a whirlwind of privilege and power. When he became Emperor at the age of sixteen, he was desperate to prove his mettle. When his mother, Agrippina, became too involved in Nero’s affairs, Nero grew concerned that she was undermining him; he took action to eliminate the problem. After Agrippina’s assassination, Nero publicly denied any involvement. But most Romans, including some of these Senators, suspect Nero ordered her brutal killing.

Today, as he proclaims his plans to construct “Neropolis”, many senators are convinced that the power has gone to Nero’s head. In the early years of his reign, Nero made some genuine attempts to govern. He implemented tax reforms and authorized the construction of canals. But now, it seems the Emperor is consumed by vanity and greed. But today, Nero will not get what he wants.

The senators unanimously oppose his scheme to knock down two-thirds of the city. Nero storms out of the senate, his face red with anger, and his fists clenched, already plotting ways to bypass the Senate, and push his agenda through.


It’s several months later on the night of June 18th, 64 AD; across the street from the Circus Maximus – a chariot racing arena in the center of Rome.

A shopkeeper is closing up for the night. He loads his wares into a cart. Then he clambers up into the seat and cracks his whip against the mule’s flea-bitten flank. The mangy animal blinks awake and staggers forward, clattering over cobblestones. 

It’s a hot, dry evening, with a strong wind blowing in from the south. On nights like these, dust storms from Africa sweep across the city, covering Rome in a fine layer of sand. But tonight, the shopkeeper notices something else in the air – smoke.

Soon he is coughing and spluttering, the shopkeeper looks around, confused. Then his heart leaps into his mouth. In just a few moments, he had his back turned, his storefront has been replaced by a wall of flames. Leaping from the cart, the shopkeeper sprints backward toward his store, but it’s too late. All he can do is stand back and watch as his livelihood goes up in smoke.

The fire spreads quickly. Driven by the wind, the flames surge forward, engulfing every building along the street. Rome is a dirty and overcrowded metropolis, consisting largely of slums built of wood. And after months without rain, the city is a tinderbox. People stagger blindly through the streets, choking on the acrid smoke. A few manage to escape. But hundreds more succumb to the flames – their dying screams inaudible over the roar of the all-consuming fire.

While the blaze rages, Emperor Nero sits in his palatial villa in the coastal town of Antium, gazing out the window in deep contemplation. Soon, one of his advisors burst into the room and informs him of what’s happening in Rome. But Nero seems neither troubled nor surprised. He remains stone-faced as he continues staring out into the night.

Eventually, though, Nero learns that the fire is threatening his palace on the Esquiline Hill. Hearing this, Nero departs for Rome. And when he arrives, he finds the city in smoldering ruin. But in the midst of the devastation, he spots an opportunity to curry favor with the people. He generously opens public gardens to the homeless. He lowers the price of corn and brings shipments of food into Rome from neighboring towns.

But these gestures do little to dampen the rumors already swirling – that Nero himself started the fire. Some will go so far as to claim that Nero relished in the destruction, singing a song in his palace as the flames consumed the city; a rumor that will give rise to the myth that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Not long after the fire, Nero resumes his push to rebuild, and remake Rome in his image. But while many cry conspiracy, Nero continues to deny any involvement. Instead, he will pin the blame for the fire on a vulnerable religious minority, a group that will suffer terribly as a result of Nero’s accusations: the Christians. 

Act Two: Persecution

It’s July 64 AD; a few days after the Great Fire of Rome.

A Roman Senator named Publius listens to Emperor Nero deliver another address to the Senate. Publius thinks Nero seems twitchy and nervous. His watery blue eyes dart around the room, scrutinizing the Senators’ faces. Publius and his fellow Senators are usually cautious when criticizing Nero. But today, they stare at him with open distrust. 

After six days and six nights, the Great Fire of Rome has finally stopped burning. Over two-thirds of the city has been razed to the ground, with majority of the destruction contained to Rome’s sprawling slums. Now, Nero stands before the Senate lamenting this great tragedy. But he reminds the Senators that there is a silver lining. They can begin rebuilding Rome immediately; and this new Rome will be better than before; palaces, gardens, and fountains where the slums once stood; a true testament to Nero’s greatness.

Publius glowers venomously from his seat. He – and many other Senators – suspect Nero started the fire to clear space for this “Neropolis”. Publius knows Nero ordered the killing of his own mother. He doesn’t think it’s a stretch to imagine he’d burn down the city to get his way.

But Nero has an alternative theory. Today, on the Senate floor, Nero loudly declares that he knows exactly who started the fire. There’s an audible intake of breath as the Senators lean forward in their seats. Nero announces that the blaze was started by Christians – members of a controversial new religious movement that has been gathering steam throughout the Roman Empire.

Christianity sprang up in present-day Israel and is based on the teachings of a Jewish prophet named Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus was executed by Roman authorities around 30 years ago. But his disciples have been spreading Christianity across the Roman world ever since.

Romans subscribe to a polytheistic religion – they worship multiple gods. But Christianity is monotheistic – proclaiming that only one god exists. Many Romans don't take kindly to monotheism, because it contradicts their own faith. And they believe the Christians are nothing more than a mischievous cult promoting a dangerous idea. In Rome, the small community of Christians has already been ostracized by the majority of the population. But the leaders of this community are two of Jesus’s most loyal disciples, Peter and Paul.

Despite the hostility they face, Peter and Paul continue to preach the gospel, diligently spreading the teachings of Jesus. But unbeknownst to them, a new wave of anti-Christian fervor is about to sweep Rome. 

Upon Nero’s orders, members of the Praetorian Guard spread out across the city and begin arresting Christians.

Soon, the guards arrive at the home of the apostle Paul and drag him to the Mamertine Prison – a jail on the Capitoline Hill. Paul is thrown inside a cell where his fellow apostle, Peter, is already being held. The two disciples fall to their knees and pray for the safety of Rome’s Christians.

Terrible rumors have been spreading about Nero’s sadistic treatment of his Christian prisoners. Allegedly, he uses their bodies as human torches to light his outdoor banquets; he covers them in animal skin and feeds them to his dogs; he throws them to the lions in the Colosseum, laughing as the wild beasts tear them limb from limb. Whether or not these rumors are true, they eventually reach the ears of Peter and Paul, who are being kept alive in the dungeons of the Mamertine Prison, left to contemplate their impending doom.

Eventually, the two apostles are removed from the prison and taken to different parts of the city. Peter is dragged to the Vatican Hill, where he is nailed upside down to a crucifix. Meanwhile, Paul is taken to a location south of the city. Guards lash his wrists to a wooden post, and an executioner steps forward with a raised sword. Paul looks to the heavens and murmurs a silent prayer before the blade comes crashing down.

Following their deaths, Peter and Paul will become martyrs. The locations of their executions will become pilgrimage sites for Christians throughout the centuries. But for the rest of Rome’s Christians, they will continue to be rounded up, until the city has been purged of what Nero considers a troublesome religious cult. 

Meanwhile, Nero will proceed with the construction of his extravagant imperial complex, with statues of himself rising from the ashes of a flamed, ravaged city. But ultimately, none of this will help Nero cling to power. Within four years, a revolt against Nero’s tyrannical regime will topple the Emperor, spelling the dawn of a new era – and the end of an imperial dynasty.

Act Three: Revolt

It’s June 9th, 68 AD in Rome; four years after the Great Fire.

Emperor Nero paces around his palace, ranting and raving like a madman. He flails his limbs, knocking over vases and sending ornaments crashing to the floor. His eyes are bloodshot and unblinking. His red hair lank with sweat.

Over the last four years, Nero’s popularity has steeply declined. To fund his expensive building projects, the Emperor raised taxes on all citizens. This unpopular measure joined the growing list of grievances against him – including the rumors that he started the Great Fire of Rome.

And a few weeks ago, one of Nero’s top officials led an uprising against the Emperor. Galba is a governor of the Roman province of Hispania. He declared to his cheering followers that he’s no longer loyal to Nero – but to the Senate and to the People they represent.

Soon after, Galba assembled an army and marched on Rome. When he arrived at the city gates, he was greeted as a savior by the masses. Meanwhile, Nero retreated behind the walls of his palace, where only his own personal security detail – the Praetorian Guard – remain loyal.

Now, Nero cowers inside his palace, becoming increasingly agitated and incoherent. Eventually, a servant rushes in and tells the Emperor that even the Praetorian Guard has turned against him. 

Hearing this, Nero stops raving just long enough to hear the distant sound of Galba’s forces storming the palace gates. He removes his dagger from its sheath and brings it to his own neck. Next, the Emperor murmurs: “what an artist the world is losing in me!”. He drags the blade across his throat. 

Emperor Nero will be remembered as a sadistic despot, whose thirteen-year reign was characterized by scandal, decadence, and cruelty. In recent years, however, scholars have argued that Nero was perhaps not as cruel as ancient historians suggested. Many of the sources upon which we base our evaluations of Nero came after his death, when contemporary chroniclers may have wanted to discredit Nero in favor of the new Emperor. Whatever the truth, mysteries will continue to swirl around Nero even two thousand years after his death; and rumors will linger over his involvement in the Great Fire of Rome, which started on June 18th, 64 AD.


Next on History Daily. July 19th, 1941. The famous Tuskegee Airmen begin their training as the first class of Black pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.