Fighting Fires in Ancient Rome
--From Great Disasters
In the days of the Roman Republic, the job of fighting fires was entrusted to bands of slaves known as the Familia Publica. Under the authority of public magistrates, these primitive fire brigades were stationed by the gates and walls of the city and equipped with little more than water buckets. Augmenting the Familia Publica were fire-fighting crews maintained by private citizens either for financial gain or to enhance their political careers.
After a disastrous fire in A.D. 6, the emperor Augustus replaced this highly ineffecient system with corps of Vigiles, the world's first truly professional fire department. The Vigiles were divided into seven units, or cohorts, each responsible for 2 of Rome's 14 administrative districts. The roughly 1,000 men in each cohort were named according to the tasks they carried out during a fire. Using buckets of woven and tarred esparto grass, the Aquarii, or water carriers, formed bucket brigades between a water source and the site of the fire. The Siphonarii squirted water at the fire by means of siphos, a brass hand pump resembling a four-foot-long hypodermic needle. The Uncinarii were hook men, who grappled burning roofs and walls with hooked lances. Other equipment used by Roman firefighters included axes, ladders, blankets, sponges, brooms, wickerwork mats, and possibly, even an early type of chemical fire extinguisher. The Siphonarii may also have used a double-cylinder force pump-- a rudimentary version of the modern fire engine.
The Vigiles were also responsible for policing the city at night, capturing runaway slaves, preventing thievery at public baths, and enforcing fire prevention codes. The corps of Vigiles lasted some 500 years despite its dismal-- and still unexplained-- failure to respond to the Great Fire of A.D. 64.