Who Burned Rome?

One of the most devious deceits in history had to be when the faltering emperor of Rome, Nero set the Western side of the city ablaze in order to divert attention from his ineptness.

Apart from this perhaps being one of the greatest examples of overkill in all of history, it was definitely one of the most callous and cruel misdirections ever. Because diverting attention from himself wasn’t enough to take the focus off him—he also had to fan the flames of rumor using the single most powerful combustant ever devised for this purpose—gossip.

So, as history tells it, Nero not only sent hundreds out to torch Rome physically—he also sent hundreds out to torch the reputation of a new and feared group known as Christians. Knowing that most pagans already feared this fast growing movement of God and saw it as a threat to their pagan worship of Jupiter and Venus, Dionysus and other false gods adopted from Greek mythology—they were already ripe for a strategically placed whisper here and there. Most had no trouble pinning the blame on the followers of Jesus even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence to indicate they had anything to do with the fire that burned down half of Rome. Quite to the contrary—everything pointed to Nero himself. However, not inclined to let something as inconvenient as the facts get in the way, the most horrifying era of persecution the church has ever seen was underway and would last for nearly 300 years until the emperor, Constantine put an end to it.

By this time it had become common knowledge that Nero was responsible for the tragic fire that burned the great city and killed thousands, but persecuting Christians had blossomed into sort of a national past time by then, so they kept right on doing it.

Hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—martyred because of one evil man who could not face up to his own ineptness and brutality as a leader. But even more astonishing is the seemingly insignificant weapon used to get it all started—the tongue.

There used to be an old Christian song called, “Pass it On.” I actually loved it. In it there is one line that goes like this,

‘It only takes a spark,

to get a fire going’

The Bible speaks to this as well,

James 3:5 says, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”


The tongue can be used for good or evil—for building up or tearing down. To build small groups or worldwide ministries—to destroy a small group or bring down a worldwide ministry—to spread the word and plant a new and vibrant church or to spread lies and split the Bride of Christ apart.

Like to talk?

Make sure you’re not burning down what the Lord has built up in the process.

4 thoughts on “Who Burned Rome?”

  1. One more note. ..You mention Tacitus. Even he leaves room for the possibility. Here are his own words,

    “The historian Tacitus was born in the year 56 or 57 probably in Rome. He was in Rome during the great fire. During his lifetime he wrote a number of histories chronicling the reigns of the early emperors. The following eye witness account comes from his final work The Annals written around the year 116.

    “…Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

    Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.”

    Those last few sentences make it clear that there was a group purposefully torching the city–even claiming to be acting on orders. Not a direct link, but another pretty logical one.

  2. Jessica,

    You’re correct in that there is no conclusive proof. A preponderance of the evidence (IMHO) seems to point to Nero who was able to stave off almost certain rebellion by diverting attention. History can’t quite place a torch in his hand, but logic can. So, perhaps I should say that after my own careful study (including Master’s level Church History at Dallas Theological Seminary) it is my belief that he was behind it.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. It was only rumored that Nero burned down Rome, it has never been proven. He did persecute Christians for it, but he wasn’t in the city at the time that it burned. Tacitus, the historian of the period (in his Annals of History), was quite clear that while it was arson, nothing could be proven as to who or what it was, though Nero was suspected. What Nero did to Christians in response was awful, but I don’t think that it was premeditated to the point that he set (or had someone set) the fires so that he could blame Christian people.

    I’m a History major in college, a year away from finishing my Bachelor’s. I’ve studied this period in a course on Christianity, as well as in other courses.

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