Scandal Mania

Not everything we believe is true.

Nero Fiddled whilst rome burned. didn't he?

As everyone knows, the mad emperor Nero fiddled whilst Rome burned. He then blamed the Christians for the fire and unfairly persecuted them. Unfortunately, just about every statement here is wrong.

Firstly: was Nero really mad?

He was certainly different. Whilst roman emperors were known principally for making war and murdering their rivals Nero was an artist and musician. He loved nothing more than playing and singing, competitively, at musical festivals; he commissioned his own and even toured Greece, insisting that they held their festivals at the time of his visits. Needless to say that he was invariably crowned the winner; it would be surprising if that was not the case.

This did not go down well at Rome. The population, and in particular the historians, were more used to leaders who showed manly heroism and there were many who found the idea of a singer/songwriter, in charge of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, pretty disgusting. His popularity plummeted.

Secondly: did he fiddle whilst Rome burned?

The fiddle didn't even exist in those days; it wasn't invented for over a thousand years. Nero was, however, considered to be a competent player of an instrument called a cythera; that was a solidly built stringed instrument, similar to a lyre, but designed for professional musicians. There are in fact coins in existance which show him playing this instrument. However, what really happened during the fire?

In AD 64 a huge conflagration consumed around 70 of the buildings in the City. When it first broke out Nero was in his Villa at Antium, some 35 miles away. He hurried back to Rome and began relief work right away, opening up his own gardens to provide shelter for the homeless, arranging for emergency supplies of food to be brought in, and paying for much of this from his own pocket. Unfortunately, fire fighting was in it's infacy in those days and the usual way of containg a fire was to pull down buildings around the conflagration to try to stop it from spreading; rumours were soon heard, though, that Nero's men were deliberately spreading the fire, rather than trying to put it out. Finally, perhaps because of the widespread disdain of his musical proclivities another tale was told of him watching the fire from a tower whilst singing about the fall of Troy. The historian Tacitus reported the rumour, but stated that there were no eyewitnesses to back it up; his fellow historian Suetonius reported it as a fact, without producing any evidence whatsoever. So, it was hearsay only, reported by two writers who were heavily biased against Nero. There is not a scrap of hard evidence to support the story.

Finally, were the Christians unfairly blamed?

The Romans were quite relaxed and tolerant about religious matters and were usually quite happy to allow the populus to worship whichever dieties they wished, particularly when the principal temple was in Rome where a careful eye cfould be kept on it. The Christians of the day, however, were a far less broadminded bunch. They proclaimed that theirs was the only true God, and that all others had to be stamped out. Many a pagan temple was burned to the ground by these zealots; it is not at all unlikely that the fire was, indeed, caused by them.

So, is the scandalous belief that Nero deliberately caused the fire of Rome, then sat back and made music whilst enjoying the spectacle? It would seem highly unlikely, on the balance of probabilities. For not the first, or the last, time in history, he may just have been the victim of a bad press.

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