On this day, 19 July, Rome burned.

By Adriana Baranello

On this day, 19 July, Rome burned. The first fire was the infamous fire during which Nero was said to have fiddled in 64 CE, the second, almost two millennia later, was the result of Allied bombing in 1943.

On 19 July 64 CE, fire broke out in the shops that lined the Circus Maximus. The fire raged for six days, before being contained, then reignited and burned for another three days. The fire destroyed two-thirds of the city, including the Temple of Jupiter Stator and the Atrium Vestae. The legend that Nero set the fire, so he could rebuild the city as he pleased, despite Senate objections, comes from the historian Tacitus; however Tacitus was only a child in 64 CE. Nero himself blamed the Christians, who at the time were a small cultic offshoot of Judaism, and who believed that Rome would burn. He persecuted the Christians mercilessly, crucifying them, feeding them to the lions in the Colosseum, and burning their bodies as torches to light his garden parties.

On 19 July 1943, following Mussolini’s relinquishing of power, Allied forces began bombing the city of Rome forcefully, starting with the rail yards. Bombing would continue until 13 August, and on 14 August, Rome was declared an “open city”–inspiration for Roberto Rossellini’s cinematic masterpiece, Roma Città Aperta, filmed in 1946–though it was occupied by the Nazis until 1944. San Lorenzo was the quarter than suffered most heavily, and the Allies also bombed the Vatican heavily, despite the pleas of Pius X. During the bombardment, 3,000 civilians were killed, and another 11,000 were injured.

References:

“The Great Fire of Rome.” Secrets of the Dead, PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/great-fire-rome-background/1446/

“This Day in History: July 19th.” History.com, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/america-bombs-rome

“Il bombardamento di San Lorenzo.” Associazione Nazionale Vigili del Fuoco Corpo Nazionale. http://www.anvvf.com/roma/pages/memoria-storica/sede-centrale/la-guerra/il-bombardamento-di-san-lorenzo-1943.php

“Secondo bombardamento di Roma.” Cinecittà Luce. http://www.mediatecaroma.it/mediatecaRoma/directory/Percorsi_tematici/Roma_in_guerra_e_liberata.html?show=14&index=&filter=&query=&id=IL5000018549

Further Reading: Jackson, W. G. F. 1969. The Battle for Rome. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.; Katz, Robert. 2003. The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943 – June 1944. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Nero Views the Burning of Rome (Nero Róma égését szemléli), Carl Theodor von Piloty, c. 1861

Nero’s Torches (Christian Candlesticks), Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876, oil on canvas, National Museum, Kraków.

The Bombing of San Lorenzo, 1943, gelatin silver print.

Opera dei liberatori, Rauchwetter, 1944, gelatin silver print. German Federal Archives.

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