No, Nero did not play the fiddle while Rome burned.
ew days ago, a friend of mine called to complain about a business presentation that didn’t go as planned. He mentioned that one of the new hires made a vital mistake during the presentation, but his team leader didn’t intervene.
My friend said: “The team leader just sat during the presentation doing nothing. Kept checking his phone. Like Nero, he played the fiddle when Rome burnt. I may lose this deal.”
“I’m sorry to be a nitpicker,” I said, “But Nero didn’t play the fiddle when Rome burned. Seems like your team leader could not care less about the presentation.”
He was surprised.
“I thought Nero was famous for not giving a damn when his city was on fire.”
I said no.
Unfortunately, many of us have grown up believing this myth. History is always a mash-up of myths and legends based on actual events. Historians separate the wheat from the chaff in order to present us with the most credible version of events.
One of them is the story of Nero and the great fire of Rome. The myth is polar opposites to reality.
Let us talk about Nero and six other popular myths from Roman history.
Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned
Few sources depict Nero as a tyrant who persecuted political opponents. Some historians have falsely portrayed him as a madman who didn’t care about his people’s misery. During the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, his opponents accused Nero of “playing the fiddle while Rome burned.” The expression has become synonymous with apathy. Some have even blamed Nero for starting the fire, though we now know it was accidental. Nero wasn’t present in Rome when the fire broke out.
But did Nero really play the fiddle when Rome burned?
The first flaw in this narrative is that the fiddle did not exist in ancient Rome. The second and most important argument against this is that recorded evidence shows Nero worked tirelessly to extinguish Rome’s great fire. He immediately rushed to the city on hearing the news of the fire and opened his private gardens to stranded Romans. Nero was directly involved in putting out the fire and relief operations.
Because Nero’s interests in the arts were considered blasphemous in Roman society, many of the records depicting him in a negative light are politically motivated. Nero’s ruthless persecution of his opponents did not help his reputation. This included blaming Christians for the fire followed by executing and imprisoning them, often without a trial.
However, not everyone agrees with this negative portrayal of Nero. Emperor Trajan, considered one of Rome’s five good emperors, praised Nero’s reign. Trajan’s approval of Nero divided historians. Many argue that Trajan saw Nero’s reign favorably during the early years, when Nero was under the tutelage of the famous Roman philosopher Seneca.
Regardless of your feelings about Nero, blaming him for being careless during the Great Fire of Rome is wrong. It is time to bury this myth.
Cleopatra was Egyptian
Cleopatra was Egypt’s queen, but she was not Egyptian.
The outrage over Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Cleopatra for an upcoming Hollywood film is amusing. Critics have accused the filmmakers of “whitewashing African history.” That may be an issue in many Hollywood films, but this is not one of them. Gal Gadot, who is from the Mediterranean, is better suited to play Cleopatra than an African actress.
Cleopatra was not African, despite her importance in Egyptian history. She was Macedonian Greek. In fact, she was the first person in her entire family to speak Egyptian, and she was its last ruler.
Egypt fell into the hands of Alexander the Great after the Macedonians defeated the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Following the death of Alexander, a succession war among his generals resulted in Ptolemy (also known as Ptolemy I Soter) receiving Egypt in 305 BCE. Cleopatra was a Ptolemaic descendant. She wasn’t the first Cleopatra in her family, either; she was the seventh Cleopatra in the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Because the Greek rulers of Egypt were so concerned with preserving their lineage, they married within the family. Cleopatra, like her forefathers, married her brother Ptolemy XVIII, with whom she shared power in Egypt.
Her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony have inspired Shakespearean plays, romance novels, and Hollywood films. Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BCE, following the final war of the Roman Republic between Mark Antony and Augustus. Egypt became a Roman province after her death thus ending the Macedonian era.
Barbarians and Romans were eternal enemies
Pop culture has portrayed the relationship between barbarians and Romans in a simplistic light, with barbarians depicted as Rome’s enemies. But Rome’s relationship with barbarians was complex. Barbarian was a term used by Romans and Greeks to refer to anyone who was not a part of Greco-Roman heritage. Commonly we associate barbarians with Germanic tribes such as Goths, Vandals, Alans, Franks, Angles, and Saxons.
Barbarians lived in the Roman Empire, gained citizenship, and were employed in large numbers in the Roman army. They intermarried with the Roman nobility. Thus, contrary to popular belief, not all barbarians were enemies of Rome.
Historians such as Edward Gibbon blamed an increase in barbarian recruitment since the 3rd century CE as the main reason for Rome’s eventual demise.
This is a controversial claim.
Since the first century BCE, barbarians had served in the Roman army. Gauls and Germans formed the backbone of the Roman cavalry during Julius Caesar’s reign. Some barbarian tribes, such as the Franks, always remained loyal to the Romans and served the Empire in the same capacity as a Roman citizen. Sometimes the breakdown of talks in the resettlement of Gothic tribes within Roman territories resulted in violent outcomes. Notable examples include Gothic chieftain Fritigern’s killing of Roman Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (378 CE) and Gothic general Alaric’s infamous sack of Rome (410 CE). However, such actions resulted from internal politics, betrayals, and dirty deals.
At the Battle of Catalaunian Plains (451 CE), Gothic tribes fought valiantly against Attila’s Huns. This was a classic case of a barbarian coalition saving the Roman Empire from a barbarian invasion. Barbarians were not always Rome’s adversaries. The relationship between the two was determined by the complex politics of the time. For every barbarian who opposed Rome, there was a loyalist, sometimes even within the same family, as we will see later in this story.
The Roman Empire ended in 476 CE
The foundation of this myth is the separation of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. They were not distinct political entities. According to contemporary evidence, people in that era did not regard the Western Roman Empire as a distinct authority separate from the Eastern Roman Empire.
This distinction was not made until much later.
There were two imperial courts, one in Ravenna and one in Constantinople, but they shared the same political authority.
The year 476 CE is widely regarded as the end of the “Roman Empire,” but this is incorrect. After deposing Romulus Augustulus, the barbarian general Odoacer declared himself King of Italy but remained a client of the more powerful Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno.
Emperor Justinian, of the Eastern Roman Empire, disbanded the Ravenna imperial court in 554 CE. Justinian restored Roman Imperial rule over Italy and parts of North Africa in the renovatio imperii, or restoration of the empire.
The correct date for the fall of the Roman Empire is the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.
The Battle of Teutoburg forest was catastrophic for Rome
“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” (Quintilius Varus, return my legions!) screamed Emperor Augustus as he smashed his head against the palace walls. Augustus’s extreme reaction was symbolic of the Romans’ disastrous defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg forest. The battle killed nearly 20,000 Roman legionaries. One of their commanders, Arminius of the Germanic Cherusci tribe, betrayed the Roman legions.
Arminius duped the Romans into thinking he was working for them when in fact he was working for the Germanic tribes. A heroic tale of a long-lost son returning home to rally his people against an invading force would make for a great story, but the reality was quite different.
Not all Germanic tribes, or even Arminius’ family members, were anti-Roman. Arminius’ father-in-law was a Roman ally, and his brother was a loyal Roman commander who fought against him in later conflicts. The relationship between Romans and barbarians was complicated, as discussed earlier. Arminius became a Roman foe, but his brother did not.
When Rome suffered a defeat, it made a point of repaying with interest, and this is exactly what happened after the Teutoburg forest disaster.
Tiberius took over as Augustus’ successor. Germanicus, Tiberius’ nephew, wrecked havoc on the Germanic tribes. During a three-year campaign from 14 to 16 CE, the Romans defeated Arminius on several occasions. Arminius’s wife was captured and sold into slavery. The empire’s reclaimed its lost territories. His own tribesmen eventually assassinated Arminius.
The battle of Teutoburg forest was a disaster for the Romans, but it was not decisive. Arminius, Rome’s prodigal son turned enemy, met a worse fate, and Rome won back its lost territories.
The events of the battle are depicted in Netflix’s Barbarians and Arminius is a popular subject of 19th century German art, but what happened after the battle is rarely a subject of pop culture.
The collapse of the Western Roman Empire led to the “Dark Ages”
You’ve probably heard of the term “Dark Ages”, which refers to the period in Europe (6th-10th century CE) following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Dark ages are marked by ignorance, lack of scientific progress, disease and poor economic conditions. This was reversed during the 15–16th century CE “Renaissance” also known as the Italian renaissance, symbolizing a rebirth of Europe. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo were seen as symbols of light who destroyed darkness and ignorance.
The Renaissance is viewed as an age of enlightenment in contrast to Europe’s “darkness”, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. These assertions are false because the “Dark Ages” did not exist.
Historians cite a renewed interest in ancient Greek and Latin texts as the main driver of the renaissance movement. The Crusades and contact with the Arab world are said to have aided this. However, Europe did not unearth lost Greek and Latin texts after the Crusades. The Byzantine Empire always had access to ancient Latin and Greek texts and enriched them with their own contributions.
Western Europe was not as backward as had previously been assumed.
The Italian renaissance was not the first cultural movement to usher in a new age of science, arts, literature, and engineering. Prior to the Italian renaissance, Western Europe experienced a similar period of cultural and scientific progress under the rule of Charlemagne (748–814 CE). We call this the Carolingian Renaissance. During the reign of the Ottonian dynasty (rulers of the Holy Roman Empire from 936–1002 CE), Western Europe experienced a second phase of scientific and cultural progress. This is commonly referred to as the Ottonian or 10th century Renaissance.
The third Medieval Renaissance, known as “The Renaissance” or the Italian Renaissance,marked the transition from the medieval ages to modernity.
The crusades, bubonic plague, and the Mongol Empire all impacted the renaissance. However, it is incorrect to assume that the Christian world was lacking in scientific and cultural knowledge when compared to its contemporaries. Rather than a rebirth, the third medieval renaissance resulted from cultural and scientific progression through the ages.
Julius Caesar destroyed the Library of Alexandria
The Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the ancient world’s most prestigious educational institutions. Some point fingers at Julius Caesar as the main perpetrator who destroyed the library of Alexandria.
Julius Caesar was docked in the port of Alexandria during his civil war with Pompey (also known as Caesar’s civil war), in 48 BCE. The Egyptians attempted to obstruct his escape route and blockaded his ships. Caesar directed his men to burn down the Egyptian ships, and some believe that the fire from the ship spread to the library, destroying it. Thus Caesar is blamed for the destruction of the library.
However, this appears to be a far-fetched claim, as accounts from the time show that either a small portion of the library caught fire or it was quickly repaired. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio’s records, the fire engulfed a warehouse near the dock that housed many valuable scrolls rather than the main library.
Plutarch, a Greek philosopher and historian, blamed Caesar for the library’s destruction. But Plutarch contradicts himself when he says Mark Antony gave Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls from the library just after the fire. How did Mark Anthony have access to so many scrolls if the library was destroyed?
Because of discrepancies in accounts, modern scholars believe Julius Caesar did not destroy the Library of Alexandria. The fire may have destroyed a portion of the library, but it was quickly rebuilt.
The library survived for several centuries after Caesar. During the Roman emperor Aurelian’s attempt to retake the city from the Palmyrene queen Zenobia, the library was attacked. The ultimate destruction, however, occurred during the Islamic conquest of Alexandria in 642 CE, when Caliph Omar ordered its destruction, which is well documented in Arabic sources.
There are a few other notable myths that deserve to be mentioned but did not make the cut for this list. Among them is the gladiator vegetarian diet myth popularized by Netflix documentaries like Game Changers. I covered it in a different story, so please read it if you’re interested.Debunking The Myth Of Gladiator Vegetarian DietA sneak peak into the actual evidence on the gladiator’s diethistoryofyesterday.com
Another myth is that Brutus was Julius Caesar’s son, which is a bit ridiculous. Julius Caesar was 14 years old when Brutus was born. Hence Caesar fathering him was unusual even by Roman standards. Caesar did not know Brutus’ mother until much later, so it is unlikely that they had a relationship at the time of Brutus’ birth.
When it comes to history, there are always legends and myths. A historian’s job is to separate fact from fiction, which is a difficult task.
Are there any other myths about Roman history that you’d like to highlight? Please let me know in the comments. If you like Roman history be sure to check out my story on urine tax and how it may have helped fund the Colosseum.Did a Urine Tax Finance the Colosseum?“Money does not stink” : Why the Roman Emperor Vespasian collected a tax on urinehistoryofyesterday.com
- Beard, Mary (2015). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation
- P. J., Heather (2010). Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. New York: Oxford UP.
- The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
- Cherf, William J. (2008). “Earth Wind and Fire: The Alexandrian Fire-storm of 48 B.C.
- Falk, Seb (2020) The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science