great fire of rome

Nineteen hundred and fifty years ago today, on July 19, 64 C.E. (A.D.), a great fire broke out in the city of Rome. The conflagration seems to have begun in a commercial district, among shops selling flammable goods, and quickly spread to the rest of the city. For all our popular visions of Rome as a city of grand stone buildings and marble columns, the reality is that most of it was made of wood. July 19 was a hot and windy night, and the winds quickly spread sparks from building to building, a situation similar to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Ultimately, three of Rome’s 14 districts were completely destroyed, with most of the others suffering damage one way or another. It’s anyone’s guess how many people died, but there were probably hundreds of casualties, maybe thousands.

As most people know–or think they know–this fire is famous for being the one during which the tyrannical emperor Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. People still use the expression “fiddling while Rome burns” today; just this weekend I heard about an acquaintance of my husband’s, a Tea Party sympathizer, who used this expression to refer to President Obama. That would be quite a ridiculous comparison in any event, but even more so when one realizes that there is absolutely no truth to this “meme” from ancient history. Nero did not own a fiddle, did not play it while Rome burned, and probably wasn’t even there.

All history is subject to distortions, but the history of the classical world is particularly so. Nero–his full name was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus–is remembered in a lot of histories as a cruel and petty tyrant, a persecutor of Jews and particularly Christians, and has even been called “the anti-Christ” (incidentally, a charge you also sometimes hear about Barack Obama). Nero, who was the Roman Emperor from 54 until his murder fourteen years later in 68, certainly seems to have been hated by a lot of people. He may have been vain, incompetent and short-sighted. But we’re just not sure exactly what happened during much of his reign, because all the histories that survive were written well after his death. Determining exactly what happened in ancient Rome is an imprecise process of triangulating what might be the truth from a shockingly few set of mutually contradictory sources. Thus, distortions that get injected into histories of the period often continue down through the ages, passed again and again with each inaccurate (or possibly inaccurate) retelling of the story.

This scene from the epic film Quo Vadis?, made in 1951, is a modern retelling of the Nero-fiddling legend. Peter Ustinov plays the Emperor. The fire itself is pretty well done for a 1950s movie.

We know for certain, however, that Nero did not “fiddle while Rome burned,” because the fiddle or violin was not invented until, at the very earliest, the 11th century. Some depictions of the legend try to nod to this fact by depicting Nero playing a lyre, which did exist in Roman times, instead of a fiddle. The YouTube clip above from the 1951 film Quo Vadis shows us this. Presumably if Nero did play music while the city burned he must have been happy about it, right? This stems from another historical distortion, that Nero sent agents out that night to set the fire deliberately, so as to make room for a new grand palace he wanted to build. This legend too is utter rubbish, as we know the fire broke out in quite a different place than where Nero ultimately built the Domus Aurea on Palatine Hill.

In fact it seems that Nero was not present in Rome at the time of the fire at all, but most likely in Antium. This is the account of the historian Tacitus, who unlike others who wrote about Nero’s reign was at least alive at the time, though he was only 9 at the time of the fire. Most modern historians agree Tacitus’s account, which doesn’t blame the fire on Nero’s agents and omits the nonsense with the lyre/fiddle entirely, is probably closest to the truth. Tacitus has Nero returning to Rome in the following days, with bread and alms for the survivors, then organizing the rebuilding effort.

What about the oft-told legend that Nero blamed the fire on Christians, then launched a major persecution of them as punishment? This idea has more to commend it than the lyre/fiddle story, but it’s by no means a slam dunk, despite the long tradition of Nero being condemned in early Christian writings as a tyrant and persecutor of the new religion. It seems clear that Nero did persecute Christians; he also persecuted Jews. But lighting them on fire as a way to punish them for the Great Fire? My primary expertise in history is not ancient Rome, but from what I’ve read on this topic, I’m skeptical.

There’s a lot about ancient Rome that we don’t know–arguably we know far less than remains unknown about this fascinating civilization. But in order to approach it in a historically responsible manner, we need to jettison silly myths like “Nero fiddling while Rome burned.” It just didn’t happen. It’s a wonderfully evocative phrase, but it’s total fiction.