indoor stall, which told him the alarm was serious.

He glanced up at the sky, which looked simply grey as usual this summer, but smoke in the air was now obvious. Investigators often joined the firemen at a blaze, to show solidarity or to check for arson. Vinius called out to ask Scorpus what was happening, at the same time pulling open a pouch on his belt and pushing in the tablet with the unwritten burglary report.

Lucilla jumped to her feet, scowling. Stalking out, she had to brush past Vinius in the doorway. He let her go, but she felt a light touch of his hand on her shoulder: reassurance and an apology.

It was a casual gesture, but would stay far too long in the memory of a lonely fifteen-year-old girl.

Scorpus lifted an eyebrow, watching Lucilla scurry away.

‘A scam.’ Vinius shrugged it off. ‘Mother fleecing her boyfriend. The girl can’t be in on the fiddle — a bit too naive.’ Who’s being naive now?

‘Seemed sweet!’

‘Oh, was she?’

They both grinned.

Then someone appeared in the gateway, calling: ‘From the Seventh — assistance sought. It’s a big one.’

So Gaius Vinius sent a runner to inform the cohort tribune, and the First rolled out to help with the next great disaster in the reign of the Emperor Titus. Soon they had no time to think about women, not even the women they were married to. For three days and nights without a break, they struggled to control a fire that tore out half the heart of monumental Rome, during which on many occasions they were also fighting for their lives.

2

Old lags in the vigiles loved to describe the Great Fire back in Nero’s reign. Vinius had heard them do it. Callow recruits would listen open-mouthed as veterans spun lurid yarns. Up until the fire under Titus, Nero’s famous conflagration had been the benchmark by which the vigiles measured all others. In the intervening years, their version had become ever more frightening, and it was technical; they never dwelt on whether the megalomaniac Nero was right to blame the Christians, or whether he started the fire himself in order to obtain prime land in the Forum for his Golden House. Nor did the firefighters bother with stories of him singing ‘The Sack of Ilium’ in stage costume as he watched the city burn. They even bypassed the alternative version: that Nero, a more caring and energetic ruler than history now recorded, had been away at Antium but rushed back to organise relief efforts, opening his palace to the homeless and arranging urgent food supplies.

For the vigiles, it was a catalogue of effects and damage. How that fire stormed across Rome for seven days, until three regions were wiped out; seven more were severely damaged; only four survived untouched. How different blazes started on low ground then climbed the hills, but afterwards raced down again. How separate fires joined up. How the blaze out-stripped every counter-measure, how it roared through the narrow winding lanes and close-packed blocks of the old republican neighbourhoods.

Next, the vigiles would list new protective measures imposed under Nero and his successors: height restrictions on apartments, wider streets, enforced use of brick, fire porches to assist emergency access, and water always to be available in buildings. (It was never enough water; that went without saying.) The firefighters would grumble about the public, who moaned that the new broader streets let in too much bright sun, unlike the old shaded alleyways.

If questioned whether all this would work, most vigiles avoided giving answers. Would next time be different? Who knew? There were still too many fires. Rome was a city of portable braziers, unattended lamps and smoking incense. Unsuitable apartments were crammed with home-made griddles and hearths. Religious rites and industrial processes required naked flames. All baths and bakeries had furnaces, with large wood-stores adjacent. Apothecaries, glass-blowers and jewellers contributed to accidents. Every street had multiple eating bars; all used fire. Theatres were always burning down, often not even due to special effects, and brothels were a constant hazard, with their louche lighting, casually draped curtains, and misfit clientele. Anyway, who could counter day- to-day fecklessness? Thoughtless householders, bleary wine-sops, dreamy altar boys, experimental children striking sparks, ostlers setting bonfires in stable yards, and even the occasional witch casting desiccated testicles onto sinister green flames.

Every night the vigiles patrolled. Hardly a night passed without most cohorts sniffing out smoke somewhere. They all knew that sooner or later they faced another big event. Sixteen years after Nero’s fire, the First soon realised the next big one was here.

For Vinius and the day shift, the quiet afternoon had ended. They were tackling more than a widow’s cat knocking over a lamp in some seedy apartment; wide areas were burning. They were ready, though it fast became apparent they were stretched far too thinly for a major city fire, their nightmare.

Overall control escalated from cohort tribune level to their commander, the Prefect of Vigiles; then the City Prefect took charge. Messengers were despatched, to alert the Emperor and his brother. The first messages were bland, although officials mentioned the risk of wide-scale damage if containment should be difficult.

For three days and nights, containment was impossible.

Initially, the fire mainly raged through the Circus Flaminius Region, which lay below the citadel. In the low- lying north-western bend of the Tiber, the Campus Martius was devastated.

The Seventh Cohort managed to save the northern part of the Campus. The Mausoleum of Augustus would continue to dominate the skyline with its great sombre drum and dark terraces planted with cypress trees. The enormous complex of Nero’s Baths survived because they were supplied by the Aqua Virgo. Its low-lying destination had enabled that aqueduct to be built underground so water could be taken from an ornamental channel, rather than having to transport it from right over at the river. Saved too, therefore, was the Horologium, an enormous marble pavement with inlaid bronze lines that formed the largest sundial in the world.

Closer to the centre, all the important monuments were lost. Immediately across the Via Lata from the vigiles’ station house lay the Saepta Julia, a two-storey, galleried court. This popular haunt of informers, flaneurs and bijouterie boutiques burned down along with the Diribitorium, a huge hall originally used for counting votes which had famous hundred-foot larch roof-beams. Larch was supposedly fire-resistant, but not in a blaze of this intensity. Then they lost the temples of Isis and Serapis where Vespasian and Titus had stayed, the night before their victory triumph for breaking the revolt in Judaea.

Towards the sluggish yellow-grey roll of the Tiber had been the Pantheon, Marcus Agrippa’s huge and innovative rotunda to glorify the Julian family; it had an enormous dome above a bronze cornice and amongst the pillars on the portico had stood a statue of Venus; the goddess wore earrings that were a huge pearl halved, twin to the one Cleopatra famously dissolved in vinegar to win a bet with Mark Antony. Firemen stood helpless as they lost the Pantheon, with the adjacent Temple of Neptune and Baths of Agrippa, plus many lesser buildings that had grown up amongst them — houses, shops, clubs, workshops and manufacturing yards where ordinary people lived and carried out their trades.

Southwards towards the Capitol a much older area suffered. Pompey’s Theatre lost its recently restored stage, along with the even older Theatre of Balbus and the Theatre of Marcellus, named for Augustus’ golden nephew who had died too young to spoil his promise. The Porticus of Pompey perished, one of Rome’s most popular recreation areas, with shady walks, antique Greek statues in its porch, and even a fine public lavatory whose seats faced out through a colonnade to a view of the glorious gardens. Gone too the famous statue of its builder, Pompey the Great, at the foot of which Julius Caesar was murdered.

The Circus Flaminius, which gave its name to the region, was at the heart of the fire. Never a venue for chariot racing, it was popular for public meetings, markets and funerals, and when victorious armies returned, their triumphal processions began among the eleven victory temples. Nearby, the Porticus of Octavia was lost, with its famous schools, curia and library. Among its sculpture collection was a huge group by Lysippus, which showed Alexander the Great among twenty-five cavalry leaders at the Battle of Granicus; amazingly, this Lysippus survived. But it was a lone miracle among catastrophic destruction.

Gaius Vinius worked tirelessly throughout all three days. He never identified one certain seat of the fire. Perhaps there were several sources. Professionally, he could tell just from the colour of the smoke that they were

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