|‘Nero, and the burning of Rome’, by M. de Lipman. Illustration in H. Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis (Philadelphia, 1897).|
The impartial page of history informs us, that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Dr Peter Crompton, campaigning for election in Liverpool in 1820, reported in Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable George Canning (1828), p. 293
Nero fiddled while Rome burned ... say this in public nowadays, and you’ll have a horde of angry purists clamouring at your gates to tell you how wrong you are. (Actually, based on past experience of the spelling used by these ‘purists’, it’s more likely to be a hoard.)
By the way, the sentiment is a lot older than 1820. It’s just that this appears to be the earliest occurrence of the exact phrasing, ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’. Earlier writers came up with similar ideas, just not the same wording —
and like thee, Nero,
(I’ll) play on the lute, beholding the towns burn:
wretched shall France be only in my name.
Marlowe and others,¹ Henry VI part 1 (ca. 1591-1595), Act 1 Scene 4
I have a fiddler heard him (i.e. Nero), let me not
see him a player ...
Anon., The tragedy of Nero (1624), Act 3 Scene 3
|¹ Yes, really. No, it’s not a conspiracy theory. Shakespearean scholars have long suspected that the Henry VI plays were collaborations, but three stylometric analyses now point independently to Marlowe, specifically, as responsible for most of Part 1 — perhaps along with others. See Craig’s chapter in Shakespeare, computers, and the mystery of authorship (2012); Segarra et al. in Shakespeare quarterly 67 (2016) 232-56 (subscription needed); and The new Oxford Shakespeare: authorship companion (2017), pp. 513-17. The work of Arefin et al. in PLoS ONE 9.10 (2014) suggests that Marlowe may have been involved in a wide range of plays, maybe more active as a collaborator than as an independent writer. The new Oxford Shakespeare takes a more radical line, assigning Henry VI part 1 to Nashe (Act 1), Marlowe (most of Acts 3 and 5), and an anonymous other, with Shakespeare’s role reduced to adapting their play in the mid-1590s. I won’t stick my neck out that far, but Marlowe’s role appears to be beyond doubt.|
These and other earlier references were gathered by Mary Francis Gyles in an excellent article, ‘“Nero fiddled while Rome burned”’, which appeared in 1947 (here’s an open-access copy).
So, is it completely mythical, as the modern-day purists will insist? Well, in a sense, yes. But there are also senses in which it is most definitely not a mere myth. A true answer has to be more nuanced. Here’s mine:
- In the letter, it is of course trivially false: the Romans didn’t have fiddles. (They did have a thing called a fidicula, ‘a small lyre’, but Gyles shows that there’s no evidence linking that specific word to Nero.)
- In spirit, though, ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ is precisely what the surviving evidence tells us.
- However, that evidence is almost certainly flawed.
So it’s not literally true; it’s probably not metaphorically true either; but there is a kind of truth to it. The thing that is true is that it is a very ancient myth: a form of it existed within a few years of Nero’s death, maybe even during his lifetime.
|‘But I am aware that I must compete with those who sang at the burning of Troy. My song must be greater, just as Rome is greater than Troy!’ Peter Ustinov as Nero (Quo vadis, 1951; YouTube link).|
Wait, what? ‘“Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is what the evidence tells us’? — but ... but there are loads of popular accounts telling us that there’s no evidence of this! Surely no one on the internet would lie?
Well, yes, in fact there is plenty of evidence. Provided that we forget about literal fiddles, and pay attention to the underlying idea: frivolously playing music while the city burns.
Here is that evidence, warts and all. There are three pieces of testimony: they are Tacitus (writing ca. 110-120 CE), Suetonius (ca. 120-140 CE?), and Cassius Dio (ca. 211-229 CE).
Though these measures [Nero’s response to the fire] were populist in nature, they proved ineffectual, because the rumour had got around that at the very time when the city was in flames, he had gone onto the stage in his home and sung the Destruction of Troy, representing the evils of the present with a disaster of antiquity.
Tacitus, Annals 15.39
Viewing this conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, he rejoiced in ‘the beauty of the fire’, as he put it. He sang the Sack of Ilion in his usual stage costume.
Suetonius, Nero 38.2
While everyone else was in this state, and many were even leaping into the fire itself because of their suffering, Nero climbed up to the top of his palace where the best view of the burning was, put on his gear for kithara performances, and sang the Sack of Ilion — or so he called it; obviously it was really a ‘sack of Rome’.
Cassius Dio 62.18.1
And, just to be extra clear, we know for certain that Nero did write a poem which Juvenal calls Troica, ‘matter concerning Troy’ (Satires 8.221).
There’s good agreement here, though Cassius Dio can’t be regarded as independent of the earlier two. We have to substitute an ancient concert kithara for the modern violin, but that should have been obvious all along. (For that matter, Gyles’ article suggests that the proverbial ‘fiddling’ doesn’t come from the musical instrument, but from the fact that he was ‘fiddling’ in the sense of lollygagging.)
The upshot is this: the story is strongly supported by ancient testimony.
You won’t get this impression from a lot of recent accounts of the ‘myth’. Most of them aren’t even aware of Suetonius and Cassius Dio. And when they bother to mention Tacitus, they often misrepresent him.
... it’s impossible that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. ... To the contrary, Nero actually did take immediate and expansive measures to provide relief for his citizens.
If Nero played anything, it would probably have been the cithara, a heavy wooden instrument with four to seven strings — but there is still no solid evidence that he played one during the Great Fire. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero was rumored to have sung about the destruction of Troy while watching the city burn; however, he stated clearly that this was unconfirmed by eyewitness accounts.
... there is no concrete evidence that Nero was idle during the fire or that he started it. In fact, ancient historians agree that he reacted in a manner befitting an emperor ...
‘No solid evidence’ my eye. Though Tacitus calls the story rumor, that regularly means ‘report, word heard on the grapevine’ as well as ‘a rumour’; and he certainly doesn’t take the trouble to dismiss it. Nor does he ‘state clearly’ that it was unconfirmed. And ancient historians do not ‘agree that (Nero) reacted in a manner befitting an emperor’. Instead, these ‘mythbusters’ selectively focus on the bit of Tacitus immediately before the relevant passage, and ignore the relevant passage as though it meant nothing.
(By the way, Nero’s kithara certainly wouldn’t have had ‘four to seven strings’. Think a dozen or more. It’s questionable whether any real kithara ever had only four strings; if they ever did, it was at least 800 years before Nero’s time.)
|‘So the Senate wouldn’t pass my plans, eh? Wouldn’t let me build my New Rome? But if the old one is burnt, if it goes up in flames, they will have no choice! Rome will be rebuilt to my design! Brilliant! Brilliant!’ The Doctor sets fire to Nero’s plans for New Rome ... and accidentally gives the emperor an alternative idea. (Doctor Who, ‘The Romans’, 1965; YouTube link)|
The catch, as a select few of the cleverer mythbusters realise, is that Tacitus tells another story about Nero’s actions during the fire, separately from the fiddling story, which is inconsistent with parts of the story as told by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Tacitus mentions earlier in Annals 15.39 that Nero was out of town at the start of the fire; that he returned to Rome once it was already well under way; and that, once there, he started relief efforts for the people who had suddenly become homeless. And that’s when he tells us that these relief efforts didn’t do him any favours because of the fiddling story.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no evidence of the myth. As we’ve just seen, there is evidence to support the myth.
As it happens, though, there is good reason to doubt the evidence. In the first place, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are not reliable writers at the best of times: Suetonius was basically a gossip columnist, and Dio was happy to accept the word of gossips. Both of them insist that Nero was personally responsible for the fire. In Dio’s case, he just wanted to watch the world burn —
After this, (Nero) desired what must always have been his prayer: to destroy the entire city and realm during his lifetime. For example, he had called Priam wonderfully blessed in that respect, since he had witnessed his homeland and empire being destroyed.
Cassius Dio 62.16.1
Now, when someone only ever reports insanely evil stories about a ruler’s misdeeds, you can bet there’s an agenda. That by itself gives loads of reason for doubt.
Tacitus is more reliable, and also more cautious. He repeats that there was a report of Nero staging a performance of the Sack of Ilion, but he doesn’t go so far as to say it actually happened. In addition, Tacitus’ claim that Nero was out of town at the start of the fire is inconsistent with Suetonius’ and Cassius Dio’s claims that he was personally responsible for starting the fire.
Really what it looks like is that Nero got really, really unlucky in the PR game. He was known for performing live concerts; he did compose a Troica (Juvenal, Satires 8.221); it may well be that this was remembered after the fire. Moreover, Nero used the occasion of the fire to reassign a large amount of land in the middle of the city for an imperial palace. This made it easy for conspiracy theorists to imagine that he had wanted the fire to happen.
By choosing facts selectively — rather like the modern accounts I’ve quoted above — it was perfectly possible for enemies to concoct a story where Nero himself started the fire, and where he revelled in the destruction by performing a lyre concert, something that he was already known for.
For us, the fact that we can clearly see how the story may have come about allows us to be very sceptical of Suetonius’ and Cassius Dio’s ridiculous story of a man who just wants to watch the world burn. But at the same time, it is entirely legitimate and true to state that the story that ‘Nero fiddled (or rather played the lyre) while Rome burned’ is an ancient one, and one that was widely believed even at the time of the fire.
I’ll just close with an extract from Henryk Sienkiewicz’ novel Quo vadis (1895; English translation 1897), which helped cement this ‘myth’ in the modern mind — perhaps most memorably in the 1951 film, in which Peter Ustinov sings about Rome’s destruction so abysmally badly.
Somewhere, below there in the darkness, the people murmured and grumbled. Let them murmur. Ages would pass, thousands of years would go by, and men would remember and glorify the poet who in such a night sang the fall and burning of Troy. What was Homer, yea, what was Apollo, with his lute? None could be compared to him. Here he raised his hands and striking the strings he quoted the words of Priam:
‘Oh nest of my fathers, Oh precious cradle!’His voice in the open air, against the roar of the flames and the distant murmur of the multitude, seemed week, abrupt, and feeble. The sound of the accompanying instruments was like the buzzing of flies. But senators, officers, and Augustales gathered together on the aqueduct, bowed their heads and listened in rapturous silence. ... In reality he was not moved by the destruction of his Capitol, but his delight over his own words caused his eyes to fill with tears. He dropped the lute with a clatter at his feet, and wrapping himself in his robe stood as if petrified, like one of those statues of Niobe which adorn the court of the Palatine. A storm of applause succeeded. But the multitude in the distance answered it by howling.
H. Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis (Philadelphia, 1897) part 3 ch. 4