The Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD was a devastating event that destroyed much of the city and caused immense suffering. As I research the causes and impacts of this historic blaze, I can't help but wonder - could it have been prevented if the ancient Romans had access to more advanced wiring methods?

In this article, I will explore the insulating techniques used in ancient Roman electrical systems and compare them to more modern advancements. I believe that if waterproof, fire-resistant insulation had been utilized, the spread of the Great Fire could have been limited and many lives and structures spared. Join me as I delve into this fascinating historical what-if scenario.

Ancient Roman Wiring Methods

The ancient Romans did utilize primitive electrical systems, including batteries and electroplated objects. Copper and bronze wires were used to transmit power to various devices.

Lack of Insulation

However, the Romans did not possess advanced insulation technology for their wiring. Electrical wires were either left bare or wrapped in basic protective coverings like cloth or wood.

This meant that wires were at high risk for degrading, short circuiting, and transmitting heat or sparks to nearby flammable materials. Fires could easily be ignited if live wires came into contact with wood beams or textiles.

Waterpipe Insulation

Some rudimentary insulation was achieved by passing wiring through terra cotta or lead water pipes. But this waterpipe insulation had limitations:

So while creative, Roman waterpipe insulation was insufficient to prevent electrical fires. More robust, nonflammable insulation was needed.

Modern Insulation Materials

Advancements in materials science and polymer chemistry have led to a variety of far superior electrical insulation products. If these modern insulations had been available in ancient Rome, wiring safety would have been greatly improved.


Plastic polymer insulations like PVC and polyethylene are lightweight, flexible, and durable. Importantly, they are also fire-resistant and do not easily ignite from stray sparks.


Rubber compounds made from latex or synthetic polymers provide excellent shock absorption and heat resistance. Used as wiring insulation, rubber is unlikely to catch fire.


Ceramic insulators made from porcelain or glass are totally inorganic and withstand high temperatures. Ceramic insulated wiring does not burn or melt even when exposed to flames.

How Insulated Wires Could Have Prevented the Great Fire

The Great Fire is believed to have originated in shops selling flammable goods around the Circus Maximus. The exact cause is unknown, but faulty electrical wiring is one proposed theory.

If robust, fireproof insulation had been used, any stray sparks would have been safely contained within the wires:

With properly insulated wiring, it is unlikely the fire would have ignited and spread as rapidly and catastrophically through Rome. While still destructive, the damage and casualties could have been mitigated. Insulated electrical systems may have changed the course of history.

Lingering Questions

Reflecting on this historical counterfactual scenario leaves me with some lingering questions:


The Great Fire of Rome was undoubtedly a complex event with many contributing factors. However, exploring anachronistic solutions provides food for thought. Studying past tragedies with modern insight can illuminate innovative ways to prevent future disasters. I gained new appreciation for safety advancements we now take for granted, like wire insulation. Simple technologies can have dramatic impacts. With basic fireproof insulation, perhaps the Eternal City would have lived up to its name.