Did Nero really play the fiddle while Rome burned?

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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