By now, you’ve probably heard the expression that the Roman emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.” In fact, it has become so popular that we use it to describe anyone—especially a politician—who engages in frivolous or malicious activity in the midst of a tragedy.
There are a few problems with the adage, though. For one thing, fiddles hadn’t been invented yet. Most historians place the invention of the viol class of instrument, to which the modern fiddle belongs, around the 11th century C.E., while the Great Fire of Rome took place in July of 64 C.E. Further, historical accounts of just what, exactly, Nero got up to while the inferno was raging vary considerably, and obviously none have him playing the fiddle, since there was no such thing at that time.
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The fire was real enough, though. According to those surviving accounts which are nearest to contemporary, the fire began on the night of July 19, among the merchant shops near the chariot stadium known as the Circus Maximus. Lying between the Aventine and the Palatine hills, it was located in the midst of the city, and the conflagration spread quickly.
It was not the first such fire to grip Rome. In fact, several other major fires are recorded in the decades prior, going all the way back to 6 C.E. and the fire which led to the creation of the Cohortes Vigiles, city watch and firefighters who helped to combat the Great Fire of 64 C.E.
In spite of their efforts, the fire burned out of control for six days. When it was eventually brought to heel, it reignited again and burned for another three days before damage could be assessed. Once it was finally put out, two-thirds of Rome had been devastated. The city, at the time, was divided into 14 districts, three of which had been completely destroyed, while many others were reduced to little more than ruins. Only four escaped without major damage.
Beginning in an area of densely-packed buildings and narrow alleys, with no large structures or open spaces to slow the spread of the fire, it is perhaps no wonder that it raged out of control. However, there were accounts, even then, suggesting more nefarious causes, including claims that fires were starting in buildings far from the central conflagration, and that looters and arsonists were throwing torches into buildings and otherwise hindering the efforts of firefighters to stop the blaze.
So, what was Nero actually doing while Rome burned? Unfortunately, the closest thing we have to contemporary records of the event were those produced by Roman senator Tacitus nearly half a century after the fact. This, combined with a couple of other accounts from the second century CE give us most of our historical data about the fire, its aftermath, and what, if anything, Nero had to do with it.
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Unfortunately, they don’t provide an especially clear picture. According to Tacitus, Nero was away from the city when the fire began, at his villa in Antium. He returned before the fire was put out, and opened his own gardens as well as the public buildings of the city to house refugees, while bringing in grain for neighboring towns to feed them.
However, Tacitus writes, “his measures, popular as their character might be, failed of their effect; for the report had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage, and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, had sung the Destruction of Troy.”
Nor was this the most troubling rumor reported by the earliest accounts of the blaze. There was a belief that Nero himself had ordered the fires, though the reasons given vary as considerably as just what he is supposed to have been doing while they burned.
Some say that he did it to clear land for the building of his new palace, others say that he sought to bypass the approval of the senate and rebuild Rome in his own image. These pernicious rumors were only exacerbated by the speed at which Nero apparently built the ruined portions of the city back in the Greek style, including starting construction on his new palace.
Tacitus and other early sources also suggest that Nero tried to pin the blame for the fire on Christians, who were already an unpopular minority in Rome at the time. In fact, Tacitus, as was his wont, doesn’t mince words, suggesting that Nero “inflicted the most exquisite tortures” on “a class hated for their abominations.” It has been widely believed that this marked the first state-driven persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, although modern scholars such as Brent D. Shaw reject the idea that Nero blamed the fire on the Christians at all.
Why, then, the story that Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Nero was, by the time Tacitus and other early historians were writing shortly after his reign, a widely unpopular ruler, whose reign was characterized by impulsiveness and cruelty. By the time he was 22 years old, he had murdered his own mother, after all.
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Nero was also a musician with aspirations to performing before adoring crowds. According to historian Mary Francis Gyles, “Tacitus and other conservative Romans were more shocked by these actions than by his brutal murders.” So, it may have been the gaucheness of Nero’s musical aspirations that led so many near-contemporaries to claim that he had the audacity to perform music while his city burned.
For while fiddling was out of the question, early accounts tend to suggest that he sang or played the lyre or cithara, an instrument with which he was known to be proficient. So why is the expression not “Nero sang while Rome burned?” Gyles thinks that it might have to do with the other meaning of the word fiddle, which is to engage in wasteful and fruitless activity, such as “he fiddled away his time.”
By that definition, perhaps Nero really did fiddle while more than half of the city burned, after all.