Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Or did he?

Gaius Cornelius TacitusOne of the most adored ancient Roman legends tells about the ruthless, megalomaniac Emperor Nero was obsessed with the idea of building a magnificent new city as a permanent memorial for himself. The legend suggests that due to being thwarted by the owners of the family shrines that blocked the streets, Nero himself put Rome to the torch.

Three secondary sources- Cassis Dio, Tacitus and Suetonius, have provided varying historical sources. The primary sources failed to survive. At least five seperate stories circulated regarding Emperor Nero and the fire:

  • Motivated by a desire to destroy the city, Nero secretly sent out men pretending to be drunk to set fire to the city. Nero watched from his palace on the Palatine Hill singing and playing the lyre.
  • Nero quite openly sent out men to set fire to the city. Nero watched from the Tower of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill singing and playing the lyre.
  • Nero sent out men to set fire to the city. Nero sang and played his lyre from a private stage.
  • The fire was an accident. Nero was in Antium.
  • The fire was said to have been caused by the already unpopular Christians. This story was spread in order to blame someone else, because rumor had it that Nero started it.

But there is no historical evidence that Nero had an part in the starting of the fire. What is even more suspicious is the famous detail some stories-that Nero stood on the top of city tower and fiddled. Other versions of the legend claim that he played a lyre or a lute. It should be noted that the fiddle was not invented until the 10th century.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus

A few years after the fire, Tacitus wrote an account of the incident claiming the Nero had been 50 miles away at his grand villa at Antium when the blaze started. Upon hearing news of the fire, Nero raced to the city and made frantic efforts to cease the blaze. According to Tacitus, he organised a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds. Nero’s contributions to the relief extended to personally taking part in searching and rescuing victims of the unforgiving inferno, spending days searching the debris without the help and protection from even his bodyguards. After the fire had ceased, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for those who had been left homeless, and arranged for the delivery of ample food supplies to prevent starvation among the survivors.

Whatever be his motives, assuming that this was true would mean that this is perhaps one of the few, if not only praiseworthy act of an otherwise deplorable life.

Brought to power by his mother, Aggrippina, as a boy of 17, Nero was hated by the people for having expropriated the position that his half brother deserved.

Even by Roman standards, his private life was a scandal. What must have been even more painful was his continued threatening insistence that everyone should attend his plays and operas. Apparently his demeanor and lack of talent was matched only by the awfulness of his voice.

His cruelty towards Christians is legendary. They were extremely unpopular at that time, suspected of sorcery, and provided both Nero and Rome with a useful scapegoat for the fire. Hundreds were executed. Nero personally ordered several hundreds to be fed to the dogs, while the rest were crucifed and burned alive.

In the first months of Nero’s reign Agrippina controlled her son and the Empire. But as time passed by, there was a rift between mother and son. Agrippina disapproved of her son’s affair with freed woman Claudia Acte and even violently scolded him. She began to support Britannicus in her attempt to make him emperor. Britannicus was secretly poisoned on Nero’s orders during his own banquet. The power struggle between Agrippina and her son had begun.

Agrippina the Younger

Between 55-58 AD, Agrippina became very watchful and kept a close eye on her son, annoying him further. He stripped her of all honors and powers, and even removed all her bodyguards. He banished her from the palace. Towards 57AD, Agrippina went to live in a riverside estate in Misenum.

She died shortly afterward. The man responsible for her death is widely rumored to be Nero himself, who many believe had sent three assassins to kill her after learning that she had survived a boat accident, which was actually an assassination attempt secretly planned by Nero, according to Tacitus. It is also speculated that prior to this, Nero considered poisoning or stabbing Agrippina, but felt these methods were too difficult and suspicious.

And finally! His sadistic cruelties and debaucheries sickened even those who adhered to him the closest. The emperor’s private bodyguard-the Praetorian Guard-abandoned him.

Nero must’ve been captured and executed as a public enemy. But it is more widely believed that in 68 AD, he committed suicide.

Featured header image source: Medium


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