During the night of July 18, 64 AD, the great fire of Rome broke out in the merchant area of the city. Strong summer winds fanned the fire, with flames quickly spreading throughout the old dry wooden buildings of the city. As the fire grew larger, it took on a life of its own, consuming everything in its path. It burned for six days and seven nights before finally coming under control. By then, Rome was in ruins, with some seventy percent of the city destroyed.
However, this story has a darker twist to it. In the aftermath of the fire, rumours spread that Rome’s emperor Nero, himself, was the culprit who started the fire. Some historical accounts also claim that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but could this be simply a metaphor for his inaction during the early days of the fire. He most likely didn’t start the fire nor fiddle as Rome burned, however the Romans were nonetheless very suspicious of his motives for wanting to rebuild Rome greater than before.
Honestly one cannot simply put these suspicions aside particularly since many of new buildings, courtyards, villas and monuments that were built were in the emperor’s name and favour.
It is said that in order to throw off suspicion that Nero was not responsible for the fire, he needed a reliable scapegoat. Conveniently he found it through a small group calling themselves Christians. In short, he would blame them for the fire because of their apocalyptic belief that Rome and the world would end by fire. This would lead to an active campaign against them through unspeakable acts of cruelty and terror.
Both, the fire and the persecution of the Christians would become the defining image of Nero’s reign. As, for Rome, the city would be reborn from a pile of ashes into a marble and stone metropolis.
With his love for architectural drawing and painting, the historical depiction of the ‘Fire of Rome’ was arguably never in doubt, as something the 18th century French painter, Hubert Robert, would have loved to tackle, especially having spent a little over a decade living and working as a painter in Rome. It is said that the ruins of Rome in particular during his stay from 1754 to 1765 influenced him so much, that he apparently gained the nickname Robert des ruines. It’s no wonder then that Hubert Robert is only one of a handful of painters whose reimagined depictions of ancient Rome that I find totally mesmerising.
Of interest in Robert’s composition here of the great fire of Rome is the choice to depict the moment at night. Though I have to say choosing a backlit effect is a stroke of genius that not only heightens the drama but the danger of Rome burning. Moreover, the fleeing figures in this history painting, especially what appears to be a woman and child racing down the stairs, also certainly stirs our imagination how frightening it must have been.
This painting appears in the public domain.