Did Nero indeed fiddle while Rome burned?
If Nero did not fiddle while his capital was burning, how did the story come about that he did? How did he become a Satanic figure in the popular imagination, so much so that his name is practically a synonym for inexcusable cruelty?
The answer is no. We will see that he was not even in the city while the fire raged in 64 AD. But that is not the point. If Nero did not fiddle while his capital was burning, how did the story come about that he did? How did he become a Satanic figure in the popular imagination, so much so that his name is practically a synonym for inexcusable cruelty?
Highly regarded authorities have explicitly written about it. Writing about it fifty years after the event, Tacitus observed, in his Histories, that Nero had a private stage mounted while Rome had been aflame and sung the Destruction of Troy. Seutonius, who wrote his Twelve Caesars around the same time, almost literally repeated the story. His prose was even more pictorial. Nero had been ‘viewing the conflagrations from the tower of Maecenas’ even as he sang ‘the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume’. Dio Cassius, who wrote in 221 AD, added more detail. Nero climbed up to the roof of his palace for the best possible view. He had the costume of a Cithara player on and sang the Capture of Troy. Orosius in the early fifth century too referred to the King watching the flames from the top of his palace. But he was no longer singing. He was now loudly reciting the Illiad. Until now, the emperor was not seen to play any musical instrument, though it may be assumed that he might have been playing Kithara, because Cassius clothed him in the attire of a Cithara player. Suetonius too observed that Nero had his statue made and coins minted in the guise of a Cithara player.
Since the fifth century, information about almost all aspects of life in Europe would come mainly from Christian writers. Nero for them had been the instigator of the first imperial persecution of Christians and responsible for the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Since then, Nero had been an unmitigated persecutor, and little attention was paid to his music or recitation. The musical tradition, as it were, did not return until the twelfth or thirteenth century. Otto of Freising, Vincent of Beauvais and a few other chroniclers once again stood him on the palace roof and declaiming the Iliad or playing the Cithara. These chroniclers, who discussed Nero as a Musician, credit Nero with playing the Cithara, but not at the fire of Rome. So far, he had been credited with playing no other stringed instrument.
Where then does the fiddling come from? Most specifically, the question hinges upon the meaning of the word fiddle. It refers to a stringed instrument, to violins to be precise, but also to other instruments of the viol kind. There is another sense in which the word is used. Fiddling around means a lack of proficiency or any concrete accomplishment. When you fiddle around, you are not doing anything useful. The phrase Nero fiddled while Rome burned probably carries bits of both these senses. It means that he derived a sadistic pleasure from watching a large number of people suffer untold miseries, including immediate death. It also means that although he should have taken immediate measures to contain the fires, he did nothing effective to mitigate its effects.
'Nero was above a tower to enjoy the spectacle and to sing along to the sound of the harp', July 18 - 27, 64 A.D. Coloured woodcut by Conti, from "History of the Church" album of the series "For the religious culture of children" circulated by the Union Catholic Youth, Italy, Viterbo 1928. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).
The first question is easily answered. Historians of music or musical instruments are agreed that the viol class of instruments did not appear before the eleventh century. Nero simply could not have played an instrument which was a millennium away in future.
But did he play any string instrument at all? Yes. Nero was noted for his love of music. In fact, there are records that he sang and played musical instruments. He had started large scale musical competition in Rome for the first time in 60AD. In 65 AD he launched an Olympic sort of music competition called Neronia, which was to be held every five years. The Roman elites were more shocked about these performances than they otherwise resented his cruelty, a point to which we will return.
Let’s turn now to the great fire of 64 AD. A commentator has observed that it was like the 9/11 of the ancient world. It struck at the heart of a city which was probably the greatest and most influential of its kind in the world at the moment. The shocked populace immediately began to look for causes and answers, and as we shall see, scapegoats. Canny politicians were looking for sinister conspiracies, and marginalized religious groups found themselves victimized. Rumours began to circulate that the disaster had been manufactured. Could it be that the emperor himself had engineered it?
The Roman Emperor Nero (AD 37 - AD 68) surveys the city of Rome after the disastrous fire of AD 64. Rumours abounded that the fire was started by Nero himself, to clear land for a palace complex, but Nero deflected the blame onto the Christians, ordering mass executions. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Nero was the fourth emperor of what is called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. These were essentially the people who had dissolved the Roman Republic and instituted the office of the emperor. Infamous emperors like Tyberius, Caligula or Nero belonged to the house as did heroes such as Augustus or Julius Caesar. Nero was made king at the spoilt young age of 17. He had, until then, grown up in the middle of obscene luxury. He succeeded his grand-uncle Claudius, who had been a fairly distinguished emperor himself. But it was an unhealthy climate, as palace intrigues raged. Nero’s mother Agrippina the younger allegedly had an affair with Claudius but did not hesitate to poison him to secure the throne for her own son. But Nero soon rebelled against his mother, since she had been too domineering for comfort. Later, he would have her killed.
He was probably popular enough with the common Romans, but the patrician Senators could not stand him at all. The writers of history, it is important to remember, mostly belonged to this class. It is their version of Nero that we are left with. Every excess or salacious rumour about his exploits were likely to be blown up by this hostile class since Nero too enjoyed needling them. Tacitus, for instance, wrote that histories from Nero’s own time were ‘falsified by terror’ and the ones which came later were coloured by the force of ‘recent hatred’. The Jewish historian Josephus likewise pointed out to the inherent bias of the Roman writers against Nero. Yet, they could not have been all driven by bias or hatred alone. If so many of them had agreed that Nero was a monster of sorts, he could not have been a saint after all.
CIRCA 1989: Antonio Rizzi (1869-1940), Nero and Agrippina. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)
Nero might or might not have participated in the murder of Claudius. But he was certainly the architect of the murder of his mother Agrippina. It is a dramatic story. Broadly speaking, Nero arranged for a capsize, but she survived it with a great display of agility. By then Nero had run out of patience and had her stabbed by three swordsmen. Nero was no great son. Besides, he lived a wild lifestyle and held extravagant parties. He would invade various brothels in town with his lackeys and they were notorious for their boorish and loud escapades. But none of these was entirely unprecedented.
What was unprecedented was his addiction to music and performance. He would make his guests sit through hours of his music recitals. He was known to perform in plays as well. It may not sound unusual today, but for Romans then being an actor or a musician was probably the lowest possible occupation, lower even than flesh trade. Ironically, this is also where the root of the fiddling story probably lies.
"Thumbs down": Nero in the arena dooming a gladiator who has to re-enter the fight.
The fire of 64 continued to hang like a thick fog over Nero’s reputation in history. The people of Rome those days lived mostly in wooden houses and shacks. Tacitus, who was a small boy at the time, offered a vivid description of the fire. It started in shops at the Circus Maximus, the chariot-racing stadium. It quickly turned into an inferno, rushing through the narrow streets and cramped alleys. Children and the elderly were equally helpless and crowds of confused citizens ran helter-skelter in attempts to get away, and quite a few died trying to save others. Fire-fighting efforts were impeded by gangs of men, some of whom threw torches to encourage the flames. It was not clear whether they were looters or, as they claimed, were acting under orders. After five or six days the demolition of all the buildings in a large space at the foot of the Esquiline Hill seemed to have brought the fire to an end, but it broke out again as furiously as ever and spread more widely still. Here there were fewer casualties, but the destruction of temples or pleasure arcades was no less worse. When it finally died out, most of the city was either destroyed or severely damaged. Of Rome’s fourteen districts, only four remained intact.
There was a rumour that Nero had been planning to start constructions for a new city to be named after him. Given the scale of damage and desperation among people, it was predictable that he would be held responsible for starting the fire. This image fitted perfectly with his known reputation as a musician cum actor who was despised anyway by the elite Romans. As we saw above, there was no reference to his fiddling until at least the twelfth century AD. But nothing highlights his presumed cruelty more powerfully than the reference to a fashionable instrument. So what if it came into being later?
Nero was no innocent victim though. His response to the fire was shady and opportunistic at best. He would later commission extensive building activities in some lands which were gutted by the fire. But taking advantage of a tragedy to push through a pre-existing plan is one thing, and burning an entire city to death is another. Even Tacitus did not think that he had anything to do with starting the fire. He was not even in the city when it started. On hearing of it, he returned and immediately commissioned extensive relief works, including opening up public buildings for shelter for the homeless and even constructed fresh accommodations for them later. The price of corn was reduced to make it more affordable.
Nero at Baiae, c. 1900. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Yet these measures did not earn him any goodwill. Tacitus himself wrote of him as a victim of wild rumours. He was not in town when it started, and it did not even start where he was later to build a new palace complex. If he had started the fire, it is hard to see why he would start it far away from where he intended to erect his new palace. Plenty of his own property too was destroyed, and he had many parts of those reconstructed later. Many rooms and frescoes in the old palace were later recreated in the same manner in the new palace.
The truth is, as we saw in passing above, the ancient city was practically a tinderbox. The Romans had wisely designed the provincial towns following a grid system. But no such plan was followed in the capital. It was an overstuffed mass of alleyways and crisscrossing lanes, most of them too narrow to support the large traffic that fell on them on a daily basis. It was only a matter of time before a large scale fire broke out. 64 A.D. only happened to be that unfortunate moment, and Nero the unfortunate emperor to have to see it happen.
Nero did not start the fire, nor did he fiddle or pluck his lyre while Rome burned. But a restive population had given short shrift to his admittedly inadequate relief operations. His popularity had hit an all-time low, and he had to do something quickly to recover a part of the popular respect due to an emperor, without which he could not possibly go on ruling. His eyes, probably by chance, now fell on the Christians.
It had been thirty or so years since Jesus had died. The early Christians were probably not even Romans and certainly did not speak Roman. They spoke an obscure tongue and zealously guarded their religious rituals. They were a small alien minority that had all the characteristics of a bunch of suspected impostors. They were committed monotheists and did not display any worshipfulness to the large pantheon of Roman deities. They looked like an ideal scapegoat, in other words. Nero immediately had their leaders arrested and set fire to them. In fact, there are descriptions that he forced them to wear animal hides and let loose ferocious dogs after them. Yet others he hung up on poles and burned alive, the poles lined up against his place. It looked as though they were live torches, and the opulence of the palace stood glowing against the shrieks of the dying Christians impaled on those stakes. Instead of diverting popular attention to Nero’s perceived cruelty in setting up the great fire, the move ended up reinforcing popular disgust against the tyrant. The Christians might have been obscure aliens at the time to Romans, but the Romans were not cruel enough to see even aliens dying such unspeakably horrible deaths. It is not a surprise, then, that when Christians had their turn to set historical records, Nero was immediately turned into a Satan or Anti Christ sort of a figure. Anything even remotely positive about Nero had to be systematically purged off the records.
Nero was not a great emperor. He was, in fact, a terribly cruel one, having been spoilt by his royal inheritance, and committed several ghastly crimes which would now be fairly enough called crimes against humanity. He was a shameless womaniser and indulged in wild revelries, apart from having his own relatives murdered so that his control over the empire remained tight. As such, however, he could not have been one of the most despised or ridiculed figures in ancient history, one who is held up as an embodiment of cruelty for all times. Whatever he had been, and he was not a great saint, it was certainly not unprecedented. However, much of his infamy springs solely from his alleged response to the fire of 64. From those particular charges, he can now certainly be acquitted.