Did Nero really play the fiddle while Rome burned?

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 -- NerĀ­o 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.