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Did Nero play lyre during great fire?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

To this day, Emperor Nero appears to us as a ruthless and cruel ruler who ordered to start a fire1 to get a space for a beautiful Domus Aurea – a luxurious imperial villa. But what was the truth about the fire?

According to the most popular message, by Cassius Dio, Nero secretly sent his people who, pretending to be drunk, set fire to the city. In this way, the emperor wanted to destroy the villas of aristocrats on the slopes of Palatine, and use these lands to build his beautiful palace. What’s more, the emperor was to watch the fire from his palace, singing Iliupersis as the equation of unhappiness that Rome suffered with the fall of ancient Troy and play the violin (it’s certainly about lyre2, because the violin was not invented yet).

Most of the historical messages (including Suetonius or Cassius Dio) that survived to our times mention that Nero enjoyed widespread contempt among the people, and when he died, the entire population of Rome celebrated the death of the emperor-artist. However, the more authoritative author is Tacitus, who unambiguously states that hatred for Nero was mainly in the upper layers – nobilitas and among the senators. According to this Roman historian, the low social strata mourned Nero, who cared for their safety and food. What’s more, the later Emperor Otho and Vitellius used the memory of Nero to get the support of the Romans for their power.

Thus, as you can see, Nero owes his bad opinion mainly to Roman historians who belonged to the upper social classes that during the time of the empire lost their influence from the time of the republic.

As Tacitus told us, all of Nero’s negative actions were rumors spread among the masses who lost all their possessions3 and were discouraged by the despotic rule of Nero. As a result of growing rumors about his involvement in the fire, Nero accused the insurgent and mysterious Christians of arson and ordered persecution.

Tacitus also claims that Nero could not be in Rome for the time of the fire, because then he was in Antium – about 60 km south of Rome. So even if he played and sang, he did it without being aware of the tragedy taking place in the capital4.

Henry Altemus, Nero and the burning Rome

Moreover, the Roman historian emphasizes that the young ruler helped the aggrieved Romans; among others shared the Field of Mars and public gardens for the masses who lost their homes in a fire. He even commissioned the construction of temporary shelters for the Romans. In order to feed the victims, his order was to import food supplies from Ostia and nearby cities, and the price of grain was reduced.

In conclusion, modern researchers agree that Nero did not elicit intentionally a great fire in 64 CE. The Eternal City, which was still largely made of wood, was susceptible to fire – evidence of this are many fires in Rome’s history. What’s more, the “Golden House” was finally built on the other side of the Palatine in a place far from the place where the fire broke out. In addition, a part of another emperor’s palace was burnt – Domus Transitoria.

It is worth to refute the myth of Nero’s arsonist once and for all.

  1. Tacitus mentions the rapid spread of the fire, which lasted five and a half days, until July 24th. Only four of the fourteen districts of Rome at that time avoided destruction, three were completely consumed by fire, while the next seven were seriously damaged.
  2. If Nero really played an instrument, it must have been a cithara - an ancient Greek instrument belonging to the "family" of lyre.
  3. The fire consumed most of the wooden and poor districts of Rome.
  4. Ancient historians have a different opinion about Nero's whereabouts during a fire. According to Suetonius, he observed the fire in the tower of Maecenas (Nero 38.2); Cassius Dion believed that he was on the roof of his palace (Roman History 62.18.1); when Tacitus thought Nero was outside Rome, in Antium (Annals 15.39).
  • Did Nero Really Fiddle While Rome Burned?, "Ancient-origins", 30 July 2014
  • Holland Richard, Neron odarty z mitów, Warszawa 2001
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Neron, Warszawa 1974

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