Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned?

'The Fire of Rome', oil on canvas painting by Hubert Robert (French, 1733 - 1808). In the forefront we see a bridge. In the distance we see the city in flames against the night sky.
French artist Hubert Robert (1733 to 1808) depicted the "The Fire of Rome," in this oil painting on canvas. (Image credit: Photo by: Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Roman emperor Nero ranks among the most infamous rulers of the Roman Empire for supposedly fiddling while Rome burned. But did that really happen? And does Nero really deserve his bad reputation?

As with all stories, we have to consider the source.

Born on Dec. 15, A.D. 37, Nero became the fifth emperor of Rome and the last of the Julio-Claudians, the dynasty that founded the empire, according to archaeologist Francesca Bologna, who curated the Nero Project at the British Museum (opens in new tab) in London.

Nero was only 2 years old when his mother, Agrippina the Younger — whose great-grandfather was Augustus, the empire's first emperor — was exiled by Emperor Caligula. At age 3, Nero's father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, died, leaving him in the care of his aunt. When Caligula was murdered in A.D. 41 and succeeded by Emperor Claudius, Nero was reunited with Agrippina, who later married her uncle Claudius, Bologna noted.

Despite having a biological son, Claudius designated Nero, his great nephew and stepson, as his heir, and Nero ascended to power in A.D. 54 at the age of 16. But his reign was short: Nero died in A.D. 68 at age 30 after taking his own life.

Related: Did all roads lead to Rome?

Roman historians have contended that Nero killed Agrippina and two of his wives, only cared about his art, and had very little interest in ruling the empire, Bologna said. However, "our sources for Nero are people that hated him," Harold Drake, a research professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Live Science. One always has to keep in mind that much of his reputation "was written for us by his adversaries," he said. Bologna agreed, noting in her post for the British Museum that accounts of Nero "were keen on representing him in the worst possible light."

In July A.D. 64, Nero was vacationing in Antium (what is now the seaside town of Anzio, Italy) when he learned about what later became known as the Great Fire of Rome, Drake said. Before the conflagration burned itself out a week later, 10 of Rome's 14 districts had burned to the ground and thousands in a city of 500,000 to 1 million people had lost everything.

Nero raced back to Rome. He arranged emergency shelter and supplies of food and drink for the public, and opened his own palace and gardens for shelter, Drake noted (opens in new tab).

A Roman coin which has the portrait of Nero on it. (Image credit: Luso via Getty Images)

So, if Nero wasn't in Rome when the conflagration started, what's the origin of the rumor that "he fiddled" while the empire's capital burned?

Nero fancied himself a musician. At some point during the relief efforts, a rumor said he consoled himself by singing about another great fire — the fall of Troy, the Homeric tale that's the focus of the Roman poet Virgil's epic poem "The Aeneid," Drake said.

"He had done everything he could to deal with the fire, and he was exhausted," Drake said. "Being of an artistic bent, he consoled himself by comparing this disaster to the fall of Troy, which Romans liked to think they descended from, via the mythical ancestor Aeneas."

But even if Nero did play music while Rome was burning, he would not have used a fiddle, as bowed instruments would not become popular for another 1,000 years, Drake said. Instead, to accompany himself, Nero probably would have used a cithara, a portable harp-like instrument with seven strings, he explained.

There was precedent for Romans acting in such a manner. For example, the historian Polybius wrote that as the Roman general Scipio Aemelianus watched Carthage being destroyed, he quoted Homer's "The Iliad," saying, "'And a time will come when holy Ilium shall fall, and Priam, and Priam's folk of the good ashen spear,'" Drake said. "He was not thinking of Carthage but expressing fear that a like fate awaited the Romans."

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero offered financial incentives to landlords to clear their property of debris and begin rebuilding, insisted that developers use stone instead of wood, straightened and widened streets, and ensured an adequate water supply for the city, Drake said. "Does that seem like the activity of a madman?" he asked.

So why might history remember Nero as a bad ruler? Almost everything the modern world knows about Nero comes from two sources: Roman senators and Christians. To both, Nero was an enemy.

"In general, senators loved to indulge their fantasy of a restored republic, sometimes by engaging in assassination plots, and then being outraged when the emperor reacted with hostility," Drake said.

As for the Christians, Roman senator and historian Tacitus suggested that because a rumor began circulating that Nero was responsible for the fire, he looked for a scapegoat in the Christians. The result was that many died from crucifixions, fires and other means. This often led Christians to blame Nero for the persecution they would endure from the Roman Empire, Drake said.

"I see no reason to doubt that Christians suffered from popular resentment," Drake said. "But did Nero simply capitalize on this to deflect blame from himself, or was he giving in to popular pressure?"

"I see no reason to doubt that Christians suffered from popular resentment," Drake said. "But did Nero simply capitalize on this to deflect blame from himself, or was he giving in to popular pressure?"

All that said, "I don't want to fall into the trap of justifying everything Nero did just because he has suffered from bad press," Drake said. "Nero was unquestionably pampered and overindulged by his tutors and, like other tyrants at other times, became much more arbitrary in his actions."

In the end, although Nero might not have been a madman, "there's little reason to doubt that he became increasingly unstable" over the course of his reign, Drake said. After the Great Fire of Rome, a group of nobles tried to assassinate him, and Nero grew increasingly paranoid, according to Hareth Al Bustani, author of "Nero and the Art of Tyranny (opens in new tab)" (Independently published, 2021).

Perhaps, given all that happened to Nero, any instability late in his life "should come as no surprise," Drake said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.