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Nero Burning Rome

Tacitus tells us why the story of Nero's arson is false

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Image ID: 1707871. Nero, Emperor of Rome

Image ID: 1707871. Nero, Emperor of Rome

NYPL Digital Library

Separated by almost two millennia from a devastating event in the ancient city of Rome, came a software program called Nero Burning Rom that allows you to burn discs. The event in ancient Rome was so significant that we still remember it, albeit, with crucial details confused. Rome burned, true, in A.D. 64. Ten of 14 districts burned. The involuntary demolition paved the way for Nero's lavish building project that culminated in his domus aurea or Golden House and colossal self-statue. Nero, however, didn't burn Rome, or at least didn't start the burning. [See: Nero as Incendiary," by Robert K. Bohm; The Classical World, Vol. 79, No. 6 (Jul. - Aug., 1986), pp. 400-401.] Even had Nero been present at the time of the burning, the other tale told in connection with Nero burning Rome is untrue: Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. At most he played a stringed instrument or sang an epic poem, but there were no violins, so he couldn't have fiddled.

Tacitus (Annals XV) writes the following about the possibility of Nero burning Rome. Notice that there are others who were deliberately setting fire and that Nero acted with some compassion towards the suddenly homeless.

"A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. It had its beginning in that part of the circus which adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills, where, amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the circus. For here there were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay. The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them, it outstripped all preventive measures; so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets, which characterised old Rome. Added to this were the wailings of terror-stricken women, the feebleness of age, the helpless inexperience of childhood, the crowds who sought to save themselves or others, dragging out the infirm or waiting for them, and by their hurry in the one case, by their delay in the other, aggravating the confusion. Often, while they looked behind them, they were intercepted by flames on their side or in their face. Or if they reached a refuge close at hand, when this too was seized by the fire, they found that, even places, which they had imagined to be remote, were involved in the same calamity. At last, doubting what they should avoid or whither betake themselves, they crowded the streets or flung themselves down in the fields, while some who had lost their all, even their very daily bread, and others out of love for their kinsfolk, whom they had been unable to rescue, perished, though escape was open to them. And no one dared to stop the mischief, because of incessant menaces from a number of persons who forbade the extinguishing of the flames, because again others openly hurled brands, and kept shouting that there was one who gave them authority, either seeking to plunder more freely, or obeying orders.

Other ancient historians were quicker to put the finger on Nero. Here's what the court gossip Suetonius says:

38 1 But he showed no greater mercy to the people or the walls of his capital. When someone in a general conversation said: "When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire," he rejoined "Nay, rather while I live," and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and fire-brands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. 2 For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs.
Suetonius Nero
Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his house, which he had built to connect the palace with the gardens of Maecenas. It could not, however, be stopped from devouring the palace, the house, and everything around it. However, to relieve the people, driven out homeless as they were, he threw open to them the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude. Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck. These acts, though popular, produced no effect, since a rumour had gone forth everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity.

At last, after five days, an end was put to the conflagration at the foot of the Esquiline hill, by the destruction of all buildings on a vast space, so that the violence of the fire was met by clear ground and an open sky. But before people had laid aside their fears, the flames returned, with no less fury this second time, and especially in the spacious districts of the city. Consequently, though there was less loss of life, the temples of the gods, and the porticoes which were devoted to enjoyment, fell in a yet more widespread ruin. And to this conflagration there attached the greater infamy because it broke out on the Aemilian property of Tigellinus, and it seemed that Nero was aiming at the glory of founding a new city and calling it by his name. Rome, indeed, is divided into fourteen districts, four of which remained uninjured, three were levelled to the ground, while in the other seven were left only a few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses."

Tacitus Annals
Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.

Also see: "Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned", by Mary Francis Gyles; The Classical Journal Vol. 42, No. 4 (Jan. 1947), 211‑217.

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