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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 27, No. 4 (January 1932), 270‑288.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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p270 Conflagrations in Ancient Rome
By H. V. Canter
University of Illinois

In reading the Roman historians one comes upon numerous references to fires and losses by fire in ancient Rome,1 not only such as are to be expected in the ordinary course of an ancient city's life but conflagrations of very serious consequences, which devastated great areas and involved the partial or total loss of houses, tenements, markets, granaries, storehouses, and splendid public buildings. That fires should have been frequent, indeed of daily occurrence, in ancient Rome, with its narrow, winding alleys and streets, with its closely set, unsubstantial houses and tenements constructed in large part of easily inflammable materials, and without sufficient facilities for promptly checking an outbreak of fire or for successfully combating it once under way, is easily understood. But when we read of fires that wiped out great public structures, these often built throughout of supposedly durable materials and ornamented not less durably with marble and bronze (hence seemingly not an easy prey to flames), in particular when we stand today before their ruins, great masses of concrete, p271brick, and stone that seem to defy even time itself, we are tempted to reject not only positive information to that effect but even the idea that fire could seriously damage (much less destroy) such buildings. Yet the fact remains that Rome suffered again and again from conflagrations that did either consume or ruin them and laid in ashes entire districts of the city. Fire as a destroying agent was in fact far more potent in Rome than the dismantling and disintegrating forces of time and the elements, than the barbarity and wanton violence of man. Indeed it may well be doubted whether any city has ever been so often and so thoroughly devastated by fire as was ancient Rome.

We shall return to the matter of this city's narrow streets, to the kind and height of its buildings and their close proximity, to the building materials used and to the city's storage and warehouse conditions, all of which were factors in making risk by fire an extra-hazardous one. Meanwhile consideration will be given to Rome's more serious conflagrations and their results, to those about which our sources give information, which is usually definite and is believed to be trustworthy. During the Republic we come first to the destructive fire following the capture of Rome by the Gauls in 390. To this the Romans themselves, as they looked back, attached great importance, as they did also to the staggering catastrophe by fire in Nero's reign. Each of these conflagrations was said (but with considerable exaggeration) to have wholly destroyed an old Rome and to have been followed by the construction of a completely new one. But we know that the city was not completely destroyed. Of course many of the houses, which in 390 B.C. were small and built of wood or mud and osier, and with thatched roofs, were burned. The Roman Forum and the Comitium were laid waste, the porticoes and shops bordering the Forum were burned, many of the early monuments situated in the Forum perished, and the pontifical records, together with precious documents recorded on bronze and stone, were also for the most part destroyed.

In the Gallic conflagration destruction overtook the original hut of wattles built by Numa as a shrine for the sacred fire p272watched by the Vestal Virgins. Its successor, the temple of Vesta, was destroyed by fire in 241, when Caecilius Metellus, the high priest, rescued at the cost of his sight (Pliny, Historia Naturalis VII.141; Valerius Maximus I.4.5) the Palladium said to have been brought by Aeneas from Troy. In 213 a disastrous fire raged unrestrained for two nights and a day, burning everything to the ground between the Salinae (warehouses for salt situated between the Aventine and the Tiber) and the Carmental gate (at the southwest corner of the Capitoline), and extending its destructive path northerly to the edge of the Forum. Thus this fire swept the entire region of the Forum Boarium (cattle market); it also destroyed the temple of Spes in the Forum Holitorium (the vegetable market between the Capitoline and the Tiber), and the still more venerable temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta, both ascribed by tradition to Servius Tullius.

Three years later, in 210, a great conflagration raged on the north and south sides of the Forum. By it the shops and many private houses around the Forum, the fish market (behind the shops and north of the Forum), the buildings of the Lautumiae (a stone-quarry district on the east slope of the Capitoline), and the residence of the high priest (atrium regium) were reduced to ashes, while the temple of Vesta was saved with difficulty by the courageous exertions of thirteen slaves. Another extensive fire occurred in 203, when the houses of the thickly built up Clivus Publicius were burned to the ground, a street which began at the west end of the Circus Maximus and extended in a southerly direction across the Aventine. In 192 the congested area of the Forum Boarium was again burned over. This fire, attended with the loss of many lives, lasted for a day and a night, during which all the buildings along the Tiber were ablaze and numerous storehouses with their valuable merchandise were reduced to smoldering ruins.

A temple to Venus, which stood somewhere near the Forum, was totally destroyed by fire in 178. A like fate is known to have overtaken the Regia in 148, although details are wanting. The famous temple of Magna Mater, erected on the Palatine some p273time after 204 when the Romans introduced her worship from Asia Minor, was burned in 111. In 83, during the wars between Marius and Sulla, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was burned to its foundations. Civil strife was again responsible for a destructive fire in 52, when the partisans of the notorious Clodius carried his body to the Comitium and burned it on a funeral pyre, for which the seats and benches of senators and judges supplied abundant material. The flames enveloped the Curia Hostilia (the original senate house, but restored and enlarged by Sulla), which was entirely consumed, and also destroyed the Basilica Porcia (the first of its type in Rome, built by M. Porcius Cato in 184), probably totally, since it is not later mentioned. Finally, we come to the last two fires of importance during the time of the Republic; one occurred in 49, when the temple of Quirinus (on the Quirinal) was struck by lightning and much injured if not wholly destroyed, and the other in 36, when the Regia was a second time prey to flames.

During the period under discussion there are reliable records of fifteen fires, of which seven were widespread conflagrations, while seven others involved certain loss of at least one important public building. Remembering that our sources are limited, particularly for the early part of the period, and that ancient writers almost invariably confine their accounts of fire to those involving only the more important structures, we may safely conclude that the figures given fall well below the actual occurrences of fires which were considerable in extent and of serious consequences. Those noted were confined practically to two limited areas, the congested industrial and commercial quarter along the Tiber and the district immediately surrounding the Forum.

As we shall see, the great fires of the Empire had in general like causes; and they too were most frequent in particular quarters of the city, the Circus Maximus, the Roman Forum, the Sacra Via, and the Campus Martius, precisely those parts of the city where the hazard of fires was at a maximum. Authentic sources for the last half of the empire are scanty, and doubtless many p274important fires occurred of which no information has come down to us. Even so, we can say that in the imperial period destructive fires in Rome were far more numerous than in that of the Republic. This was due to the fact that a greatly increased population, larger supplies of food and clothing necessary for its maintenance, and an inevitable increase in homes, tenements, shops, and warehouses necessary for domestic and business life, produced still greater congestion in certain already overpopulated quarters, a condition which, as affecting fire risk, was not adequately offset by improved building, either in plans or materials used, or by facilities sufficient for checking and extinguishing fires.

At the very beginning of Augustus' reign (within which period there were nine fires), in the year 31, Rome was swept by an angry fire caused, it was believed, by freedmen as a riotous protest against a tax assessment of one-eighth of their property in excess of a certain sum. It broke out in the Circus Maximus, consumed a great portion of this structure, the temple of Ceres (on the adjoining Aventine), the temple of Spes, and a large number of other buildings. In the destruction of the temple of Ceres there were lost the bronze statues of Ceres, Liber, and Libera, as well as most of the other precious works of sculptors and painters with which the building was adorned. There is little doubt that the whole of the Forum Holitorium was destroyed, including the temple of Janus in this forum, built by the naval hero C. Duilius after his victory over the Carthaginians at Mylae in 260. At least three other devastating fires occurred under Augustus' rule. That of the year 14, in the Forum, burned the Basilica Aemilia, from which the flames spread to the temple of Vesta. This conflagration, it is thought, destroyed also the temple of Castor (wholly rebuilt by Tiberius) and the Basilica Julia, which was rebuilt in an enlarged form by Augustus and rededicated in the names of his grandsons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar. In 12 B.C. we hear of another disaster by fire (the exact location is not known) when many buildings of the city were laid in ruins, among them the famous hut of Romulus. Probably these buildings lay in the main on the north side of the Palatine near the p275Forum, since we have a statement that preceding the year 7 B.C. many structures around the Forum had been burned. The fire of A.D. 6 is said to have destroyed much of the city, but it also is indefinite as to location. But that it was disastrous is evident from the fact that Augustus immediately reorganized the combined police and fire service performed by the vigiles or night watchmen (see below).

Five fires are recorded for the reign of Tiberius, of which two deserve special mention. One of extraordinary fury in the year 27 ravaged the entire Caelian hill, thickly covered with palaces, houses, and high tenement buildings. Temples on this hill were not numerous, and if any were destroyed there is no mention of that fact. But the damage to private property was so serious that Tiberius made good the losses of owners of blocks of houses. Another fire, in 36, burned the long side of the Circus Maximus facing the Aventine and then spread to the Aventine itself. Some idea of the magnitude of this disaster may be gained from the fact that also to these sufferers Tiberius contributed liberally, donating the large sum of one hundred million sesterces.

One conflagration of major proportions marks the time of Claudius. In 54 the Aemiliana district (in the southern part of the Campus Martius) was leveled by a stubborn fire which lasted for at least a day and two nights. The emperor, when the regular firemen augmented by a body of his own slaves were unable to cope with the flames, summoned the common people from all parts of the city to assist the fire fighters, and paid on the spot each helper so enlisted a suitable remuneration for his service. In this same conflagration was burned (and apparently never rebuilt) the temple of Felicitas, in or near the Forum Boarium. It was in front of this temple, embellished with statues of the Muses by Praxiteles and by other works of art, that Julius Caesar had the misfortune to break the axle of his chariot when celebrating his triumph in 46 B.C.

There is an enormous literature covering various and much disputed aspects of the terrible conflagration of Nero's reign, which took place in the year 64. Suffice it to say that in extent p276and destructiveness it is to be numbered among the great conflagrations of history and that it continued at least through six days and seven nights. This fire, beginning at the east end of the Circus Maximus, devastated the whole of the Circus valley, the Forum Boarium, and the Velabrum (low ground between the northwest side of the Palatine and the Capitoline), and in its course swept bare the slopes of the Caelian, Aventine, Capitoline, and Palatine hills. Crossing the Velia the flames reached the Esquiline, where their fury was stayed by the demolition of great masses of buildings, only to break out in the Campus Martius. Of the fourteen regions of the city this conflagration spared only that centering in the Forum (although just east of the Forum the Regia, the temple of Vesta, and the house of the Vestals were badly damaged) and four outlying ones. Three districts were totally destroyed and the remaining six more or less badly injured. There is doubtless exaggeration in the statement that nothing of these remained save a few fragments of half-burned houses, as there certainly is in the assertion that four thousand insulae were consumed. Information is lacking as to all the historic monuments that perished, although it is certain that they were many and that they included some of the oldest and most sacred. There is no doubt also that numberless masterpieces of Greek art were destroyed, whose loss was ever a source of lament, although a more splendid city arose above the ruins of the old one.

Under the Emperor Titus Rome was subjected to a violent conflagration, second in importance only to that just described. In the year 80 flames raged for three days and nights, burned a large section of the Campus Martius, and, moving thence in a southeasterly direction, devastated the Capitoline hill. Dio Cassius (LXVI.24), for naming eleven structures that were consumed (including the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus with its surrounding temples), ads: "anyone can estimate from the list of buildings that I have given how many others must have been destroyed." It is probable that at least five additional important public buildings were in whole or in part destroyed by this same fire. Naturally, too, a large number of public and private buildings of p277secondary importance wedged in among the principal ones were swept away at this time.

There were two disasters by fire in the time of Commodus. The first came in 189 when the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, set on fire by lightning, was at least partially burned, as was also the Capitoline library, of which, however, nothing further is known than that it perished at this time. The other fire, in 191, was a frightful conflagration that broke out at night in a private dwelling near the temple of Peace (in the center of the Forum Pacis, north of the Basilica Aemilia), destroyed this temple, devastated the near-by temple of Sacra Urbs, and consumed the horrea piperataria (warehouses filled with costly spices), standing on or near the Sacra Via, where later arose the huge Constantine basilica. The flames in crossing the Velia to the Palatine destroyed almost entirely the temple of Vesta, and severely damaged the house of the Vestals, from which the sacred attendants fled to the Palatine, taking with them the Palladium, then probably for the first time seen by profane eyes. But this was not all. The flames, borne aloft to the Palatine, burned the library established by Augustus in the temple of Apollo, the most magnificent of Augustus' buildings. The imperial palace also was in great part consumed, with the loss of nearly all state records.

The reign of Carus also is marked by two important fires, both of the year 283. One burned the theater of Pompey (the first permanent structure of its kind in Rome), following three other disasters to it by fire, in A.D. 21, 80, and 247. It also destroyed the adjoining portico of Pompey (intended to protect spectators in case of rain), an exedra within which constituted the curia of Pompey, where, "even at the foot of Pompey's statue, which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell." The other fire of the year 283 was of much greater violence and extent. It raged from one end of the Sacra Via to the other, devastated the Forum Julium, and destroyed wholly or partially seven, perhaps a greater number, of the city's great public monuments.

The period of the Empire embraced in this discussion begins in 31 B.C. with the sole rule of Augustus and extends to about A.D. p278425. No account is taken of lesser fires, to which there are references here and there,2 but ample illustration has been given of Rome's great fires, of their frequency, and of their appallingly destructive character. Even so, this by no means tells the whole story. Reckoning only fires of major importance, and of these only such as rest on indubitable authority, the total number is forty-four. In four instances no details are at hand as to the exact location of the fire. Of the fourteen regions into which Augustus divided Rome in 7 B.C., only Regio I (Porta Capena) and Regio XIV (Trans Tiberim) are unrepresented; there is one occurrence each in V (Esquiliae) and VII (Via Lata, name of the southern end of the Via Flaminia); two each in III (Isis et Serapis, the Colosseum valley, and southern spur of the Esquiline), VI (Alta Semita, named for a street crossing the Quirinal), XII (Piscina Publica, so named for a pool near the baths of Caracalla), and XIII (Aventinus); three in II (Caelimontium) and XI (Circus Maximus); four in IV (Templum Pacis); eight in X (Palatium); nine in IX (Circus Flaminius, including the Campus Martius); and fourteen in VIII (Forum Romanum, with the imperial fora and the Capitoline).

The suffering of individual buildings from fire is a good indication of the fate that overtook buildings in general from this devastating agency. From Rome's early period down to the late p279Empire fire was responsible for the destruction, wholly or partially, of the temple of Vesta five times; the Regia and the theater of Pompey at least four times; the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the Basilica Julia, and the Basilica Aemilia thrice; the theater of Marcellus, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum twice. On the other hand, the picture of havoc wrought by fire through the centuries of Rome's history has its other side. Fires have given in all ages the incentive and the opportunity for rebuilding on a better scale. The great conflagrations which swept over Rome led to its gradual improvement from both a sanitary and an aesthetic point of view. Following the Gallic fire the city sprang up again in every way better than before. The irregular, apparently haphazard, plan of later Rome, with little or no consideration for straight lines or open space between buildings, was even in antiquity ascribed to the haste with which the city had been rebuilt after its destruction in the Gallic disaster. But the irregular reconstruction of the city, with its overcrowded areas, was dependent upon the nature of the terrain and the conditions of settlement rather than upon careless and hasty rebuilding. The fire of 210 led to the erection of magnificent new buildings in the Forum, although it was not possible to do much in the way of reconstruction until after the close of the second Punic war in 201. Another opportunity to rebuild most of the Forum came to the dictator Sulla after the fire of 83. The celebrated boast of Augustus that he had left Rome a city of marble was made possible and relatively true by the repeated purification by fire of a city that was congested, crude, tumbling down, and covered with structures built largely of inflammable materials. The conflagration of Claudius' reign changed the character of the Caelian hill from that of a tenement district to one covered principally by the palaces of the wealthy, with their beautiful gardens and attractive surroundings. After the fire of Nero's reign (persistent tradition ascribed it to Nero, that he might carry out ambitious building plans), streets were widened and levels were raised, limitations were set to wooden buildings and to the number of their stories. The Flavian emperors in many ways made an p280enviable record as builders. The passion of Domitian and his successors for building, following the fire of Titus' reign, found in the south and middle parts of the Campus Martius a rich field for its activity, which set their contemporaries and later generations in wonder and amazement. No better illustration of the importance of fires as affecting the architectural history of Rome under the emperors can be cited than in the changes caused in the Forum by this means. Four times within the period from Nero to Diocletian this center of the city was laid waste by flames and was as many times rebuilt with structures changed in varying degrees both in plan and in orientation.

The immediate cause of some of the destructive fires in Rome (e.g. those of A.D. 80 and 283) was never ascertainable, as is not infrequently true in the case of fires in large cities today. Doubtless, however, they were mostly due to sheer accident or to the incautious handling of fire in domestic uses and in small manufacturing plants. The Gauls, of course, deliberately set fire to the city following its capture. Occasionally fires were an accompaniment of civil strife, as in 52 B.C. between the forces of Clodius and Milo, or in A.D. 69 when the followers of Vitellius burned the temple of Capitoline Jupiter, or again in 237 when a struggle between people and the praetorians became so violent that a considerable section of the city was leveled to the ground. To some extent Rome was the victim of deliberate devastation by fire when its captured by Alaric in 410, as it was also more than six centuries later when at the mercy of Robert Guiscard.

Incidental reference has already been made to fires affecting private property, which were believed to have been the work of an incendiary. To ten fires of greater or lesser importance (no attempt has been made to obtain a complete list) the historians ascribe such an origin. The most famous case is that of Nero's reign, about which much has been written but with little certainty withal as to conclusions. The words of Tacitus (Annales XV.38.1) are just as true in our day as they were in his: Clades, forte an dolo principis incertum, nam utrumque auctores prodidere.

In more than thirty instances lightning is mentioned as having p281struck prominent objects at Rome, followed sometimes by flames that did serious damage. Among the more important public structures so injured were the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Colosseum, thrice; the temple of Quirinus, the temple of Salus, and that of Ceres, twice; the Pantheon, the home of Augustus, the Atrium Publicum (on the Capitoline), and numerous temples, such as those of Juno Lucina, Spes, Ops, Penates Dei, Pietas, Pax, Luna, and Jupiter Victor, once each. One cannot read the references to fire originating from lightning without reaching the conclusion that the thunderbolt in ancient Rome, either because of climatic conditions which are no longer operative or from some other cause not easily discoverable, was at once more frequent and more destructive than it is today.

The ultimate causes of fires at Rome, certainly of their wide range and destructive character, are clear enough. They are to be found in the materials used in construction (particularly in the earlier centuries), in the negligent methods of building, in badly congested residence and business areas, and in the numerous warehouses and granaries situated in densely populated sections and stored with inflammable material such as oil, grain, wool, wood, and lumber. These conditions deprived the ancient city of anything approaching the immunity from fire enjoyed by the modern capital. In the time of early republic Rome was little more than a country town, with its closely huddled huts and shops constructed mostly of primitive clay and osiers or of clay and wood and thatched with straw. Even the better private buildings were of wood and sun-dried bricks (lateres crudi), with sloping roofs of wood, shingles for roofing being in general use as late as the war with Pyrrhus (280 B.C.). The early temples were of roughly shaped blocks of stone, with upper parts of wood and with shingle roofs. In the city of Cato's time the houses were still generally built of wood and lateres crudi, the upper part in particular being constructed of timber framing filled in with plaited osiers and covered with mud and stucco, the so‑called "wattle and daub," whose invention Vitruvius (II.8.20) regretted because it seemed to him "made to catch fire like torches." p282Following this period the use of stone and tiles began, but it is probable that during the greater part of the Republic the majority of private houses were made of flimsy and easily combustible materials. Strabo (V.3.7), writing in the age of Augustus, remarks that for the city's enormous increase there was at hand an abundance of wood for ceaseless building, made necessary by the falling down of houses and also by their destruction by fire. Materials less easily combustible were increasingly used from the beginning of Augustus' reign, especially for the more important public structures, whose facings were of stone. But the burning a wood roof was sufficient to destroy or at least severely injure buildings in which the other parts were more or less fireproof. And as for private buildings, well into the second century houses and tenements were generally of wood, many of them of unsubstantial and even dangerous construction. Juvenal (III.8 and 193‑97) tells us of the constant peril to life at Rome from houses tumbling down and houses propped up with wood and ready to collapse on account of structural weakness.

Despite the inference from existing remains, we must reject the notion that Rome's great public buildings were fireproof. Indeed from the frequency and extent of their injury by fire there must have been more wood in their construction than one would have expected to find. To take a few examples: The original temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, burned to the ground in 83 B.C., was of Etruscan architecture, low and heavy, nearly as broad as long (its great breadth being due to the admission of Juno and Minerva to share the temple with Jupiter), and with columns so widely spaced (nearly thirty feet) that heavy wooden architraves were used. In view of this feature, of the wooden roof, and of the widely projecting cornice necessary to protect the beams and ornamental plaster-work, we may well wonder how this building containing so much timber escaped loss by fire for more than four centuries. The stone amphitheater of L. Statilius Taurus was utterly destroyed by fire in A.D. 64, from which fact it is certain that the shell alone was of stone, while the great rows of seats and numerous staircases were of wood. The Circus p283Maximus, also destroyed in good part in the fire just named, was highly inflammable in that the two upper tiers of seats were of wood, while around it on the outside ran a row of wooden shops and other small buildings. The Pantheon is fireproof, but the existing structure dates from a restoration by Hadrian. The destruction of the original Pantheon by fire in the year 80 and again in 111 is explicable only on the hypothesis that it contained a large amount of wood, especially in its upper parts. The great Colosseum of our wonder and admiration, whose remains suggest an absolutely fireproof building, was struck by lightning in the reign of Carinus (A.D. 217), its entire upper part and all the wood of the arena were burned, the whole structure was gutted by fire, and its beautiful stone and marble work was damaged, so that for some years the amphitheater was abandoned and the games transferred to the Circus Maximus. The intensity of this fire and the inability of the firemen to extinguish it is in itself an indication of the great quantity of wood used in the building. We know that the eleven highest rows of seats (not to mention a higher colonnade with wooden benches for the lowest classes) were of wood. Lanciani (Ancient and Modern Rome, p105), taking their aggregate length as 18,480 feet and estimating a framework strong enough to support 13,860 spectators occupying these seats, concludes that the quantity of timber accumulated near the top of the Colosseum approximated the enormous mass of 100,000 to 150,000 cubic feet.

The danger from fire in Rome inherent in a large-scale utilization of easily combustible building materials was greatly increased by negligent and imprudent methods of building. Owing to limitations in the building area selected and a tendency to follow lines of least resistance at the lower levels between and around the hills, houses and shops were built close together on narrow, tortuous streets and alleys from ten to twenty feet wide. Moreover, a population much too dense for the area occupied led to a great increase in the height of houses (Vitruvius II.8.17), with their huge upper timbers, balconies, bow windows, and other projections, which with frightful quickness caught the flames and p284communicated them. Thus fires were trebly dangerous, on account of the materials used for building, the height to which these were elevated (so high that water could not be raised by the firemen to the upper stories), and the narrowness of the streets on which the buildings stood. Narrow streets, of course, allowed little protection against the spread of flames, whether the building was low or high; but the tenement houses of many stories, with their small rooms, thin partition walls, wooden panels, and lattice work, were especially liable to burst into a blaze from exposure to any near-by fire. Suetonius in describing the conflagration of A.D. 64 mentions the great number of insulae destroyed, blocks of houses several stories high and consisting either wholly of separate apartments or of a large central mansion with small apartments surrounding but not communicating with it. Whichever type the insula took, it probably had shops around the outside on the ground floor, a feature that still further increased the risk of fire.

As suggested above, another of the fundamental causes of Rome's terrible conflagrations were the storage places for wood and lumber, warehouses, granaries, and shops, all of which contained rich materials for flames (either in storehouses proper or in shops connected with public buildings), with whose destruction the flames ordinarily after one to three days' destruction stopped their course. That fires in the areas about the Circus Maximus, Campus Martius, Forum, and the Sacra Via should, when once started, rage for a considerable time without being brought to a stop, is understandable from the nature of the materials on which they fed and the inadequacy of Rome's facilities for fighting such fires. The burning of shops connected with public edifices explains the ever recurring destruction by fire of buildings which otherwise neither by materials utilized in their construction nor by their use offered occasion for an outbreak of fire. On the other hand, if, despite insufficient means for extinguishing fires, the flames were confined to their place of origin and ended with the licking up of the materials stored there, the reason is that the buildings in such cases were either isolated from other structures or were surrounded by high walls.

p285 Like many other primitive peoples the Romans regarded fire as a divine power, whose destructive force they sought to avert by religious rites. They worshiped fire as Vesta, the embodiment of the kindly hearth fire, and as Vulcan, who represented (principally at least) fires' destructive force. Vergil, Ennius, and Roman writers in general apply the name Vulcan to destructive fire, the kind that wrought such havoc among the wooden buildings of an ancient city. The Romans did not regard Vesta as representing a destructive power, nor was Vulcan, at least in historical times, considered a beneficent one.3 Vulcan was generally thought to be of an irascible disposition which always needed placation. At Ostia, where large granaries were filled with breadstuffs destined to feed Rome's great population, Vulcan was the object of an early and extensive cult. There he had a temple, a priest, and officers charged with providing sacrifices in his honour. In Rome the temple of Vulcan was located outside the walls (in the Campus Martius), that the city's buildings might be free from the terror of fires through the religious rites and sacrifices which called the power of Vulcan beyond the walls (Vitruvius I.7.1). There was, however, a cult center of this divinity close by the Comitium, one of the oldest sanctuaries in the city. It consisted of an altar (remains of its foundations exist today) and a sacred enclosure (Area Volcani), and was used as a place for propitiatory offerings against destructive fires. The principal worship of Vulcan at Rome was in connection with his annual festival (Vulcanalia) on August 23, when live fish were brought to the above mentioned sacred precinct and cast into the fire, et fish serving as a vicarious sacrifice for human lives thus saved from fire's destructive power. The effort to avert fires by expiatory rites is known also from a monumental record referring to the great fire of Nero's reign. Following that disaster the citizens of Rome made a vow of annual expiation ceremonies on altars raised in each of Rome's fourteen regions, but the vow was neglected until Domitian erected such altars. We have an inscription from p286a boundary stone surrounding one of these which shows that the purpose of the sacred area was not only to commemorate the fire of Nero's time, but also incendiorum arcendorum causa (Corpus Inscript. Lat. VI.826).

Schooled by sad experience with fires Rome early began to consider human means for preventing them. The law of the Twelve Tables provided that there should be an open space of five feet between all adjacent buildings. In a short time, however, since dwellings were scarce, the provision was abandoned to the extent that buildings were constructed with a common partition wall in one side. In the early imperial period a regulation bearing on the height of houses and the thickness of their walls was in effect (Vitruvius II.8.17). Augustus reminded the senate of a speech of Rutilius (consul 105 B.C.) de modo aedificiorum, in order to convince its members that he was not the first to give attention to this important matter (Suetonius, Augustus LXXXIX). He also reduced the height of new buildings and forbade that any structure on the public streets should rise as high as seventy feet (Strabo V.3.7), from which it is apparent that in his time buildings were six or seven stories high. As a protection against fire, L. Calpurnius Piso constructed his city house of squared stone up to the very roof; and in this he was warmly commended by Augustus.a Piso's example was followed by the emperors when they surrounded the imperial fora with high walls; but the salutary precautions noted cannot have been consistently observed, as it is evident from the descriptions that have come down to us of the fire of Nero's reign and of the city of that time.

Nero made a series of regulations for the rebuilding of the city, which were intended to minimize the danger from fire (Tacitus, Annales XV.43; and Suetonius, Nero XVI). A maximum height was placed on houses, probably seventy feet, since the limit was reduced to sixty by Trajan (Aurelius Victor, Epit. de Caesaribus XIII.13). Open spaces were left between buildings, and porches or colonnades were erected in front of houses and apartments, from the flat parts of which fires could be effectively fought. Buildings up to a certain portion of their height had to be constructed without beams and had to be of fireproof stone. Party p287walls were forbidden, and every house had to be enclosed within walls of its own. Householders were required to keep in some open place appliances for quenching fire. But it is noteworthy that in all these regulations not a word is said about the rear parts of buildings, where there must have been many additions, nor of balconies, bow windows, and other projections, which for some unaccountable reason seem not to have been prohibited until the year 368.

Space permits only a brief mention of Rome's effort through organized forces to check and extinguish fires. The city's fire department was a quasi-police force, and its members were known as sentinels or watchmen (vigiles). During the early republic it was directed by three magistrates called tresviri nocturni, because their chief duty was to watch for the safety of the city and extinguish fires by night. These magistrates had at their disposal groups of state slaves (familia publica) stationed at various posts about the Servian wall and furnished with such necessary equipment for combating fires as ladders, axes, saws, ropes, and buckets. But the system did not work effectively, if we may judge from the frequency of fires recorded and from the Greek that the tresviri nocturni were reinforced, perhaps in 186 B.C., by other magistrates (tresviri capitales), who were responsible for maintaining the night watch, and by quinqueviri, whose duty was to assist in directing the firemen (Livy XXXIX.14). The aediles also had a hand in managing fires. As time went on, however, and these servi publici were unable to cope with fires, companies of familiae privatae were occasionally used, with or without pay, as assistants (Dio Cassius LIII.24.4; Juvenal XIV.305‑08; and Velleius Paterculus II.91.3).

This inadequate and haphazard arrangement for securing protection from fire remained until the time of Augustus, who introduced changes. In 22 B.C. he formed a special body of six hundred state slaves as a fire brigade and put them under the direction of the aediles (Dio Cassius LIV.2.4). Then in A.D. 6 he reorganized the service and enrolled for this purpose a body of seven thousand freedmen, divided into seven battalions (cohortes), the entire corps being commanded by an officer of the equestrian p288order called praefectus vigilum, who had subordinate officers, tribuni for each battalion and centuriones for each company. The whole body of the vigiles was distributed and quartered throughout the city so that each battalion could watch two of the fourteen regions. This organization, which Augustus made as an experiment but retained when he discovered its value (Dio Cassius LV.26.5), was publicly supported by a share of the two per cent tax on the sale of slaves (Ibid. LV.31.4). That it was made up of freedmen shows that Augustus wished to emphasize its nonmilitary character, for, save in emergencies (Suetonius, Augustus XXV), recruits for the army were still confined to citizens of free birth. But these freedmen by enlistment obtained Latin citizenship and, as their organization and service were quasi-military, they gradually won promotion; and in late times they were called soldiers (Digest. XXXVII.13.1).

The vigiles, in addition to the equipment mentioned above, were provided with other means for checking fires. One of the most important was the centones, blanket-like pieces of coarse materials, which were made wet and spread over buildings to prevent these from taking fire. Householders had at hand such fabrics with an abundance of vinegar (acetum) for dampening them. That these centones were commonly used in checking fires is evident from the fact that municipal firemen were called centonarii. Our sources make no mention of the sipho, a kind of engine, or force pump, for extinguishing fires; but there is indirect evidence of its employment in Rome in the time of Trajan. Pliny (X.33.2), writing of a great fire in Nicomedia, says that its spread was due both to the wind and to the lethargy of its people, but he adds that there was another reason also, nullus usquam in publico sipho, etc. There can be little doubt that Pliny in this instance is referring to the lack in Nicomedia of the same kind of equipment which was utilized in Rome at that period, probably earlier, in extinguishing fires. The sipho, of which no details are ascertainable, was probably a changed and improved model of the one which, according to Vitruvius (X.7), was invented about 250 B.C. by Ctesibius, a mechanic of Alexandria, from whom it was called Ctesibica machina.


The Author's Notes:

1 The most important secondary sources are: H. Jordan, Topographie der Stadt Rom im Altertum: Berlin, Weidmann (1871‑1907); Otto Gilbert, Geschichte und Topographie der Stadt Rom im Altertum: Leipzig, Teubner (1890); Paul O. Werner, De Incendiis Urbis Romae Aetate Imperatorum: Leipzig, Robert Norske (1906); P. K. B. Reynolds, The Vigiles of Imperial Rome: London, Humphrey Milford (1926); S. B. Platner, Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome: Boston, Allyn and Bacon (1911); Platner-Ashby, Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome: New York, Oxford University Press (1929); Grant Showerman, Eternal Rome: New Haven, Yale University Press (2 vols., 1924); R. Lanciani, Ancient Rome: Boston, Houghton, Mifflin and Co. (1892); R. Lanciani, Destruction of Ancient Rome: New York, Macmillan and Co. (1899); R. Lanciani, Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome: Boston, Houghton, Mifflin and Co. (1897); R. Lanciani, New Tales of Old Rome: Boston, Houghton, Mifflin and Co. (1901); R. Lanciani, Ancient and Modern Rome: Boston, Marshall Jones Co. (1925).

2 That these small occasional fires involving single houses and tenements were a constant peril incident to life in the Subura and other thickly settled areas is plain from Juvenal's general reference to them (III.7), horrere incendia, and from his vivid description of such a fire (III.197‑202). Moreover, fires on this scale were frequent enough and unexpected enough to create at times the suspicion that the owners themselves of houses burned had applied the torch (Martial III.52). Fire insurance companies were unknown to the Romans, but both Martial (loc. cit.) and Juvenal (III.212‑22) make the point that such substantial contributions of money and other valuables were made to the losers by friends and clients that a fire was a bit of good fortune rather than a loss, especially (as the Juvenal passage tells us) in case the owner was wealthy. From Plutarch (Crassus II) we learn that in an earlier period (that of Sulla) the burning of private buildings in Rome was a frequent occurrence, so much so that Marcus Crassus became wealthy by buying at a small sum houses that were afire and then salvaging them with aid of hundreds of slaves whom he had organized for this purpose.

3 Cf. H. J. Rose, Primitive Culture in Italy: London, Methuen and Co. (1926), 43 f.; and Eli E. Burriss, "The Use and Worship of Fire among the Romans," Class. Wk. XXIV (1930), 43‑45.


Thayer's Note:

a Plut. Apophth. Rom. Aug. 15.


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