CHARLOTTE, N.C. Today’s trivia topic concerns a great happening that never actually happened. On this day in 64 A.D. most of the Imperial City of Rome was destroyed in what we now know as the Great Fire of Rome. Historically, that fire most certainly did happen. But the event that never happened? The popular myth that the legendarily depraved Roman Emperor Nero fiddled during the blaze. If you think about it, how could he have done so? The violin wasn’t even invented until the 16th century.
Nero and the Great Fire of Rome
Once you dig further into this popular story, you find more. Much more. It starts with the fact that Nero had an alibi. The Great Fire of Rome took place in mid-July, a time when the city experiences its hottest time of the year. Wealthy Romans, including the Emperor Nero, liked to head for the hills to escape the heat. As the Great Fire got underway, Nero was actually ensconced more than 30 miles away from the city in Antium, where temperatures were much cooler.
Fires in Rome during that period were not uncommon. In a city of nearly two million people surrounded by slums and poor construction, fires, in fact, were relatively frequent. And often disastrous.
In the case of the Great Fire of Rome , the blaze began in a rundown district south of Palatine Hill. The site overlooked the Circus Maximus where the great Roman chariot races customarily took place. Palatine Hill itself – home to the elite of the city – peered down upon the Roman Forum.
Once the blaze got underway, more and more homes burned quickly. Flames spread fast due to high winds and the poor construction of the buildings the fire consumed. As the Great Fire spread north, it expanded greatly, raging out of control for many days.
By the time the smoke finally cleared, just four of Rome’s 14 districts stood untouched by the epic blaze. Three districts were entirely destroyed. Hundreds of people died. Thousands of homeless wandered aimlessly about the city’s ruined streets.
Nero after the fire
The Emperor Nero was wildly unpopular at the time, which may have had something to do with the more colorful accounts of the fire. But the reality is that he acted with uncharacteristic compassion during and after the fire.
Once the initial blaze was under control, a second fire broke out lasting several more days. Accounts say that not only was Nero helpful in stopping the fire. He also provided food and shelter for as many of the homeless as possible.
In addition, Nero was instrumental in overseeing the design of Rome’s reconstruction. However, this part of the story seems to indicate the Emperor was probably not as magnanimous as it might appear on the surface.
It was common knowledge that Nero had ideas about redesigning the city long before the fire took place. That was another reason for speculation that he had set Rome ablaze to begin with.
Most historians now believe it was opposition forces who fueled the idea of blaming Nero for the fire in order to gain political advantage. Likewise, Nero himself, took advantage of this opportunity to cast suspicion on a newly popular religious sect, known as Christians.
Nero’s early life and times
Nero, whose real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was the great-grandson of Caesar Augustus. He came to power at the age of 16 and ruled over Rome for less than 20 years.
The emperor did fancy himself a poet and musician, often summoning audiences to endless performances of his compositions. He played a lute, a popular stringed instrument of the day, which may have also led to the myth about playing the fiddle during the fire.
In reality, as a person, Nero was a narcissist, murderer and tyrant. Need evidence? Early in his reign as emperor, Nero took his own mother as his mistress. Later, wracked with guilt, he had her put to death. Soon after, he accused Octavia, his own wife, of adultery knowing full-well that she was not guilty. Subsequently, Octavia was murdered as well, allowing Nero to marry Poppaea Sabina.
The Golden House — Domus Aurea — and the Great Statue of Nero
During the reconstruction of Rome – after the fire, two-thirds of the city lay in ruins – one of Nero’s pet building projects became known as his “Golden House” (Domus Aurea). Discovered beneath the streets of ancient Rome, archaeologists discovered and excavated the massive ruins of that legendary palace. Today they remain open to the public.
Most scholars believe the emperor built a huge bronze statue of himself as the sun god and set it up in the vestibule of the Golden House. Though Suetonius, an early biographer of Nero, is the only author to specifically mention this colossal statue, the historian Pliny the Elder wrote that he had witnessed the sculptor creating the monument. Pliny claimed the statue was 99 feet high, though other sources say it reached 121 feet.
A later historian recorded that Vespasian, an eventual successor to Nero who reigned from AD 69 to AD 79, erected the statue several years after the emperor’s death, not in the Domus Aurea but on the Sacred Way. According to this version, Nero never actually saw the statue standing in his house. Some say Vespasian added a sun-ray crown and renamed the statue Colossus Solis, after the Roman sun god Sol.
Whichever story you believe, some historians claim it took 24 elephants to move the statue just northwest of the Colosseum. Some 100 years later, when Emperor Commodus came to power, he ordered the sculpture altered by replacing the existing head to represent himself as Hercules. The unpopular, paranoid Commodus was ultimately murdered. His eventual successor restored the statue to its original design.
Destroyed in the fourth century, this colossal statue of Nero no longer exists. But it was this sculpture that influenced the name change of the Flavian Amphitheater to what we refer to today as the “Colosseum.”
The death of the Emperor Nero
On the anniversary of his wife Octavia’s murder, Nero stabbed himself in the throat. He never lived to see the series of palaces he envisioned that would have been known as Neropolis.
And so in the immortal words of Scarlet O’Hara, when it comes to speaking of the decline and fall of this Roman emperor, just say “Fiddle dee dee.” #
—Headline Art: The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert (1785). Public domain, via Wikipedia.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.