Jan 23, 2012

The untold secrets behind Rome, Italy, fire July 19, 64

The untold secrets behind Rome, Italy, fire July 19, 64

On July 19, 64, the same date four and a half centuries earlier when the Gauls set fire to Rome, a fire broke out near the Circus Maximus and quickly spread all over the city of Rome. Large numbers of people lived in timber-framed tenements and, in the warmer weather of July, these readily provided the needed fuel for a fire. Over a period of six days, and then after a short lull, bursting into flames again for a further three days, the flames destroyed 70 percent of the city. Many of the most important buildings were destroyed and thousands lost their lives. One archeologist, examining the ground twenty feet below present levels, found nails that were partly melted by the heat before they fell from burning timber. Coins too were found in the same area, remnants of the possessions of the hapless victims that could not escape the fire.

The aristocrats lived on the higher ground of Rome and once a few tenements were ablaze, firestorms swept upward to higher and higher ground and burned their mansions. Experiments by archeologists trying to reconstruct the scene from 64 discovered that temperatures quickly rose beyond a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. This level of heat readily creates a vortex of swirling flames that reach higher and higher in order to find oxygen, to places like Capitoline Hill where the larger homes were. Attempts to put ut the fire were hampered by the terrified cries of the many people who ad nowhere to go. The speed of the flames soon caught up with them as hey ran away from burning buildings. The emperor, Nero, was away in he eastern part of the empire at this time and he quickly returned as soon s news of the tragedy reached him.

Emperor Nero opened the Field of Mars and the Vatican Gardens to efugees and arranged food and shelter for them. Supplies were brought in rom neighboring towns and the price of corn was cut back for a time to a mall fraction of its normal price. Roman society attached great importance o anniversaries of any kind and on this occasion, because it was such a ivid reminder of the earlier malicious attack by the Gauls, the people wondered f this, the worst fire in the history of the city, was an omen of good r a harbinger of evil. In spite of his generosity to survivors, it was not long efore rumors began to circulate that Nero was responsible for all that had appened. Had he started the fire, people asked, in order to make space for nother building he wanted to erect? This kind of thinking was typical of he times. When news was good the ruler is praised. When a disaster occurs, he ruler is blamed. Furthermore, it was generally known that Nero had randiose ideas about the city, wanting to demolish the older tenements in avor of elegant buildings that fitted the greatness of Rome.

Nevertheless, historians were doubtful about Nero’s involvement because is palace was a victim of the fire. This building, the Domus Transitoria as a magnificent structure that stretched from the Palatine Hill o the Esquiline. It was also noted that Nero was in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the fire. Fires were commonplace in Rome. Dozens roke out every day. Roman historian Tacitus was one person who was onvinced that Nero was responsible but many Romans thought it had been riggered accidentally. In the course of the conflagration some people were een to be spreading the fire while others prevented attempts to extinguish t. Was this the work of people acting under orders or were they just looters aking advantage of the chaotic situation? They were neither but rather ere gangs of irresponsible people wandering the streets looking for anything hey could steal. When the fire finally burned out only four of the ity’s fourteen districts had been untouched by the fire. Lost in the flames ere all kinds of art works, both Greek and Roman, and many of the temples ere also destroyed including Vesta and Jupiter Stator.

Fire fighting at the time of Nero was sharply contrasted to everything e know today about fighting fires. The people involved were slaves. They ere the losers in the military campaigns that Roman generals waged round the empire and they were brought back to Rome to serve the city y doing the jobs that no one else wanted. These fire-fighting slaves had een organized into seven groups, each responsible for two of Rome’s districts.
Each group was given buckets for use in case of fire. Whenever they ere called to deal with a fire they formed bucket lines through which ater was passed by hand to the fire where it was squirted on to the flames ith a hand-held device that served this purpose. As soon as the fire topped, Nero closed off the devastated places so that the debris could be emoved. Even those who were owners of homes or renters were prevented rom returning. They had to fend for themselves in areas outside the city, inding food and shelter as best they could, wondering if and where they ight ever again have a place within the city. All of this added to Nero’s lready poor reputation among the lower classes.

As soon as the old sites were cleared, Nero began the reconstruction.
He had a number of triumphal arches erected throughout the city and he ebuilt the temples of Vesta and Jupiter Stator and other places of importance hat had been destroyed. His tendency to be extravagant soon became vident in these new buildings as the new Rome took shape. Each uilding was bigger and more ornate than the one that had been lost in he fire. Nero added a huge arena close to the site of the present Vatican ity. When he came to rebuild his former palace, Domus Transitoria,
Nero’s megalomania became obvious. In the new palace, which he named he Golden House because of all the gold, precious stones, and ivory that t contained, he envisioned an imperial residence, something far beyond he former palace. He added numerous pavilions, each linked to another ith covered walkways, forming a small city within the larger one. Additionally, here were temples, baths, gardens, fountains, and a large artificial ake covering 200 acres that later became the site of the Roman Coliseum.
To top off all this madness Nero had a bronze statue of himself rected close to the palace’s entrance. It stood more than a hundred feet igh and could be seen from any part of Rome.

Whether arson or accident was the explanation for the fire, Nero continued o be suspected so he felt he had to take action to clear his name rom all suspicion of culpability. He singled out the Christians of Rome as he public scapegoats and, in a style very familiar to us today, was able to ecure a few traitors among this group who were willing to confess to the rime. Tacitus described Nero’s choice as choosing the notoriously depraved hristians, a phrase that was frequently used in Rome to identify them.
They were considered cannibals because they spoke of eating the flesh and rinking the blood of their leader and they were described as incestuous ecause of their love for one another. To Tacitus, because the Christians’ eader Christ had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, ontus Pilate, thirty years earlier, it was unthinkable that people would ontinue to be followers of such a criminal. He called their belief a deadly uperstition, one that had broken out in Judea in spite of the death of their eader and had now spread to Rome. Tacitus concluded that all degraded nd shameful practices seem to collect and even flourish in Rome.

In spite of the explanation proposed by Tacitus for selecting the Christians, t is unlikely that Nero was thinking of their beliefs when he lamed them. He just needed to find an unpopular and defenseless group, hich he could blame, and his choice of the Christians was a popular one.
They were seen as enemies of the human race because they were strange nd, therefore, in the popular mind, always liable to behave in strange ays, perhaps stirring up civil strife or causing violent outbreaks. Strangeness s the term that Romans used to define every foreign cult. There was  strong feeling that only the ancestral gods of Rome ought to be worshipped nd the only way to do that was by following traditional procedures.
Any adherence to non-Roman religion was superstition, a label that ould at any time imply crimes. Many of these superstitions successfully urvived in Rome, especially when they happened to be in favor with the uthorities, but safety and survival were never assured things.

The Jews too were considered strange and there were about several housand of them in Rome. They were no more popular than the Christians.
Why then were they not the scapegoats selected by Nero? There ere two reasons for this: first, some Jews had helped the Roman army n one occasion so they inherited a sort of protected status for a long time.
The second reason related to their attempts at revolution in Palestine, hich began to appear during Nero’s reign. The Emperor was anxious to void any action that would make it difficult for the Roman army in Palestine o stamp out these revolts. There was another development that made t easy for Nero to pick on the Christians. For the thirty years following he execution of their leader, Christians in Rome formed part of the Jewish ommunity and attended their synagogues. A few years before the fire, a etter arrived from Paul, the Apostle, in which he defined the sharp differences etween the Jewish ancient religion and the new Christian faith. As  result of this letter, Christians in Rome left the synagogues and met in heir own communities. They had become an identifiable group completely eparate from the Jewish ones.

Thus began the persecution of Christians in Rome, soon to spread hroughout the empire. Hundreds of Roman Christians were arrested and ut to death by Nero in the most cruel and farcical ways imaginable. Many ere dressed in wild animal skins and torn to pieces by dogs. Others were rucified or made into torches to be lit after dark to illuminate Nero’s ardens. It is probable that the two great Christian leaders, Peter and Paul, oth of whom were in Rome at the time of the fire, met their deaths t this time. Tradition indicates that Peter was crucified while Paul was eheaded. So brutal was the treatment of the Christians that people began o feel sorry for them. Romans became convinced that they had nothing o do with the fire and that they were being sacrificed for one man’s mania.
Within four years of the fire Nero would be dead. Following rejection y the army and the Roman Senate he took his own life. His fourteen ears of rule had ended but the persecutions he had inaugurated went on.

Nero’s extremes seemed to spur the growth of Christianity rather than mpede it. Late in the first century, the large numbers of Christians he ncountered everywhere made Emperor Domitian decide to send a team f people to Galilee to find out who Jesus was and how he had attained uch influence among his followers. Domitian’s period of rule was marked ith a series of violent persecutions against any individual or group that as different from the norms of Roman life as he understood it and his horoughness in attacking Christians is a good example of his treatment f enemies. He discovered that Christians consistently refused to adhere o the imperial cult of Caesar worship and this gave him a rationale for aunching a mass execution of Christians wherever he found them. Like ero before him, his hatred of Christians was not based on any particular spect of their beliefs but solely because they did not conform to Romanorms. For this reason they, along with other divisive groups, met terrible ates at the hands of Domitian.

A few years after the death of Domitian, when Trajan was emperor, ome correspondence about Christians between a regional governor and he emperor, gives a good picture of the status of Christians around the ear 100. Trajan, in sharp contrast to Domitian, tended to be sympathetic oward dissident groups but he forbade meetings of secret societies because e thought they might be subversive. This edict, inevitably, clashed ith the behavior of Christians. They were different from all others round them and they knew it. Their leader had been crucified because e did not conform to the society within which he grew up. Their only pportunity for social life was to meet privately.
They knew that they ould get into trouble if they were seen meeting publicly. They posed no hreat whatever to Roman authority. Their apostle Paul had made that ery clear in his letters of instruction. Nevertheless, in the mind of Trajan, ith the empire’s history of rebellions and revolutionaries, secret meetings ere dangerous. It was during Trajan’s reign that a letter came to him rom Pliny, a governor of one of the regions, asking for clarity about his dict concerning secret societies.

Pliny explained in his letter that he had never been present when hristians were being examined about their loyalty to the Roman Empire ut he now was faced with making a decision about some Christians who ad been accused of opposing Roman laws. He went on in his letter to utline the procedure he took in these cases but he felt he needed assurance r correction about it because of his inexperience. The procedure he ad followed in these particular cases was as follows: he asked each individual hether he or she was a Christian. If the answer was yes he repeated he question two more times, adding at each repetition of the question hat serious punishment would follow if the answer continued to be es. Anyone who persisted with yes three times he punished by sending im or her to Rome. In Pliny’s mind, the Christian’s stubbornness and nshakable obstinacy was something that ought to be punished. He added hat he had dismissed those who denied that that they were Christians or ho had left the Christian community provided they repeated after him a ormula of invocation to the gods, made offerings of wine and incense to our statue, and cursed the name of Christ. Pliny knew that real Christians ould never do these things. To make sure that the statements from hose who cursed Christ were accurate Pliny investigated what he called he truth, from two slave women, using torture, but found nothing other han a degenerative cult.

The reply from Trajan was a firm endorsement of what he had done nd it included an interesting double addition: first, Christians must not e hunted down but only questioned when specific charges are brought efore a ruler; second, accusations must not be laid against Christians on he basis of pamphlets that criticize them and are circulated anonymously.
This was an interesting recognition of the many conflicts and isagreements about Christianity that circulated at that time. Trajan’s uccessor, Hadrian, seemed indifferent to Christians although, in all probability, hey became involved in the massive purges that he enacted on ews. If we look farther ahead to the second half of the third century, when arcus Aurelius was emperor, we find a recurrence of the earlier hatreds.
His persecutions of Christians were particularly bloody. Under Emperor
Diocletian, at the beginning of the fourth century, violence against Christians egan again and lasted for a number of years until, with the conversion f the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the official religion f the Roman Empire. Perhaps Constantine had learned that persecution lways adds more Christians rather than diminishes their numbers.

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