Nero and the burning Rome

Did Nero Really Fiddle While Rome Burned?

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Nero is today remembered as one of the mad and bad emperors of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, this reputation may have been unjustly accorded to him, as some of the stories of his brutality were quite likely made up by the ancient writers, much like a lot of the media propaganda we see today. One such story is that of Nero merrily playing the fiddle while Rome burned in the Great Fire of the first century.

It was during the night of the 18 th July 64 AD, when a fire broke out in the merchant area of the city. Strong summer winds fanned the fire, with flames quickly spreading throughout the old dry wooden buildings of the city. According to the historian Tacitus, the fire raged for five day before it was finally brought under control. Of the fourteen districts of Rome, four were untouched, three were destroyed, and seven were heavily damaged. Tacitus was the only Roman writer alive during that period, apart from Pliny the Elder, who wrote about the fire. There is, however, an epistle, supposedly from Seneca the Younger to St. Paul, which states explicitly the damage done by the fire – according to him, only four blocks of insulae (a type of apartment building) and 132 private houses were damaged or destroyed. Still, one could question the motive of Seneca the Younger, as these figures were given in the context of the execution of Christians who were blamed for starting the fire. By showing that only a small amount of damage was inflicted by the fire, it would have highlighted the unjust punishment meted out against the Christians.

Artwork of the Great Fire of Rome

Artwork of the Great Fire of Rome . Photo source: Wikimedia.

In the aftermath of the fire, rumors quickly spread about the cause of the fire. As one popular account goes, Nero had been planning the construction of his grand palace, the Domus Aurea, but needed to clear a large area to accommodate the palatial complex. So he arranged for a fire to break out in order to clear the aristocratic dwellings on the slopes of the Palatine Hill and gleefully fiddled as he watched the fire encompassing Rome. He then, of course, needed a scapegoat for his actions, so he blamed the Christians for the fire because of their apocalyptic belief that Rome and the world would end by fire. This led to an active campaign against them.  Both, the fire and the persecution of the Christians became the defining image of his reign. But how much of this account is actually true?

Nero and the Burning of Rome

Nero and the Burning of Rome by Henry Altemus (1897)

According to Tacitus, Nero was at Antium (about 60 km south of Rome) when the fire broke out in Rome. Thus, Nero would not have been about to watch on while it burned. Even so, Tacitus acknowledges that Nero appeared on a private stage and sang the ‘Sack of Ilium’ as a comparison between Rome’s present misfortune and the disaster that befell ancient Troy. Tacitus, however, dismisses the story as merely a rumour that was spread amongst the masses. This rumour was perhaps credible as Nero was known after all to be highly interested in the performing arts.

Notice that Tacitus does not make any reference to musical instruments. Even if Nero did perform while Rome burned, it most likely would not have been with knowledge of the fire taking place, and it would not have been a fiddle. This is due to the fact that the fiddle was not invented until much later, possibly in the 11 th century. If indeed Nero was playing some sort of musical instrument, the most likely candidate would be the cithara, an ancient Greek musical instrument in the family of the lyre.

Nero’s supposed lack of concern for Rome while it burned has stuck in our minds since the rumour first began. But Tacitus gives a very different account of Nero’s actions upon learning of the Great Fire. According to Tacitus, Nero opened up the Campus Martius and the public gardens for the people who lost their homes. In addition, he raised temporary structures, and even opened up his own gardens to shelter his subjects. In order to feed them, he brought food supplies from Ostia and the neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was reduced. Nevertheless, it is the image of Nero as the ruthless and conniving emperor that has remained in place over the centuries.

This deliberate attempt to mar the image of Nero may be due to the fact that the people who wrote Rome’s history were not very pleased with Nero. Although Suetonius and Cassius Dio claimed that the people of Rome celebrated Nero’s death, Tacitus paints a more complex picture. According to this writer, it was the upper class, the nobility, and the senators, who rejoiced at Nero’s death. By contrast, the lower class and slaves mourned Nero’s death because they felt he had their best interests at heart. Furthermore, two future emperors, Otho and Vitellius, would use the memory of Nero to gain the support of the Roman people. Thus, it may be said that the negative image that we have of Nero may not be entirely due to the evilness of the emperor himself, but due partially to the historians who wrote unfavourably about him.

Comments

Like many things in ancient history, the Fiddle while Rome Burns phrase has probably lost its original meaning. Fiddle comes from the Latin Vitula which mean to dance around lively or to rejoice. (its cognate with Vitality etc). So if Nero was in fact participating in a play (merriment) he would have indeed been fiddling while Rome burned. Even if he did not realize it at the time. By the time of Shakespeare this original meaning would have been lost as Etymology did not become a study until the brothers Grimm began their collection of stories, thus they would have assumed it was with a Fiddle.

This is an interesting summary of the events. I hate to quibble, but I am wondering about one detail -- that Nero reduced the price of corn in the wake of the fire. Corn is a food not brought to Europe until after the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Do you perhaps mean another food staple, like wheat or barley?

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