The vigiles were create by Augustus in 6 AD, and were Rome’s first official fire fighters. Prior to this, firefighting organisations were privately owned. One notorious group were the slaves owned by Crassus, who would not put out a fire until Crassus had purchased the burning house at a knock down price.
Although firefighting was the prime role of the vigiles, a large group of men patrolling Rome’s dangerous streets at night inevitably became involved in minor police work, for example tracking down runaway slaves and catching burglars. They were not as highly regarded as the Urban Cohorts who were involved in public order and crowd control, nor the elite Praetorians, who were the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, and were initially recruited from freedmen (ex-slaves).
The vigiles were commanded by the praefectus vigilum, who was an equestrian, and were divided into seven cohorts, each commanded by a tribune. Each cohort was divided into seven centuries of 70-80 men.
The vigiles had a range of equipment to fight fires, including ropes with hooks to pull down burning material, buckets (they were derogatorily known as the spartoli or little bucket men), pumps, siphons and axes, the latter of course being of use in their police role. As well as fighting fires, they were supposed to enforce the laws dictating that Romans should maintain firefighting equipment in their own houses.
With Rome’s highly combustible buildings, fire was a regular occurrence. With no official police force, and Rome’s streets notoriously dangerous at nights, the life of a member of the vigiles would have been busy, hard work, and risky.