14 – Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned
This is one of the best known myths of the ancient world. The saying has a double meaning: It suggests that Emperor Nero sat in his villa a few miles away while the city of Rome burned to the ground and also outlines the fact that he neglected his duty. There was unquestionably a fire in Rome in 64 AD which was during the reign of Nero. The extent of this fire isn’t truly known as the main account of it comes from Tacitus who was only about 8 years old at the time and wrote his account many years later.
According to Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts remained intact as up to 70% of the city was destroyed in the fire. Three of the districts were completely destroyed while up to half of the city’s one million residents were made homeless. There are a number of famed Roman historians who would have lived through the fire such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch yet the latter doesn’t mention it at all and the former only mentioned it in passing.
A letter from Seneca the Younger to Paul the Apostle is a first-hand account of the fire. In it, Seneca says only four blocks were burned including 132 private homes. While he also said the fire lasted six days, his account suggests there was far less destruction than what Tacitus would have us believe.
As for Nero’s role; the notion that he completely ignored the fire appears to be false; as does the idea he may have started the fire. There was a rumor that Nero stood on his private stage and began singing while the fire raged. Some people believed the rumor because Nero was a music lover and had previously entered music competitions.
In reality, there is evidence that shows Nero initially acted in the way a ruler should in the midst of a disaster. He was in his villa at Antium which was 50 km away from Rome and according to Tacitus, Nero immediately travelled to Rome when he heard of the fire. He led the relief efforts and apparently opened his own gardens which acted as a temporary shelter for homeless citizens. As well as ordering the construction of emergency shelter, he reduced the price of corn and provided people with food.
Nero didn’t help his reputation in the aftermath however. As he was getting the blame for the incident, he quickly looked for a scapegoat and found one in the shape of the city’s Christian population. They were persecuted and executed ruthlessly by the emperor but even this didn’t help the accusations go away. He built a palace on top of land that was freed because of the fire; this made it appear as if he had planned the fire to ensure the land became available. The cost of rebuilding the city bled the treasury dry so Nero devalued the Roman currency which was an extremely unpopular move.
Obviously, Nero couldn’t have played the violin as per the legend since the class of instrument to which the violin belongs wasn’t created for another 1,000 years. The closest instrument to the violin available at the time was the cithara but there is no concrete evidence that Nero was idle during the fire or that he started it. In fact, ancient historians agree that he reacted in a manner befitting an emperor; at least in the immediate aftermath of the fire. As for who actually started it; no one knows. It’s likely that it was an accident and began in a shop that sold flammable goods.