Did Nero really play the fiddle while Rome burned?

In this engraving, Nero presides over the burning of Christians at the stake.
In this engraving, Nero presides over the burning of Christians at the stake.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

For six days and seven nights the citizens of ancient Rome watched helplessly as their city burned. The great fire that consumed Rome in A.D. 64 spread quickly and savagely. After it was over, 70 percent of the city had been destroyed. "Of Rome's 14 districts, only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins," writes the contemporary Roman historian Tacitus. Of the million-person population, an estimated half was made newly homeless by the fire [Montgomery County (Md.) Schools].

As is usually seen in such mass tragedies, rumors began to wind through the devastated streets. Reports emerged that some men seen fanning the flames claimed they were under orders. As a result of the tremendous losses, the Roman people, feeling the effects of paranoia, looked for someone who might be responsible for the fire. They blamed their emperor -- Nero.

Some rumors speculated that Nero himself had set the fire, others that he had ordered it. As Nero rebuilt Rome in a new style more to his liking, some believed he used the fire as an excuse for new construction. But perhaps the most interesting rumor that emerged from the great fire was that Nero had played his fiddle while Rome burned.

In the face of such charges, Nero searched for a scapegoat for the fire. He chose the Christians and persecuted them ruthlessly, torturing and executing them in hideous ways. Despite this public spectacle, Nero still found himself blamed for the fire.

The idea that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is odd. But a mad tyrant who preferred to play music rather than offer succor to his people isn't unbelievable, and Nero was unquestionably cruel. The myth is busted, however, when one realizes that the violin wasn't invented for another 1,500 years after the fire [source: Berkeley]. In other words, it's impossible that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. So where did this idea come from?

Read the next page to find out more about the origins of the fiddling Nero story.

Nero and Rome's Burning

A bust of Emperor Nero, circa 65 A.D.
A bust of Emperor Nero, circa 65 A.D.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

The story that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned conjures up images of the emperor, dramatically backlit by the flames from the burning city, alone, calmly playing his fiddle while his people cried out in suffering.

To the contrary, Nero actually did take immediate and expansive measures to provide relief for his citizens. He rushed back to the city when news of the fire reached him at his palace at Antium, on the outskirts of Rome. The historian Tacitus, who was a boy in Rome during the blaze, provides accounts of the steps Nero took in the midst of the fire. The emperor himself coordinated fire fighting efforts on the first night. He also opened the public buildings and his own gardens as temporary shelter for homeless residents. Nero imported grain from nearby cities and supplied his citizens with food at a fraction of the normal cost.

Yet the idea that he had fiddled while Rome burned persisted, and still does to this day. Why?

One explanation is that Nero actually did consider himself a serious musician. While he certainly didn't play the fiddle -- since it was not yet invented -- Ner­o did play another stringed instrument, the harp-like cithara.

Roman historians record that Nero had a real passion for the cithara. In conquered lands, Nero coordinated festivals that featured musical competitions on such dates that he could attend and compete in them all. Nero is said to have been very emotionally invested in these competitions [source: Gyles].

Nero's interest in these musical competitions apparently bothered some of his rivals in the Senate, who found the idea of the emperor competing side by side with common musicians unseemly.

Nero's Fall

The Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum in Rome, built in 70-80 AD, October 1998.
The Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum in Rome, built in 70-80 AD, October 1998.
Fred Mayer/Getty Images

Mary Francis Gyles offers another interpretation of the story: Nero's fiddling may not have anything to do with music at all, but rather is a metaphor for his ineffectiveness. Fiddling, after all, can also mean that a person is expending energy on something useless or misguided. If the measures Nero took following the fire were perceived as misdirected or inadequate, then saying Nero fiddled while Rome burned takes on a whole new meaning. It's possible that the idea is a relic of propaganda so effective that it's survived 2,000 years.

Although history has cast him in an unfair light regarding the fire, it's difficult to feel sorry for Nero. The emperor has a well-documented history of brutality. He ascended to the throne after his mother killed his uncle; Nero later had her killed. In the face of blame for the great fire, he chose to look for scapegoats. His persecution of the early Christians was the first the religion would endure, and it resulted in the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul, both of whom were executed during the persecutions.

Ultimately, the great fire helped bring Nero down. Discontent with his reign, his infantries threatened mutiny, and he was declared a public enemy by the Senate. Facing execution, Nero pushed a dagger into his throat and took his life four years after the fire [source: New York Times].

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Sources

  • Canfield, Leoon H. "The Early Persecution of the Christians." The Law Book Exchange, Ltd. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=Gr9xtakCRpsC&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=nero+the+destruction+of+troy&source=web&ots=VEZgTjhpB9&sig=rObRshHjQ32PJsRYR4Q5YHvcZow
  • Gyles, Mary Francis. "Nero fiddled while Rome burned."­ The Classical Journal. January 1947. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/journals/CJ/42/4/Nero_Fiddled*.html
  • Rodi, Bishop Thomas J. "Message to young people: Friday, 12/3/2004." Diocese of Biloxi. http://www.biloxidiocese.org/special/adlimina/?pageID=1203
  • "The burning of Rome, 64 A.D." Eyewitness to History. 1999. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/rome.htm
  • "The death ­of Nero." New York Times. February 3, 1878. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=940CE1DC113FE63BBC4B53DFB4668383669FDE&oref=slogin
  • "The origins and history of the violin." University of California - Berkeley. http://www-atdp.berkeley.edu/2030/jmoriuchi/violin-origins.html