Nero Didn't Fiddle While Rome Burned

About the true story behind the myth emperor Nero and whether or not he fiddled while Rome was burning.


Nero Didn't Fiddle While Rome Burned.

Rome may have burned, but Nero didn't fiddle.

It is only an unfounded rumor, albeit an old one, that the mad Emperor Nero started a fire near the imperial palace and then climbed to the top of the Tower of Maecenas, where he gleefully played his fiddle, sang arias from his own execrable operas, and watched the city go up in flames. True, Nero did fancy himself a poet and musician, and often summoned audiences to attend recitals of his composition. But according to the contemporary historian and chronicler Tacitus, the fire which gutted Rome in 64 A.D. could not possibly have been Nero's doing; at the time it broke out, Nero was at his villa in Antium 30 mi. away. Besides, the violin wasn't even invented until the 16th century, although in some versions of the tale Nero plays a lute or lyre.

But the dispelling of the fiddling myth by no means undermines Nero's hard-won reputation for ruthlessness and cackling depravity. A cold-blooded persecutor of Christians, an extortionist, and a debauchee, he outraged even the wildly licentious Romans with his public wantonness.

Indeed, incest and treachery seem to have run in the family. Consider that his widowed mother, Agrippina, married her own uncle, the Emperor Claudius, who had recently slain his first wife for her infidelities. Later Agrippina schemed to eliminate Claudius's son Britannicus from the line of imperial succession and encouraged Nero to marry Octavia, who was Claudius's daughter and Nero's own adoptive sister. Then she slew Claudius, paving the way for her son's accession to the throne.

But the bloodlust had barely begun. Early in his tenure as emperor, Nero took his own mother as his mistress. Plagued with guilt, he ended the relationship and subsequently had the woman put to death. Not long thereafter, he accused his wife, Octavia, of an adultery of which he knew she was innocent, had her murdered, and married the wealthy patrician Poppaea Sabina.

None of this did Nero's name any credit, and by the time of the great conflagration he was abysmally unpopular. It is known that he had wanted the entire city redesigned and rebuilt, and setting it afire may have been the easiest way to accomplish this task, particularly since the city's streets and squares were glutted with temples, religious statuary, and family shrines which he was powerless to remove. But there is no evidence that he committed such arson. More likely it was the work of his political foes, who thought that the holocaust would be blamed on him. In any event, Nero acted with uncharacteristic intelligence and compassion, first helping to put out the blaze, then overseeing the design of the city and providing food and shelter for those rendered homeless. One historian claims that Nero really did set the fire himself, but out of civic responsibility rather than insanity, and that in the new Rome which he designed, and intended to name Neropolis, slums were cleared, streets were widened, and buildings were beautified.

Still, Nero's popularity continued to ebb. His supporters left him, his enemies grew stronger, and the praetorian guard, the imperial bodyguard, would not serve him. On June 9,68 A.D.-the anniversary of Octavia's murder-Nero stabbed himself in the throat with the assistance of his scribe, Epaphroditus.

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