Today I decided to venture into the cross-cutting details of three seemingly unrelated events in history that all occurred on today in history; July 19th. Together they are the story of two fires, two cities, and a raid that I hope display a stubborn human persistence to rebuild.
July 19, 1845 – New York City
In the center of downtown Manhattan, the third floor of a local whale oil business burst into fire, the flames quickly spreading to neighboring buildings. Due to the time of night, it would be another half hour before the fire alarm rang.
With the NYC Fire Department still existing only as a volunteer organization, the fire crew was impressively unprepared to deal with the fire until joined by retired chiefs and neighboring fire departments. By 1:00pm that afternoon, over a thousand homes in Manhattan had been destroyed and thirty people killed. As the day carried on, reports of looting during the fire began to trickle in.
Though tragic as it were, compared to the city’s earlier great fires, casualties were drastically lower, as were damages to property—largely thanks to city regulations calling for wood buildings to be replaced with brick and stone.
Eight decades later in New York City, a thirty-year-old Air Force pilot named Jimmy Doolittle began to grow in repute for his unsurpassable flight speed records; he zoomed around and past the city—flying past those newly built sparkling art deco skyscrapers—iron fortresses constructed over the ashes of the prior century’s two great fires of New York City. As he demolished flight speed records from Washington, D.C., to Boston, his flight records in New York catapulted him into the gaze of the nation’s growing military leadership. Doolittle’s fate in the future of the nation’s armed forces had been cemented.
Decades later, that striking young pilot had worked his way up to being a wartime general coordinating attacks through Rome and Tokyo in World War II. General Doolittle’s military prowess was near unrivaled in the air.
July 19, 1943 – Rome, Italy
With Allied forces closing in on Fascist Italy from North Africa and via the Mediterranean, fearful Italian citizens began to crowd into Rome due its perceived status as the “Eternal City”—a city seemingly invincible due to its paramount historical significance and relative dearth of military installments. Nearly every major western European city had been bombed repeatedly by this point in the war’s progression. Nevertheless, as the war ran on, American military advisers began to mull over the merit of conducting an air raid over the historic city. Opting to conduct strikes over the San Lorenzo district of Rome, a pivotal convergence point for essential coastal Italian railway lines, American forces bombed Rome in the morning of July 19, 1943, with targets on factories and military sites.
General Doolittle not only partly oversaw the bombing of San Lorenzo, but participated in it, flying over the city with bombers.
The bombing of Rome was hotly debated among military and religious officials. Allies had gone out of their way to avoid bombing Rome so as to not cause upset over the tarnishing of a site sacred to Catholics.
In spite of the increased risk to bomber pilots, American forces ultimately decided to airdrop flyers through Rome one day prior, warning of the bombing and urging citizens to take shelter. The end result was that the bombing took hundreds of miles of railway out of service and deteriorated Mussolini’s image, serving perfectly toward the goals of the bombing.
Despite its touted success and efforts to avoid areas of high civilian population, numerous historical and papal artifacts had been damaged. The death toll was estimated to be around 1,600 and much of the population of the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome were anti-fascists. Ultimately, the air raids over Rome helped invigorate Italian resistance fighters in their efforts to overthrow Mussolini.
July 19, AD 64 – Rome, Italy
Not half a mile away from the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, sit the ruins of the Circus Maximus–Rome’s grand chariot stadium of antiquity. On the night of July 19, AD 64, fires of unknown origin spread from the Circus Maximus out through the city. The fire would go on to rage for nine days in total–destroying two-thirds of the city in the process.
Some leads put the blame of the fire on Roman Emperor Nero while other historians cite Nero as having been outside of Rome during the fire. Adding to the confusion, Roman historian Tacitus and early Christian church tradition record Nero blaming and subsequently persecuting Christians for the fire while many modern historians point to the otherwise anecdotal nature of such speculation.
Emperor Domitian: The Proto-Mussolini
Nearly twenty years after the fire of Rome, most of the Circus Maximus had been rebuilt to its previous splendor and continued to host the grand and elaborate races it had been known for in its days of the Roman Republic. Atop the restorations and at the helm of Rome itself stood Rome’s new emperor, Domitian, gazing over the races of the Circus Maximus from a newly constructed elevated viewpost, exclusive to him. Domitian’s stature above the stadium exemplified his image among the citizens of Rome—autocratic, callous, unsympathetic, ruling with an iron fist from afar.
Unpopular for his distant and dictatorial rule, Domitian was assassinated by court officials in AD 96. Just as Mussolini’s body was unceremoniously thrown around two millennia later, court nurses unceremoniously cremated his body. He was posthumously condemned by the Roman Senate as a cruel, tyrannical ruler. As his charismatic and well-liked adviser, Nerva, assumed the throne, Domitian’s death and disposal marked the end of the second Roman imperial dynasty—a period of backstabbing and imperial cult revivalism that would only truly see a resurgence with Mussolini two millennia later.
Assuming the throne at an old age, Nerva reigned only a year before dying from natural causes. His son, Trajan, cemented his legacy as a good and just ruler. Hell, the name of their dynasty is “The Five Good Emperors” (kudos to Roman historians for originality).
Under Trajan, Rome’s borders reached their greatest extent—spanning from England to Anatolia and Egypt. Trajan’s rule saw the razing of the built-up pomp and autocratic rule set up under Domitian and his predecessors.
Trajan started with the Circus Maximus. Fearing further fires, he rebuilt the stadium out of stone. Trajan’s last and most popular modification was the demolition of Domitian’s elevated viewpost above the stadium. From then on, the Roman emperor—for centuries to come—would view the games from a stature shared with the common Roman citizen.
Today; July 19, 2019 – Rome, Italy
Today the ruins of the Circus Maximus operate as a park venue in the city center for concerts, events, and rallies. Throughout the year, music is often heard resonating throughout the historic site.
Still heard ringing through the field of the Circus Maximus today are the songs of Francesco De Gregori, known as Il Principe dei cantautori, “The Prince of the singer-songwriters” for his poetic lyrics. Starting his music career in 1972, De Gregori is still active, putting out music at the age of 68. After a lull in his career, De Gregori published his bestseller album, Titanic, in 1982. The final song on the album is titled San Lorenzo, and acts as a lament of the July 19, 1943 bombing of the namesake Roman neighborhood. Below is a translated excerpt from the song:
“And one day, you believe, this war will end,
peace will return and butter will abound and we will go to lunch on Sundays,
outside Porta, in Cinecittà, today pity is dead,
but one fine day it will be reborn and then someone will do something,
maybe get married.”
De Gregori takes the highlighted clause of the excerpt—pity is dead—from the title of a famous anti-fascist song, “Pietà l’è morta”, written by esteemed Italian resistance fighter Nuto Revelli during the fight against Mussolini’s regime. Sung on frigid Alpine mountain tops and hummed amidst secret café schemes in Rome by underground partisans seeking to liberate their homeland from an autocracy of a new kind of elevated viewpost over Rome’s citizens, Revelli’s legacy lives on in De Gregori’s lament of the anti-fascist Roman quarter.
With the Circus Maximus and fires of old as witness, history doesn’t just go away into the recesses of minds and history books. Consequences remain; effects persist; history repeats itself when not paid heed to. The best that can be done to do away with the fires and rubble of yesteryear is to rebuild with stone. So keep in mind, if you’re ever by the grounds of the Circus Maximus and hear the lyrics and piano accompaniment of that De Gregori song, you’re listening to the tale of a city experienced in rebuilding by stone.