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Firefighting in Ancient Rome | About Water Pumps, Bucket Brigades & Demolition Squads

Firefighters in Ancient Rome
As the city of Rome grew ever larger, fires became a more and more mighty threat . Once
Rome had become a metropolis, firefighting became an issue of utmost importance on the
public agenda. Ancient roman firefighting techniques were
quite elaborate. Archeological evidence and a handful of ancient
texts even suggest the use of elaboratesophisticated water pumps. Because open fires were used for heating and
lighting in almost every regular building, many could spark off an inferno. The growing population of Rome was squeezed
into cheaply built and easily flammable apartment buildings, so called insulae. These were prone to catch fire, burn down
quickly and spread flames across entire neighborhoods. «Almost daily, small fires broke out somewhere
in the city” , the historian Karl-Wilhem Weeber informs us. It was not until the imperial era, decades
after Rome had amassed hundreds of thousands of inhabitants , that the first professional
firefighting troops were established. Earlier, residents relied on help from their
neighbors and the regular night watch. Because the night watch had already more than
enough work at hand to keep the public order in the nocturnal city, some rich Romans formed
private firefighting squads. But the founders of those squads had rather
dubious motives and they never became popular. Take Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest
man in the city around 60 BC and member of the first triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey:
He only extinguished a raging fire if owners of the burning building would agree to sell
him their property—at a very low price, of course. Crassus offered his business partners a terrible
deal, but at the risk of losing absolutely everything they accepted the offer, and their
neighbors, too, could not turn down the same offer when the fire began to spread to their
houses. This business model was so successful that
Plutarch, who wrote a biography of Crassus, tells us that “in this way the largest part
of Rome came into his possession.” Some took it even further than Crassus. In order to buy empty plots of land at a cheap
price, some estate agents set fire to the buildings of strangers or competitors . This
turned into a problem that demanded a political reaction. Around 22 BC , the aedile Marcus Egnatius
Rufus, who had recognized the potential of the issue for political gain, took it upon
himself to form a firefighting squad composed of slaves of his own. Rufus offered his service for free. It seems his strategy worked out well. He soon rose in popularity and was elected
praetor. His success was so blatant that the emperor
Augustus took notice of it, he saw a dangerous political competitor in Rufus. According to the ancient historiographer Velleius
Paterculus he quickly got rid of him. As a consequence, the emperor formed a public
fire department himself, consisting of 500 slaves and commanded by an aedile. By the year 6 BC, after another firestorm
had ravaged large parts of the city of Rome, Augustus reformed the fire department and
pumped much larger amounts of resources into it. This new institution was called vigiles, which
literally translates to guardians. The high command of this organization was
in the hands of a praefectus vigilum, the prefect of the guardians. The vigiles consisted of 3’500, later 7’000
freed slaves, which were divided into cohorts of 1’000, each under the command of a tribune. Each of these cohorts was responsible for
two regiones, or municipalities. There, they had a statio, a guardhouse and
an excubatoria, a dormitory. In the statio of the seventh cohort of vigiles,
located in the quarter trans tiberim (literally: across the river Tiber), which is called Trastevere
today, the young plebeian Marcus Antonius was on his duty. The only historical evidence that testifies
his existence is a graffito in which Marcus states that he had provided lighting for the
guard. It is enough for us to know that he actually
existed and to accompany him on a fictional yet realistic night’s duty. Marcus and some of his comrades would leave
the statio for another patrol around the fifth hour of the day. Most likely, they would have looked attentively
for potential sources of fire or infringements of fire safety regulations. After a while, they might have come along
a house in which an unattended hearth fire was burning. Marcus had a quick look and reminded the resident
to keep an eye on his fire and admonished him to keep a bucket of water in his apartment–just
in case. Although the vigiles only had the authority
to advise people, their recommendations were followed because of very harsh repercussions
against those negligent of fire protection. Of course, The most important task of the
vigiles was the firefighting itself but sometimes they were also assigned policing tasks. There are even some cases in which they were
deployed as security forces or even as military troops. Rather than just quenching flames, the vigiles
were asked to take preventive measures more and more over time. Additionally, regulations of the standards
in architecture and rules of public behavior refined the Roman firefighting system. After the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, for
example, the emperor Nero ordered that “appliances for checking fire were to be kept by everyone
in the open” and that “there were to be no joint partitions between buildings, but
each was to be surrounded by its own walls.” Marcus Antonius and his patrol would have
moved on after this minor infringement was settled. When they reached the river Tiber, they heard
the remote screams of a woman. They followed the sound and soon they saw
tongues of fire leaping up out of an apartment building. Immediately, they rang an alarm. One of the vigiles organised reinforcement
and equipment, the others evacuated nearby buildings. For that matter, members of the vigiles were
entitled to access private apartments, as the ancient author Petronius informs us. The risk of the fire spreading to nearby buildings
was always immanent and to prevent this was one of their utmost concerns. Specialists among the firefighters, so called
aquarii, literally watermen, knew the exact location of the closest source of water and
would have begun to set up bucket chains immediately. At the same time, the siphonarii, pump men,
would bring their heavy equipment to fight the fire. Ancient romans made use of a pump-system invented
by the ancient greekGreek inventor Ctesibius in the 3rd century BC. It was a two-cylinder reciprocating force
pump and it worked as follows: As the piston comes up on one side the suction draws in
water through the bottom. This force opens the bottom flap, at the same
time on the other side the force of the pressure of the downstroke closes the other bottom
flap, so the only place for the water to go, is in this middle chamber through another
flap. The two flaps of the middle chamber do the
exact opposite of their bottom-end counterparts. According to the historian John Gray Landels
those pumps deployed by the siphonarii could generate a jet of up to 29 meters. Others tried to smother the fire with strata,
patchwork quilts, which were soaked with water. In the meantime, the cohort’s medicii, doctors
and victimarii, first-aid-experts would have arrived and started to take care of the wounded. If the fire spread in spite of all these efforts,
the vigiles might have tried to protect the buildings further away from the fire source
with water- or vinegar-soaked fire beaters, so called centones. Buildings too close to be saved were torn
down in an attempt to contain the fire. Marcus Antonius and some of his comrades picked
up axes, saws, hooks, as well as rods and hammers to break down these houses as well
as the ones already burning. After several hours of hard work, the men
had created a gap large enough to make sure the fire couldn’t spread any further. Now, after this ordeal, they could finally
put down their tools. While Marcus Antonius and his comrades pulled
back to their statio to have a well-deserved meal, other vigiles would observe the fire
closely until it would finally get cold.

  • If you're interested in more history of ancient Roman everyday life, we recommend you to listen to or read "24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There" by Philip Matyszak. We came across this book in the last couple of weeks. It's a wonderful book which looks at 24 different hours in ancient Rome. Matyszak himself states that his characters might be fictional, but their lives are not. So, his book is very much in the same spirit as our own videos. We highly recommend it.
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  • Question why did you read "insulae" instead of "insule",on what i know about latin if there is "ae" then is readed as "e"
    I maybe wrong but then tell me to know next time.

  • How about the roman markets? dealing from everyday food produce to armor and weapons? are there black markets? how much do stuff usually cost? do they do trades or just coins etc? basically how does the economy works for the normal everyday romans. And are there banks? or how do they keep their valuables, possessions and money?

  • I so much enjoy the street scene mockups of building elevations.

    Now, the manner of construction and the number of stories and manner of building has not changed so much in parts of the world that have descended from Roman times. Latin America, for example, in places, uses clay roof tiles, thick masonry walls and facades very similar to what we see in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia and other places where ancient but common buildings are preserved.

    Especially the Casa Diana in Ostia. Wow.

    Excellent work here.

  • I love the small details like Crassus' evil grin when you mention he's wealthy or the full moon or the birds!Also what does the graffiti say at 1:15? and why is a woman looking like my grandma leaning out the window at 4:30? xD

  • Cool visuals as always. I appreciate how you pronounce C as K in latin words.
    Also seems like you are gaining lots of subscribers lately! Grats on that!

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