fighting a very hot, very intense conflagration. In such heat, even marble would burn.

The afternoon’s initial stillness changed to a first night of gusting winds, caused by hot air currents drawn up from the fire. These winds were impossible to predict, with convection columns acting like bellows on structures the vigiles had previously managed to douse, causing spontaneous recombustion. Firebrands were hurled long distances as air currents picked up lighted debris, carrying sparks to new buildings. The winds were erratic, constantly changing direction and force, swirling dust and embers in circular vortices.

People all over Rome woke next morning to find smoke blanketing the city, darkening every street even far from the fire. It was now impossible to tell which regions were actually ablaze. Rumours caused confusion. As the citizens wheezed, panic took hold. Streets were clogged with agitated people trying to escape, dragging their possessions. Terrified mules and horses broke out of stables. Tethered dogs howled desperately. Rats came up from the sewers. The hire-price of wagons and carts shot up, while buckets, tools and materials to shore up collapsing structures became impossible to buy. Looting ocurred.

Early in the three-day calamity Vinius worked near the Saepta, helping efforts to prevent the fire from crossing the Via Lata, the city end of the great Via Flaminia. The vigiles were struggling to protect their own station house, and prevent the fire having a free run all across the north of Rome. It was a mixed area with gardens, local markets and ancient temples to obscure gods, as well as some large private homes belonging to senators. Notable among them were the one-time home of Vespasian before he had been Emperor and his late brother’s house on Pomegranate Street — to which the First were supposed discreetly to give special attention while never disturbing the current occupants.

Vinius commandeered carts and whatever containers looked suitable to supplement the vigiles’ buckets and their two creaking siphon engines. Those were constantly refilled, and the men worked the arms until their sinews cracked, but their feeble water streams were no more effective than a lame dog pissing on a funeral pyre.

Whenever they could, when they could no longer continue, the First Cohort’s shifts staggered back to their station house and collapsed into cubicles, snatching a few hours’ rest. Food was provided by grateful neighbours. With the fire so near, they could only doze, anxious that they would waken to find flames sweeping their own building. Disturbed by shouts and crashes nearby and by colleagues’ hacking coughs, the unwashed men roused themselves from wild dreams to go out again. As they battled on, many were hurt and some men died. All would be permanently affected. None would ever forget.

Eventually Vinius was in a contingent ordered down to the Forum. When he arrived beyond the flaming porticos and theatres on the Campus, he found the Capitol itself now threatened. He felt a surge of misery. This had been the heart of Rome through many generations. On the main summit stood the Temple of Jupiter. The Temple of Juno on the second peak called the Arx was almost as significant to the Roman psyche. Between the Capitol and the Arx lay the Saddle, a dip where Romulus, Rome’s mythical founder, had offered refuge to the outlaws and misfits who first peopled his new city eight hundred years before.

The foot of the hill was nowadays a great stone-buttressed base called the Tabularium, where records were kept. If flames came down on the Forum side, centuries of city archives would be under threat; the most precious were being carted to a more remote site for safety, though saving them all would be impossible. Down the Forum ran Rome’s most important religious, legal and financial buildings, crowded on all sides by columns, arches, statues of heroes, sacred altars and commemorative rostra. At the far end, Vespasian’s Flavian Amphitheatre rose, almost complete now. Other cohorts had assembled there to save the precious new arena and to protect buildings such as the House of the Vestal Virgins. Vinius had to concentrate on his own task. He had been ordered up to the citadel.

The Capitol was the smallest of Rome’s Seven Hills, but it was steep and rocky, a natural fortress on a high promontory. There were said to be a hundred steps to the top, up which Gaius Vinius toiled, humping on his back heavy esparto mats that the vigiles used to smother flames. He did not count the steps, nor had he breath to curse. Frantic priests and officials buffeted him as they rushed downhill, some lugging statues or treasure chests. Others even bore in their arms hysterical augury chickens and the geese that had been sacred for hundreds of years since they saved Rome from marauding Gauls. Above the crag, agitated wild birds were circling in dense smoke. Wails rose from onlookers clustered in the Forum below. As Vinius staggered skywards, he felt he was climbing to the roof of a world he was losing for ever, staggering into a flame-lit hell where all he knew and loved was about to die.

On the summit, the main temple was on fire.

The renowned temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest was the centre of the state religion. Here, magistrates began their term of office with solemn sacrifices, and the Senate held its first meeting of each year. It was the culmination of victory parades, where heroic generals vowed their arms to Jupiter.

This mighty temple with its gilded roof was the largest of its type ever built, created on a massive square podium in ancient Etruscan style, with eighteen giant columns standing in three rows on its daunting portico. Destroyed by fire in the last days of civil wars only ten years before, its loss then had been traumatic. During the violent change of emperors, Vespasian’s brother, Sabinus, had made a last stand there, barricading the citadel while opponents pointlessly held out; at the last hour, Vespasian’s brother was hacked to death and his cadaver dumped on the very Gemonian Stairs that Gaius Vinius had just climbed with his deadweight burden of equipment. Vespasian’s younger son Domitian had had a hair-raising escape.

That burning of the temple had symbolised terrible times that everyone now prayed were ended for good. The Temple of Jupiter had been restored by Vespasian, who hauled off the first basket of rubble himself when the site was cleared. Enormous care had been taken to find or replace the hundreds of ancient bronze tablets that had adorned the building. When it rose again at last, it seemed a sign that Rome would once more be great, its people fortunate under a worthy and energetic emperor. Now Vinius saw that the recently reinaugurated temple was burning so fiercely it could never be saved.

Choking and completely spent, the vigiles had given up and were starting to retreat. Blackened faces told of their soul-destroying efforts. Vinius was signalled to stay back. Flames had reached the roof. The temple was too high, too isolated; there was no way for them to send up water to its cloud-scraping pediments, even if water had been available.

Then someone shouted that priests were still inside. The cry of ‘persons reported’, dreaded by all firefighters, roused Vinius. Marginally fresher than the men who had been here before him, he ran up the great steps and through the massive portico columns. He heard protesting voices, but instinct propelled him on.

Inside, the heat was so intense, air seemed to burn in his throat and lungs so that every breath scared him. The spectacle was lurid. The ceiling was hidden by thick smoke, but three enormous crowned cult statues of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were lit by flickering red light. Vinius was no more religious than the next man in the armed forces; he honoured the rituals because you had to, prayed to be saved from danger, but had already learned that divinities had no compassion for humans. No calm-browed god had stepped in to protect him when the British homunculus launched the spear that nearly killed him. Even so, as the light from sheets of flame flickered across the towering statues, it was hard not to feel he stood in the presence of the gods.

It was crazy to stay. Slabs of dissolving marble the size of serving trays were dropping from on high. Oil or incense must have spilled, so vaporous licks of blue flame were creating a molten floor carpet. Amidst the continuous roar of fire, Vinius heard louder cracks as massive columns and masonry began to break apart. The whole enormous building was groaning in what he knew must be its death throes.

He glimpsed one body, prostrate before the statue of Minerva, in the skullcap with a pointed prong that marked a senior priest. Somehow he crossed the interior and found he had carried with him an esparto mat; he flung it over the priest then summoned the strength to haul man and mat backwards out of the sanctum. As he fled, the cult statues seemed to loom and sway as if they were about to fall. Smoke blinded him. Heat flayed him. His skin seemed to melt. Even the intolerable noise was distressing.

Outside, the terrified Vinius hauled the priest free of the mat, got a shoulder under him and stumbled down the steps. Colleagues ran to relieve him of the burden, then they hustled Vinius from the temple forecourt, beating at his clothing which was now on fire. Behind him the roof must have failed almost immediately, with a tremendous crash, then sheets of flame poured skywards through it.

The man he saved was stretchered away at a run. Vinius forgot about him immediately. Once his burning clothes were extinguished, he squatted on his haunches in the rags of his tunic, with a raw face, charred hair and eyebrows, burned arms and shins, and despair in his heart.

They stayed up there, huddled in an open space where omens were taken, in case the Temple of Juno was

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