How Populism Ends: The Fire of Rome, Nero and Conspiracy Theories

Sometime during the night of July 18-19, in what we now know as the Year of Our Lord 64, probably in one of the shops that lined the road between the Caelian and Palentine Hills, a fire broke out. The Circus Maximus, the Great Roman sports stadium, dominated the neighborhood of little wooden shops and large wooden apartment buildings. The narrow and twisted streets and the hot, dry summer night, proved to be the perfect kindling for the Great Fire of Rome.

The historian Tacitus, who was no more than eight at the time, provided the only surviving eye-witness record, and it was written half a century later. “The conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the circus. For here there were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay.” (Annuls XV, 38) The fire burned out of control for at least four days, and the winds rekindled smoldering embers a couple days later and it raged again for another four days. By the time it was over, only four of the 14 Roman districts were left standing. The devastation was epic: thousands dead or homeless, priceless ancient Greek artifacts, dozens of temples, the majority of public buildings razed to the ground. Even the Emperor’s palace was badly damaged.


The Fire of Rome, Hubert Robert, 1785

The Emperor himself, the deeply unpopular Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was vacationing in the cooler climate of his hometown, Antium (modern day Anzio), a lovely seaport some thirty miles south. When word reached him, he rushed back to Rome and set up refugee and relief efforts for the survivors. But his people, who already considered him to be a thin-skinned, petulant, narcissistic, murderous man-child (a fair assessment) still hated him and blamed him for the fire. Conspiracy theories became all the rage: he had unleashed arsonist gangs, he had prevented early fire-fighting efforts, he wanted the city destroyed so that he could build a new one and take eternal glory for it. (Rome loves eternal glory still.)

So Nero came up with the best conspiracy theory of all: a tiny religious sect, with roots deep in the Middle East, was responsible. They had started the fire as a terrorist act, to convince people that their God was greater than the Roman Gods and that their prophet, who had been dead for 30 years, was still alive and demanding that Romans join his strange little cult.

There is a deadly beauty to conspiracy theories, particularly those that scapegoat entire religions: it’s easy to convince people that they are true and the scapegoats can do very little to defend themselves. The first wholesale Roman persecution of Christians began shortly thereafter, with Christians murdered for sport in revenge for the fire. The persecutions would continue, with hardly a pause, by every Roman Emperor for the next 250 years. Conspiracy theories, even those completely evidence-free, are very difficult to dislodge, once they have been embedded into public mythology.

Nero was a noxious man. He murdered his mother Agrippina when she objected to one his many affairs with women married to someone else. He probably murdered his step-brother, and some accounts suggest that he killed his second wife in a fit of rage after their newborn child died. The elite despised him, but he fancied himself a populist, slashing taxes on food and staple goods, reducing lawyers’ fees and court fines. He supported freed slaves against their former masters and conducted a long and popular anti-corruption campaign against the bureaucracy. In the end, though, Nero lost his popularity even among the working class who were his strongest bastion of support against the elites who wanted him gone. His generals in revolt, the Senate met and declared him a Public Enemy. Even the Praetorian Guard had abandoned him. He left the city under the cover of darkness and took refuge in the home of an old friend and began to prepare for suicide. But he didn’t have the courage to plunge a sword into his chest. He ordered his personal secretary to do it, and reluctantly, he complied.

Rome was plunged into chaos. This time it really was Nero’s fault.

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