Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

The fifth Roman Emperor is among the most despised figures from history for his horrific cruelty to early Christians and, as the legend goes, for playing the fiddle while Rome was consumed by fire.

Nero während des Brandes von Rom, Historischer Stich, 1888

To ‘fiddle while Rome burned’ is now used to criticise someone who is worrying about trivial things while neglecting to act on more serious matters. Nero was blamed for not caring while his people suffered and for being useless in a crisis. But did it actually happen?

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In the summer of AD 64, a massive fire devastated Rome for six days. Half the city’s population was made homeless and the conflagration – according to the contemporary Roman historian, Tacitus – destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings. As panic set in, rumours thrived that Nero ordered the fire to be started so that he could rebuild the city in the way he wanted. The people of Rome wanted someone to blame, and so the musical story emerged.

There are several issues with the veracity of this tale, the most important problem is that the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and wouldn’t be for a millennium. Nero was a passionate lover of music and gifted on the cithara, a stringed instrument like a lyre, but there was no way he was playing a fiddle.

Second, when the fire started, Nero was not in Rome. He was at his villa at Antium, on the outskirts of the city.

On hearing the news, he rushed back to coordinate emergency relief – he even opened his own gardens as a shelter for homeless Romans.

Nero blamed Christians for the fire, leading to horrific persecution and executions, but in the aftermath, he started to build on the ruins. This confirmed to many that he was responsible, and the story took hold. Over the centuries, the cithara was replaced by a fiddle.

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His behaviour during the fire may not have been as cruel and sadistic as the fiddle story implies, but Nero was certainly not a popular ruler. Four years later, he was declared an enemy of the state and he committed suicide by pushing a dagger through his throat.