Fire-Sales in Ancient Rome

To begin with, the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch explains that modern fire fighting did not start until 1830 in Edinburgh< Scotland.  Before that time, there were limited fire regulations and “fire wardens” who would police the town and inspect chimneys and such, fining people if they were negligent.  At this point in history, fire departments were basically a shed full of buckets that volunteers would try to bucket-brigade a fire out with elbow grease and community spirit.

The 'bucket brigade' offers a metaphor that makes sense to 'material flows'. 

Before the London fire department, cities would have watchmen who would sound a city alarm when fire would break loose, essentially rousing the volunteers and citizenry to face the nascent threat.  The first real, federal fire-fighting force were the Vigiles of Rome, formed by Agustus in 21 BCE.  It was originally a slave army had previously been used by Egnatius Rufus to privately fight fires.  Augustus inherited Rufus’ slave army and mixed in freedmen to create a squadron of cohorts with their own camp in each city where firefighting equipment was stored.  The vigiles would patrol the city, arresting arsonists and sounding the bells if they saw a conflagration.  Their methods were crude though, and oftentimes demolishing the building or its neighbors was their only means of dealing with the fire.

Related image“So Tiberius, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is we stopped the fire.  The bad news is we destroyed your house to do so…”

Augustus’s fire brigade may have in part been a response to the private fire brigade of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Ancient Rome.  Crassus had a talent for making money, in some cases in unscrupulous ways.  According to Plutarch, Crassus would go to places where houses were on fire and convince owners of neighboring properties to sell their homes to him before the fires landed.  After purchasing a huge number of those homes for a trifling cost, he would purchased slaves who were architects and builders and rebuilt the homes to flip for a profit.  (Plut. Crassus, 2:1, p. 317-18).  Here the story gets a little hard to trace, but somehow encyclopedias and scholars have glommed onto the idea that Crassus organized a private fire brigade of slaves and would go about Rome to assorted fires (there were a lot, cooking was all on a fire and the buildings were VERY flamable), and haggle with the homeowners over a price to put the fire out.  If the homeowner refused, Crassus would let the home go up in flames and purchase the charred rubble for cheap, sending his worker ants to rebuild it for him. Essentially, Crassus was making money hand-over-fist by selling fire services at a premium, and if the homeowner refused to pay for his services, he would simply purchase the burned out hull for pennies on the dollar (or..  pieces of sestertii on the sestertius) and make a profit on the land in a different way.  Unethical, yes; clever, also yes; did he ever send a slave to go ignite a fire purely to force a profit out of it, there is no evidence of that happening but it certainly feels like something he would do…

While it is difficult find the origin point of the Crassus fire-extortion story, (i.e. I can’t find it) it seems to be ubiquitous in many tellings of Crassus’ rise to fabulous wealth from simple, regular wealth.  In particular, the idea that city-run fire departments were a response to extortion by flame seems to find purchase in Crassus’ tale.

Image result for crassusHe even looks like a Crassus..

Citations (loosely tossing that term around now): (a solid video on Crassus’ rise to power)*.html&strip=1&vwsrc=0

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