5. Nero fiddled while Rome burned
In late July, 64 CE, roughly 65% of the city of Rome burned in a fire which raged for nine days. It began near the Circus Maximus, according to the Roman historian Tacitus. The region of the city featured narrow, winding streets, and the fire spread quickly among the densely crowded structures, fed by the prevailing winds. As it grew, the flames created whirlwinds of their own, allowing the conflagration to climb the hills of Palatine and Caelian. The population fled to other areas of the city, and eventually to the roads leading from Rome. The emperor Nero learned of the fire while in Antium. According to Tacitus, Nero returned to the city and helped organize relief efforts. However, at some point following the fire, the mythology emerged that Nero had ordered arsonists to burn the city. The fire offered him the opportunity to rebuild Rome in his own design.
As part of the myth, Nero was said to have played his lyre while observing the destruction from his palace. Several versions of the myth exist, repeated throughout history. One claims Nero watched the fire from his palace on the Palatine hill, another that he remained on the Esquiline hill. Yet another claims he ordered the fire set and blamed it on the Christian sect then growing in Rome, allowing him to initiate the persecution of Christians. Tacitus observed the fire first-hand, though at the age of eight, and wrote his version of the events decades later. He stated that others reported Nero playing an instrument and singing while the city burned. He also stated the reports of the emperor’s activities were unconfirmed by any eyewitnesses. Nonetheless, the myths of Nero fiddling while Rome burned grew, and the phrase remains a reference to indifference to catastrophe in the modern world.