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Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Possibly. But here’s what he did do

Taking a look back at Roman Emperor Nero and the context of history help take a different perspective

This statue of Nero, created by the sculptor Claudio Valenti, shown in 2010 on the waterfront of Anzio, Italy.
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One of the greatest live theatrical performances I’ve ever witnessed was Gary Armagnac’s 1994 portrayal of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. Deformed in body as in soul, he lies, marries and murders his way to the English throne — famously killing even his nephews, the little “princes in the Tower” (of London). He is one of the great villains in world literature.

But is he the Richard of history? Shakespeare’s historical sources, like Shakespeare himself, wrote under the royal House of Tudor, which had replaced the House of York by killing the 32-year-old Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. They had no reason to portray Richard sympathetically or in a positive light, and they didn’t. Today, though, some historians argue that Richard was a good king who has been unjustly maligned.

A similar process may now be occurring with another seemingly unambiguous and consummate historical villain, the Roman emperor Nero (A.D. 37-68). For centuries, Christians have linked him with the Antichrist and the apocalyptic prophecies of John’s Revelation. Still, some contemporary scholars argue, he wasn’t really so bad.

One of those is Joshua Levine in “You Don’t Know Nero: Reassessing History’s Most Maligned Ruler, Notorious for Fiddling While Rome Burned” published in the October 2020 Smithsonian magazine and online at smithsonianmag.com. Several of his points are included below.

Nero probably wasn’t temperamentally suited to rule and he hadn’t wanted the throne. He enjoyed social gatherings, was relatively indifferent to class distinctions, and remembered the names of the people he met. With little appetite for travel, conquest or gladiatorial contests, he seemed suspiciously un-Roman. Indeed, he was an avid philhellene, a lover of things Greek.

A statue relief of emperor Nero’s head on the gateway entrance to the park that contains the ruins of his golden palace at domus aurea in Rome.
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It was his ambitious mother, Agrippina, great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, who — through various marriages and, very likely, murders — had maneuvered him onto the throne at age 17. But Nero then left the details of government to senior officials while he devoted himself to chariot racing (at which he became quite adept), vocal training, mastering a difficult stringed instrument called the “cithara,” and writing rather good poetry.

Certain elements of this revisionist effort are beyond dispute. For instance, the common image of Nero throwing Christians to the lions in the Colosseum in Rome cannot be true; the Flavian Amphitheatre was built only after his death, between A.D. 70 and 80. And anyway, while, as emperor, he was expected to attend gladiator fights, Nero commonly remained in his box with the curtains drawn.

Perhaps the most famous image of Nero has him “fiddling” while Rome burned. In the 10th year of his reign, on July 18, A.D. 64, fire erupted in the Circus Maximus. It raged for nine days, destroying much of the city. Vacationing at Antium (today’s Anzio) when the news reached him, Nero raced back to personally superintend firefighting and relief efforts. He opened the imperial gardens to the homeless, constructed emergency lodgings, brought food in at subsidized prices, and, afterwards, introduced regulations to prevent a recurrence of the disaster.

Why is Nero’s image so terrible? For one surprising thing, Rome’s power elite thought his poetry and singing frivolous, even contemptible, and beneath the imperial dignity. More importantly, his death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Augustus in 27 B.C. No eyewitness accounts survive from his reign; his story was told by historians writing under and after the Flavian emperors who succeeded him and who needed to justify their succession.

But Nero was no saint. Under pressure to find scapegoats for the Great Fire, for instance, he did kill Christians. He probably assassinated political threats.

Moreover, Nero seized several neighborhoods destroyed by the catastrophe in order to build an enormous palace complex called the Domus Aurea, or “Golden House.” At almost 200 acres and covering Rome’s Palatine, Caelian and Esquiline Hills, it was likely the world’s largest royal palace. Some rooms were covered with gold and ornamented with mother-of-pearl, precious stones, fretted ivory ceilings, and clever devices that distributed flowers and diffused perfumes. “Now,” Nero is reported to have said upon its completion, “I can at last begin to live like a human being!”

His land grab fueled suspicions that Nero had set the fire himself. (Some decades later, the emperor Trajan built his famous public baths atop the Domus Aurea, filling its vast rooms with dirt in order to support their weight.) But archaeological evidence suggests that he might have intended his palace grounds as a public park, and no modern historian believes him an arsonist.

A good summary of recent revisionist scholarship and the principal source for this column is “You Don’t Know Nero: Reassessing History’s Most Maligned Ruler, Notorious for Fiddling While Rome Burned,” by Joshua Levine, Smithsonian 51/06 (October 2020): pages 24-33, 72-75.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.