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Heat is on an ancient mystery.

SINCE Russell Crowe (pictured) swung his mighty sword in last year's blockbusting movie Gladiator, interest in Ancient Rome has never been stronger.

However, even more fearsome than the warriors who took those blood-soaked arenas by storm was the ever-present threat of fire.

On 19th July, 64AD, Rome was engulfed by a ferocious inferno. Everything in its path was destroyed, and thousands of people were killed and injured.

But what or who could have started The Great Fire? Was it arson, or accident?

Using archaeological evidence and forensic testing, Secrets Of The Dead considers the multiple theories surrounding the fire and puts forward a radical new hypothesis.

Much evidence at the time pointed toward Nero himself, who was keen to rebuild the biggest city in the world in his image and needed the space. He certainly had the motive, but is that evidence enough to condemn him?

Certainly not, according to archaeologist Henry Hurst. The fire, he maintains, was nothing more than an accident.

In high summer in Rome, 100 fires could have started every day, two or three of which might be serious. So was the city just a hazard waiting to go up in flames?

Archaeological evidence shows that the fire melted Travertine stone and marble, suggesting temperatures must have reached more than a scorching 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Secrets Of The Dead set out to test Hurst's hypothesis.

Using a controlled fire in a specially created chamber, it was proved that flammable materials and little oxygen would have ensured the flames heated up the city to such an extent that objects would have started to spontaneously combust, further spreading the fire.

And Professor Gerhard Baudy from the University of Konstanz has come up with an ingenious new theory that he believes points to the true culprits.

According to Baudy, the Great Fire of Rome was neither an accident, nor arson at the hands of Nero. Instead, the fire was the work of the early Christian poor.

Baudy paints a fascinating picture of disaffected Jews and Christians, living in poverty in Rome. They set out to wreak revenge on an Empire that relished all that Christianity rejected.

The various theories are arguable, but one thing is for sure, if it wasn't for the Great Fire, Rome would be a very different place today.

Walking with Beasts (BBC1, 8.30pm)
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Title Annotation:Media
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 10, 2001
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