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The fire-brigade


The fire-brigade of Rome was organised by Augustus in 6 AD. There were seven cohorts of fire-fighters (vigiles), each working in two of Rome's fourteen districts. Each cohort originally consisted of 560 men. In 205 AD the size was doubled to 1120 men. The chief officer was called praefectus vigilum. He was supported by a subpraefectus and tribuni, who in turn were supported by administrative personnel (beneficiarii, commentariores etcetera). At a lower level we hear of centuriones and principales. The men were called milites, soldiers. Four physicians were attached to each cohort. A victimarius had religious duties.

To the equipment of the vigiles belonged hooks, pick-axes, ladders and ropes. The vigiles brought water to a fire using buckets, but powerful pumps were also used, operated by five or six siphonarii. At high pressure the water from the pumps could reach a height of 20 to 30 metres. Water was drawn from public fountains and basins, and from wells inside buildings, under the supervision of aquarii. Cloth soaked in water or acid was thrown on the flames. As a last resort walls and buildings were torn down.

The work of the vigiles included patrols during the night, when the risk of fire was greater, due to the use of oil-lamps and torches. They made sure that fire was used in a responsible way by the inhabitants of Rome, and that a quantity of water was present in all buildings and apartments. If people were careless they could be punished with a whip or birch. The vigiles also acted against thieves and burglars, and kept an eye on the slaves who guarded the clothes of the visitors of baths. They returned runaway slaves to their owners.

Ostia and Portus

Several major fires are documented in Ostia. The local calendar, the Fasti, mentions a fire that started on January 1st, 115 AD in a vicus ("neighbourhood"), of which the name has not been preserved: praedia complura deusta sunt ("several buildings burned down"),. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius baths had to be restored that were vi ignis consumptas ("destroyed by the force of fire"). At the end of the third century a bakery (Caseggiato dei Molini, I,III,1) was reduced to ashes.

The importance of Ostia and Portus for Rome necessitated a good protection against fire. Therefore Augustus sent a Praetorian Cohort to Ostia. One of the soldiers (his name is not known) died when fighting a fire, and was given a public funeral by the city:


But this cohort returned to Rome by order of Tiberius. Claudius sent two Urban Cohorts to the harbours to fight fires (from the reign of Augustus the troops stationed at Rome were cohortes praetoriae, cohortes urbanae and vigiles). These were recalled to Rome by Nero. Regular vigiles were sent to the harbours by Domitian, and the earliest phase of the Ostian Barracks of the Fire Brigade, the Caserma dei Vigili (II,V,1-2), has been dated to his reign (81-96 AD).

[jthb - 7-Sep-2007]