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The Origin of the Fire Engine

The first fire engine, as we know it, was not a Roman invention, but an Egyptian one. The city of Alexandria saw the first primitive device that was used to spray water.In the third century B.C., the ancient inventor Ctesibius made a pump; it was later improved by Heron in the first century B.C. Much like a primitive engine, Heron's pump had pistons that were moved by a rocker arm that pivoted from a center post. The pipe that led out of the pump could be moved up and down, or left to right. The remains of such a pump have been found both in Italy and in England.

In Rome, "the fire department" was a group of slaves, carrying around these advanced (for the time) pumps. These slaves were called the Familia Publica. Since Roman fires could be very violent and widespread, the slaves were usually slow to respond- thereby guaranteeing their own safety. As a result, there was a lack of firefighting going on. Some clever and cruel businessmen, such as Crassus, made fortunes in the firefighting "business". Crassus had his own team of slaves that worked as firefighters. He and the slaves would go to the burning house, and as it burned, Crassus would attempt to buy it. As the building burned more and more, Crassus would offer less and less money. As soon as the owner relented to sell to Crassus, the slaves would put out the fire.

In the year 6 A.D., almost 30 percent of Rome burned in a very large series of fires. The Emperor Augustus decided that this was much too high a cost, so he assembled a team of public firefighters, named the Vigiles. It was comprised of seven thousand freed slaves who would win citizenship after six years' service in the Vigiles. After a century, freedmen would enter the service of the Vigiles merely for the prestige that came with service. It was ranked much like an elite military service. The Vigiles had become so powerful that they could break into a house if they had suspicion there was a fire inside. If a householder was found to be negligent by allowing a fire to start, the commander could have him flogged.

The Vigiles were successful in fighting fires for over four hundred years; the only severe fire in Rome during this time was in 64 A.D. (There are theories that say the Emperor Nero may have forced them not to act, so he could clear room for his new palace.) Despite their success in Rome, the Vigiles concept did not spread to other cities in the Empire. This was probably due to political factors at the time. Letters exchanged between Pliny the Younger, governor of the province of Bithynia in Turkey, and the Emperor Trajan show that despite local willingness to set up a fire brigade, Rome did not want independent fire brigades in the outer territories.
Pliny's Letter to Trajan Trajan's Letter to Pliny The Fire Engine in Action
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