Magnum incendium Romae (the Great Fire of Rome, 64 AD) — Nero the Arsonist on screen

This week marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of Rome, one of the worst disasters ever to hit the city of Rome. This tragic event took place during the reign of Nero in 64 A.D. The fire began in the merchant area of the city near the Circus Maximus  and rapidly spread through the dry, wooden structures of the Imperial City. According to Tacitus, the fire  burned for six days and seven nights. Only four of the fourteen districts of Rome escaped the fire; three districts were completely destroyed and the other seven suffered serious damage.

Colossal head of Nero belonging to a larger-than-life size statue,Glyptothek Museum, Munich © Carole Raddato

Despite his efforts to quell the blaze and rebuild the city, rumors accusing Nero soon arose. It was believed that the Emperor had ordered the torching of the city so that he could rebuild Rome to his liking. The ancient sources carry conflicting accounts of whether the fire was started deliberately or was an accident. Suetonius and Cassius Dio point the finger at Nero as the culprit, burning the city in order to construct a new Imperial palace, whilst Tacitus says that an obscure new religious sect called the Christians confessed to causing the blaze. To make matter worse, Cassius Dio tells us that Nero sang the “Sack of Ilium” in stage costume as the city burned.

Nero himself blamed the fire on the Christians and, according to Tacitus, ordered them to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified or burned to serve as lights.

Nero’s Torches, by Henryk Siemiradzki, depicting Christians being martyred on Nero’s orders (1876) Copyright expired, PD-Art

For the general public of the 20th century it was the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz (Nobel prize in literature in 1905) rather than Roman historians who had the biggest influence in shaping Nero’s terrible reputation. His book « Quo Vadis », relating Nero’s reign and the fire of Rome, was published in 1896 and soon gained international renown (the writer used the figure of Nero to condemn the actions of the Russian Tsar Alexander II towards Poland and the Polish Catholic Church some 20 years before the publication of his book). Excited by new archeological discoveries made in Rome since 1870, Sienkiewicz is telling the story of early Christianity in Rome, with protagonists struggling against the Emperor Nero’s regime. While using the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dion Cassius as a source for his story, Sienkiewicz tends to exaggerate every aspects of Nero’s personality and actions. He appears as a cruel, infantile, crazy and perverted individual. The book also designates Nero as the sole culprit for the burning of Rome. It was this fictional Nero who became an endless source of inspiration for the cinematographers who brought the infamous Emperor to the screen.

“George Kleine presents Quo Vadis Nero sings while Rome burns.” Chromolithograph, motion picture poster for 1912 film.

The novel was adapted several time in more or less faithful versions. The most famous version featuring Peter Ustinov was released to public acclaim in 1951. Several other movies, though not direct adaptations of “Quo Vadis”, also relied heavily on Sienkiewicz’s writings to represent Nero.

The burning of Rome as seen in 1951’s Quo Vadis:

Selected works

Quo Vadis (Enrico Guazzoni, 1912)

Quo Vadis (Gabriellino d’Annunzio, 1924)

Quo Vadis? (1925)

Quo Vadis (Mervyn Leroy, 1951)

Nero punishes the Christians. Scene from Quo Vadis (1951)

Quo Vadis (Franco Rossi, 1985) (TV)

Quo Vadis (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 2001)



Other interesting movies about Nero & the Fire of Rome:

Nero, or the Fall of Rome (Luigi Maggi and Arturo Ambrosio, 1909)

The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille, 1932)

Nerone e Messalina (Primo Zeglio , 1953)

Mio figlio Nerone (Stefano Vanzina, 1956)




Originally published on Following Hadrian, republished with permission.

Filed under: Education


Carole Raddato's favourite hobby is travelling and for the last 8 years she has taken a huge interest in the history of the ancient world. She has dedicated all her free time to this passion. She loves to share with other history fans all the incredible facts and stories that she discovers throughout her journeys. She is neither a professional photographer nor an ancient history scholar, but she hopes that everybody can enjoy her photos. She is particularly interested in everything related to the emperor Hadrian whom she finds fascinating. He was himself an incessant traveller, visiting every province in the Empire during his reign. When Carole is looking for new ideas for her travels, she usually takes inspiration from his journeys and it is a great motivation for her to follow him in his footsteps.