In July of 64 A.D., a great fire ravaged Rome for six days, destroying 70 percent of the city and leaving half its population homeless. According to a well-known expression, Rome’s emperor at the time, the decadent and unpopular Nero, “fiddled while Rome burned.” The expression has a double meaning: Not only did Nero play music while his people suffered, but he was an ineffectual leader in a time of crisis.
It’s been pretty easy to cast blame on Nero, who had many enemies and is remembered as one of history’s most sadistic and cruelest leaders—but there are a couple of problems with this story.
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For one thing, the fiddle didn’t exist in ancient Rome. Music historians believe the viol class of instruments (to which the fiddle belongs) was not developed until the 11th century. 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.
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The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero was rumored to have sung about the destruction of Rome while watching the city burn; however, he stated clearly that this was unconfirmed by eyewitness accounts.
When the Great Fire broke out, Nero was at his villa at Antium, some 35 miles from Rome. Though he immediately returned and began relief measures, people still didn’t trust him. Some even believed he had ordered the fire started, especially after he used land cleared by the fire to build his Golden Palace and its surrounding pleasure gardens.
Nero himself blamed the Christians (then an obscure religious sect) for the fire, and had many arrested and executed. But while Nero may have been guilty of many things, the story of him fiddling while Rome burned belongs firmly in the category of popular legend rather than established truth.