Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

Emperor Nero_0

The fifth Roman Emperor is among the most despised figures from history for his horrific cruelty to early Christians and, as the legend goes, for playing the fiddle while Rome was consumed by fire To ‘fiddle while Rome burned’ is now used to criticise someone who is worrying about trivial things while neglecting to act on more serious matters. Nero was blamed for not caring while his people suffered and for being useless in a crisis. But did it actually happen?

In the summer of AD 64, a massive fire devastated Rome for six days. Half the city’s population was made homeless and the conflagration – according to the contemporary Roman historian, Tacitus – destroyed 70% of the buildings. As panic set in, rumours thrived that Nero ordered the fire to be started so that he could rebuild the city in the way he wanted. The people of Rome wanted someone to blame, and so the musical story emerged. But there are several issues with its veracity…

The most important problem is that the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and wouldn’t emerge for a millennium. Nero was a passionate lover of music and gifted on the cithara, a stringed instrument like a lyre, but there was no way he was playing a fiddle.

Secondly, when the fire started, Nero was not in Rome. He was at his villa at Antium, on the outskirts of the city. On hearing the news, he rushed back to coordinate emergency relief – he even opened his own gardens as a shelter for homeless Romans. Nero blamed Christians for the fire, leading to horrific persecution and executions, but in the aftermath, he started to build on the ruins. This confirmed to many that he was responsible, and the story took hold. Over the centuries, the cithara was replaced by a fiddle.

His behaviour during the fire may not have been as cruel and sadistic as the fiddle story implies, but Nero was certainly not a popular ruler. Four years later, he was declared an enemy of the state and he committed suicide by pushing a dagger through his throat.   Via Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

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2 Responses to Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

  1. James M. Martin says:

    Christians love to paint with darkest brush Nero Caesar. Some may even, disingenuously, demonize Nero because they know John of Patmos did not write his Revelations to address future events, but what was happening on the ground. (The gospel is coded. Nero Caesar by word-number manipulation — think of a primitive Enigma machine — warned Christians in faraway lands in a manner designed to elude snoopy Romans.) Now they have Nero burning Rome and blaming it on the Christians. They should watch the old Mervyn LeRoy movie, “Quo Vadis?” as it includes Peter Ustinoff’s marvelous portrayal of the emperor. But it is also high camp. You can’t have a eunuch playing a Roman centurian and a voraciously, legendarily sex-obsessed actress playing a first Christian and stilted dialog…well, the only good thing in the film is Hugh Gray’s poems as sung by Ustinoff. Gray was my teacher at UCLA film school. He made sure that we would get a big laugh out of Nero’s playing, crucial to a scene where he talks the retinue into begging him to strum his lyre for them. Brilliant movie in unintended ways.

    • Deskarati says:

      A quick look at wiki tells me:

      ‘He is known for many executions, including that of his mother, and the probable murder by poison of his stepbrother Britannicus. He is infamously known as the Emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned” and as an early persecutor of Christians. He was known for having captured Christians to burn them in his garden at night for a source of light. This view is based on the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, the main surviving sources for Nero’s reign. Few surviving sources paint Nero in a favorable light. Some sources, though, including some mentioned above, portray him as an emperor who was popular with the common Roman people, especially in the East. Some modern historians question the reliability of ancient sources when reporting on Nero’s tyrannical acts’

      Sound like a nice bloke! On the other hand I’m a big fan of Peter Ustinoff, a rare talent.

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